Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Art Of Noise A - Z Of Music: B

B is for ...

... Backini ... eventually (drmigs)

The A - Z of music is conceptually a great thing, however, the letter B is where the whole concept crumbles to pieces. What, already? Err, yes. Why? Because I could write an article for the next 26 weeks simply on bands beginning with the letter B. There's just too much damn choice.

The Beatles: where else to start? They wrote what is probably my favourite ever song, 'Norwegian Wood'. A song that was over-listened to in my sixth form, because it was far too resonant for James, Paul and myself. Many bottles of red wine were consumed from James's parents cellar to this, and other such balladic Beatle sounds. It's simply beautiful.

The Buzzcocks. I first heard 'Ever Fallen in Love' at the tender age of fourteen on Samantha Meah’s Radio WM show. At the moment I heard the song I was undoubtedly in love with someone I shouldn't have fallen in love with. This song became my personal gateway out of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman circle of hell. You'll therefore understand my fondness for this song. And also understand my outrage and distress in the Newcastle University Student Union when I heard the Fine Young Cannibals murdering it. I can't imagine what Elton John has done to it on his single released yesterday. I'm hoping to never find out. Quick, time for a new B.

Blur. Seemingly some of The Art Of Noise’s least favourite band, but I like them - a lot. It may be to my advantage that for their early years I only ever heard their songs; TV wasn't invented for me until late 1997 (mine was a Spartan up-bringing…), so my judgments were relatively immune to their video and media aberrations. If it was The Buzzcocks that lured me away from saccharine pop, it was the opening lines of 'Girls and Boys' that made me sit up and really get in to music. I've been sucker for them ever since.

Then there's the Beach Boys, my favourite “Driving to Druridge Bay on a summer’s day” music. Bjork. The Icelandic pop pixie, who is to popular music what Icelanders are to sexual relationships; broad-minded, unconventional and highly adventurous.

However, 367 words in, I don't want to write about any of them. I want to write about the genius that is Backini.

Backini, like Alabama 3, record out of Brighton. Rob Quickenden, (the man who is Backini), has a special talent for fusing swing, jazz and big band with downtempo electropop. And 'Company B-Boy' is, in my opinion, the best example of his genius. Now let’s not beat about the bush, this should go horribly wrong. This mix of the 40s and electropop ought to be an automatic musak generator for Woolworths. But Backini get this genre right. Very right.

’Company B-Boy’ samples The Andrews Sisters’ 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy'. It does this by scratching it up B-Boy stylee, and cutting in spoken word samples such as a camp Noel Coward recitation which includes the immortal lines “When Eve said to Adam / Start calling me madam / the world became far far more exciting”. The song is smart, distinctive, humorous, and has a something new to it on each airing. It's one song I can't hear too many times. Go listen to it, now.

... bass guitars (Alison)

Standing for what seems like an hour in a dark, packed out, sweaty room. Trying to hold two pints, because it isn’t worth even trying to queue at the bar and get back to your mates again before the band comes out. Having some tall bloke (with big hair), push past, apologising, just to stand right in front of you. Noticing, that without intentionally moving backwards, the stage is getting further and further away. Considering whether it would be easiest just to see off your pints because rude buggers keep knocking into you, meaning you have more beer down your front than in your glass, and you can’t manage a cig and you really want one. But worrying if seeing off your pints would just mean needing to pee faster, and if you have to leave to pee you may as well have left to go to the bar and avoided all hassle in the first place. You’re exhausted, grumpy and just not in the mood to be out on a school night. Then the music starts. The first few notes of bass played reverberate; through your ears, through the floor, through all the bodies packed around you. They pulse through you and modify your physiology, leaving your mood no option but to follow the music.

