Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: I

I is for …

… The Icarus Line (Ben)

Nine letters in, and perhaps it’s about time I did the obvious thing and wrote about a band.

So, The Icarus Line.

One of the most obnoxious, provocative, spiteful, unhinged, brattish, amoral, cynical, vicious, violent rock bands around. And – naturally – one of the best.

A potted history. Vocalist Joe Cardamone and guitarist Alvin DeGuzman met at school in LA and formed a grunge covers band. By the time the pair were fifteen, that band had mutated into a hardcore-influenced outfit called Kanker Sores, guitarist Aaron North joining in 1996. When drummer Tim Childs was killed in a car accident in 1997, The Icarus Line rose phoenix-like from the flames.

The title of their 1998 debut EP, consisting entirely of Kanker Sores songs, gave notice of their raison d’etre: ‘Highlypuncturingnoisetestingyourabilitytohate’. ‘The Red And Black Attack’ appeared the following year, a similarly succinct description of the experience of witnessing the black-shirt-and-red-tie-clad maniacs in action. Drummers continued to come and go with ‘Spinal Tap’-esque regularity, and in 2001 they re-emerged with debut full-length LP Mono, an insanely intense mash-up of The Stooges, The Birthday Party and Black Flag.

Their status as a notoriously unhinged prospect live was cemented by a gig at the Hard Rock Café in Austin in 2002 when North decided mid-set that he fancied swapping guitars. The only problem was that the guitar in question used to belong to legendary Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan and was on display in a wall-mounted glass case. North cracked it open with a mic stand and all hell broke loose. Most bands leave the SXSW Festival clutching a lucrative recording contract; The Icarus Line came away with death threats.

And then, in 2004, after yet more line-up changes, came second album Penance Soiree, prefaced by another marvellous statement-of-intent single, ‘Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers’. The familiar reference points are audible, but this time they’d gone much further. The record is a masterful pillaging of the graveyard of rock ‘n’ roll history. The corpses of everyone from Black Sabbath to The Jesus & Mary Chain and Suicide are gleefully exhumed and reanimated in thrillingly noisy and discordant style.

Perhaps most remarkable is the nine-minute-long monster ‘Getting Bright At Night’, an awesome tribute to a love of Spacemen 3 which features the lines “I don’t wanna fall in love anymore / But I can’t stop falling in love” and concludes brilliantly with Cardamone imploring “Never give up on me babe”. A glimpse of humanity, and this from the band that once gave away a 7” single called ‘Kill Cupid With A Nail File’ at a Valentine’s Day gig.

And yet despite Penance Soiree’s brilliance and the endorsement of a whole host of bands with whom they’ve toured (Queens Of The Stone Age, Primal Scream, …Trail Of Dead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the trail seems to have gone cold, and the band’s future looks uncertain. Aaron North has left to replace Robin Finck in Nine Inch Nails, they’ve been dropped by V2 (for whom they were never going to make any money) and then there’s the side project (Cardamone and bassist Don Devore’s Souls She Said) which so often spells the end.

I hope not. The Icarus Line are that rarest of beasts: an utterly untamed rock ‘n’ roll band. As their associate Travis Keller wrote in their 2004 biog: “At times it feels like they are the only punk band left. You might say their ethos, sense of integrity, confrontational nature of their performances, and their belief in what they do is very punk rock. They sound like what dangerous rock music should sound like”. Amen to that.

… ice rink (Paul)

For a time the preserve of the Whitley Warriors ice hockey team, and home to the most run-down bowling alley I’ve ever seen (you practically had to walk down and pick the pins up and reset them), in 1996 Whitley Bay Ice Rink played host to one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.

Now, baring in mind that musically, I’m a Britpop kid, and it was around the time that Blur had just released The Great Escape (and in so doing had temporarily disappeared up their own arses) there was only one band who truly bestrode the British music scene as far as I was concerned.

Having postponed their intended November gig due to an injury, I was delighted to be finally presented with the chance to witness Oasis (when their whole catalogue consisted of good albums and cracking singles / B-sides) in the flesh. Abandoning any sense of logic at a friend’s house, I reasoned that I didn’t want to be burdened down by such bulky items as a coat or jumper, leaving them behind and then walking the mile from his house to the Ice Rink as the January wind blew straight off the North Sea.

Arriving at the Ice Rink, we fought our way past the touts. In my youthful eagerness I promptly splurged a tenner on a T-shirt (which given the rearranged nature of the gig lists Whitley Bay alongside a series of far bigger towns and cities across Europe), and hauled it over my torso, before standing around listening to the support act: a bunch of blokes I’d never heard of. Reliably informed they were Paul Weller’s occasional backing band, Ocean Colour Scene strummed their way through their half hour set as the barely arsed crowd waited for the main event.

The support finally over, we stationed ourselves about halfway back – set to take in the majesty of what was about to unfold. Now, aside from some Lindisfarne Christmas concerts as a kid (I was friends with the drummer’s son) and a very recent trip to see Blur play Newcastle Arena the previous month (when I was sat a long way back), this was my first proper concert.

It didn’t disappoint.

Oasis bestrode the stage with all the arrogance and swagger that epitomised their early days, with Liam’s whining Mancunian voice, and Noel’s poetic lyrics still showing the hunger that fuelled their rise to fame. One hour later, I’d long since abandoned my position halfway back in an effort to surge myself forward and join everyone packed like sardines near the front. The majority of the band trooped off stage, and Noel took up position on a stool, with only a mic and guitar for company, and proceeded to deliver a beautiful four song acoustic set before being rejoined by his cohorts for a final 30 minute blast.

Finally sated, the crowd drifted out into the cold night sky, and I contemplated the walk home, wearing two sweat drenched T-shirts and a healthy stroll away from some warm dry clothes.

I couldn’t hear properly, I burnt my tongue on a cup of scalding coffee purchased outside, and I nearly died of hypothermia, but to be honest I didn’t care. The gig had far exceeded my expectations, and a love of live music was born that is still with me to this day.

… In A Silent Way – Miles Davis (Steve)

Miles Davis seems to have made a career of “lines in the sand” – to the jazz-faithful, to other musicians or to the younger audiences he was forever courting. Remember that Kind Of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time, was made up of material that had been played live on one or two occasions (if at all) and was recorded over two days by a line-up that had never played together before and would never play together again. After committing it to tape Miles said “NEXT!” and the world struggled to keep up.

In February 1969, Miles was in the studio making In A Silent Way. One of Miles Davis’s greatest strengths as a bandleader was his ability to assemble the right musicians in the right blend on the right day. But the band for In A Silent Way was assembled in a bizarrely off-hand way. The day before the session Miles was introduced to British guitarist John McLaughlin, who was asked to sit in despite the fact that Miles had never heard him play. Similarly, keyboard player Joe Zawinul was asked to attend the morning of the session, followed by a phone call asking him to bring along some music for the band to play.

The revolutionary approach Miles Davis applied to this album is best exemplified by the way in which Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’ was tackled. After playing through the composer’s own arrangement, Miles decided that the piece was too complex and artful, too many chords. In one of his legendarily enigmatic instructions, Miles asked John McLaughlin to play “like you don’t know how to play the guitar”. McLaughlin responded by picking the tune out over one chord – E, the basic building block in any guitarist’s vocabulary. He played it through, the rest of the band joined in and that was the take.

From this point on, Miles Davis’s recordings wouldn’t start with the idea of a set piece. Fragments were explored and expanded in the studio, the tapes were left rolling throughout the session and Miles and producer Teo Macero edited the best bits into a cohesive piece after the fact. I wouldn’t say he invented the idea of remixing – editing and overdubbing had been around for ages – but no other jazz musician had taken such a radical approach to the composition process

The long, harmonically static pieces, rock sounds and emphasis on “the groove” on In A Silent Way would lead to cries of sell-out. How wild to be accused of selling out with an album consisting of two long 20-minute pieces.

He wouldn’t return to the gorgeously glacial sounds of In a Silent Way, though many others continue to do so.

By August of 1969 Miles Davis was working up what would become Bitches Brew, a raucous stew of jazz, rock and funk, and a million miles away from the motionless, shimmering beauty of In A Silent Way. NEXT!

