Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: H

H is for ...

... hair (Jez)

No, not the 70s musical which was just an excuse to make the most of new nudity laws and show swathes of the pubic stuff, I’m talking about the locks that sprout from of the empty skulls of pop stars. They say the style of your hair reflects the best days of your life. Pop proves the theory – off the top of my head: Rod Stewart, Tony Hadley and Howard Jones. He’s been missing for years but we know exactly what him from Flock Of Seagulls looks like now – just add the baggage of twenty years living off one shitty hit in America and all the bitterness that has gnarled the bastard’s face.

Pop stars have had it lucky over the years; they don’t have to play by hair rules. They can indulge in a luxuriance not associated with having to go to work in an office. Ian McCulloch used to put Coke and raw eggs in his, something strictly forbidden in the B&Q shop-assistant rulebook. Being in a prog-rock band meant they didn’t even have to wash those thinning manes. Of course though, just like zebronkeys, some animals had to be different. Loads of hair led to no hair at all. The hateful Oi bands didn’t have any, as was the case with the even more hateful Sinead O’Connor. As for the bewigged Gary Glitter…

The follicle problem magnifies when considering those “associated” with musicians – the idiot DJs. There, with even less talent than the guitar-wielding sub-childlike axemen, sit the Hairy Cornflake and his crew. Imagine them then, imagine them now: it’s the Flock Of Seagulls effect, with impending prison sentences.

In pop, hair = virility, Francis Rossi had his barnet sewn back in and told everyone about it. What’s the bloody point? Something I’ve often said about Status Quo. Oh to be a barber with a cut-throat razor.

... ‘Heart Of Glass’ – Blondie (Ben)

Who could have imagined that a band serving their musical apprenticeship alongside the likes of The Ramones, Television and Patti Smith in legendary New York punk club CBGBs would one day outgrow that claustrophobic space and go on to become global chart-toppers?

Well, perhaps the signs were there from the beginning, if you looked closely enough. Blondie had never fitted in with the long-haired, leather-jacketed, glue-sniffing, “1, 2, 3, 4!” set, not least because in Debbie Harry they had a singer who was as glamorous as she was vocally arresting. Neither, however, could they quite be bracketed with the artier and more esoteric crowd, because they unashamedly harboured serious ambitions of mainstream breakthrough and success – as their choice of producer for their third LP, 1978’s Parallel Lines, underlined.

Mike Chapman, a Brit renowned for his brash pop production, coaxed the very best out of the band on an album which boasted no fewer than four transcendent singles: ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ (the sublime chorus arriving barely twenty seconds into the song), ‘Picture This’, ‘Sunday Girl’ and ‘Heart Of Glass’. Parallel Lines, appropriately enough, brought together in seamless harmony New York’s two most vibrant musical strains – disco and punk – which had hitherto only existed in parallel. And no track exemplified this better than ‘Heart Of Glass’.

Co-written by Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, ‘Heart Of Glass’ is perhaps most memorable for the splendid chorus, Nigel Harrison’s bobbing and insistent bassline in the verse and Clem Burke’s hi-hat-heavy drumming throughout, which he openly confessed was inspired by Kraftwerk and The Bee Gees’ soundtrack to ‘Saturday Night Fever’. The song is the sound of new wave escaping the shackles of punk parochialism, striding confidently overground and joyously mating with disco – a fact underlined in the video, which sees the band transposed from the dingy basements of their infancy into a brightly-lit discotheque, and marvelling over and symbolically embracing a glitterball.

Lyrically, too, the record was remarkably prescient in establishing connections with disco. The suggestion of fragility and vulnerability inherent in the title itself is counterpointed by the perceptible steeliness and toughness in the reference to the dead relationship becoming “a pain in the ass” and the emphasis on the fact that “love’s left behind”. In early April 1979, when the double A-side ‘Heart Of Glass’ / ‘Sunday Girl’ was #1 in Australia, ‘I Will Survive’ – Gloria Gaynor’s enduring statement of emotional resilience set to a disco beat – occupied the top spot in both the UK and the US charts.

‘Heart Of Glass’ had itself held the UK charts under its sway for the entirety of February. It wouldn’t, I don’t think, be particularly contentious to claim that it’s one of the finest tracks ever to have done so.

