The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: S
… Salad (drmigs)
Look up a description of Salad and they'll probably be described as Britpop indie also-rans, but even if that was a fair reflection of them, they were my Britpop indie also-rans. I say mine - they were my friend Paul's really. He'd heard them on Steve Lamacq's show and introduced them to James (he of the red wine) and me. And we three enjoyed Salad whilst the rest of the Sixth Form said "Who? What's the name of their album? Drink Me? Eh? No, you want to be listening to Guns ‘N’ Roses…"
Yes, they were Paul's band, then our band, then when I went to uni – I guess they were my band. There's nothing like your very own band that you can't get enough of, and no-one else has heard of. It's not an elitist thing - it's more like a secret den down the spinney. It's your music that does it for you. It's not some big corporate supergroup that everyone has heard of, and has an opinion of (even before they've heard them) - it's that CD that you like to tune in to because it puts your head in the place you want it to be.
So, to the music. Salad were full of an energy which was underpinned by understated tachycardia-esque bass lines. On top of these were catchy repetitive choruses, nervous riffs and unsettled melodies that complemented the anxiety and uncertainty of their lyrics. The best example of this was the uncomfortable ‘Your Ma (Will Do It)’, their one song that I've never really been 100 % at ease listening to. However, even in that song, Marijne Van Der Vlugt's crystal-clear vocals bind it together, so that even though there was a lot going on, the sound is still coherent. Indeed, it was the energy and clarity of her vocals that made Drink Me work.
Marijne, was the very much the face of the band. Former model and MTV VJ, when live, she held the audience with her persona, and when listened to, she held your attention with her voice. Maybe the best example of her voice was on the Warchild album where Salad sang 'Dream A Little Dream' with Terry Hall. It was beautiful, and showed the better side of Salad.
Sadly, their light was to twinkle and fade away. Although Drink Me was a good album, they never made a big impact, with no identifiable hit singles that mark them out. Their three best songs (IMHO), ‘Motorbike To Heaven’, ‘Drink The Elixir’ and ‘No.1's Cooking’ never got beyond preaching to the converted. With a little more craft and continuity in their songwriting, Salad could maybe have had a bigger impact than they ultimately did. We'll never know. But even though they never made the big time, at least my Britpop indie also-rans kept me happy. Thank you for that Salad.
… Sarah Records (Jonathan B)
It’s 1989 and I am living in a shared student house in drizzle-drenched Wolverhampton. There is just about enough room in my tiny bedroom for a single bed, a wardrobe with the door hanging off, and a stereo I picked up in a second-hand shop for a tenner. Every day my first action on waking up (well, maybe my second action, after lighting up the first of the day’s twenty Silk Cuts while imagining myself to be some kind of indiepop Jean-Paul Belmondo) is to reach over to the turntable and set the crackling needle over the seven-inch single of the same track - Brighter’s ‘Does Love Last Forever’. Three minutes and twenty seconds later I would be ready to come out from under the covers and face the world - at least until an hour or so later when I would catch sight, for the first time of the day, of that cute but unattainable girl with the blue coat and the Pastels badge from out of my Latin American Politics seminar, and remember why it was that I had to listen to songs like ‘Does Love Last Forever’ in the first place.
Brighter were the quintessential Sarah Records band - a bunch of nice, sensitive young men, probably from the Home Counties and certainly sporting second-hand cardigans and floppy fringes, whose stock-in-trade was jangly guitars and thin, reedy but strangely affecting vocals about unrequited love. Their stablemates included Birmingham’s Sea Urchins, who in true indiepop style only ever released one single that was any good at all, but it was an instant classic, the insanely catchy ‘Pristine Christine’. And then there was Another Sunny Day, who probably had a few songs but the only one anyone remembers was one minute and twenty-seven seconds long, and went by the almost-too-Sarah-for-Sarah name of ‘I’m In Love With A Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist’. Sometimes I would put that one on the turntable first thing in the morning, if I was running a bit late for my French New Wave Cinema lecture, or my timetable foretold of repeated sightings of the cute girl with the Pastels badge.