… inCulto (Caskared)

Salsa, rock, ska, funk, hip hop; guitars, drums, samples, brass; Spanish, Lithuanian, English. InCulto claim to be the product of a melting pot, and I can hear it. Their songs are rich and textured, political and the right side of pop. They believe in melodies and songs and the front man, Jurgis Didziulis, has a powerful and tuneful sonorous voice. Jurgis embodies the band beautifully – he is Columbian Lithuanian, fluently tri-lingual and believes in taking different elements from the big soupy globalised world we all live in. The band is based in Vilnius and they are all of an age to have really experienced Soviet times and the seismic upheavals of the early 90s. Their graphics sport the motto “Post Sov Pop”, but more on this later.

Their biggest single so far is called ‘Boogaloo’ and owes much to the incredible Manu Chao. inCulto are high-energy and poppy, there are the horn sections, fat riffs that reminds me of a poodle rock song, and they even break it down so you can clap along while chanting out the words – whatever they mean. The lyrics: now this is something I absolutely cannot comment on beyond noting the seemingly solid scansion. I have no idea what they are about. My Spanish is limited to the words “Por donde se ba a la estacion” and my Lithuanian is mostly vegetable-based. What I can tell you is that these songs are about neither vegetables nor the location of the train station.

This band has a hunger to perform and their stage presence emanates a warmth and vibrancy that I hope they don’t lose. Their looping tricksy samples and beats string the songs together and the brass section is tight and powerful. Their graphics equal their upbeat feel and political stance – bright oranges and yellow camouflage polka-dotted with grenades, Che stances, Beverly Hill palm trees lead to cosmonaut platforms, subverted Communist stars. Regrettably also feature an “exotic” dancer with alarming regularity, which is not a good idea, but I’ll like them anyway! Their “Post Sov Pop” banners float in the digitised wind and represent the prevalent mood of looking out, looking back and using all this to look forward.

… indulgence (Skif)

With the self- suffix, this might be seen as pre-empting a potential entry next week for “jazz”. However, to call any piece of music self-indulgent is only a personal judgement call.

A great many people, of course, do not see the value of music that doesn’t adhere to the principles of the “tune”. With that in mind, it is usually those that fall into the pockets of jazz, prog and the avant-garde that have the self-indulgence accusation levelled at them. Indeed even Half Man Half Biscuit listed, in their song ‘Breaking News’, “an artist who says his next album will be more ‘song-based’” amongst other irritants who should be rounded up in an “Operation Less Pricks”.

However, going to the heart of it, if we love alternative music, and crave hearing new things, surely we must indulge the experimental inclination of artists who have the desire to push the envelope rather than rehash. When you consider how many bands have been influenced by the likes of Captain Beefheart and The Fall, you feel that without those who warp the current accepted norm, we progress no further. More mutated seeds in the gene pool, more I say!

Of course, I love the artists I mention, so I’m biased. Beefheart claiming that “Rock’n’roll has a fixation, that bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, mama heartbeat. I don’t like hypnotics. You see I’m doing a non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state” is, to me, tremendously inspiring. The Fall bringing a literacy to a quickly stagnating punk scene, Cardiacs re-applying it to the prog mindset that it had seeked to destroy – this is investigational music, to see what can be done, both musically and lyrically.

There are plenty of other artists to whom we can apply this, but I simply talk about those who have inspired me. Some may call these characters self-indulgent, yet I think their journeys down new paths should be indulged as it is surely to the benefit of music, and not just a self-perpetuating alt / avant-garde scene.

… interaction (Pete)

As in crowd interaction. Come on, you've all been to gigs before and I'm sure the bits in between the songs have occasionally stayed in your head. Go on, admit it. And when some bands do that "cool" thing and remain mute throughout their performance, no matter good they may have been on the night, you'll still regard them to as "muppets", "arrogant so and sos"…or worse.

On the other hand, someone along the lines of Jarvis Cocker who, like a good stand-up comedian, always has a droll quip at hand, remains an unforgettable performer. Or the likes of I Am Kloot frontman John Bramwell introducing '86 TVs' at a gig in Berlin with: "This song is about a transvestite friend of mine in Manchester. I know you dirty Germans will love it". Live music is just another form of entertainment after all, and the odd joke here or there adds to a good night out, even if its function is simply to smooth over an equipment failure.

Interaction may take many forms though. It may resemble the chit-chat mentioned above, or it might involve something as basic as chucking cold water over a steaming hot crowd at a mid-summer festival. There's also the option of using a foreign object… footballs or beachballs are a frequent popular choice, drumsticks less so. Nevertheless, verbal methods remain my favourite.

Of course, interaction works both ways; the crowd may want to express its enthusiasm or, as is the case with inexperienced (or just plain shite) bands, its disdain. "Play something the drummer knows" remains my favourite heckle ever.

Regular gig-goers will all have memories of a favourite gigs, but I'm certain that these performances will have had some form of interaction; let's face it, what would you rather remember: The Strokes' silent treatment or Badly Drawn Boy with a super-soaker?

… iPod random shuffle / “I love you” compilations (drmigs)

To be frank, I was struggling this week. I was mulling over two potential options; iPod random shuffles and 'I love you' compilations (inspired by last week’s ‘High Fidelity’ article). And that's when I had the idea …

But before I continue, for clarification:

The iPod random shuffle: This is the random function on the iPod that randomly shuffles all your songs. And as even the most undeveloped Amazonian tribesman knows, this function has revolutionised the way people listen to their music collections. Blah-de-blah-de-blah you've heard it all before.

The “I love you” compilation: If you're into music, there's a fair chance that at some point in the embryonic stages of a romance you've been tempted to give the object of your affections a compilation of music. Generally the point of this compilation is to say the words you haven't yet been able to say: “I love you”. It's the sort of thing that's romantic because it not only expresses what you thinking, but it also exposes your musical preferences. There are three types of responses to such a compilation: “Aaaaaaagghhhhh! Bunny Boiler! Run Away! Run Away!”; “Err, thanks” and “Hmm, I'll be liking a bit of that”. What makes it an “I love you” compilation is that you don't know which response you'll get.

So, can you see where this is going? Every book on relationships claims that they are best when they are built on honesty. Whilst a manufactured loved-up play-list is a way to reveal your intent, maybe the three-shuffle rule would be a better gauge of suitability. No more, “this is the schmultzy music I like, love me love me”, hello “three shuffles of my iPod, what do you reckon?”. There's no hiding dodgy tracks, just a cross section of your tunes. You're laying all the cards down on the table.

In the interest of (piss-poor tabloid-esque) science, I'd be judged on the following.

Shuffle 1: ‘Time Out From The World’ – Goldfrapp; ‘The World’ – The Beatles; ‘Cash Machine’ – Hard Fi; ‘I Can Hear Music’ – The Beach Boys; ‘You Won't See Me’ – The Beatles; ‘Silent Warrior’ – Enigma; ‘Most Of The Time’ – Bob Dylan; ‘Velvet Water’ – Stereolab; ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ – Nouvelle Vague; ‘Little Ghost’ – The White Stripes.

Shuffle 2: ‘Electric’ – Melody Club; ‘Modern Day Jazz’ – Courtney Pine; ‘On Mercury’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers; ‘There Must Be An Angel’ – Fantastic Plastic Machine; ‘Butterfly’ – Jamiroqui; ‘You Really Got Me’ – The Kinks; ‘The State I Am In’ – Belle & Sebastian; ‘The Bends’ – Radiohead; ‘Dialogue: Toby’ – Belle & Sebastian; ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ – The Rolling Stones.

Shuffle 3: ‘As Good As It Gets’ – Gene; ‘Take Me Out’ – Franz Ferdinand; ‘You Don't Have To Mean It’ – The Rolling Stones; ‘Mulder & Scully’ – Catatonia; ‘Can't You Hear Me Knocking’ – The Rolling Stones; ‘Threads 2’ – Backini; ‘On The Way To The Club’ – Blur; ‘Ring Of Fire’ – Johnny Cash; ‘Backyard Brouhaha’ – St Etienne; ‘Get Miles’ – Gomez.