... Hector’s Bunyip (Caskared)

Who are Hector’s Bunyip? Well, I could have picked Amused, The Apple Tarts, Chestnut Compound or The Losers. Hector’s Bunyip represents the local band in every small town that have a buzz, that make the kids at school go crazy and generally have a ropey name. And why do I honour Hector’s Bunyip (who were named after the Australian film) above the others? Because they played at the first gig in my hometown I ever went to.

I had been to stadium gigs before, but there the bands are untouchable, they are polished and choreographed; local bands on the other hand make everything seem so possible. They’re shambolic, inevitably one player at least will be out of tune, the songs are never that great and lyrically naive, but they care and it’s real. It’s there in front of you, the energy is electrifying. Local bands create a passion in the younger generation (and by generation, I mean the three school years below them, bands in small towns are inevitable sixth-formers). After seeing local bands for the first time the new legion hit the record shops with a hunger to find more. And the best bit is that the shabbiness makes the kids think “I could do that” and inspires them to make music too. And when their sixth-form idols leave this training ground to form proper bands at university, they inherit the position of local band, and so it begins again.

Back to Hector’s Bunyip. I was 14, it was 1993, I wore my best shirt (an oversized purple paisley hand-me-down from a former Goth babysitter) and it was part of the Dunchurch village summer fete. My three best friends and I were giddy at the thought of our first gig without the supervision of anybody’s parents. The marquee was filled with the “alternative” crowd from the older years at school all wearing the appropriate early 90s indie kid attire. The night was amazing. Hector’s Bunyip were our Wonder Stuff; jangly guitar poppy rock that got a mosh pit going and we found ourselves carried away with the heaving bodies and the buoyant mood. Of course in retrospect the actual music was ultimately a bit rubbish but it didn’t matter, it was the fact of it that I loved.

So, this entry says cheers and chin chin to all the local bands across the land with names like Casual, Spire, The Heretics, and especially and forever to Hector’s Bunyip.

... Help (Damo)

In 1995, the fantastic Warchild organisation came up with a great idea. Why not get all the big bands of the day to record a track on the Monday, deliver them by Tuesday and have the record in the shops by Saturday? Then everyone could go and buy it that day and it would be number one in the album charts the next day. The high profile nature of the acts guaranteed lots of good publicity for the charity. So that was the plan, and it worked.

I hope you bought a copy. I did. There was only one slight problem.

Much of the actual music was rubbish.

Where do I start? Noel Gallagher was all over it like a rash, turning one of Oasis’s best early tracks (‘Fade Away’) into the sort of limp-lettuce fare that they’re peddling now. That was the first track – he was on the last one too, repeating the process on The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. Paul McCartney helped. I mean, he did ‘The Frog Chorus’ but surely his dignity knows SOME limits…

Which leads (as it often did in the mid 90s) to Blur. Who clearly didn’t bother to even get out of bed to record a horrendous piece of lift musak (as the song title itself conceded). I loved Blur. Still do. Couldn’t care less that Oasis sold more. So why did they have to lower themselves to this?

The Stone Roses did a live version of an existing track, having just taken five years to make their second album. Anyone who has heard Ian Brown sing live knows what to expect.

Terrorvision, a band I loved very much and make no apologies for doing so, (wait for T, I’m going to tell you why) made the dullest track of their career.

The KLF did a pointless cover of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ theme and denied it was them. What larks.

These were the low points. Much of the rest of it was just… dull.

There were some diamonds in the rough – Orbital, Radiohead and Portishead in particular. They clearly knew this as they subsequently placed the tracks on their respective albums that followed. The Manics’ cover of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ (their first recording after Richey disappeared) was very touching. Suede managed a good cover too of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ (although with ‘Brass In Pocket’ they also made one of the worst covers ever).

It should be noted that the Warchild charity is still in existence, it still does fantastic work and as a postscript, ten years on from the original Help album, they did it again… and made a MUCH better job of it. Damon Albarn made up for having the worst track on the first one by having the best track on the second. Oasis didn’t appear on it. Far fewer copies were sold. What a strange world we live in. Go to the Warchild site and redress the balance.

