Monday, 28 February 2011

Odyssey - Inside Out (1982/ No. 3/ 11 weeks/ RCA)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s41fhNaJDCE

Inside Out is a song in which the singer explains her emotional state of frozen desperation to the listener. Although the circumstance that she is in leaves her feeling numb and impotent, the song, its arrangement, and her delivery, are very warm and teary, making you feel as though this woman really can't keep herself together for very much longer.

What makes us support her when she's in this skittery state is that she's clearly genuinely aiming for a stoicism and graciousness. She's addressing a loved other who doesn't want to know anymore;

When you're sitting on your own
And you feel the city life - surround you...

(Backing vox: Ooohooohooo!)

And she's always on the phone
But you just don't think that you can fight it
Don't give up, don't give up...

You realise that this must be a song to an ex because of that tone of prior knowledge in the opening: I know you darling and I can tell you what you're like. This nobility is a tough call for anyone who really does care or has cared to pull off, though, and although that introductory line went alright, the singer is calling him up to say yes, I do know and understand what you're feeling for her, because I still feel this for you...

Uh-oh! This is always a bad idea.

In a record that gets progressively more and more uncomfortable to listen to, the singer then starts to abase and torture herself in a way that won't do either party any good;

When you're lying in her bed
And you're in her arms instead of my love

(Ooohooohooo!)

The voice of the singer (either Lillian or Louise Lopez, I never know which was which) catches on the 'st' of 'instead'. That single word - that forces her to acknowledge that she has no meaningful place in the life of the loved other anymore - crumbles in her mouth;

As you feel her tightening grip
Like a genie, I will slip - from your heart

You can imagine the man hanging up on her at this point. The rest of the song is sung for her benefit, giving voice to a range of unhappy stages of yearning; Its so unfair ("oh I WANTED TO BE!"); wishful defiance ("I won't give up, won't give up, won't give up"); unheeded residual feelings of pity and tenderness for the other ("Oh, don't give up, darling, what you dream!"); and above all, an endless choking physical sensation... The relentless way that the choruses harp on intimately about wanting to be turned inside out present the listener that she's confiding to with a highly discomforting, gynecological, sense of internal feeling;

(I wanna be) Inside out - Oh, darling!
I want it to be so deep that you'll be turningmeturningmeturningme over and OVER AGAIN!

(Inside out!)

I want it to be so deep you'll be needing me

Too close! And in an impressive meta-textual touch, a feeling that can't be confined by the four minutes of a disco single;

Like the notes here in this song
We'll go on and on and on and on with our love... yeaheaheah

Note also how the backing vocals constantly unhelpfully break free with a harmonious joyousness that the singer the singer can never experience.

The music behind these unsettling words is really very complex indeed, so much so that you'd have to have heard the song a few times before you can work out an effective way to dance to it. There's an awful lot going on, too; queasy lifting strings, several separate synth lines (blip blip bloo bloo!) and tinkles that tease the listener and singer alike, a Bernard Edwards-style bassline as solo, a slappy and harsh rythym guitar, and so on.

The music is chaotic because to love and not to be loved in return is to live in chaos.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Everly Brothers - When Will I Be Loved? (1960/ No. 4/ 16 weeks/ London)


IIIIIIIIII've been made blue!
IIIIIIIIIII've been lied to!

When will I be loved?

IIIIIIIIIII've been turned down!
IIIIIIIIIII've been pushed round!

When will I be loved?

It's only now that I've written those lyrics down that my instinctive playful reactions kick in - to reply "Oh dear! You don't have much luck, do you? I'd like to hear the other side of this story".

You don't think like that when they're singing it, though. This could be such a horribly maudlin song of self-pity if done only veryslightly differently. That it isn't is because of; the innate pathos of the two warring brothers in harmony, and this pathos being offset by the inconspicuous but very well-judged backing - sprightly but never jaunty.

It makes it quite stoical and grown-up feeling for such a quintessentially teenage sentiment.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Doctor Who Reading List Part 3


(This list wouldn't have been possible without the thing of wonder that is Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' About Time: The Unauthorised Guide To Doctor Who and Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping's Doctor Who: The Discontinuity Guide)

My Monster of Peladon antecedent is embarrassingly tangential, I do concede...

The
Doctor Who Reading List Part 3: Jon Pertwee;

Spearhead From Space - Farewell To The Master, Harry Bates, 1940.
The Silurians - The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912.
The Ambassadors of Death - The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, 1950.
Inferno - When The World Screams, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1928.
Terror of the Autons - The Final Problem, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1893.
The Mind of Evil - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey, 1962.
The Claws of Axos - The Iliad, Homer c800 B.C.
Colony in Space - The Way West, A.B. Guthrie Jr., 1949.
The Daemons - The Devil Rides Out, Dennis Wheatley, 1934.
Day of the Daleks - Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boulle, 1963.
The Curse of Peladon - The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902.
The Sea Devils - The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham, 1953.
The Mutants - The Wretched of the Earth, Fritz Fanon, 1961.
The Time Monster - Anthony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare, c1607.
The Three Doctors - Paradise Lost, John Milton, 1667.
Carnival of Monsters - Time and the Conways, J.B. Priestley, 1937.
Frontier in Space - The Star Fox, Robert Poul, 1965.
Planet of the Daleks - Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 1963.
The Green Death - A Blueprint for Survival, Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen, 1972.
The Time Warrior - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain, 1889.
Invasion of the Dinosaurs - After London, Richard Jeffries, 1885.
Death to the Daleks - She, H. Rider Haggard, 1887.
The Monster of Peladon - Germinal, Emile Zola, 1885.
Planet of the Spiders - Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1959.

Friday, 25 February 2011

ABC - All Of My Heart (1982/ No. 5/ 8 weeks/ Neutron)



I think that Martin Fry gives one of the greatest vocal performances in pop here, supported by one of the most dramatic and well structured arrangements from Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn that you could wish for. It takes the listener on a remarkable and cathartic emotional journey, running through a spectrum of moods and feelings, with an ever increasing sense of self-realisation and emotional honesty, leading to a climax of emotional truth that always astounds me.

It's a great single, but heard in the context of the parent LP The Lexicon of Love, it serves a dramatic purpose, like the 'necessary scene' towards the end of a play, where all of the forces that the dramatist has evoked over the last couple of hours come into conflict with each other, the high point of excitement as to what's going to happen and how things will resolve themselves. Over the previous eight songs, ABC have presented love as a series of problems ('Tears Are Not Enough'), situations ('Poison Arrow'), incidents, conundrums... a brilliant album about love, but love always presented to us in quotation marks, a series of poses ('The Look Of Love') and roles adopted.

And then, 35 minutes in, the singer has to stop treating love as a notion, a spectacle, a game. He is suddenly left with just himself, his own feelings, what he thinks and what he wants; he has no option left save to express everything directly, to muse upon the chances he really has missed.

A fanfare, a prominent piano line, a surprisingly sonorous bassline.

Fry starts with a measured tone of recollection. He's telling us another story;

"Once upon a time
when we were friends
I gave you my heart.
The story ends
No happy ever after.
Now we're friends."

But you can't be friends the same way as before, can you?