Hmm, on the strength of the above however, I think I'd still have had to rely on the absinthe to get together with Wor Lass. Maybe it's not so inspired after all.

… Iron Maiden (Swiss Toni)

Everyone can remember the first albums that they bought. I can certainly remember mine. My first five (I’m back on Top Five lists again) were: Kings Of The Wild Frontier, Silk & Steel, Scoundrel Days, The Riddle & Human Racing. They were all great (yes, including the one by Five Star, and I once wrote to Jimmy Saville asking him if he could fix it for me and my best mate Will to meet Nik Kershaw, so you’d better watch what you say about him too), but I wouldn’t really say that any of those albums really rocked my world or had a huge and lasting influence on my music taste.

The sad truth of the matter is that I bought the album that changed my life because I quite liked the cover. I had absolutely no idea what the band themselves sounded like, but I was thirteen years old, and I found myself strangely drawn to the cartoon image of Satan as the puppet of some sort of skeletal rocker with a shock of white hair. So I bought it, and was thus introduced to the foot-on-monitor, string-vested and tasselled-leather-jacket world of Iron Maiden.

If you are unlucky enough not to be familiar with them, here are the two things you most need to know about them. They are utterly preposterous and they have a drummer who rejoices in the name Nico McBrain. They’re ace and I love them to bits. I was mesmerised by the ear-bleeding heavy metal of The Number of the Beast and rapidly made my way though their extensive back catalogue. All thoughts of Five Star were banished from my mind, and I took my first steps into a wider musical world.

Along the way, I may have made a few wrong turnings into albums by the likes of Poison, Slaughter and Warrior Soul, but I had discovered the primal thrill of the electric guitar and I’ve never looked back. At some point during my time at university, my idea of the perfect front man shifted from someone like Bruce Dickinson to someone more like Morrissey (hmm, is there really anyone else quite like Morrissey?). My taste in lyrics was shifting too, and I was now far more interested in punctured bicycles than bringing daughters to the slaughter, but the guitars were always there. Johnny Marr may not have had his amps turned up to 11, but he couldn’t fool me: I knew a guitar hero when I saw one.

That was fifteen years ago now, but the same is very much true today; the first time that I heard ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, it made me dance in the shower. It was the guitars that got me, of course, and Iron Maiden are at least part of the reason for that.

* * * * *

Thanks to Paul, Steve, Caskared, Skif, Pete, drmigs and Swiss Toni for their contributions this week.

No A-Z feature next week, folks - but hopefully it'll return in a fortnight's time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

If nothing gets challenged, nothing gets changed

"The best book about punk rock and pop culture ever". Thus reads the NME critic's appraisal on the cover of Jon Savage's 'England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock'. Perhaps it's just an idiosyncratic tendency of mine, a function of my cynicism, that leads me immediately to view such pronouncements with suspicion and spend my time hunting out and dwelling upon perceived faults. Anyway, more of that later.

The book begins not with Malcolm McLaren's puppet-masterly bringing together of the volatile foursome, but with a history of 430 King’s Road (what would become Sex, the shop run by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood at the geographical centre of The Sex Pistols' story) and with a discussion of McLaren’s interest in New York Dolls and the Situationist politics that arose out of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris and the subsequent writings of theorists like Guy Debord.

It's evidently fundamental to Savage's understanding of pop culture that it affects and is affected by the wider artistic, social and historical context - the band themselves are explicitly seen as a "social phenomenon". Not only is this material essential to the narration of a movement that gathered pace gradually and then peaked suddenly before a sharp decline; it also underlines the fact that McLaren and, to a lesser extent, Westwood were a huge influence on the band, and so any history of the band should properly begin with their history.

When the four central protagonists - Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and lastly John Lydon - are brought together centre-stage, Savage makes clear that they were never the most cohesive and compatible of units; "The Sex Pistols began in a miasma of antagonism, misunderstanding and mutual suspicion".

Nevertheless, Savage depicts the summer of 1976 as punk's golden age, when the movement was full of youthful vigour and hostile idealism, before the nihilism, cynicism and violence took over.

One thing that came as something of a surprise was the fact that McLaren always envisaged his charges signing to a major label, being fascinated about the possibility of destroying a decaying industry and society from the inside. Wherever the punk ethos of DIY and abhorrence of selling out came from, it wasn't The Sex Pistols.

By December 1976, trouble had been brewing for some time, not least because the confused symbolism - and the "ironic" flirtation with Nazi imagery in particular - was becoming increasingly dangerous : "A song like 'White Riot' could be taken a different way: not as an admiring shout of solidarity in sympathy with the blacks of Notting Hill Gate, but as a racist rallying cry".

And then came Bill Grundy and the 'Today' show. Savage is particularly adept at pointing up the programme as a watershed moment that changed everything, not only for the band themselves but also for the movement of which they were at the vanguard: "The Grundy scandal made The Sex Pistols, but it also killed them. They were now frozen in time, leaders of a movement which had been wrested out of their control". Notoriety was their fate. From then on, it was all downhill - and spectacularly so.

Their behaviour became ever more cartoonish and farcical, no day exemplifying this better than that on which, having left EMI in the wake of the Grundy episode, they signed to A&M in front of Buckingham Palace. There was a horrendously drunken press conference, followed by in-band fisticuffs in the back of a limousine, and, at A&M's offices, Sid Vicious breaking a toilet and then bathing his bleeding foot in it. A few days later, during a nightclub fracas, associates of the band threatened to kill Bob Harris of 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' - and they were promptly dumped by A&M.

Savage underlines the significance of 'God Save The Queen', and the way its release was timed to coincide with the Jubilee celebrations: "The Sex Pistols appeared with all the force of a hand-grenade tossed into an arrangement of gladioli. 'God Save The Queen' was the only serious anti-Jubilee protest, the only rallying call for those who didn't agree with the Jubilee because they didn't like the Queen, either because like John Lydon, they were Irish, or, much more to the point, because they resented being steamrollered by such sickening hype, by a view of England which had not the remotest bearing on their everyday experience". The Sex Pistols famously played a gig on a boat on the Thames which ended in arrests, but - as Savage makes clear - even on an evening which should have been a triumph the writing was already on the wall: no future.

Punk's messy decline is depicted in all its gory detail, as people and events span out of control and the lines were suddenly drawn, the whole debacle ending with Sid Vicious's death. The Sex Pistols were essentially finished by February 1978, even though McLaren kept the idea of them alive for the purposes of 'The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle'.

Thatcherism arrived in 1979, and though it didn't mean Britain changed overnight, it did (for Savage at least) mark the end of the road for punk: "Punk was beaten, but it had also won. If it had been the project of The Sex Pistols to destroy the music industry, then they had failed; but as they gave it new life, they allowed a myriad of new forms to become possible. When punk entered the music and media industries, its vision of freedom was eventually swamped by New Right power politics and the accompanying value systems, but its original, gleeful negation remains a beacon. Histroy is made by those who say 'No' and punk's utopian heresies remain its gift to the world".

And so to the book's faults - two of which I think are major, and another which is also significant if understandable.

Firstly, given the intense and ferocious nature of punk music, there is an extraordinary lack of raw passion evident in what Savage writes. Knowledge, yes; fascination, yes; enthusiasm, perhaps; but outright passion? No. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's rather bloodless and dispassionate. This might be assumed to be the deliberate strategy of someone wanting to give an objective overview of the band, movement and period; but not only is it very often markedly subjective, the diary entries which start to crop up are also as coolly detached, despite being recorded in the heat of the moment.

Secondly, as former Melody Maker journalist Jonh Ingham observes in a comment glossed over by Savage, "'You couldn't intellectualise the band. You couldn't analyse it'". That is precisely what 'England's Dreaming' does. Savage marshalls an impressive range of philosophers, theorists and historians in seeking to make sense of the phenomenon and the period. At times, such as the reference to Bakunin's 1842 statement from 'Reaction In Germany' that "The passion for destruction is also a creative passion", this is illuminating - but at others it comes across as pretentious intellectualising. To what extent could The Sex Pistols be said to have genuinely and consciously aligned themselves with the history of English anarchist thinking and revolutionary practice, as Savage intimates that they did? One gets the feeling that he's continually talking over the heads of his characters, as it were. Punk's impact came from its fiercely primal quality - and that's something that I think's all too often lost in the midst of Savage's analysis.