... ‘Heroes’ – David Bowie (Pete)

My opinion of Bowie's music has waxed and waned for a few years now. At times, Ziggy and the rest of his earlier work sounds fantastic, while at others it comes across as a simplistic private joke.

Heroes (the album) on the other hand, is certainly complex or perhaps even "difficult", in that it's not always an easy record to listen to, something that's probably down to the combination of Brian Eno and drug use. Although there are a few more straightforward pop tracks such as 'Joe The Lion', let me be the first to admit that my finger twitches over the fast forward button when my CD reaches the electronic buggering-around later on. But the title track is a work of such staggering genius that it makes up for everything else. In fact, I think I'll stick my neck out and say it's his best song ever.

The idea behind the lyrics, two lovers from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall was one that begged to have a song written about it. Thankfully, it got the treatment it deserved. Coming bang in the middle of Bowie's Berlin era, there are numerous stories about its production, such as Bowie having several microphones set up for the vocals, all at staggered distances along a hallway, which is why he sounds like "he's bouncing his voice off mountains on the moon". Or producer Tony Visconti and backing vocalist Antonia Maass providing the inspiration for the two lovers.

If I could, I'd go into all the technical reasons why it sounds the way it does, but I'll leave that to Wikipedia. However, its uplifting and triumphant tone, controlled feedback, multi-layered soaring guitars and synths just make it a glorious anthem, and one that's worth listening to almost 30 years later.

... ‘High Fidelity’ (Swiss Toni)

I’ve always loved ‘The Kids from Fame’. Doris Schwartz was always my favourite character, and this was my favourite song. OK. I’m kidding. That actually was my favourite song from ‘Fame’, but I’m talking about the Stephen Frears film based upon the book by Nick Hornby and starring John Cusack.

When I first heard that they were making this film, and that they were relocating it from London to Chicago, I have to confess that I feared the worst. As the kind of man who is pretty much always mentally compiling “All-time Top Five Track One Side One” type compilations and worrying over the filing of my music collection, the book holds a special place in my heart. How many times have you been to see a film based upon a book that you love and come away satisfied? John Irving might have won a Best Screenplay Oscar for ‘The Cider House Rules’, but he and I both know that in doing so he ripped all the subtlety and nuance from a beautiful book. What the hell kind of a mess would Hollywood make of ‘Championship Vinyl’?

I needn’t have worried. From the moment that the soundtrack kicks into ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ by The 13th Floor Elevators, and we see a mean and moody looking Cusack sulking as his girlfriend walks out, you know that everything is going to be just fine. They even get the critical banter in the record shop down perfectly thanks to the brilliant casting of Todd Louiso and the magnificent Jack Black as Dick and Barry.

Why do I think the film is so good? A good deal of the credit has to go to Cusack, but not just because of his fantastic central performance as Rob Gordon; as co-author of the screenplay and co-producer of the film, Cusack was also largely responsible for the soundtrack. In a film so heavily based around music and the love of music, getting the soundtrack right was always going to be vitally important, and they nailed it. There are plenty of good songs, sure (‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ and ‘Who Loves The Sun’ by The Velvet Underground, ‘Most Of The Time’ by Bob Dylan), but they are all used well to soundtrack the action in the film, and none more so than the triumphant use of ‘Dry The Rain’ by The Beta Band ("I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band”).

It’s a great film but two issues remain:

What are the All-Time Top Five Track One Side Ones?
Is it really true that what you like is more important than what you are like?

Discuss.

’Hit the North’ (drmigs)

"Fancy a brew, our kid?"

In the early 90s those five magical words could mean only one thing, an evening with Scrawn and the Hapless Boy Lard.

When Radio Five first started, it was principally a sports station, but there were bits around the sport that needed to be filled. During the day the gaps were plugged with children's programmes and dramas; in the evenings came music shows from around the country. On Wednesdays the show came from Manchester and was presented by Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley.

Now Mark and Lard need no introduction. In the mid 90s, the airwaves were theirs. They could do no wrong (except for the breakfast show of course …). And when it became apparent the extent to which they unnerved many of the style-over-substance Radio 1 DJs, they became iconic. Everyone wanted a piece of them. T'was not always thus however.