Then another, dreamier, tone;

"Wish upon a star if that might help
The stars collide if you decide"

A sudden rise and lightness in the voice on "collide", a cosmic fantasy - and he sounds really excited by the comforting delusion;

"Wish upon a star if that might help!"

Some questions asked to himself that are all too real;

"What's it like?
To have loved?
And to lose her touch?

What's it like?
To have loved?
And to LOSE that much?"

Between this line and the next, the orchestration suddenly opens up and swells, a choking feeling, a rush of blood;

"Well I hope and I pray
That maybe someday
You'll walk in the room with my heart
Add and subtract
But as a matter of fact
Now that you're gone -
I still want you back

Remembering

Surrendering

Remembering that part

All of my heart"

Two things to note here. Firstly, Fry phrases "heart" quite differently to any other word, as though it was something to be spoken of with much greater delicacy and care than anything else. Secondly, the talk of "remembering" is a way of deflecting and fetishising pain, passing it off as past tense - another citation...

The orchestration turns an amazing trick of turning from thunder to sunlight in an instant, to take us back to the second verse.

Fry's voice now transforms into a lovely delicate light soul thing, as the he remembers the forms and rituals of the romance;

"Spilling up pink silk and coffee lace
You hook me up, I rendevouz at your place
Your lipstick and your lip gloss seals my fate..."

And then, a delightful falsetto "Woo - ooo!"

But, however seductively this is evoked to us - the quick repetition of "lip" is gorgeously enticing - this is love as a spectacle, a series of signifiers. We are witness to the precise moment when the lover realises this;

"Sentimental powers might help you now
But skip the hearts and flowers, skip the ivory towers!"

The spectacle is a waste. Then the first really true line of the song, and the first line that sounds as though it could exist outside of being sung in a song;

"You'll be disappointed and I'll lose a friend"

No quotation marks around this line. Fry sounds really heartbroken. And, for the first time, a moment of rage;

"No I WON'T be told

There's a CROCK of gold
At the end of the rain-bow!

Or that pleasure and pain
sunshine and rain
Might make this love grow..."

The chorus again, this time sung with desperation. But this time the line "The kindest cut's the cruelest part" replaces "remembering that part", the singer admitting to himself that that cut has to be made.

An amended version of the chorus again;

"Yes I hope and I pray
That maybe someday
You'll walk in the room with my heart
And I shrug and I say
That maybe today
You'll come home soon"

But he knows that this is a delusion by now. We understand by the final line that precedes "All of my heart";

"Surrendering
Remembering

Surrendering that part -"

The instrumentation disappears, leaving the singer entirely alone… and he succumbs. He crumbles;

"All of my heart"

…that final “heart” is hardly sung, has no attributable note.

As he turns to weep, to sob, to mourn for a lost reality, the orchestra cushions him, cradles him in its bosom in what is one of the most compassionate and breathtaking moments in all of pop. The camera, the listeners, take our leave as we pan out to widescreen, the orchestra as consoling mother, and finally a few querulous guitar notes, and a roughly-tuned saxophone, like a busker in the street… the dream is over, or is it only to allow a new one to take shape?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Dee D Jackson - Automatic Lover (1978/ No. 4/ 9 weeks/ Mercury)


"Programmed to receive automatic satisfaction"

Often novelty songs are a lot more profound than 'meaningful' ones. Dee D Jackson's one hit was in the same 1978 top ten as 'I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper' by Sarah Brightman & Hot Gossip, and its disco-styling and that sleeve might lead you to expect something very similar; futuristic comedy soft porn.

Once you let it get under your skin, you realise that it is a creation of an altogether higher order. Thematically, it chimes with something I've been thinking about recently. According to David Levy's Love & Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, by 2050 most of us will be having sex with robots;

Love in space and time
There's no more feeling
Automatic lover
Cold and unappealing

Longing to be touched...
Loging for a kiss...
Whisper words of love...
Tell me that you miss...
Meeeeeeeeeeeeee...!

I can see two problems with this hypothesis; Unless android technology gets seriously good, machines are liable to remain less comely than people (unless they're your thing, and it must surely be a pretty niche taste) and it rather precludes the idea of meaningful emotional attachment, which is what differentiates even the most callously-intentioned pick-up from masturbation;

He's programmed to receive -
Automatic satisfaction!
After love is done _
Where's the true reactiiooooon?

Dee D Jackson foresaw this lack 32 years ago! Alongside Kraftwerk's Computer World ("I dial this number/ for a data-date"), this is a song that feels more current now than of-its-time.

An electro-disco duet between a woman and a robot. She pleads again and again;

Seemefeelmehearmelovemetouchmelovemeeee...
Seemefeelmehearmelovemetouchmelovemeeee...

The robot can only reply by informing the singer of 'his' purpose in an electronic Teutonic voice;

I-AM-YOUR-AUTO-MAT-IK-LOV-ER!
AUTO-MAT-IK-LOV-ER!

ad infinitum. It's quite disturbing. If heard when you're not feeling particularly happy, this can be saddest song in the world.

Your body's cold
There's not a hand to ho-hoooold!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Doctor Who Reading List Part 2



(This list wouldn't have been possible without the thing of wonder that is Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' About Time: The Unauthorised Guide To Doctor Who and Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping's Doctor Who: The Discontinuity Guide)

It does have to be said that the range of influences for the Troughton stories contracts when compared to the Hartnell period, Innes Lloyd changing the stories' settings to more familiar science fiction and fantasy settings.

The Doctor Who Reading List Part 2: Patrick Troughton;

Power of the Daleks
- The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol, 1836.
The Highlanders - Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886.
The Underwater Menace - The Maracot Deep
, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1929.
The Moonbase - The First Men in the Moon, H.G. Wells, 1901.
The Macra Terror - When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, 1956.
The Faceless Ones - The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney, 1954.
Evil of the Daleks - The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, Edgar Allen Poe, 1845.
Tomb of the Cybermen - The Jewel of the Seven Stars, Bram Stoker, 1903.
The Abominable Snowmen - Lost Horizon, James Hilton, 1933.
The Ice Warriors - The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett, 1949.
The Enemy of the World - Dr No, Ian Fleming, 1958.
The Web of Fear - The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951.
Fury from the Deep - The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham, 1953.
The Wheel In Space - Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein, 1961.
The Dominators - The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Aesop, c600 BC.
The Mind Robber - The Story of the Treasure Seekers, E. Nesbit, 1899.
The Invasion - The Third Man, Graham Greene, 1949.
The Krotons - Walden II, B. F. Skinner, 1948.
The Seeds of Death - Dan Dare, Frank Hampson et al, 1950-69.
The Space Pirates - 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, 1968.
The War Games - Journey's End, R. C. Sherriff, 1928.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Marmalade - Radancer (1972/ No. 6/ 12 weeks/ Decca)


Radancer? What's that supposed to mean? Its not in Chambers, and I'm pretty sure that its not in Oxford, either. I can only presume that Marmalade thought that the new coinage would evoke both radar and radiance.

This is Marmalade's last big hit, and Junior Campbell - the talented one, the singer and the songwriter - has just left them. When he goes, the prospect of making any more recordings of such emotional depth and musical sophistication, such as 'Reflections of my Life' or 'Rainbow', also disappeared. What were the remaining members of Marmalade going to do?