Thirdly, it's an inevitable consequence of the focus on The Sex Pistols that their cultural importance is always in danger of being overstated. London was very much the focus of the movement for Savage, and consequently other provincial scenes (Manchester aside) are almost completely ignored. Savage might (rightly) complain in his preface that "The Union Jack-strewn Britpop ... did not reflect Britain's multicultural reality but highlighted, almost exclusively, white rock groups from the South East" - but then he himself does much the same with punk. The British focus also means that punk emerges from the pages as very much an English phenomenon; America is by and large ignored, the role of the likes of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground hardly even alluded to. Natural, given that the lines had to be drawn somewhere - but the well-documented obsession of The Sex Pistols and others with American predecessors like the New York Dolls and particularly The Stooges subtly detracts from the pioneering status Savage claims for the Brits.

But 'England's Dreaming' is nevertheless a fantastic documentation of one of the most fascinatingly short-lived and self-destructive musical movements since pop music "began", meticulously researched, well written and packed with the accounts and testimonies of those who, like Savage, were there to witness it all first-hand. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in "alternative" music and pop culture, not least because, thirty years on, the story remains the same: "how do you avoid becoming part of what you’re protesting against?

Perhaps the highest praise? It made me want to buy lots of records.

Next up on this front has to be Simon Reynolds's 'Rip It Up And Start Again', I think...

Monday, January 23, 2006

StrangeTime for heroes


Uh-oh! Embarrassing dad x3 alert! By day (one suspects) a high school teacher, a solicitor and a tax inspector, but by night The Disciples Of Tone. The only concession to showmanship might be the vocalist / guitarist's green Teddy Boy jacket, but it's Friday night and they're intent on cutting some rug.

And what does this public recapturing (or at least recapitulation) of youth through songs called 'The Ice Cream Man' and 'Psychedelic Kid' sound like? A bit of The Jam, a bit of The Kinks - not particularly disagreeable at times. But then at others The Disciples Of Tone do nothing to challenge the ageist "truism" that rock 'n' roll is a young man's game.

Worse in many ways are Dedd Zebra - not least because of the name. Tight and proficient, undeniably, but unfortunately precisely the sort of band that made Pete's Going Deaf For A Fortnight project such an endurance test ie nondescript and seemingly adept at making what can be thrilling unfeasibly dull. It doesn't help that neither singer can seem to hold a note.

One song ends in such incredibly bombastic style that I'm expecting that to be it for the set - but no, there's more. It's like 'The Return Of The King', and I'm left impatiently willing it to draw to a close. Uncharitable I know, but that's the way it is.

For StrangeTime, tonight's gig is the biggest challenge to date: their first headlining slot, and the first time they've been called upon to play for longer than the usual half an hour. It's a challenge they meet head on with aplomb.

It's a measure of their gradually growing self-confidence that the set-list is now no longer set in stone but manipulated subtly and effectively anew each gig, while three of tonight's opening four songs are relatively recent compositions.

Sure, songs like 'Interference' would benefit in terms of impact by being abbreviated, others ('Doppelganger', for instance) are lyrically a bit too simplistic and cut 'n' dried, the band are still predominantly static on stage, and the concerns voice between songs about the sound quality betray a residual nervousness.

But then you can't run before you walk, and it's not so long ago that StrangeTime weren't even crawling, having played live for the very first time last July. The vocals are powerful, the instrumentation inventive and in the likes of 'Dressing Up' and 'Mundane' they have songs that can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Not something you encounter too often on the local toilet gig scene - a fact that the vast majority of those assembled (a sizeable audience) evidently recognise.

If the gig marks the beginnings of a buzz surrounding the band, then it'll be richly deserved.

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?


’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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: G

G is for ...

… G4 (drmigs)

"Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention…"

If only the boys in G4 paid more attention to the lyrics they sing. You see, the one thing there oughtn't be as a member of G4 is too few regrets. Now let’s get this clear from the outset, I'm not writing this as a fan of G4. They suck like a metaphor I'm not going to allow myself to publish (I think you get the drift), but more than that I think they're genuinely a bad thing.

The bad thing isn't that they do cover versions per se – cover versions can work brilliantly – the bad thing is the almost parasitic opportunism of their choice of songs. Invariably the pop songs that they have covered have had complex-cum-orchestral structures from which an introverted emotional narrative emerges. G4's clinical operatic interpretations of these songs use the words as nothing more than vocal instruments to generate more notes in the harmonies. The emotional interplay between lyrics and music in the original versions is therefore stripped away and laid to waste for harmonic perfection and a pretty pay-day. Now I've no doubt that operatically G4 can hold a tune and do more than justice to whichever operatic piece they turn to. But to take opera and pop as one and the same is to misunderstand pop. And what they've done to some great tunes is nothing more than offensive.

Lets take Radiohead's ‘Creep’. I was introduced to this song in the incredibly appropriate location of Coventry Bus Station, and for the record I can't describe just how well this place reflects their music. Even with the smell of diesel and the dirge of broken engines, ‘Creep’ cut me up. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the grating pain in Thom Yorke's voice often acts as too much of a painful thing for me. But I'll not deny that what works with Radiohead is the marriage of powerful music and pained presentation. Similarly, REM's ‘Everybody Hurts’ works in the same way. It's not about how well the singer holds an F sharp, it's about having an integrity in the way the lyrics are sung that gives the songs any depth whatsoever. Do what you do well G4 and stick to opera, cause there's many a Hard-Fi out there who haven't made it yet, and this sort or cheap buck exploitation of pop culture does nothing but stifle such new blood’s chances.

More than that though it's just wrong. ‘My Way’ works as a song because it's sung by a cock-of-the-walk with a knowingness to their past indiscretions and misdemeanours. G4 are so squeaky clean and nauseatingly perfect it just makes no sense. Maybe I'm not being totally fair to them when I say they don't reflect the lyrics they say, like it or not, when they sing, everyone indeed does hurt.

… ‘Gay Bar’ – Electric Six (Paul)

The phrase of the festival at Glastonbury in 2003 belonged to one band (well one bloke really - Dick Valentine - given his preponderance for sacking band mates).

That band was Electric Six and the phrase on everyone’s lips was “Gay Bar!”. Replacing perennial favourite “Bollocks!”, it was the call that thousands of people, off their heads courtesy of their favourite drug of choice, bayed at the moon, and for a while it seemed like the band had somehow tapped into the collective consciousness of the country simply by offering to take people out for a drink...

Accompanied by one of the funniest videos in recent memory (if only because it was bound to offend a whole bunch of Americans by depicting Abraham Lincoln as a raging homosexual who spent his time working out / bathing / doing things with hamsters that are best left to the imagination, whilst all the time sporting his trademark top hat) ‘Gay Bar’ bestrode the airwaves during the summer of 2003, going on to win Video Of The Year awards from both Q and Kerrang!.

Inevitably Electric Six dropped from the collective consciousness as their record dropped from the charts (a pretty ropey cover of Queen’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’ serving as a best forgotten follow-up), but to look back on 2003 is to see Abe, father of the USA as we know it today, suggestively caressing his pepper-pot and offering to spend all your money at the gay bar… GAY BAR!

… Gene (Swiss Toni)

Would it be pushing my Smiths obsession too far by selecting Gene as my G? Yes? Sod it; I’m picking them anyway. I can remember distinctly sitting in the library of the University of Warwick one dreary Wednesday afternoon in 1995 reading the new copy of the NME. I don’t know why I bothered reading it as it always, without fail, made me cross. My ire was sparked that particular week in March by the album review of Olympian, the much anticipated debut album by Gene.