’Hit the North’ is where their dynamic really began to establish itself. Mark (soon to be Scrawn, then later Mark again) was the presenter, and the Hapless Boy Lard was the gossip columnist. As presenter, Mark's remit was to promote local new music; as gossip columnist, Lard's job was to talk bobbins. Both took to their roles like ducks to water, and over time one another's jobs were interchangeable. You know the rest, or if you don't look here.

What made 'Hit the North' special was its freshness. Mark and Lard had the freedom to play with the boundaries of what worked and what didn't. And the musical freedom in particular was a crucial element to their success. Many shows are funny, but humorous chat isn't enough to fill a two hour show. Mark, having already worked with John Peel, had learned to play what he liked, and to trust his own taste. Combined with artistic input from Lard, they gave the likes of Oasis, The Verve and Cornershop their first radio sessions. Live sessions also boosted the careers of bands such as Chumbawumba, Pulp and The Boo Radleys. As the relationship with the artists grew, so did the freedom to take the piss. It was also during 'Hit the North' that the Shirehorses-esque pastiches began (often with the result of embarrassing the artist with both the quality and content).

Few shows in recent history have used the freedom they were granted with such ingenuity to produce a genuinely engaging programme that promoted new music. I started listening to 'Hit the North' fascinated by the banter. By the time they had moved to the Radio 1 Graveyard Shift in late '93, I'd begun to take note of the music. Mark and Lard were at their best when they had freedom of both the playlist and the script. As success came, they lost the freedom of the playlist and with it the X factor that was so crucial to their format. But in those early days, when they were given the licence to do what they wanted, 'Hit the North' was indeed a bit special.

... Hockey Night (Jonathan)

I suppose it's the ultimate compliment to have designed a sound which so many people feel compelled to copy so directly, so Steve Malkmus and Spiral Stairs must be pretty pleased that the sound they carved out with Pavement in the early 90s – which wasn't that original in the first place, being a kind of amalgamation of The Fall, The Swell Maps, Jonathan Richman and Creedance Clearwater Revival – has proven so enduring.

The first band that stole my heart with their direct take-off of Pavement's style was the lovely, slight Sammy, who formed in New York in the early 90s with the intention of being “the Pavement that signed to a major label”. When SM and Spiral beat them to it they revised their gameplan to become “the Pavement that never sold out”. Either way, their first album, titled Debut, was totally in thrall to Pavement and hugely enjoyable for it.

Latest in line is the Minnesota based Hockey Night, whose Keep Guessin' LP was one of the late discoveries and highlights of my 2005; like Sammy it's totally obvious that they spent the whole of the 90s listening to Pavement. Singer and guitarist Paul Spranger's voice is, well, a perfect facsimile of Stephen Malkmus's, so lackadaisical he could have been a West Coast bride. Opening track 'Get Real' sounds like the early Pavement at their most carefree, but succeeds with aplomb where Sammy were always pale in comparison. From there on in they show enough ambition to emerge from under SM's shadow, although mainly by virtue of expressing an interest in the full palette of Pavement's sound rather than just the snotty early stuff.

So it's not all dissonant indie rock riffing, we get plenty of odd arrangements, prog pretensions and a bunch of hilarious, duelling guitar solos which wouldn't sound out of place on a Thin Lizzy record. The whole thing, like another band I could mention, combines winning enthusiam with charming diffidence, and is underpinned by a pair of drummers (hey, wonder where they got that idea? Pavement?) and, well, some pretty great songs. In a way it's a shame they timed this record with Steve Malkmus's best effort in ten years, otherwise we might all be acclaiming them as heroes. As it is, they still have some work to do to match their mentor, but with Keep Guessin' they've given it a good shot.

... Howlin’ Wolf (Skif)

The strongest, most powerful voice in the history of the blues. There I said it. Without him the great Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart, would have sounded a lot different. When the Captain draws deep into his lungs and grinds the words against the glottis, it comes from his love of Howlin’ Wolf.

Chester Arthur Burnett was born in 1910 in Mississippi, and began his singing early within the Baptist church choir. In 1923 he moved with his family to a plantation on the River Delta. Five years later he had his first guitar, given to him by his father and was both inspired and taught the Delta Blues style by Charley Patton. In terms of his vocal style, a big influence was Jimmie Rodgers’ “blue yodel” mannerisms.