All of which makes Sarah Records, formed in 1987 by a boy-girl duo of starry-eyed fanzine editors in a basement flat in Bristol, sound like some sort of support group for thin, reedy young college boys who didn’t have a lot of girlfriends. Well I suppose that’s how it worked for me. But there was more to Sarah than lovelorn lyrics and careworn cardigans; these kids were out to change the world. According to a website written by the label’s founders (the names are Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes), the aim of Sarah was “to release 100 of the world’s greatest pop records, to show up all the other labels by doing it properly, and - by means of 7" singles, fanzines, flexidiscs, jigsaws, board-games and inflammatory literature - to raise the moral and political consciousness of the world to such an extent that, when the time came to release that 100th single, the global socialist revolution would be but a mis-timed handclap away”.
Release number one was the aformentioned ‘Pristine Christine’, and number one hundred (accompanied by a full page advert in the NME announcing the voluntary spontaneous combustion of the label) was a compilation, There And Back Again Lane. In between we were introduced to acts like The Field Mice, who would go on to global megastardom (or at least to become a sort of thinking man’s St Etienne, which in indiepop circles amounts to more or less the same thing), and others, like the tuneful Orchids, the jaunty St Christopher, and the simply heavenly Heavenly, who would shimmer only briefly before fading to obscurity.
And that global socialist revolution we were promised? Well that turned out to slightly tricky to organise from a back bedroom in Bristol - but the label did attract a devoted international following, and profoundly influenced a new generation of indiepopsters in far-flung locations. Among modern-day acts, Seattle’s Postal Service, Norway’s Cardigans, Australia’s Lucksmiths and Madrid’s Juniper Moon all show discernible traces of that Sarah sound - while closer to home it is no coincidence that the jingle-jangle second track on Belle & Sebastian’s new LP The Life Pursuit bears the name ‘Another Sunny Day’.
By those who knew and loved them, Another Sunny Day and their ilk - the boy-and-girl-next-door bands who made up the Sarah roster, with their homespun three-minute recordings and home-made three-minute hairstyles - would be remembered forever with lasting and heartfelt affection, even with something approaching gratitude. Certainly Sarah Records will always have a place in my heart. I still occasionally get that Brighter 7-inch out, remove the cover (which in classic Sarah style has no picture of the band, instead featuring a sepia-tinted photograph of what looks like a rain-spattered puddle somewhere in suburban Bristol) and set ‘Does Love Last Forever’ off on the turntable at 45rpm. And then I wonder - whatever did become of that cute girl with the blue coat and the Pastels badge?
… The Saw Doctors (Paul)
Handing me a copy of Parklife, my mate told me he'd filled the remainder of the B-side with some songs by an Irish band. They're great he said, they sing about sport, drinking and women - you'll love them.
So began my appreciation of Galway band The Saw Doctors. I was instantly captivated by ‘How'ya Julia’, a song which deals with the disgraced Bishop of Galway's pursuit of ladies. Other songs on that tape extolled the delights of celebrating the completion of the harvest with a great many drinks, and the pain of never receiving the goalscoring pass you were crying out for.
Needless to say I was hooked.
In the years that have followed, The Saw Doctors have released several fine albums (my personal favourite being their third, Same Oul' Town), and briefly flirted with the UK Singles Chart Top 20 on a couple of occasions. However, the real joy in their music is found when they perform live.
All gigs have a unique feeling, but the numerous Saw Doctors gigs have always had something of a special party atmosphere, where the crowd throw off the drudgery of life, and simply party for a couple of hours - bouncing up and down, and singing along.
Sadly, as with most bands, age is starting to take its toll. The venues they now tour are smaller than they used to be, and the fans seem to be getting older. The band is also starting to resemble The Farm in so far as each album seems to feature a slightly modified line-up.
However, much as you would with an ageing relative, I prefer to remember the band in their pomp: carrying a party spirit with them wherever they went, and singing songs that varied between the pointed (the Irish attitude to abortion) and the playful (how much the band wanted to kiss The Bangles). But no matter what the subject matter, the sheer enjoyment shines out of their music and lyrics, which is what lifts them up and gives them a permanent place in my CD collection.
… Sci-Fi Lullabies – Suede (Pete)
A long time ago, when life was a lot more easy and carefree, I moved to a city where a beer cost you 30p a pint. It's fair to say that the most important decision I faced while packing for my year in Prague was what music to take with me. This was before the age of iPods, although I did meet someone out there who had some sort of early mp3 player. It was about the size of a brick. Anyway, I digress. I managed to whittle my choice down to about 40-odd CDs, a figure that amazes me now.