See which way the 1972 wind was blowing and go a bit glam, as it transpired.

This is, in a sense, a very routine song about a dancing girl. The singer sees "a girl on a northern dancefloor", "just sixteen, she could have been more" (perhaps a wise suffix) to whom he goes up to "thinking only of romance". But, unfortunately, she's there "for only just one thing" to dance, which she does with such ability and persistence that the singer doesn't "stand a chance" (despite believing that he could achieve a "close connect- shun" if he displays "genuine affect-shun"). The song has a strong three act structure, though, because in the third verse, he "decided I was really gonna show her - I took a drink and went in to join the fun", where - contrary to the expectations hitherto set up - he is something of a success, or at least bold enough to create a reaction ("The people all stood around watching me lay it down"). Thesis - antithesis - synthesis.

If I sound like I'm mocking this unsurprising tale, the pleasure is to be found in the details of the arrangement. Backing vocals chorus every development in the tale, and the harmonies add an odd Bay City Rollers-type nostalgic effect (so early in pop history!). Handclaps are skillfully deployed, and do continually remind you that this is a dancefloor tale, specifically a northern soul one. And best of all, when there aren't any vocals a clipped rock-out soloing guitar picks up the lead and then quickly stops again before we get more singing.

This single really is a confection - it might be factory made, but sweet and fun.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Lou Christie - Lightnin' Strikes (1966/ No. 11/ 8 weeks/ MGM)


This live-wire of a song is really three concurrent singles at once, each rather brilliant; a 'sweet sixteen' tender ballad of propriety, a yelping thing of lust, and - so prevalent are the female backing vocals - a classic girl group song. Christie's ability to suddenly switch to an intense falsetto makes the thing sound like The Four Seasons afflicted with satyriasis -

"When I see lips beggin' to be kissed (STOP!)
I can't stop (STOP!)
No I can't stop myself (STOP!)
LIIIIYGHTNIN' STRIIIIYKES AGAIIIIYN!"

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Doctor Who Reading List Part 1


(This list wouldn't have been possible without the thing of wonder that is Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' About Time: The Unauthorised Guide To Doctor Who and Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping's Doctor Who: The Discontinuity Guide)

One of the things that I've always particularly liked about Doctor Who is its bookishness and range of reference, though the extent of this has obviously fluctuated over the last 48 years - its not a very apparent feature of recent Who, in which the Doctor praises Agatha Christie as one of the great novelists of psychological understanding, which I'm sure would come as something of a surprise to her.

Many Doctor Who stories are derived from a classic literary source or can be read as forming a part of contemporaneous movements and trends in fiction. This is the first part of an exercise in coming up with a reading list that could be read alongside watching the entire run of the programme.

Sometimes, as in Marco Polo or The Myth Makers the book is the self-evident source text for the story. In other cases (The Reign of Terror or The Dalek Invasion of Earth ) the ideas and narrative of a classic text have obviously formed a large part of the author's understanding of how to write a story within the specific setting, connections that will be picked up by a culturally aware viewer. In other instances, specific elements of the story can be said to have literary antecedents, such as the Dalek city in The Daleks or the treatment of the Mary Celeste story in The Chase. On other occasions, stories tap into currents in contemporary science fiction or drama, seen here in The Aztecs or The Rescue.

The Doctor Who Reading List Part 1: William Hartnell;

An Unearthly Child - The Inheritors
, William Golding, 1955.
The Daleks - Man & Superman, George Bernard Shaw, 1903.
The Edge of Destruction - Huis Clos, Jean Paul Sartre, 1944.
Marco Polo - The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo, c1299.
The Keys of Marinus - The Tempest, William Shakespeare, c1611.
The Aztecs - The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Peter Shaffer, 1964.
The Sensorites - The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, 1953.
The Reign of Terror - A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859.
Planet of Giants - The Borrowers, Mary Norton, 1952.
The Dalek Invasion of Earth - The War of the Worlds, H.G Wells, 1898.
The Rescue - The Silver Locusts, Ray Bradbury, 1950.
The Romans - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbert, 1962.
The Web Planet - The Insect Play, Karel and Josef Capek, 1921.
The Crusade - The Talisman, Walter Scott, 1825.
The Space Museum - The Bridge at San Luis Ray, Thornton Wilder, 1927.
The Chase - J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1884.
The Time Meddler - Last of the Saxon Kings, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1848.
Galaxy Four - Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932.
Mission to the Unknown - Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming, 1953.
The Myth Makers - The Iliad, Homer, c800 BC.
The Daleks' Masterplan - Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Peter George, 1958.
The Massacre - The Massacre at Paris, Christopher Marlowe, c1593.
The Ark - The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895.
The Celestial Toymaker - The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse, 1943.
The Gunfighters - Warlock, Oakley Hall, 1958.
The Savages - The Machine Stops, E. M. Forster, 1909.
The War Machines - The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953.
The Smugglers - Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, Russell Thorndike, 1915.
The Tenth Planet - When Worlds Collide, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, 1933.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Donovan - The Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968/ No. 4/ 10 weeks/ Pye)


This single acts as the precise realistion of a very specific moment in countercultural history - The point when the horrible underbelly of hippy Utopianism became apparent to wise participants, and sensible people realised that they should probably get out of there quickly. If you were to have met the Hurdy Gurdy Man in May 1968 and looked back over his shoulder to see where he'd come from you would have seen a journey of fun and playfulness, but if you could have seen where he was heading to... Well, that road would take you to addiction, exploitation and, ultimately, the bloody murder of The Manson Family and Altmont.

What is odd is that the song ostensibly holds the same pastoral sentiments and Utopian intention as Donovan's earlier, gentler, hits such as Colours or Atlantis. Wikipedia offers a dry precis of the song's narrative;

"The lyrics recount the tale of a nameless narrator being visited in his dreams by the eponymous Hurdy Gurdy Man and his close associate, the Roly Poly Man. Both men come "singing songs of love"".

- and lead the dreamer to a higher state of consciousness. This story doesn't necessarily have to be a frightening one, though the fact that the Hurdy Gurdy Man only manifests himself when the singer is asleep and unable to resist is perhaps a worrying sign.

The way that this single is performed and arranged (by John Paul Jones, about to form Led Zeppelin), however, is quite astonishingly malevolent, and leaves the listener feeling as though they've stumbled into a room filled of traces of saliva, spunk, blood and ectoplasm. Everything is phased, boxy-sounding, echoey and slightly too slow, casting an intense fug of sound over proceedings.

Two aspects in particular leave a shudder. Donovan's voice isn't just treated with echo - in itself, that could be an enjoyable pop trope - but has a wobbling hum that creates an actively physical reaction in the listener. The sensation this is most redolent of is of how a child will play with their voice, discovering that if they pat their hand against their throat when speaking it makes their voice sound inhuman, an experiment which inevitably results in the concomitant discovery that it makes the child feel giddy and ill;

(Humming) HmmMmmUmmUmmMmmMmmMuu...