Over the past few months, Gene had been very much flavour of the moment with the music press: their 1994 debut single ‘For The Dead' / 'Childs Body' had been made Single Of The Week both by Select magazine (remember that?) and by the NME – it also made the Radio One playlists. Not bad for a limited edition release of 1,994 copies. The band’s progress continued with the release of the second single, the triple A-side of 'Be My Light Be My Guide', 'This Is Not My Crime' and 'I Can’t Help Myself', which was quickly named the Single Of The Week by Melody Maker (although I still don’t know how a triple A-side works). The build-up to the debut album continued when Gene were the winners of the Best New Band award at the 1995 Brat Awards. The British music press being what it is, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the inevitable backlash.

The album review was terrible. Gene were slated as being no more than a Smiths covers band; an accusation that dogged them throughout their career. I had dashed out to the shops and bought the album on the Monday, and (not for the first time) I was outraged by the NME’s duplicity. I thought that with songs as good as ‘Sleep Well Tonight’, ‘Olympian’ and especially ‘Truth, Rest Your Head’, the album was as good as anything else I was likely to hear that year (1995 was of course the apogee of Britpop and the year of The Great Escape and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, so with the possible exception of The Bends, perhaps I wasn’t that far wrong). What the hell did the NME know about it?

That was probably about as good as it got for Gene. Drawn To The Deep End had a few hits and remains a brilliant album, but after that it was diminishing returns and the band were dropped by their label after Revelations. The self-funded Libertine was another cracking album, but their time had gone and the band broke up in 2004.

Listening to it now with a distance of ten years, I can hear the echoes of The Smiths on Olympian, but I thought that Gene were so much better than just a bad covers band. They might have had a funny looking bassist, but in Steve Mason they had one of the most inventive guitarists of his time, and in Martin Rossiter they had one of the most charsimatic front men since… well… since Morrissey. They certainly had more going for them than bloody Menswear.

Gone but not forgotten. What did the bloody NME know?

All I needed was a word, where are they now?

… ‘Girls And Boys’ – Blur (Pete)

Back in the summer of '94 I moved back to England from Austria. More importantly, I left behind the hell of Euro-disco-pop-pap and dirge of Nirvana-wannabes that was all the rage "on the continent".

I was round a mate's house soon after my return trying to get up to speed on all matters music and heard 'Girls And Boys' for the first time. It was certainly an eye-opener back then. Although now, many think of the song merely as the high point of Britpop (still a good thing in my book, although others may disagree), back then it was truly refreshing.

With its disco-ish beat, a happy-go-lucky bass line from Alex James, a memorable riff from the boy Coxon, witty lyrics and a singalong chorus it couldn't fail. What's more, the accompanying album really changed my outlook on music. Sure, at first I was oblivious to everything else apart from Blur, Oasis, Suede, Elastica, and dare I it, Sleeper (but not Menswear). However, as Blur developed (and many others didn't), so did my taste in music.

Without this song of Club 18-30 holidays, my taste in music would presumably be a lot more different; for all I know, I might well have fallen for the dubious charms of death metal or something even worse like R'n'B. HMV's share price would probably be a few points lower too. Despite being a much-maligned tune, without it I wouldn't be writing this now, so it deserves a mention.

… Glasgow (Ben)

Last year Domino Records released a 23 track compilation by Orange Juice. The choice of title, The Glasgow School, was absolutely perfect, for Edwyn Collins and his bandmates can justifiably claim to have laid the foundations for Scotland’s second city to become home to perhaps the most consistently creative and influential British music scene of the last twenty-five years.

Emerging from the rubble of punk’s spectacular collapse in the late 1970s, Orange Juice turned their back upon that movement’s formal conventions and associations with violence and macho posturing while retaining its original pioneering spirit of independence and self-determination. In so doing, they effectively invented indie.

Purveyors of jangly-guitared heartwarmingly shabby songs like The Pastels and The Vaselines – both much beloved of Kurt Cobain, as testified by the covers of the latter’s ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son Of A Gun’ on Incesticide – sprang up in Orange Juice’s wake, and their centrality to the C86 indie-pop movement (named after a compilation tape distributed with NME) ensured that Glasgow was every bit as important in the musical landscape of the mid 1980s as the more established and traditional focal points of London, Manchester and Liverpool. The city’s C86 heritage can still be heard today in the likes of Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub.

53rd & 3rd, the record label founded by Stephen Pastel (amongst others) which took its name from a Ramones song, helped launch the careers of both The Pastels and The Vaselines as well as other indie-pop luminaries such as The Shop Assistants and The Soup Dragons (before their sub Stone Roses adventures in baggy). The label also had a hand in setting The Jesus & Mary Chain on their way. Dressed all in black and with hair and temperaments as explosive as their music, the brothers Reid were the Gallaghers ten years earlier. Their music – a riot of punk fury, 50s rock ‘n’ roll fetishism, provincial boredom and sweet surf-pop melodies – was a revelation. As a homage to their heroes The Velvet Underground, they too had a stand-up ill-disciplined drummer battering out a simple beat. His name? Bobby Gillespie.

The current crop of Glaswegian talent also centres around one particular label, Chemikal Underground. The imprint set up by Peel favourites The Delgados (a brilliant band in their own right who, with their expansive sound, were in many ways Britain’s pre-emptive “answer” to The Arcade Fire) has given us the deliciously sordid and occasionally haunting Arab Strap and the godfathers of British post-rock Mogwai (though the latter jumped ship a couple of years ago, somewhat ungratefully). The label is also home to Aereogramme, the band formed from the ashes of bass-heavy post-rockers Ganger and the main inspiration behind Charlie Simpson’s decision to quit Busted for Fightstar.

That the Orange Juice compilation appeared on Domino was no surprise, as they have been active in promoting Glasgow’s musical output. Most recently, for instance, they’ve introduced us to Americana-meets-rockabilly-meets-Scots-folk combo Sons & Daughters, who feature Adele Bethel and Dave Gow of Arab Strap’s live band.

But of course it’s Franz Ferdinand, another Domino discovery, who are by far the most celebrated of the city’s recent exports. Like nearly all the other bands of the Glasgow School, Franz Ferdinand are arty, intelligent and familiar with all the right hipster reference points without ever becoming too self-consciously detached, obtuse or pretentious.

Glasgow is the closest thing we’ve got to New York.

… Glen Campbell (Del)

Another country legend from me, but from the schmaltzier end of the spectrum. And there ain't nothing wrong with that. He was an alcoholic (applause) and for a while he was in the Beach Boys (applause), but the key thing is the fantastic records.

'Rhinestone Cowboy'. One of the greatest. Simple as that. A song for the everyman who dreams of sporting a Stetson and showing everyone how's it done. A song so good that even the worst karaoke performer can't screw it up. "With a subway token and dollar tucked inside my shoe". Sigh.

'Galvestone'. Oh wow. It just gets better. A soldier, at war, dreams of his lost love. Wistful, emotional and tremendously evocative. "I still see those sea waves crashing as I watch the cannons flashing..." The brass and strings wash over this like some sort of sublime soundtrack to the greatest movie never made. And then the pedal steel guitar comes in, and a tear comes to my eye.

'Wichita Lineman'. And so it is without hyperbole that I introduce one of the greatest records ever committed to vinyl. One of my Top Five songs of all time. A tale of longing, set against the monotony of a normal day's work. The contrast of such deep unrequited love with the mundane and trivial observations of a lineman out on the job rings truer than any almost any other song about a lost love. When you miss someone, you see and hear them everywhere: “I hear you singing in the wires / I can hear you through the whine...” The trademark strings and brass swell again.

And then a couple of the greatest lines ever: “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time / And the Wichita lineman is still on the line”.

Then it launches into the instrumental coda that closed ‘Steve Wright In The Afternoon’ on Radio One. And quite right too. Just a sublime record that only someone with Glen Campbell's understated tenor could pull off without making it sound desperately cheesy. Yeah, it's schmaltzy, but you can't help but love it anyway.

So, Glen Campbell. He released lots more great records, but those three are not only his best, but amongst the best of all time.

… Goldie Lookin’ Chain (Damo)

Comedy in music. Don’t do it kids. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

Unless you’re funny.

The very best you can generally expect from comedy music is that it might make you laugh. Once. And then you’ll never want to hear it again so long as you live.