I love everything about bass guitars; they’re just so bold and manly compared to regular guitars. They look significant on stage, the way bassists hold them with their legs apart and their arms longer and lower than seems natural. Of course the coolest bassists are all female: Kim Deal, Maureen Herman, Kim Gordon, Jennifer Finch, Kristen Pfaff… Bass means you don’t just hear music, you feel it too. Hearing the bass in songs like ‘Cannonball’, ‘Debaser’, ‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Around The World’ and even ‘Groove Is In The Heart’, I’m forced to dance, no matter where I am. But it’s not just about the big dominating, funky basslines. In songs like ‘Guns Of Brixton’, ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘Heroin’ the lingering bass journeys to disturbing places and drags you along with it. Music without bass would be music without a pulse.

For far more insightful talk of bass, have a look at Stylus’s Top 50 Basslines.

... black (Ben)

Just as Henry Ford famously pronounced of his most celebrated car, rock ‘n’ roll can come in any colour – so long as it’s black.

Traditionally the refuge and mode of expression of the outsider, the form is a dark art, and this is reflected in the colour with which it has become inextricably associated. No-one has better embodied or given fictional voice to that archetypal outsider, skulking in the shadows on the margins of society, than the late Johnny Cash, singing songs about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and performing for an audience of San Quentin prisoners. The self-styled Man In Black has influenced whole generations of musicians, not least Nick Cave, who in the sleeve notes to The Essential Johnny Cash collection recalls his first experience of ‘The Johnny Cash Show’ at the age of nine:

The show started off with Johnny Cash’s back to you, silhouetted, and then he’d swing around, look into the camera, and say, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, and then off he goes, you know, The Man In Black. I remember that very, very clearly, because it was the first time that I saw what it was to be the forbidden side of rock ‘n’ roll. It was my first taste of the outlaw in rock music, and suddenly I took an interest in rock ‘n’ roll music … I guess you could say that Johnny Cash broke my cherry. What I thought at the time, as a kid in short trousers, was that I saw something evil in music, and that had a huge effect on me”.

The correlation between black and “something evil in music” is essential. Little wonder, then, that when a bunch of hairy pot-heads from the West Midlands invented heavy metal at the very tail-end of the 1960s, they chose to call themselves Black Sabbath. The perfect name for a group whose lead singer notoriously bit the head off a bat, and the template for a million bad European metal bands.

More recently, we’ve had The Black Keys, youthful purveyors of swamp blues who are seemingly intent on reminding us that rock ‘n’ roll’s existence is ultimately founded upon Robert Johnson’s decision to sell his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for the ability to play the guitar; The Black Heart Procession, avowed fans of Black Sabbath, whose eerie Eastern European folk influenced songs (scratchy violins, liberal use of saws) have something of the night about them; and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, whose name deliberately harks back to James Dean and the cigarette-toting black-leather-jacket-clad nightmare of conservative middle-class America in the 50s (the same imagery and iconography, incidentally, that even a Danish band, The Raveonettes, have sought to exploit).

Though they appear to have experienced something of an alt-country epiphany since sales of second LP Take Them On, On Your Own failed to take off, BRMC originally styled themselves musically and aesthetically on The Jesus & Mary Chain. They in turn drew inspiration from The Velvet Underground, who, by dressing all in black and wearing sunglasses as though they were glued to their heads during the height of the technicolour hippy era, made a very potent statement about their oppositional relation to the culture in which they found themselves.

If one of rock’s credos is “Turn it up”, as I suggested last week, then another is – as The Rolling Stones would have it – “Paint it black”.

... Blackpool Empress Ballroom (Swiss Toni)

I was delighted when Morrissey was announced on the bill for Glastonbury in 2004. I had passed up the chance of seeing him on the Vauxhall And I tour in 1994 and he hadn’t toured again in the UK since then, hadn’t released an album since 1997 and was apparently languishing in Los Angeles without a record deal. It looked as though my chance had gone.

I was wrong. 2004 saw the release of a great new album, You Are The Quarry, and I was thrilled that I was finally going to see my musical hero perform. Of course, it pissed it down for most of that Sunday, and Moz was forced to perform his set in front of a crowd waiting for Muse to close the festival. On the whole, I thought he was pretty good, but he looked like he hated every second, and I was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. I wanted more.

Morrissey being Morrissey, he decided to cash in on the critical and commercial success of his comeback by announcing a three-date tour of small seaside towns in the North of England, places like Blackpool and Bridlington. I snapped up tickets to the Blackpool date and set about looking for a B&B.