Thrown like a star i-i-n my-y v-a-a-s-t s-l-e-e-p
I o-p-e-n m-y-e-y-e-s t-o t-a-k-e-a-p-e-e-p
To find that I-i was b-y-y t-h-e s-e-e-a
G-a-z-i-n-g w-i-t-h t-r-a-n-q-u-i-i-l-l-i-i-t-y -


- And then, a very slow rat-a-tat barrage of drums announces a disruptive presence;

(louder) 'Twas then when the Hurdy Gurdy Man
Came s-i-i-n-g-i-n-g s-o-n-g-s-o-f-l-o-o-o-v-e.

This is really quite unsettling, an effect underlined by some wrong-sounding Indian tamburas that suddenly shhtanngg! into the soundscape. Donovan's chuntering description of the songs of love that he Hurdy Gurdy Man sang presage the second uncanny element of the recording;

Hurdygurdyhurdygurdyhurdygurdygurdyh-e-s-a-a-n-n-g.
Hurdygurdyhurdygurdyhurdygurdygurdyh-e-s-a-a-n-n-g.
Hurdygurdyhurdygurdyhurdygurdygurdyh-e-s-a-a-n-n-g.

This raggedy song of love is eventually given instrumental voice in the form of a remarkably aggressive grinding, choking, prolonged guitar solo from Alan Parker, often mistakenly attributed to Jimmy Page and composed by Donovan with Hendrix in mind.

Donovan wrote the song after his experiences on the fabled Rishikesh retreat with the Beatles, and the Hurdy Gurdy Man, who awakens a deep atavistic knowledge, is supposed to represent the Maharishi, so - should you wish to - you could listen to this song as a darker companion piece to Lennon's Sexy Sadie.

What I'd love to know is whether this single, which sounds uncompromisingly malevolent to my 2011 ears, and genuinely aware of the possibility of evil - a difficult artistic effect to pull off! - had the effect of freaking out its original 1968 listeners (who made this a top five chart hit on both sides of the Atlantic) as much as it spooks me.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Its behind me


Lewisham Concert Hall, 1976 or 1977.

In the afternoon, Mummy and Daddy take me to Lewisham. Not to the shops to buy things, but to a big building that I don't know. There are lots and lots of other people there, boys and girls and grown-ups. We have to show some bits of paper to a lady and then we go through a room where lots of people are standing up, and then Daddy shows the same bits of paper to another lady who is standing at the doors of another room.

The next room is very big, bigger than church, but more dark and more warm. It is full of chairs in rows, flippy chairs made out of rough grey fur, that feel like the chairs on trains, but with numbers on them. All the chairs are on a big staircase, so that each row is higher than the one in front of it. We are at the very top of all the chairs. Mummy sits next to me, looks at me, and smiles. It is very noisy in here, but I am glad that I have my own seat and that Mummy and Daddy are here.

At the bottom of all the stairs is a gigantic curtain. I don't know what is going to happen next. After a long while, people stop coming in and sitting down, and the lights are switched off, apart from the green ones that say 'EXIT'. The curtain moves up. Most of the boys and girls stop making a noise, grown-ups tell them to 'Shhh!'.

Behind the curtain is a big flat wooden floor, that is all lit up. This big space has had things put on it to make it look like a room. You can tell that it's supposed to be like a room, because there are flat boards that have been painted really well, to make them look like walls and fences. The room has two chairs and a table, and a treasure chest in the corner.

Two men are in the pretend room. One of them is old, and the other is supposed to be a boy, although he looks grown-up to me. They talk to each other.

(This is like being in somebody else's house. Although lots of people are sitting on seats with us in the dark, the pretend room is more important because the lights are on there and the man and the boy there are talking.. I like watching this make-believe.)

The old man looks after the boy. He tells the boy how poor they are. He also tells the boy that the most important thing is that he must NEVER open the chest, because then bad things will happen to them.

Some of the grown-ups and bigger children laugh when the boy is talking. I don't know why.

The old man and the boy leave the room. The lights in the room go dark so we know that it is now night and after bedtime. The boy goes back into the room, in a nightshirt and a cap - like children wear in books - and carrying a lamp. He goes up to the chest.

(He can't do that!)

He hears a noise and goes away.

(I'm glad that he stopped because he can't open the chest!)

He goes back up to the chest and opens it.

(BUT HE CAN'T DO THAT! THE OLD MAN TOLD HIM NOT TO!)

Light bursts out of the chest and loud music suddenly starts.

(Aiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee! Aiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee! THIS IS WRONG! THE BOY KNEW THAT BAD THINGS WOULD HAPPEN IF HE OPENED THE CHEST! NOW HE'S OPENED IT BAD THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN! I DON'T WANT TO SEE BAD THINGS!)

I'm very frightened. I cry and howl. Mummy and Daddy don't understand why. They tell me to stop. But the boy did a bad thing, and he knew that he shouldn't! I'm frightened.

The other people on the seats aren't crying. Strangers shhh me. I don't stop crying. But I'm not being bad - the boy was being bad! It's not fair!

Mummy and Daddy tell me to look at what's happening. The make-believe room has gone. Now there are pretend trees and ladies in bright dresses and men dressed up as soldiers and singing. But I don't understand what's happening any more! I know that the boy did a bad thing! I'm scared and I don't understand. I cry some more.

One of the men dressed up as a soldier has a red face and shouts a lot, and the people sitting on the seats around us laugh when he shouts. This man is the same as a man on the television who has a red face and dresses up as a soldier and shouts at some other soldiers. He says something about me - how we don't like cry babies who spoil things, do we boys and girls?

This makes me cry some more, and shriek. I'm being told off now! But it was the boy who opened the chest who was being naughty, not me!

A long time later, the curtain goes down again and the lights come back on the seats. I've stopped crying, but I feel tired and my head and my neck hurt. At the bottom of the steps, some of the ladies who wear smart clothes and open doors are standing, and boys and girls are climbing out of their seats to go up to them.

Daddy tells me to go down there too. They are giving sweets away to boys and girls!

(But that's not what happens. You have to buy sweets in a shop. Strangers don't give you sweets)

Go down there - They are giving children sweets.

(No no. I can't do that. That isn't what happens to me. People are cross with me. The man told me off...)

I don't know what to do now. If I go down - which Mummy and Daddy want me to do - those people might tell me off, but if I don't then I won't get any sweets.

After a long time, I do go down and try to ask for some sweets.

The lady tells me that I'm too late and that we've run out of sweets now.

I climb back up to my seat. I knew that would happen.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Whispers - It's A Love Thing (1981/ No. 9/ 11 weeks/ Solar)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_UWPNWQ4Pg

It starts with an impressively resonant Moog;

BWOWW! WOWW! WOWW!
Wa wa wa wung-wung!
Wa wa wung-wung-wung wung!
Wa wa wa wung-wung!

That sounded fun! Yes, I thought that you'd enjoy that. Let's just play it once more, so you remember it correctly;

BWOWW! WOWW! WOWW!
Wa wa wa wung-wung!
Wa wa wung-wung-wung wung!
Wa wa wa wung-wung!

I think that a bit of bass guitar would fit in nicely now, too;

bunk a bunk -
bunk a bunk bunk!

This is great! I'm already up on my feet and am going to enjoy wherever you takes me for the next five minutes, Whispers.