If there's one album that stood out of the 40 and reminds me more of the nine months there than anything else, it's Suede's Sci-Fi Lullabies, which was played an almost obsessive amount of times while I was there. It's not up there in my top albums now, but is more likely to get a listen than most from that era, as I occasionally want a reminder of travelling home late at night on a rattling tram listening to 'Bentswood Boys' or 'Europe Is Our Playground'. If you even remotely like(d) Suede, then buy, borrow or steal it. It sounds of its time (I won't mention the "B" word), but that's no bad thing.
I remember reading in a review somewhere, Select perhaps (which tells you how long this was), that Morrissey once asked Brett Anderson if he could cover some Suede B-sides. Whether this story is true or not I don't know, but it does show the band did put some real effort (and quality control) into their B-sides, allowing them to play sets at fanclub gigs comprised exclusively of said tracks.
For a B-sides collection, it gels well and feels like a "proper" album (unlike most), probably because there aren't any live tracks or debatable covers. In fact, there's no real filler, although the last track of the 27, 'Duchess', is a bit lazy with its lyrics and possibly an omen of the 'Head Music' phase: “She live in a house, she stupid as a mouse” anyone? But that's really as bad as it gets.
The rest is a collection of more thoughtful and melancholic tunes, with less of the stomping (the cracking but aggressive 'Killing Of A Flashboy' aside) you'd have expected from Suede. At the same time it illustrates exactly how a band changes when one of the key songwriters is replaced, in this case Bernard Butler by Neil Codling and Richard Oakes. From the sordid to the vaguely optimistic via a few satellite towns. The perfect B-sides album? Near enough. Especially if you like the whole "neon glow of London and urban decay" feel to your music.
… Selectadisc (Ben)
Last week I began my A-Z contribution with the following sentence: “I lived in Nottingham for seven years, and without a doubt the biggest drain on my financial resources during my time there was Rock City”. True enough, but then that obscures the fact that there was another drain: Selectadisc. The amount of money I’ve spent there is truly frightening. Perhaps I should have just set up a direct debit.
Nottingham’s Market Street, just off the city’s focal point Market Square, is home to the only branch of Selectadisc outside London. (Incidentally, it’s a measure of the vibrancy of the city’s scene that it’s also home to the only branch of the Social outside the capital.) Black-fronted with the name in white and orange, the main shop has enormous windows displaying an array of albums both instantly recognisable and obscure, new and old. The effect on me when I try to walk past is much the same as the effect lingerie-clad ladies prowling around behind the plate glass windows of Amsterdam sex shops have on drunken British stag parties: I can’t help but stop, gawp and then venture inside knowing it’s going to cost me.
The main room contains all the relatively mainstream rock and pop CDs, with a section reserved for new releases, a wall of bargain CDs and a singles section which, though it’s now very slim, is always worth a trawl through if you want to hear something of a band you’ve been reading about but are reluctant to buy a full album. New releases are often as cheap as £10, and if it’s a band’s back catalogue you’re looking to amass then Selectadisc is definitely the place for you. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth, Joy Division – nearly everything more than five years old is well under a tenner, and often just a fiver.
Upstairs is the vinyl section – not somewhere I frequent, being sans record player, but well-stocked it seems – and in the adjoining room are the specialist sections: dance, hip hop, US punk, industrial, electronica, post-rock… This is where the staff comments really come in handy. Each CD is in a plastic wallet, and in the case of more obscure specialist material, this wallet bears a hand-written sticker offering a description of the sounds contained therein, and detailing bands that are either literally connected through shared members or are in a similar sonic ball-park. And rest assured – the staff certainly know their onions. I’ve bought several albums almost solely on the strength of these recommendations – particularly during my emo phase – and I’ve never been disappointed once.
So, your arms are full (perhaps they should supply shopping baskets, or even trolleys?) and your credit card is groaning in anticipation of what’s to come – it’s time to go to the till (where, evilly, there are more cheaper goodies piled up to catch your eye at the last minute). Back to the Amsterdam strip-club analogy: it’s perfectly possible to emerge from both that kind of establishment and Selectadisc with your dignity intact, but woe betide anyone who smilingly hands over a Stereophonics album to someone on the other side of the Selectadisc counter. You will be laughed out of the shop, or at least dismissed with a sneer of contempt. They’re a cooler-than-thou judgemental lot, you see – but then so they should be. That’s their job. If you want to buy a fucking Keane album, fuck off to Virgin – they don’t want your money in Selectadisc, it’s dirty. If, on the other hand, your stash includes a Yo La Tengo album and some German techno, then look out for that almost imperceptible nod of approval as the person serving you disappears off to find the CDs for the cases – it’s priceless.