Burnett continued to farm well into and throughout the 1930s, moving on to Arkansas in 1933, where he met Sonny Boy Williamson, who taught him the harmonica. He then left farming behind, with Williamson, touring around Mississippi, Burnett bringing many aspects of Patton’s showmanship into his own. Burnett stood out of his own accord though, as his 6ft 3in near 300lb stature, made for an imposing stage presence, his size ideal for projecting such a gargantuan vocal performance.

After this period of itinerancy, Burnett was drafted into the US Army in 1941, working as a radioman during WWII returning to farming once de-mobbed. In 1948 he formed a band and moved toward making a career of music, his break coming when he began performing weekly on the West Memphis radio station, KWEM, for whom he also worked selling advertising. It was at this stage that he first started using the stage name Howlin’ Wolf (after periods as Big Foot Chester and Bull Cow).

The success of these broadcasts led to his debut 78 on Chess in 1950. ‘How Many More Years’ and ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’ sold an impressive 60,000 copies. After settling a dispute between RPM and Chess over his services, Burnett eventually settled in Chicago and remained with Chess for the rest of his career, which, although peaking in 1956, was given resurgence by the patronage of the Rolling Stones, Cream, The Yardbirds and Sam Cooke in the 60s. Clearly, Burnett was one of the few artists who successfully blurred the distinctions between country and urban blues styles, shaping the latter as he went.

By the 70s, he was suffering chronic kidney problems and could only gig in cities where he had easy access to a dialysis machine. His last LP The Back Door Wolf was released in 1973. Burnett died three years later.

Wolf is probably best known for seminal tunes like ‘The Red Rooster’, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and possibly then from cover versions (Soundgarden being one of the more contemporary acts to have a crack at the latter). I recommend the single CD collection of the Howlin’ Wolf / Moanin’ In The Moonlight records. Each time I have listened to it, another song becomes epiphanous, the last being ‘Spoonful’ – the ingenious pace, the typical vigour but with an extra something being wrenched from the lungs.

* * * * *

Thanks to Jez, Caskared, Damo, Pete, Swiss Toni, drmigs, Jonathan and Skif for their contributions this week – another fantastically mixed bag, I think you’ll agree.

7 Comments:

Blogger Ben said...

Caskared: There were one or two Hector's Bunyips in my home town in my youth, but the "first" and most popular were called Gal and began by playing almost nothing but Nirvana covers. They soon became Dive and started doing more of their own material and now, some twelve or thirteen years later, they're still going strong (the Spinal Tap esque revolving drummer aside), now called Lovemat. What happened to Hector's Bunyip? Did they go the same way as my friends' bands Naked Shade, Tracer and Frog did?

12:38 pm  
Anonymous Pete said...

Good choice there ST...cracking film, I really should watch it again.

What are the All-Time Top Five Track One Side Ones?

Is it really true that what you like is more important than what you are like?

I sense a poll on "The Art Of" for these questions? Ben? Phill? Anyone?

I like to add...Is it better to burn out or fade away?

Btw, is it just me or has the sidebar gone walkabout?

1:50 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Hmm, a poll - quite possibly something for the future.

And it's not just you - the sidebar has gone walkabout, though not that far, just to the bottom of the page. Not sure why, or how to sort it out. Any ideas?

2:40 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

it's usually itlaics that do it, and it's usually fine in firefox....

and yes, 'High Fidelity' is an excellent film, and I was reminded of quite how good when I watched it again the other day. Barry is right though, "Smells Like Teenspirit" is too obvious. Personally I have a softspot for "A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours", but I may be in a minority.

ST

8:09 pm  
Blogger SwissToni said...

itlaics? what the bloody hell are itlaics?

ITALICS, obviously.

Dur.

8:10 pm  
Blogger Lord Bargain said...

It's clearly mainstream in the extreme, but "Politik" from Rush of Blood... springs to mind immediately.

8:44 pm  
Anonymous Caskared said...

Hector's Bunyip...well, one of them moved to Brighton to be a real mod, one got a sensible job at an IT firm and the others...who knows...and maybe it's better that way.

5:35 pm  

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