Oooh look! The Whispers didn't only have the one hit in 'And The Beat Goes On'... They'd actually been around forever, as far back as 1964, and I'm surprised to learn that they'd regularly been having US R&B hits since 1970 - a million years before disco in pop terms.

You can tell that they had serious soul chops when you listen to this, though. Its classic disco, but they were certainly extremely skilled at presenting a range of vocals, building up a pop structure, creating a clever and joyous arrangement, and other happy and hard-won aspects of their craft.

This is not a terribly sophisticated or nuanced song in itself, reiterating many times that a love thing is being experienced (yeah!), a more exciting and truthful sensation than has been known before whenever you're near, etc. What gives it it's revelatory force is in the nuanced and variant forms of joy expressed in the voices of the two lead singers. The first is quite nasal and fun to impersonate as you sing along;

The lewwk in your eyeze
Iz more than enurrgth
To make my poor heart
Burst into flame...

Knew from the mo-ment we met
That there was no douwbt
That my life would nevur be the sayme...

Enter the second Whisper, who has a smooth and soaring falsetto, very much like Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. He's so (understandably) ecstatic to tell us all about this love thing he's feeling, that his words seem to run together

Icouldneverhidethefeelingsthatcome -
O-ver me!
Whenyou'renearmeIknowthat'showit's -
Su-posed to be!
My heart keeps telling mee!

Both voices together - and some other Whispers to boot - then tell us that that "It's a love thing! Yeah!"

I think that the trick of this record, like a lot of great club music of 30 years ago, is that it sounds quite simple and unadorned, ideal for the radio, but once you start listening, you realise that its jam-packed full of good things, continually shifting around, showing you new sides of itself. As in the brief swirls of strings, or buildups of brass, that seem to only be around for a bar then drop right down in the mix, each providing a new patch of shade or light to help the listener appreciate the whole picture.

The best way to pick up everything that's going on here is to dance to it, naturally. Then whenever a new idea comes in you have to adapt your moves to acknowledge it, and add a new shimmy or turn. I note that I always do handclaps to this, which change from being pairs to coming in threes by the end of it.

Wouldn't it be dandy to actually feel a Love Thing (Yeah!) that was as invariably and effectively happymaking as the record is?

Monday, 14 February 2011

Steely Dan - Haitian Divorce (1976/ No. 17/ 9 weeks/ ABC)


Koo! I'd forgotten that Steely Dan ever had a hit in the UK. Even though this is a brilliant song by a favourite band, it has to be said that its minor chart success looks mystifying to someone who was only three at the time. This is a highly unnerving and odd single, in both sound and theme. And taken from The Royal Scam, too! - Perhaps their most difficult album, certainly the one which I find most harsh and cynical.

Steely Dan are the perfect example of a band who can fascinate simultaneously with their music and lyrics. The music is ostensibly smooth, usually very pleasurable to listen to in its melodies, but also highly intricate. It's often something of a trope to say how you continue to hear new things in favourite music, but each arrangement and line in a Dan song always seems to be playing with the other elements in a sprightly, teasing, fashion, and to develop in a way which you weren't expecting and can never quite figure out why that should be - people who know about these things tell me that these records are full of musical jokes. Crucially, this music is jazz-derived, rather than rock-derived, allowing more room for the potential of surprise. Its sometimes a coded insult to call a music sophisticated, but there's too much playfulness and pleasure in ingenuity here for the obvious cleverness to ever become forbiddingly smartalec.

And then there are the lyrics. Always either in the third person or playing a character, they are literary in the sense that they seem to depict an entire world and illuminate the dilemmas of the people who live there. And what a company the people in Steely Dan songs are; shysters, often criminals in one way or another, drug dealers, call girls, alcoholics, tired businessmen, wild rich children, panicky adulterers. The singer's view of these people is unflinching but allusive, never heavy-handedly satirical. The allusiveness comes through references to history, location, vague plans... not as cryptic-crossword puzzles, but through telling details and a sense of these people's place as the unwitting products of a specific point in history.

The times in my life that I've particularly turned to Steely Dan albums have been when I've felt myself having to rub shoulders with a bad crowd; people who you'd call "self-styled", in some way manipulative or particularly insincere. I feel that these songs perhaps provide the best key for imagining the dark motivations of such people.

The combination of the jazz intricacy and writerly allusion makes the music sound particularly alien to me. I'm rarely so conscious of American music sounding this foreign.

So what would our pop listener of January 1977 have heard in 'Haitian Divorce' that would persuade them to put it into the top 20 for a week? Perhaps they detected an amusing story, a revenge tale of a bad marriage made in haste between two disagreeable people;

Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher's face turned red
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night
She go crazy
Got to make a getaway
Papa say -

OhOh! No hesitation!
No tears and no hearts breakin'
No remorse!
OhOh! Congratulations!
This is your

Haitian

Divorce

The Haitian divorce means, of course, VOODOO! It's a chance for Babs to wash Clean Willie out of her hair with some judicious bad behaviour in the Caribbean. The song is certainly highly aware of the condescension and exploitation inherent to the way that this American woman is treating the "primitive" Haitians;

She takes the taxi to the good hotel...
Bon marché as far as she can tell ...
She drinks the zombie from the cocoa shell...
She feels - alright! She get it on tonight
"Mister driver
TAKE me where the music play"

She finds what she was looking for - a release of inhibition, a flirtatious release of dangerous forces;

At the Grotto
In the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all
The band was hot so
They danced the famous Merengue

I think that there's something particularly queasy, and slightly horrible, about the way that this song unfolds. The music certainly underscores this mood. Not just in the choppy reggaefied framework, not the bubbling vibes and layers of keyboards, but especially in the ceaseless guitar solo, played through a talk-box guitar, making a nauseous, chokey sound like a cat struggling with a hairball, making the whole story something distasteful yet inescapable.

There's an unhappy ending, of course. An uneasy reconciliation between Babs and Clean Willie, but the Voodoo holiday casts its poisonous spell, in a Rosemary's Baby style;

Now we dolly back...
Now we fade to black...

Tearful reunion in the USA
Day by day those memories fade away
Some babies grow in a peculiar way
It changed, it grew, and everybody knew
Semi-mojo
Who's this kinky so-and-so?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Donna Summer - Love's Unkind (1977/ No. 3/ 13 weeks/ GTO)


"Well I see him every morning - in the schoolyard
when the schoolbell rings
and when he passes in the hallway
well he doesn't seem to notice me
he's got a crush - on my best friend
but she don't care - 'cause she loves someone else
I'm standing on the outside, not the inside where I wanna be"

I've loved this single for twenty years, but I've only realised that its for slightly different reasons than other Summer/Moroder songs. It's a pastiche. Its gloriously fake, which doesn't stop it from being overwhelmingly joyous and affecting to hear.

It really ought to be heard in the context of its parent album, I Remember Yesterday, in which Moroder molds versions of the history of popular music of the previous 50 years into his own relentless disco chassis, climaxing with 'I Feel Love', which will always feel like the future. This is where he emulates Phil Spector.

Donna Summer, a single mother in her thirties, does not make a convincing schoolgirl. The story of this song really is a series of tropes, though admittedly the chain of unrequited love is an authentic evocation of schooldays. What is astonishing is the absolute metronomic precision of the percussion, which never wavers for four and a half minutes, putting the whole thing in a grid. This boxiness and pastiche has the very useful effect of making the blaring saxophone solo an embellishment which the listener can get into the spirit of, rather than a skwarking irritant.