You’ve probably read more than enough about Goldie Lookin’ Chain already to make your own mind up. You probably know they had a song called ‘Your Mother’s Got A Penis’. And you’re likely to know that they are (apparently) eight stoners from Newport who made albums for a laugh and distributed to them to their mates. You might not know that they called their debut album Greatest Hits because it was mostly compiled from these tapes, rather than being a cheap joke. (The only other band I can think of that pulled this stunt, Sheep On Drugs, had no such excuse).

So I wanted to offer a take on the GLC that I’ve never seen written down before, which is this: somewhere, in that rag-bag collective of flaming nutjobs, there is at least one very clever person indeed. This would appear to be the gentleman Dwain P Xain, although I’m sure some of the others throw their own stuff into the mix. ‘Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do’ is an exceptionally clever take on deriding the whole idea that rappers are responsible for the downfall of Western civilisation as we know it. The cultural references in ‘Half Man Half Machine’ suggests they may be a little older than you think. And even the lyrics to the aforementioned ‘Your Mother’s Got A Penis’ are rather more than eight people just shouting “Willy!” at each other for three minutes.

OK, I admit that the whole “I bet you couldn’t do it yourself” gambit is a cheap shot in itself though, when used to defend a band. You need a little more than that. Fortunately they have it for me. I turned up at three festivals last summer… and they turned up at the same ones, pretty much making my day on every occasion. At V I had to tolerate The Stands (now split) first. At Glastonbury I had to tolerate the floods first. At Reading I’d have had to tolerate Do Me Bad Things first, but I knew they were coming and made sure that I was somewhere else. (In a hotel, as it happens... definitely the best way to do Reading.)

You need variety in music, as I said last week. You need your Radioheads and whatnot. But laugher is truly the best medicine and so I commend to you the GLC… officially The Comedy Act It’s OK To Like.

Youknowsit, clart.

(PS. Let’s just forget about Celebrity Big Brother though, eh?)

… Woody Guthrie (Skif)

The quintessential folk troubadour and writer of the left-wing anthem ‘This Land Is Your Land’ which has seeped into the junior school curriculum in the States, much to the annoyance of those opposed to the socialism and trade-unionism that seeps throughout his canon.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 and lived until he was 55, but from his mid-30s he was plagued with ill-health that was misdiagnosed as alcoholism and schizophrenia before finally it was discovered that he was suffering from the degenerative Huntington’s Chorea.

Woody kept writing throughout his illness which saw him spend most of his 40s and 50s in hospitals or house-bound. Having been head-hunted for the project by Woody’s daughter Nora, Billy Bragg and Wilco selected some of his unperformed lyrics for a collaborative musical work which resulted in two albums’ worth of material. It was this project that first properly gave me an understanding of Woody Guthrie and his legacy as the figurehead of 20th century American folk music.

Influencing Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Phil Ochs and countless others, Guthrie’s music provided snap-shots of American life during the Great Depression and the Great Dust Storm. His book ‘Bound for Glory’ is a pre-Kerouac semi-autobiographical spin on his life travelling and riding the rail initially as part of the mass migration of the “dust bowl refugees”. It is unsurprising then that in his repertoire are a number of Dust Bowl ballads, as well as songs containing acerbic social commentary and a powerful humanism. As was painted upon his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists”, and his anti-Nazi passion saw him ship out with the US Army and the Merchant Marine during World War II.

However, not all his songs were heavy duty and overtly politicised, as he also composed several songs for children. He was also commissioned in 1941 by the Department of the Interior to write songs celebrating the Columbia River and the building of the federal dams. It was one of these songs, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’, that made me realise Woody’s lyrical prowess:

In the misty crystal glitter of the wild and windward spray / I fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave, / When she tore their boats to splinters and she gave men dreams to dream / On the day the Coulee dam was crossed by the wild and wasted stream.

I recommend reading the lyrics for the entire tune though.

In fairness, it was Lonnie Donegan that lead me to this epiphany, often reading his words as poetry before performing the tune in concert, and I still prefer Lonnie’s version to the one which Woody himself recorded. Lonnie’s higher-pitched nasal inflection perfectly captures the crystalline nature of the sun bouncing off the water. Access to better studio equipment can’t have hurt.

Woody’s recordings are certainly unembellished but this is fitting with his pretty tumbledown life, bridging the gap between Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music and Dylan’s early acoustic tunes. However he arcs above this simplistic time-line as a colossus of pastoral and political song writing.

* * * * *

Thanks to drmigs, Paul, Swiss Toni, Pete, Del, Damo and Skif for their contributions this week.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SWSL End-Of-Year Music Lists

Below you'll find (very belatedly) my end-of-year music lists, as originally posted on Silent Words Speak Loudest.

SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2005

First of all, the (as usual) shamefully long list of albums which I haven’t heard in their entirety if at all, but which if I had might potentially have impinged on the Top 10:

ARAB STRAP – The Last Romance
ART BRUT – Bang Bang Rock ‘N’ Roll
BECK – Guero
BLACK DICE – Broken Ear Record
BLOC PARTY – Silent Alarm Remixed
BRIGHT EYES – I'm Wide Awake It’s Morning / Digital Ash In A Digital Urn
BROADCAST - Tender Buttons
KATE BUSH – Aerial
DOVES – Some Cities
THE DUKE SPIRIT – Cuts Across The Land
EDITORS – The Back Room
ENGINEERS – Engineers
THE FALL – Fall Heads Roll
THE FIERY FURNACES – Rehearsing My Choir
FOO FIGHTERS – In Your Honour
HOT HOT HEAT - Elevator
JOY ZIPPER – The Heartlight Set
LADYTRON – Witching Hour
M83 – Before The Dawn Heals Us
MERCURY REV – The Secret Migration
MEW – And The Glass Handed Kites
MODEY LEMON – Thunder + Lightning
THE NATIONAL - Alligator
RILO KILEY – More Adventurous
STARS – Set Yourself On Fire
TEST ICICLES – For Screening Purposes Only
TOM VEK - We Have Sound
THE WHITE STRIPES – Get Behind Me Satan
WILCO – Kicking Television

The worst of it is that there are almost certainly several records I’ve forgotten about…

Next, the honourable mentions:

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – B-Sides & Rarities
CLOR – Clor
THE CORAL – The Invisible Invasion
GOLDFRAPP – Supernature
THE GO! TEAM – Thunder Lightning Strike
HOCKEY NIGHT – Keep Guessin’
IDLEWILD – Warnings / Promises
THE MAGIC NUMBERS – The Magic Numbers
THE MARS VOLTA – Frances The Mute
NINE BLACK ALPS – Everything Is
SILVER JEWS – Tanglewood Numbers
SIX. BY SEVEN – Artists Cannibals Poets Thieves
SONS & DAUGHTERS – The Repulsion Box

Closest to sneaking into the Top 10? I’d say a four-way tie between The Go! Team, The Magic Numbers, Nine Black Alps and Sufjan Stevens.