It’s rather appropriate that I’ve been able to cover Rock City and Selectadisc in successive weeks, as both are absolutely focal to the music scene in Nottingham. The walls of the shop are plastered in overlapping bill posters for gigs and advertisements for prospective band members. How instrumental it must have been in getting like-minded individuals together and making things happen. Indeed, Simon Feirn, once of Bob Tilton and then of the noisiest bastards in the East Midlands Wolves! (Of Greece), used to actually work there. Maybe he still does, serving you politely – the antithesis of his stage persona, rolling around like a man with 50,000 volts passing through his genitals.
When Fopp opened a store in Nottingham, and I first ventured in, it felt wrong. Sure it was cheap and independent (certainly in comparison with HMV and Virgin) and it had its own musician member of staff (Six. By Seven keyboardist James Flower) – but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was cheating on a loved one. It was only ever a brief flirtation, though. Now, when I return to the city, there’s only one record shop that’s going to get my custom.
… sharing (Caskared)
Sharing music has been instrumental in developing my tastes and excitement around music. From an early age sharing can forge friendships and help mould social groups at school. When I was a pre-teen I was listening to Michael Jackson, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Madonna because they were what I saw on TV. When I re-kindled a friendship with a boy from my middle school after our first year at separate high schools we talked incessantly about music. He made copies of albums by Suede and The Stone Roses and introduced a whole genre of indie to my young ears. I had never heard such music before; finally it felt that THIS was what music SHOULD be.
Our friendship group was cemented through a preference for indie and experimental music, our social lives revolved around going to see local bands and saving up to see bands play in the nearby cities of the Midlands. If anyone bought a new cassette it would do the rounds especially if the band were likely to tour. As we all lived off pocket money and were too young for anything more than a paper round, we supplemented each other’s music collections through sharing and the wonders of blank tapes. Between us we would buy the entire back catalogue of a band and share the fruits. We’d all be pilot fish looking in different ponds and pooling what we found for the furtherment of everyone.
The radio was a rich source for us. Live sessions would be recorded and passed round. We would in turn evangelise about the music we adored on the radio programmes we would host on the local charity station. We were hungry beyond our means so sharing was the only way to be. Whoever bought the new Sparklehorse album or St Etienne single would come into school and proudly present their cache.
We were all aware of the problems of piracy, but as we all spent money on seeing the bands play if they toured, or we would buy the merchandise we rationalised ourselves out of any feeling of guilt. When CDs usurped the cassette many of us updated our collections through bona fide purchases and through sharing we took risks in listening to unknown quantities that received no radio airplay but because it had been lent to us we were open.
One of my greatest pleasures remains sharing music I adore, although the mix tapes I make now require a few clicks and the burn button instead of the hours spent cross-legged on my teenage bedroom floor recording cassettes in real-time on my back-to-back stereo. I will forever feel a thrill as I receive a mix CD, a small insight into the mind of the giver and hearing the unexpected that might lead to a feast of aural delights I might otherwise never have known.
… shocks (RussL)
Electrical ones, specifically. At any festival ground there's always a secret, closed-off section of the backstage area, in which treatment is administered to the poor roadies who were half-incinerated in horrific accidents. Combine a large electrical transformer, a splattering of rain, an easily-singed beard and a sizeable gut that provides plenty of fat to fry with and you have yourself one sizzled stagehand. Festivals represent the pinnacle of the hubris of humankind - if God or whatever forces are in charge had wanted us to listen to non-folk music out of doors, water and electricity would have been made into a more enticing mix.
Why do I risk the wrath of Mean Fiddler's hired goons by informing you of this illicit infirmary? In The Art Of Noise's last installment, two people spoke warmly of the Reading Festival. In the interests of providing the fair and balanced perspective for which this website has become world-renowned, I feel obliged to give you the curmudgeon's point of view. Festivals - well, they're crap, aren't they?
You can keep your eye-straining attempts to see a band from about four miles away. You can keep your ear-straining attempts to make out anything approaching music amongst the muddy sound earlier on in the day, and your patience-straining attempts to not get frustrated later on when the sound seems to have improved but a sudden gust of wind puts paid to that.