So - the gridlike structure, the rather flat acting, the well-worn school love storyline. What this reminds me of is a photostory! With all of the charm and teenage heart that the best photostory ever could have

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Harry J Allstars - Liquidator (1969/ No. 9/ 25 weeks/ Trojan)


Here's a confession for you - I don't like dub reggae. Indeed - along with all metal recorded after about 1982 - it forms one of the two genres of music that I resolutely fail to enjoy (I can think of a few anomalous exceptions here, but really only a few).

Oh, I understand the appeal in theory - It's about space and absence, isn't it? Dub has a tremendous sense of echo and expanse to it that leads the listener into a deeper sensory experience than can easily be found in other musics. And there's also the absent presence of the excised song, ghostly traces of which still remain in the exposed foundations of the dubscape. I do get this, but it very quickly becomes really boring to me and I start to wish that if not the song, then at least the tune could be brought back and the thing could speed up a bit. Admittedly, I've only smoked marijuana about six times, but I think that even if I was toking then I'd want to listen to something that I already liked in the first place.

So where does Liquidator fit into this complicated apologia? I present this glorious thing, a real played it a million times deathless Billy classic, as an illustration of something that has all the space and depth of dub, but also - crucially - a fantastic tune.

The extraordinary thing about this instrumental is that its always the same, always hits the spot, but still works in a different way however you hear it; on headphones, Coming through a transistor radio speaker, through a Tannoy at a football match, the original seven inch Trojan single on abused vinyl being played at a Community Centre disco... When you're feeling tired, when you're feeling excited, when you're feeling defeated, when you're feeling triumphant...

It works this way because of the interplay between the lead organ and the rest of the music, a kind of duet. The rhythm is quite surprisingly slow, but the organ sounds quite perky, like a dog bounding along next to a tractor. But the organ line is also a bit queasy and churning. How does this think manage to sound both skippy and crisp but also simultaneously murky and dank?

A weird thing about this single is how it feels to come completely out of time, seeming equally to belong to both the fifties and the nineties...

A long cultural afterlife for this; the introduction reworked by the Staple Singers for peerless soul-gospel classic I'll Take You There, played before matches by Chelsea, Wycombe, West Brom and Wolves, covered by The Specials on the number one Special AKA Live! EP. Again, a multiplicity of interpretations, The Staple Singers give us a righteous and politically-charged vision of love, while the Specials give us something dangerously riotous - and playing the single has sometimes been banned at the Hawthornes and Molyneaux by West Midlands police as too inflammatory in a climate of tribal local football hatreds!

A simple tune, endless paradoxes.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Cyndi Lauper - Time After Time (1984/ No. 3/ 17 weeks/ Portrait)


"Sometimes you picture me
I'm walking too far ahead
You're calling to me
I can't hear what you've said
Then you say 'Go slow'
I fall behind
The second hand unwinds"

No less an authority than Miles Davies realised what a genius arrangement this is, instantly covering it. It circles in on itself, rising and falling time after time, never breaking away from the pattern, like the Escher staircase.

The lyrics are clearly thrown together in the studio, creating a part found, unrequited, lost and 'missing someone' love song, further complicated by a video about a woman running away from a boyfriend.

It doesn't matter when it’s all so evocative, following the motif of time passing throughout; night falls, drums beat, steps are walked, pictures fade and darkness turns to grey, but all slightly askew, like the unwinding clock. The mood, the song, the yearning all follow that composed arrangement; Time, depth, needing.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Andy Williams - Happy Heart (1969/ No. 19/ 10 weeks/ CBS)


My second favourite single from my favourite male singer.

Hooray for good old-fashioned pop records which weren’t afraid to stop or start or pause.

IT’S! (pause)
MY! (pause)
HAPPY heart you hear
Singing loud and singing clear
And it’s all because you’re near me, my love!

Now, you see with most songs of found love, either consciously or unconsciously, there's a note of disquiet behind them - of the incompleteness of the individual without the other. This is, rather amazingly, an unshadowed record, the happiness sounds entirely unaffected, strong in the best sense.

Its a lucky combination of the right singer being found for the right song. Just imagine how other hands might have treated it, if they'd got to it first; Tom Jones' bellow or Englebert's smarm...

The song is one of those that build and build, the love expanding wider still and wider - growing from a small echo;

There's a certain sound...
always follows me around
When you're close to me
you will hear it.
It's the sound that lo-vers
hear when they disco-ver
There could be no ot-her
for - their - love!

to vast canyons and oceans by the song's climax

ITTTTT’SSSS! MYYYYYYYYYY! HAAAAAPPYHEARTYOU’LLHEAR!

A word about the arrangement, the last word in sumptuous 1969 high fidelity sophistication. When heard to on headphones, this is quite a disconcerting listen, with all the percussion in one speaker and the strings and brass on the other. Once you get used to this, the effect is genuinely symphonic, though. For a recording that uses the full spectrum of the orchestra, having Andy Williams as the only constant presence on both speaker prevents him from being swamped by the detail, makes it feel like the voice is conducting the orchestra, the instrumentation responding to each new swelling of love and happiness that comes into his mind.

The single also has the most brilliantly deployed use of the triangle that I can think of - Ting! - before each fresh wave of orchestration.

Andy Williams really does sound as though he's at the highest expressible point of human happiness in this song. Paradoxically, this can sometimes make it a very painful, albeit cathartic thing to listen to. I wish that I ever felt like that.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Lulu - The Boat That I Row (1967/ No. 6/ 11 weeks/ Columbia)


A Neil Diamond song, in the same mold as 'I'm A Believer' or 'Sweet Caroline', a terrific YES to life, love and happiness.

It's set out as a declaration of love song, but it’s a bit of an odd one, being an articulation of the singer's philosophies and approaches to life;

"I don't go around with the local crowd.
I don't dig what's in so I guess that I'm out."

It must be said that, interpreted by an older man, this approach might come across as rather self obsessed, but from a spirited 17 year-old girl it only seems right, and gives the impression of a level-headed young woman who you'd feel delighted to be with.

"There ain't a man alive who can tell me what to say.
I choose my own sign and I like it that way."

The arrangement is sixties beat boom exuberant, and follows a cheery Hammond organ line, with some ad-libbed yelps and roars from Lulu in the fade out.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Reparata & The Delrons - Captain Of Your Ship (1968/ No. 13/ 10 weeks/ Bell)


(Try to cast the early 1990s advertisement for rice puddings from your mind)

It starts with a few blaring atonal foghorns and chiming bells to set up the shipping theme. then a springy bassline with a few choppy things on top of it. And then a crisp and instructive voice calls out to the listener;

This is the cap-tain of your ship!
Your heeeaaart speaking

The tone of authority is impressive, and makes the following development less alarming than it might be;

We've run into a little storm!
The boooaaat's leaking

This works upon the listener as both a tannoy announcement and an internal monologue, as much the superego as the heart...