And now for the Top 10 itself, which due to my tardiness may not come as much of a surprise to readers of Expecting To Fly and Sweeping The Nation

10. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – Lullabies To Paralyze
It was always going to be a tall order to better Songs For The Deaf, and Lullabies To Paralyze duly failed to do so, not least because it tails off disappointingly towards the end. But any record that can throw together a barnstorming single (‘Little Sister’), a delicate falsetto-vocalled gem (‘I Never Came’) and a seven minute long beast with a riff that wraps itself around your head like a boa constrictor (‘Someone’s In The Wolf’) deserves plenty of plaudits.
Key track: ‘Someone’s In The Wolf’

9. FIELD MUSIC – Field Music
The Surprise Late Gatecrasher Of The Year. The threesome may share links to North-Eastern brethren The Futureheads and Maximo Park, but they weren’t piggybacking on anyone’s success, their debut LP being a marvellous record in its own right – clever Sgt Pepper’s style orchestral pop as played by new wavers and garnished with helium-high-pitched vocals. I’m eternally grateful to Jonathan for giving me what I believe is referred to in young person’s parlance as “a heads-up”.
Key track: ‘If Only The Moon Were Up’

8. EELS – Blinking Lights And Other Revelations
It may have featured in SWSL’s Top 10 Albums Of 2003 list, but in retrospect, Shootenanny was something of a disappointment, a bit average. As such, Blinking Lights And Other Revelations was a sparkling return to form, as well as to the delicately simple melodies of Daisies Of The Galaxy. Modulating between the heartbreaking sadness of ‘Suicide Life’ and the heartwarming joie de vivre of ‘Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)’, the double LP has been hailed in some quarters as E’s finest hour – not here, but it certainly comes close.
Key track: ‘Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)’

7. FRANZ FERDINAND – You Could Have It So Much Better
You Could Have It So Much Better? Either unduly harsh self-criticism or arched-eyebrow irony. The latter, in all probability, but then with tracks like ‘The Fallen’ and ‘I’m Your Villain’ they earned the right to be smug. Much like last year’s debut, this was an instant hit, and one widely hailed as marking their discovery of the ballad (see ‘Walk Away’ and ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’, Alex Kapranos’s ode to girlfriend Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces). These are the weakest tracks, though, so it’s a relief that for the majority of the time the foursome stick to what they do best, and that’s hip-shimmying indie disco.
Key track: ‘The Fallen’

6. BLOC PARTY – Silent Alarm
Unlike the transcendent and expansive single ‘So Here We Are’ that prefaced its arrival on the shelves, Silent Alarm suffered something of a gradual decline in my estimation of it as the year went on – I’m not entirely sure why, except that Kele Okereke’s voice on tracks like ‘The Price Of Gas’ started to grate, and their po-faced earnestness in interviews made me realise that (‘So Here We Are’ aside) it’s a bit of a joyless affair. You simply can’t argue with the likes of opener ‘Like Broken Glass’ and ‘The Pioneers’, though, their tension and agitation created through the dynamic interplay of fabulous guitar and Matt Tong’s stunningly idiosyncratic drumming.
Key track: ‘So Here We Are’

5. THE RAVEONETTES – Pretty In Black
For those who felt themselves drowning in a sea of XTC and Gang Of Four obsessives (such as the bands flanking them in this Top 10), The Raveonettes were a rubber ring. Pretty In Black looked not to the post-punk era for inspiration, but to the Phil Spector produced girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s. Transparent perhaps – their covers of ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ and ‘Everyday’, and employment of Ronnie Spector herself on ‘Ode To LA’ revealed they were under no illusions on that front – but no less charming for it. As I’d suspected, underneath all the feedback lay sultry, beguiling pop songs crafted out of breathy vocals, fluttering eyelashes, surf guitar twangings and lashings of tremolo.
Key track: ‘Ode To LA’

4. MAXIMO PARK – A Certain Trigger
Not so long ago, the musical heritage of my native North-East would have been very nearly enough to drive me to chuck myself off the Tyne Bridge in shame. Dire Straits, Sting, Lighthouse Family, Lindisfarne, Venom – utter wank, the lot of it. And then, all of a sudden, up pop The Futureheads from (of all godforsaken places) Sunderland and things go nuts. The Mackems’ former tourmates Maximo Park are at the vanguard, their debut LP A Certain Trigger sufficiently smart and sharp throughout (it’s about more than just the singles, as admittedly brilliant as they are) to elevate them above the pack. Literate, spiky new wave pop which administered an invaluable shot in the arm to local pride, but which articulated the universals admirably too.
Key track: ‘Apply Some Pressure’

3. SIGUR ROS – Takk
Barry White may have been the Walrus of Luuurrrve, but these four shy and retiring Icelanders have proven to be the ones seemingly intent on creating aphrodisiac music designed to soundtrack the sexual acts of a rather larger aquatic mammal, the blue whale. Quite astonishingly, this stuff appeared to possess a modicum of commercial appeal (and not just amongst blue whales, I might add). Who’d have thunk it, eh? Quite possibly their finest record to date – and Takk’s predecessors have hardly been shoddy.
Key track: ‘Glosoli’

2. LOW – The Great Destroyer
The early frontrunner for the top spot, The Great Destroyer was only eclipsed by a record that would have stormed it practically any year you care to mention. After the calm of previous albums, the storm. In truth, they’d hinted at a suppressed knowledge of powerchords before, but on The Great Destroyer that knowledge was given its freest expression yet. Low’s year may have ended on a sour note, Alan Sparhawk’s fragile mental health necessitating the cancellation of their autumn tour, but the album with which they kicked 2005 off was nothing short of a triumph and ‘Death Of A Salesman’ remained THE most affecting and arresting song of the year bar none. If it hadn’t have been for those pesky Canadians…
Key track: ‘Broadway (So Many People)’

1. THE ARCADE FIRE – Funeral
It was never in much doubt, was it? Any lingering scepticism about the volumes of gushing hype that had flooded over from Canada and the US was instantly dispelled the moment Funeral got its UK release. If A Silver Mt Zion ever stopped being so obtuse and engaged with the mainstream rather than ghettoising themselves at a safe distance from it, then they might perhaps have sounded something like this. Out of angry emotions and emotionally trying circumstances – The Arcade Fire’s choice of title wasn’t arbitrary, after all – had come affirmative action. “Something filled up my heart with nothing”, sang Wyn Butler on ‘Wake Up’, but Funeral filled those of its listeners with so much everything, not least hope. A stirring, impassioned masterpiece.
Key track: ‘Crown Of Love’

A reminder of the SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2004:

1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus
2. THE FUTUREHEADS – The Futureheads
3. SONIC YOUTH – Sonic Nurse
4. FRANZ FERDINAND – Franz Ferdinand
5. THE FIERY FURNACES – Blueberry Boat
6. INTERPOL - Antics
7. THE ICARUS LINE – Penance Soiree
8. PJ HARVEY – Uh Huh Her
9. KELIS - Tasty
10. CLINIC – Winchester Cathedral

Links to my reviews of some of this year’s Top 10:

SWSL review of Queens Of The Stone Age's Lullabies To Paralyze

SWSL review of Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm

Vanity Project review of The Raveonettes’ Pretty In Black

SWSL review of Maximo Park’s A Certain Trigger

Vanity Project review of Sigur Ros’s Takk

SWSL review of Low’s The Great Destroyer

SWSL review of The Arcade Fire’s Funeral

SWSL Top 20 Singles Of 2005

Was it just me, or was it not quite as hot a year for singles as 2004? That said, quality still abounded.

The honourable mentions:

ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS – ‘You Are My Sister’ / ‘Hope There’s Someone’
ART BRUT – ‘Emily Kane’ / ‘Good Weekend’
BLOC PARTY - ‘Banquet’ / 'The Pioneers'
KATE BUSH – ‘King Of The Mountain’
CLOR – ‘Good Stuff’ / ‘Outlines’
THE CORAL – ‘In The Morning’ / ‘Something Inside Of Me’
DOVES – ‘Black And White Town’
THE DUKE SPIRIT – ‘Love Is An Unfamiliar Name’
EDITORS – ‘Bullets’ / ‘Munich’
FIELD MUSIC – ‘If Only The Moon Were Up’ / ‘You Can Decide’
FOO FIGHTERS – ‘Best Of You’
GIRLS ALOUD – ‘Long Hot Summer’
GOLDFRAPP – ‘Number 1’
THE GO! TEAM – ‘Bottle Rocket’
HOOD – ‘The Negatives’
IDLEWILD – ‘Love Steals Us From Loneliness’ / ‘I Understand It’
INTERPOL - ‘C’mere’
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – ‘Tribulations’
THE MAGIC NUMBERS – ‘Forever Lost’ / ‘Love Is Just A Game’
MAXIMO PARK - ‘Going Missing’
MERCURY REV – ‘Across Yer Ocean’
SONS & DAUGHTERS – ‘Dance Me In’ / 'Taste The Last Girl'
SUFJAN STEVENS – ‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’
TEST ICICLES – ‘Circle. Square. Triangle’
THE WHITE STRIPES – ‘Blue Orchid’ / ‘My Doorbell’

Now, down to the real business…

20. NINE BLACK ALPS – ‘Not Everyone’
Very tricky, shooting yourself in the mouth with a shotgun, you know. No wonder Kur(d)t Cobain missed, fled Seattle, arrived in Manchester, had facial surgery and formed Nine Black Alps. Amazing the lengths someone will go to to get away from Courtney Love. The disappearing-and-reappearing act has borne thrilling fruit in the form of an album, Everyone Is, and its best single, ‘Not Everyone’.