This was my first time in Blackpool and as I walked into town to check out the venue, I saw it could easily have been the inspiration for “Everyday Is Like Sunday’, the original “coastal town that they forgot to close down”. The Empress Ballroom is inside the Winter Gardens near the Tower, and although it was a good three or four hours until the doors opened, the hardcore fans were already starting to queue.

Things were starting to warm up as I walked back into town a little later on, and saw the full horror of a Saturday night in Blackpool for the first time, with stags and hens marauding freely through the streets. “Come Armageddon come”. The Empress Ballroom is magnificent. It has a barrel-domed ceiling, a sprung dance floor and a capacity of about 3000 people. It exudes a kind of faded glamour and is a throw back from another era – a bit like Morrissey himself really. There couldn’t be a better place to watch the miserable old sod perform.

The man himself burst onto the stage with ‘How Soon Is Now?’ and played for fully two hours, liberally mixing songs by The Smiths with his solo stuff. When he closed his set with ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, I thought I was in heaven. Perfect.

And then 3000 Morrissey fans, many with quiffs and gladioli, poured out into the mean streets of Blackpool on a Saturday night….

Then someone falls in love / And someone's beaten up / Someone's beaten up / And the senses being dulled are mine”.

It was clash of cultures that I think Moz himself might have approved of.

... The Bluetones (Damo)

...but I can't really start to talk about them until I've done this...

Coincidentally, B is also for “Britpop”. One of the most cringeworthy terms ever invented. The musical (and, to an extent, political) downside of the term has already been well described on this blog. That wasn't all that was obnoxious about that (cough) “movement”. There was the rise of Loaded magazine and its (then) editor James Brown talking of the main argument that they used to have in the office at this “high” time - which was... whose turn it was to go and buy the champagne next.

But “Britpop” as a term was little more offensive to me than any other music label I ever heard (“New Acoustic Movement”? “New Rock Revolution'”? “New Wave of New Wave”? And a number of others that didn't start with the word “New”). Why? Because this, as with all terms, gave the music press the excuse to do something they still feel the urge to do, which is to “pigeonhole” bands. And de facto, when they deem that the “movement” has died, then in their eyes so has everything that they classed under it. Irrespective of whether that band was a) good or b) never worthy of any mention in the first place. In 1994, a Melody Maker opinion piece on Britpop ended by saying what a great time this was to be young. Now the term is only used in the press as an insult. It should just never have been invented.

(...and you can shove the embarrassing nationalist chest-beating that came from it where the sun don't shine too. Ahem.)

Someone else may already have chosen Britpop for the letter B, so I'll stop there.

The Bluetones, then. They were around during that era. And they're still around. This week they released a new EP and they've just signed a two album deal with Cooking Vinyl, so evidently they're not going anywhere either.

Seeing the gig, not much has changed. They still play 'Bluetonic'. And they play new material that is recognisably them. If anyone does talk of them these days, the word “veteran” tends to appear, which is ironic as they emerged around 1995, roughly the time that Oasis ceased to carry any artistic relevance... and yet we're still talking about Oasis.

Another thing hasn't changed either - singer Mark Morriss still looks about 20 and is still too good looking by far.

So why are they still worth talking about? Simple:

1) They still do the one thing that they do very well. The records they make now still sound as good as the ones that got the plaudits in the mid to late 90s.

2) They harbour no bitterness whatsoever about the fact that they no longer play particularly large venues.

3) The live performances still seem like they were meant for the purpose of entertaining the audience. Sounds obvious but plenty of bands haven't worked this one out. (Did someone mention Oasis again?)

4) Because it's pop music in the purest sense. And they know that pop music is nothing to be afraid of.

5) Their new EP has the happiest song you'll ever hear about the joys of losing your mind.

I rest my case, m'lud. And although I've never been in a fight in my life, if I see one more article that lumps then in with bilge like Sleeper or Menswear, I'll...