And if you have-n't guessed -
This is an S-O-S!
If you still love me -
answer yes

A particularly great thing about this record is how the arrangement manages to convey the sensation of being adrift in treacherous waters; the bass bobs and lurches from side to side, a morse code blips a jolly distress call, while some rinkydink keyboards gush and spill.

And then the Delrons echo the thoughts of Captain Reparata;

Yoooooouuuuuu're GO-ING to LOSE a GOOD THING!

There's real duality to the division of vocals here, I think. If Reparata is the sound of internal thought, then the Delrons act as pure feeling, calling out to the desired man like sirens;

You got to love!
You know that you need him!
You got to love!
You know that you love him NOW!

The second verse marries together the two streams of voice at the point of greatest crisis and conclusion:

REPARATA: You're run-ning off your course!
You've got your signals crossed!
And now the com-pass points to love
DELRONS: looooooooooooove!

There's a universal feeling being evoked here: I'm a terrible mess at the moment - help me out, lover-boy! It's rarely been created with such concision and elation, though.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Dean Martin - Gentle On My Mind (1969/ No. 2/ 24 weeks/ Reprise)


Insouciant, that's the word... In some ways, I think that this is a fascinating mismatch between singer and song. The song itself appears to be a tremendously earnest and allusive thing, like 'Elusive Butterfly' or 'Both Sides Now', whilst Dean Martin - as always - does not sound like a troubled man in this recording.

But then again, the narrator is supposed to be a visionary tramp, a Doestoevskian holy fool, whose insights and pantheism are inspired by the thought of the woman who lies gentle on his mind. Martin certainly sounds like a cheery lush, but years of drink appear to have marinated the sentiment into something both truly felt and a drunk's seductive rhetoric.

So here I imagine the singer turning up at the woman's door, a charming freeloading drunk, staying to drink the house dry, eat the larder empty and warm her bed yet again. This is an entirely good thing for him, but perhaps less so for her.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Scritti Politti - The Word Girl (1985/ No. 6/ 14 weeks/ Virgin)


"Don't feel sorry for lover-boy/ though he wants the world to love him/ then he goes and spoils it all/ for love" (Scritti Politti, 1988)

The title alone has several meanings.

"The first time baby, that I came to you...": As a 12 year-old listener I thought that the Word Girl was supposed to be an actual woman, a rather bookish object of desire;

To do what I should do to long for you to hear
I open up my heart ... and watch her name appear

"The second time baby, that I came to you...": A little later I realised that the Word Girl was as much a creation on the part of the singer as a specific Girl, the actual loved other becoming rationalised, explained and formulated into a construct of language;

A word for you to use a girl without a cause
A name for what you lose when it was never yours

"The third time baby, that I came to you...": Decades on, I noticed that the title is sometimes written as 'The Word "Girl"': the song not even necessarily being about any actual Girl at all, but the effect of the idea of a Girl - as described and written through language - upon the singer.

Name the girl outgrew the girl was never real
She stands for your abuse the girl is no ideal

It's a word for what you do in a world of broken rules
She found a place for you along her chain of fools (...)

Oh how your flesh and blood be-came the word!

A fiendishly conceptual song, then. Something that is superficially a love song which then turns out to be a conceptual song about the construction of meaning does sound, when you describe it, like the sort of thing that would be wearisomely arch to actually listen. The reality is anything but the case. There are two very simple reasons for this; the music and the singing.

The music is dubalicious perfect pristine pop, ostensibly reggae but always something other, that transcends simple genre description. It serves two functions; sounding aquatic, shimmering and endlessly echoing, leaving you with the feeling as it progresses that you're listening to something far more expansive than the few minutes that it lasts for; but this echoing effect also sounds gleaming and reflective, the endless echoes also the endless reflections of life in a hall of mirrors, the singers lovelorn thoughts of the girl forever reflecting in on themselves in a tantalising but intangible text. Both of these effects accurately evoke the sensation of knowing that you are in love and at the same time not knowing the loved other...

Although the action of turning a woman into a construction of language has a wicked fairytale-like quality as a metaphor, I don't think that many listeners hearing this would feel that the singer was at all a bad person, but a daydreaming romantic idealist. A lot of this weight is carried by the gorgeousness of Green Gartside's light tenor voice, an instrument once described as carrying a "debonair ruination", ideal for conveying wistfulness and fascination. This is especially apparent in the song's endless coda, two minutes of the singer's honeyed voice repeating

Oh how...
your flesh...
and blood...

He's reflecting on what was lost and what could never be; realising the actual beating heart of the woman behind his construction of her; and yet still lost in the rapture of putting this woman into language.

Its not just a conceptual exercise, but its a single with a genuine heart, and therein lies the source of its tremendous effect.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Ian Hunter - Once Bitten Twice Shy (1975/ No. 14/ 10 weeks/ CBS)


It starts with the voice -

'ULLOW!

It sounds London, wracked, hoarse - like a debauched Michael Caine. (This sloppiness implies a certain emotional honesty as well as seediness, and because Mott the Hoople were a good few years before punk, the prole styling sounds a good deal fresher and more original to a present-day listener)

And then there are some lolloping drums and a Keef Richards riff. It sounds quite simple and uncluttered, almost minimal - all the more space to fill in with the story, then!

'Once Bitten Twice Shy' must be the most scuzzy and sordid single that I'll discuss in this column, an epic tale of lust gone wrong. The story of a "little girl" and a rock singer "A hummin' and a strummin' all over God's world", with the tenor of the relationship between the two parties is established from their first meeting;

"Yew didn't know what rock 'n' roll WUZ!
until yew met a drummer on a Grey-haind BUS!
I got there in the nick - of - time
before he got his hands across yawr state li-hi-hi-ne!"

(from out of nowhere a ragtimey piano tinkles)

You realise that the singer arrived in the nick of time not to save her honour but to get in there first. Despite the ostensible innocence of the girl, her propensity to get into trouble runs in her family;

"Yew didn't know how rock n' roll LOOKED!
until yew cawt your sista with a guy from the GROOP!
half-way home in the parking lot
by the look in her eyes she was givin' what she got..."

As you might expect, the affair is a bloody mess, the singer's haplessness and the girl's deceit a terrible combination;

"Woman yaw a MESS gonna die in yaw SLEEP!
all the blood on my AMP and my Les Paul's BEAT!
I can't leave yew home cos you're runnin' ahrahnd -
My bes' frend told me yaw the best TRICK in town"

Now that things have reached this nadir, the seedy singer takes to moralising;

"Yew didn't know that rock n' roll BURNED!
so yew bought a candle and yew loved and yew learned -
Yew got the rhythm, yew got the speed
mamma's little baby likes it short and sweet!"

This - you get the impression - rather ill-earned streak of male moralising is then lethally undercut by the final verse's reversal;

"I didn't know ya got a rock n' roll RECID!
until I saw yaw picture on anuva guy's JACKIT!
Yew told ME I was the only one -
and look at yew now - well, it's dark as it's dumb..."

Not only has she taken him for a fool and gone, she's now more of a success than he's ever been. I've only now realised that when I listen to this song, I imagine the jailbait siren femme fatale as being the same composite woman as Zola's Nana! You don't like her, but you know what the singer sees in her.