19. SIGUR ROS – ‘Hoppipolla’
Not only did the Icelanders deign to give titles to the tracks on Takk, unlike on its predecessor ( ), they even went so far as to release a single from it. Thankfully the delicate piano-led tune that was chosen was itself not a concession to convention, just another haunting melody.

18. EELS – ‘Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)’
E at his best, looking on the bright side of life even when everything in his garden isn’t totally rosy, as hands clap and horns parp. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face, and a scowl on Sufjan Stevens’s when he realises he’s been trumped.

17. THE RAVEONETTES – ‘Love In A Trashcan’
Because “The jukebox playing songs about sex / C’mon baby, you’re my best bet” is a great couplet. And because it’s got a marvellous surf guitar solo.

16. BLOC PARTY – ‘Two More Years’
What initially seemed a bit too neat has in time come to sound like a sharp, sleek distillation of all that was good about Silent Alarm. A sign of things to come?

15. THE MAGIC NUMBERS – ‘Love Me Like You’
Brian Wilson ruled my Glastonbury hands down, so it was appropriate that a Wilson-approved band released the summer’s best single. The album might be clogged up with too many lethargic torch-songs, but lethargy is the last thing that springs to mind here, where downbeat lyrics are conjoined to an upbeat melody for bittersweet pop perfection. And it features lots of ooh-ing. Which is nice.

14. THE DELGADOS – ‘Girls Of Valour’
I once asked Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap whether he was concerned that cheering up might curtail his band’s career. “I’m actually quite worried about that”, he replied, “There’s a possibility of me being very happy in the future and having a girlfriend I get on with and like, so that might be a problem”. When their label bosses The Delgados belatedly discovered happiness, it proved to be the end of the line – but at least they left us with this fabulous swansong from last year’s underrated Universal Audio LP.

13. LOW – ‘California’
Well, there aren’t many bands who would contemplate releasing a comeback single about their singer’s mother having to sell her farm, are there? Sublime, but then that’s par for the course with Low. Loud enough to not only drown out conversation but annoy the neighbours? That’s not.

12. MAXIMO PARK – ‘Graffiti’
You’ve heard of art, right? And you’ve heard of punk? Well, this is where the two collide: “I’ll do graffiti if you sing to me in French”. Halfway between the gutter and the stars you’ll find Maximo Park.

11. FRANZ FERDINAND – ‘Do You Want To’
The answer to the titular question posed by this stomping slice of indie-disco delirium from Glasgow’s finest? A whooping, joyous “Hell yeah!” Peacock strut present and correct.

10. GOLDFRAPP – ‘Ooh La Laa’
I don’t want to out myself as a potential fan of sadomasochism, but this is rather like being used as a catwalk by a leather-catsuit-and-stilettos-clad dominatrix. Electro meets glam meets ‘Spirit In The Sky’. Like ‘Number 1’ but better, it was certainly no number two.

9. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE – ‘Little Sister’
Nick Oliveri might have departed, but the lead single from Lullabies To Paralyze emphatically confirmed that QOTSA’s powers hadn’t deserted them, motoring along on a piledriving riff that bores its way into your head like a supercharged weevil. The title and dubious lyrical content underlined the fact that they remain defiantly on the wrong side of the tracks.

8. INTERPOL – ‘Evil’
Quite probably overlooked in many end-of-year polls, but not here. Oh no. This one was earmarked for Top Tendom from the moment I heard of its imminent release late last year. One of the very finest moments of a very fine second album.

7. SUGABABES – ‘Push The Button’
What kind of an album title is Taller In More Ways?! But I suppose Keisha, Heidi and the recently departed Mutya can be forgiven nearly anything by virtue of the LP’s lead single, another splendid pop gem that certainly, ahem, pushes my button. And the video features the trio gyrating seductively in a lift. Sometimes the simple ideas are the best. One in the eye for Ms Stevens!

6. THE ARCADE FIRE – ‘Rebellion (Lies)’
Rallying cries don’t come much better than this. “Sleeping is giving in / So lift your heavy eyelids”, they insist. And yet ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ is not just an uplifting rabble-rouser – it’s laden with menace and agitation, and possesses the same insistent rhythm as classics like ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and ‘Waiting For My Man’. Any song that can make ‘Later With Jools Holland’ positively thrilling must be a bit special.

5. MAXIMO PARK – ‘Apply Some Pressure’
Only a few re-released singles are good enough to actually merit it, and this one was. ‘Apply Some Pressure’ brilliantly showcases Maximo Park’s propulsive and energetic new wave, its earworm status merely cemented by one of the only lyrical hooks to compete with The Arcade Fire this year – “What happens when you lose everything? / You just start again, YOU START ALL OVER AGAIN!

4. THE ARCADE FIRE – ‘Wake Up’
If there was a song with a bigger, more jaw-droppingly bombastic opening than ‘Wake Up’ released all year, then I didn’t hear it. It out-Flaming-Lips The Flaming Lips themselves, both ‘The Gash’ and ‘Do You Realize??’ relegated to the shadows by its dazzling brilliance. And then towards the end it suddenly turns into ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. And yet still not their finest single of the year – that honour goes to…

3. THE ARCADE FIRE – ‘Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)’
Sitting in the dark without the wherewithal to listen to music or boil a kettle, all the while knowing you’re missing ‘Coronation Street’. I’ve never thought much of power cuts. But then without them this song wouldn’t exist. And, appropriately enough, it introduced The Arcade Fire to the UK in electrifying fashion. All together now: “YOU AIN’T FOOLIN’ NO-ONE!

2. THE FUTUREHEADS – ‘Hounds Of Love’
Given that Kate Bush returned to the limelight after a twelve year absence with an ambitious and critically acclaimed double LP, it’s strange to think that the re-ascendancy of her star had less to do with her own output than it did with a cover of the title track of her 1985 album by four scruffy XTC fans from The Dark Place. A truly inspired reimagining, The Futureheads’ take on ‘Hounds Of Love’ is kept off the top spot only because I had hoped it might remain a best-kept-secret album track.

1. BLOC PARTY – ‘So Here We Are’
So here we are, as the sun sets on 2005, celebrating the song that marked the year’s dawning in such glorious fashion. While Silent Alarm is in the main a seething mass of tightly wound claustrophobically neurotic rock songs, the shift in pace and tone signalled by ‘So Here We Are’ ensured it was the clear stand-out. A perfect marriage of post-punk and post-rock, the song builds gently to the hairs-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck headrush climax, Kele Okereke joyously proclaiming “I figured it out!” to anyone who’ll listen. I would – and did many, many times.

A reminder of the SWSL Top 20 Singles Of 2004:

1. FRANZ FERDINAND – ‘Take Me Out’
3. KELIS – ‘Trick Me’
4. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – ‘Breathless’ / ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’
5. THE ICARUS LINE – ‘Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers’
6. MORRISSEY – ‘First Of The Gang To Die’
7. INTERPOL – ‘Slow Hands’
8. RACHEL STEVENS – ‘Some Girls’
9. GRAHAM COXON – ‘Freakin Out’
10. THE RADIO DEPT – ‘Why Won’t You Talk About It?’
11. THE WALKMEN – ‘The Rat’
12. THE FIERY FURNACES – ‘Single Again’
13. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – ‘Nature Boy’
14. KELIS – ‘Milkshake’
15. THE LIBERTINES – ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’
16. THE STREETS – ‘Blinded By The Lights’
17. PJ HARVEY – ‘The Letter’
18. FRANZ FERDINAND – ‘Michael’
19. THE FUTUREHEADS – ‘Decent Days And Nights’
20. SCISSOR SISTERS – ‘Comfortably Numb’