I don't want to risk trench foot and dysentery by standing knee-deep in mud, and if I'm for some reason forced to I want to be able to have a proper shower afterwards. I don't want to pay a fortune for crap food prepared in a van by a bloke with bits of his face dropping off, and if I'm for some reason forced I don't want it to go straight through my body and force me to get rid of it in a rapidly filling chemical toilet, which by the end of the weekend is stacked ram-packed full of toilet paper with something unpleasant sitting on top like a lion on a hill proudly surveying the valley below.
“You're missing the point!” they usually say. “The purpose of a festival isn't to hear music or avoid gastro-intestinal diseases, it's all about the social aspects!”
Yeah, right. Imagine a festival campsite. What can you see, stretching off as far as you can see in every direction? Students, that's what. I shudder at the very thought.
I'd rather see the bands I like at proper gigs. I would finish this by wishing a plague upon festivals, but given the sanitary conditions that would be tempting fate.
… skiffle (with particular regard to Lonnie Donegan) (Skif, of course)
Ah S, the letter I’ve been waiting for so you, the readers and writers of this encyclopaedia, if they aren’t indeed the same thing, can be the latest in a long line of poor unfortunates who’ve had to suffer me banging on about skiffle. It gave me my nickname after all; how could I ignore it in the grand scheme of this ‘ere thing?
Let me put you straight on one thing from the get-go though, is that there is no denying that a lot of music made within the 1950s UK skiffle movement was pretty twee, all beards, pipes and beige cardies, and certainly tame by comparison to the rock ‘n’ rollers who followed not long after. The reason I say the 1950s UK skiffle movement, is that there have been more than one, the jug and spasm bands I referred during J also played a form of skiffle and the 50s acts took on much of their playing ethic and areas of repertoire. As Lonnie Donegan once put it, skiffle is “a mongrel music” rather than a musical style in itself.
Donegan, and others such as Chas McDevitt, The Vipers and Ken Colyer, would often arrange folk, country, jazz and traditional tunes to fit the spirited, ramshackle skiffle sound. Of course, skiffle was as much, if not more, about the fashion in which the music was performed, particularly with regards instrumentation, as it was the tunes themselves. That is not to say the tunes suffered as I would argue that Lonnie Donegan’s recordings of ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and ‘Wreck Of The Old ‘97’ rival, if not improve on, Woody Guthrie’s originals.
I’d also suggest that Lonnie spearheaded a revolution which, all of a sudden, made music accessible to the common man. Consider, when you think about how people praise Kurt Cobain for getting kids to pick up guitars again, that in the years surrounding the skiffle boom, guitar sales went up from 5,000 to 250,000. Consider the modern day phenomena in our alternative circles of tape and CDR labels, of bedroom DJs, of getting stuff out via four-track or mp3 or MySpace or wherever, however, cos you simply have to, even of this fanzine culture. That’s our DIY, the grandchild of the plethora of skiffle groups that popped up in milk bars, community halls, even living rooms half a century ago. Also consider the current interest in “found sounds” which Bjork, for example, has been putting to use on her last couple of LPs, and then think of how tea-chests, corrugated boards for the washing of clothes and metal finger-tip protectors were removed from their context for the purposes of performance. Lonnie may not have used the washboard himself aside from on his hit version of ‘Rock Island Line’ but he still represented the very best of the genre.
Critics might argue that skiffle burned out within four years of ‘Rock Island Line’ but it should not be devalued for the fact that the music itself has largely dated. Skiffle made young people ready for rock ‘n’ roll not just as consumers but as creators, and I’d rank it equally with punk, Riot Grrl and acid house in terms of its cultural impact.
Lonnie himself may have spent much of the following 30 years not knowing whether to be a crooner or a music hall act but in his final years he went back to basics and sounded wonderful. In 2001, I had the pleasure of being at the Guildford Festival and watching Lonnie headline the second stage. At 70 years of age, he had lost none of his youthful exuberance and humour. It was an unforgettable night, so much so that I journeyed to see him twice more on his penultimate farewell tour. That I shall never get the chance to see him perform again is disappointing, but that I had the opportunity at all is a great honour.
… Spinal Tap (Swiss Toni)
David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnell, Derek Smalls and a myriad roster of now deceased drummers: together they make up Spinal Tap – surely the most legendary band in the pantheon of rock. Initially founded as The Thamesmen in England at some unspecified point in the 1960s, the band had a novelty hit (‘Listen to the Flower People’) before changing their name and turning to heavy metal. Initially they were the The Originals, then they were the The New Originals but soon they settled upon the now immortal name Spinal Tap and began to make musical history.