The music of this tale is fantastically structured - essentially, it gets louder and louder over five minutes, and Hunter's cry of "Once bitten twice SHY, babe!" gets more and more fed up and self pitying after each verse. It's the drums and riff that hold the thing together. Right at the back of the mix there's a ticking metronomic woodblock thing that you barely notice, but which gives the recording its sense of space and poise, and cues in explosions of guitar solos, backing vocals etc. This technique is particularly pronounced in the middle-eight, which sounds like 'Connection' by Elastica, only 19 years too early)

Friday, 4 February 2011

The four types of Arts undergraduate



Having taught over a hundred separate University Media Arts seminars (even having an INSTIL teaching qualification to prove it) means that I have a few reflections about the group dynamics of classes. In classic Billy style, I've formulated a theory. But is it just a silly fancy of mine?

There are 4 types of undergraduates;

1. THOSE WHO WILL CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING USEFUL. Innately bright, imaginative, informed, confident students - as often European students as British ones. A minority, though there were four or five of them in one of my classes one year. You have to be on top of your game when teaching them. I'm very aware with some that they are actually more intelligent than me, and that I seem like an authority because I've got 16 years more experience than them.

2. THOSE WHO WILL LEARN SOMETHING. Less confident than 1, but always prepared to work , listen and try. Can be cowed by 1s, so teaching is an important exercise in balancing the two groups. Over the course of a year (to a lesser extent a term) they can transform into 1s. As a teacher, I always try to show appreciation and encouragement for their contributions. They are my favourite students to teach, and getting them to understand concepts that are new to them and watching them bloom are the best thing about teaching. My preference may also be because I am operating from a higher level of intellectual confidence than they are starting from, unlike 1s. Unless it's a bad year, at least half of undergraduates fall into this group.

3. THOSE WHO ARE JUST PASSING THROUGH. University is three years of social life and it's actually really quite hard to fail a humanities degree if you put in a fairly minimal level of effort. These students have quickly sussed this out. They annoyed me a lot more as a university librarian, and particularly as a halls of residence warden, than they do as a teacher. There are important subdivisions within this group;

i) THOSE WHO ARE FRIENDS WITH 1s & 2s. Because their friends are getting something out of the class and they have some degree of empathy with the job that you're putting in as teacher, they don't want to rock the boat and will put in a minimal level of effort without ever stretching themselves. I don't mind teaching these students, because I can see myself in them and they usually strike me as quite nice people. On a particularly productive day, when you're teaching in an engaging way, they can rise to the level of 2s.

ii) THOSE WHO WILL DO NOTHING, BUT WHO WON'T ROCK THE BOAT. They won't refuse to do anything that you ask them, but they will put no thought or effort in to it at all. A class can probably carry 2 or 3 of these.

iii) THOSE WHO ARE BORED INTO MISCHIEF. These can really drag down any seminar, especially if they find other people to amuse and divert. Whether you can teach around them depends upon how much censure you can detect from others in the group.

I'd estimate that about a third of students are in category 3.

4. DANGEROUS IDIOTS. You only get a couple of these a year. They generally don't turn up, or quickly drop out.

There's also another category of most CHINESE STUDENTS, with the specific handicap of only being able to speak very limited English and coming from an educational background of no humanities teaching as we understand it, but that's a rather different problem.

With all groups, the watchwords for a productive and harmonious session are humility and enthusiasm. This applies just as much to me as a teacher as it does to them as students. On some days I have more of these qualities than others.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass - Spanish Flea (1965/ No. 3/ 20 weeks/ A & M)



The most addictive record ever made. Whenever I hear it, I always have to play it again, usually several times. If I were a musicologist I could tell you why, but I think the way that it seems exceptionally brief might be part of the reason, too short for it's cheery appeal to even start to pall. Also, even I can tell that the way that, in lieu of a bridge, we get a rinky tinky harpsichord thing coming in for only 15 seconds, an instrument that hasn't been used at all for the rest of the tune, is a stroke of genius.

I can't imagine hearing this thing ever not making me a little bit happier, even if only by an iota.

(I've never properly heard the vocal version, although Homer does sing the chorus in an episode of The Simpsons. I don't really want to either - The pleasing tactile arrangement of this isn't going to be enhanced by novelty lyrics about a flea tourist, is it?)

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Source & Candi Staton - You Got The Love (1991/ No. 3/ 38 weeks/ Truelove)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5a22_75rWE

"Sometimes I feel like
Throwing my hands up in the air
I know
I can count on you"

I'm not sure that I've written about a single with so much of an afterlife as this one before. It got to number 4 in 1991, and then remixed to 3 in 1997, and remixed again to 7 in 2006. And that's not to mention the recent regrettable cover version.


"Sometimes I feel like saying
Lord I just don't care
But you've got the love I need
To see me through"

I've rarely written about a single from such a modest provenance, either. The recording of Candi Staton used here was made for a keep-fit video in 1986, rather a minor job of work for such a great singer. But Staton's biography is a particularly troubled one, and she would have either been in - or recovering from - one of several terrible marriages, and either addicted to - or trying to recover from - something at the time. She certainly never seems to be very happy about this song in interviews, forgetting that she even sang it for years, feeling that her performance was below par, a guide vocal rather than a proper session.

"Sometimes it seeems that
The going is just too rough
And things go wrong
No matter what I do"

Which goes to show that proper singers never lose an innate and consummate sense of professionalism - mere mortals dream of singing like she does here! Its a song about redemption, but the redemptive force is inside Staton's voice in the first place, vulnerable and simultaneously full of the prospect of ecstasy. Its a compelling, dangerous, thing to hear, just like in 'Young Hearts Run Free', where the worldly-wise lived experience of awful marriage is offset by the joyous yearning for freedom.

"Now and theen I feel
That life is just too much
But you've got the love
I need to see me through"

Despite the inauspicious circumstances of recording, 'You Got the Love' got released, and a tiny bit of attention, in 1986 - enough for it to stay in a few people's minds and for them to realise its tremendous potential as a club track a few years later. The sparse house music setting certainly gives Candi a framework to call out to the listener, and makes every moment unremittingly tense;

blipablipblipablipblipablipblaipablip -
DONNGDANNG! DONNGDADONNGDANNG!

(There's even a sampled cackle incongruously buried in the mix!)

She's not singing about a boyfriend, of course, she's putting all her faith she has left in God. I wonder what uses listeners of this song have put it to... At a club, you'd play it late into the evening. The sense of desperation and ecstasy in the song mean that it would work best some hours into a night out, when you've had a few emotional knocks and promises by that stage, and were starting to be aware of fatigue.

"When food is gone
You are my daaiily meal
Mm-hm!
When friends are gone I know
My saviour's love iis reeaal
Your loove is real!"

And then this comes on, this voice in the wilderness that suddenly makes everything in life seem much more serious and necessary. Uh, this drug is starting to work now, perhaps that boy or girl might be the one... And Candi's voice, all that suffering and mess and yearning for redemption makes absolute sense. God!

"O-ccasionally -
My thoughts are brave and friends are few
O-ccasionally -
I cry out Lord what must I do?
O-ccasionally -
I call up Master make me new
You've got the love
I need to see me through"

Its the possibility of both sin and salvation. The source of pop's deepest power. Soul music.