... bootleg T-shirts (Pete)

They seem like a good idea at the time, don't they? You've seen the band, sniffed at the prices for the official products inside and walked outside only to be accosted by some lovable Cockney (they're always Cockneys, even in Berlin) bellowing “FIVE PAAAND A T-SHIRT”. In the post-gig euphoria the design does look rather good. And it's got the tour dates on the back and everything, so at this point you'll probably be justifying its purchase by saying “I'll now have a souvenir from one of the best gigs ever”. That is, of course, until you wash it for the first time and half the print (if you're lucky) comes off.

But even before then, you'll get home and look at it carefully under proper light. Notice the odd spelling mistake, the cheap material, the wonky stitching and a dubious reproduction of the cover of the band's / artist's most recent album. Yes, you can now hang your head in shame; you've just bought a bootleg T-shirt.

Regular gig-goers will have all been there at least once. My worst was a vile black polyester(!) example bought at an Ash gig in Guildford, which was as bad as it sounds. It only narrowly beats the Mansun bootleg that I bought at Guildford (I can see a pattern emerging here) for £2. It was too good to be true.

I've learnt my lesson now and so should you. Remember kids, just say “no”.

... broken hearts (Jez)

You’re alone with the curtains drawn, a soaking handkerchief (or tissue, perhaps), a pain in your chest and a deep, deep desire to die. But hold on, you manage to gather the strength to put on some music, and as long as it’s the right music, suddenly you’re not alone. Somebody, somewhere, understands.

It would be wrong of me to mention specific songs here, you and I both know what they are but they’d never be the same as each other. Why? Because they belong to only one individual and nobody knows them quite like that very person. When Cole Porter played his minor keys and mixed them with melancholy lyrics popular music changed course. They sold by the armoured car load because of the direct emotional correlation with the troubled society they addressed. Nowadays even Bernie bloody Taupin recognises that sad songs say (pay) so much.

So why is it that we feel we can directly relate to these tunes? The importance of music is that it does not appear to have a social production, this allows the experience to appear to be, somehow, within the music. This means the music can be both produced and directly related to a private and inner soul that belongs to both the listener and the music itself.

To quote Simon Frith: “We all hear the music we like as something special, as something that defies the mundane, takes us ‘out of ourselves’, and puts us somewhere else. ‘Our music’ is, from this perspective, special not just with reference to other music but, more important, to the rest of life. It is this kind of specialness (the way in which music seems to make possible a new kind of self-recognition) that is the key to our musical judgements”.

In other words, you’re not alone.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Alison, Swiss Toni, Damo, Pete and Jez for their contributions this week.

(If you’re interested in becoming a regular contributor to this feature, drop me an email at silentwordsspeakloudestAThotmail.com and I’ll get back to you. Cheers.)

9 Comments:

Anonymous Pete said...

Ah...The Bluetones..."Expecting to Fly" is still arguably my favourite record of all time.

5:26 pm  
Blogger Phill said...

oh no - too late!

5:43 pm  
Anonymous alison said...

what would you have done Phill? it was a bad week to miss, so much choice - think as penance you should have no get out for 'x'

12:32 pm  
Blogger jonathan said...

I've got X covered already! XTC are mine! Which is a bit rich considering I've already written about them once.

I missed this week too, couldn't get organised. Would probably have done Blur if I'd got myself together, or Brighton maybe.

12:16 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

That is a bit rich, Jonathan - I thought you'd missed a trick!

2:14 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

You have XTC? OK. Erm... not really bothered about X-Ecutioners. Never learnt the xylophone (although I can play a mean trumpet).

Still, plenty of time to think about this...

4:50 pm  
Anonymous Caskared said...

If I was writing this a decade ago I wouldve said the Boo Radleys! But now I ask where are Belle and Sebastian on this list? Hmmm? Here is a band who are really doing something with the medium and have lasted. Yeah.

12:05 pm  
Blogger Flash said...

All good pieces there folks, blimey Damo you really have got it in for anything that doesn't meet your requirements, eh?

What did Oasis or sleeper for that matter ever do to you?!

7:35 pm  
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