The band was of course immortalised in Marti DiBergi’s 1984 documentary (“the, if you will, rockumentary”) ‘This Is Spinal Tap’…
Oh hang on.
They’re not real? What do you mean they’re not real?
Just try telling that to Eddie Van Halen, who famously failed to see the funny side when he first saw the film, or to Steven Tyler, who was apparently so convinced that the film was based upon Aerosmith that he threatened to sue. Even a great thinker like Liam Gallagher was fooled. As Noel told Observer Music Monthly:
“Yeah, he thought they were real people. We went to see them play in Carnegie Hall. Before they played, they came on as three folk singers from the film ‘A Mighty Wind’. We were laughing and he said: 'This is shit'. We said: 'No, those three are in Spinal Tap. You do know they are American actors?' 'They're not even a real band?' 'They're not even English! One of them is married to Jamie Lee Curtis'. 'I'm not fuckin' 'avin that', he says, and walks off right up the middle of Carnegie Hall. He's never watched Spinal Tap since. He'd seen the film and loved it and thought they were a real band”.
The beauty of Spinal Tap is that they COULD be real. They are utterly ridiculous, and yet this only makes them more believable as rock stars. In fact, in a world filled with vegan, teetotal, yoga practitioning rock stars like Chris Martin, we could probably do with a few more bands like Spinal Tap.
They’ve got the songs too. I bet Coldplay wish they had written something half as good as ‘Big Bottom’, ‘Bitch School’, ‘Sex Farm’ or ‘Stonehenge’.
And I bet Chris Martin’s been working on his own ‘Lick My Love Pump’ since the day he learnt how to play the piano…
… Steeleye Span (James)
When Ashley Hutchings formed Steeleye Span in 1969, he had a deliberate plan in mind. Having just completed the legendary Leif And Leige LP with Fairport Convention, he had concluded that it had not gone far enough. His vision was to see the electric rock sound properly married with old English folk songs. Leif And Leige had been a grand start, but there was a way to go, and Fairport weren’t quite up to the task.
He gathered two couples who were embedded in the folk traditions that Fairport weren’t. Terry and Gay Woods came over from Ireland – Terry having previously been in Irish electric-folk pioneers Sweeney’s Men with Andy Irvine. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior were the second couple, who had both been doing the folk circuits for several years. Steeleye Span, with several changes of line-up – including Martin Carthy on the second and third LPs, went on to produce four spectacular folk-rock LPs before sliding into the same endless tourism as Fairport.
Now why am I bothering to tell you about this? Because it is my sad experience that most people I have spoken to about music have made generally unfair assumptions about British folk music in the late 60s and early 70s – ie cardy-wearing, fingers-in-ears traditionalists or beardy-weirdy pseudo-hippies. Steeleye Span do not deserve such a fate.
On their debut Hark! The Village Wait, and the standout track (to me) ‘The Blackleg Miner’, Hutchings’ marriage is almost complete. Tim Hart sings a dark song about a scab miner over a driving rhythm and forceful banjo, which creates a pace and freedom of playing that looks forward to The Pogues, who Terry Woods would later join.
Things really kick in on the second LP, Please To See the King. Martin Carthy’s guitar playing throughout is as sharp and jagged as Andy Gill’s (though never less than folk), Ashley Hutchings’ bass playing is sparse yet muscular and newcomer Peter Knight’s fiddle playing creates a light droning effect, playing lightly on the melody. The third LP, Ten Man Mop continues with the same line-up and the same feel.
To me – and this is a difficult call – the fourth album Below the Salt was their finest. This might be ironic since it was the first without Hutchings, and Carthy too had left, so the line-up changed once again. It is somehow as folky as anything Steeleye had ever produced and yet the heaviest too. The opener, ‘Spotted Cow’, is predominantly a jaunty, unpretentious folk tune, with occasional slabs of heavy distorted chords on guitar. ‘King Henry’ is a seven minute ghost story about a female spirit who forces herself upon the King. At either end of the middle section of the song, the fiddle and the guitar trade jarring, disjointed and sometimes vicious solos. Perhaps the highlight is the closer ‘Saucy Sailor’. This song, sung by Maddy Prior features a light, nautical melody which segues into one of the most beautiful codas I have ever heard. It perfectly highlights Steeleye’s ability to use the folk genre to create new textures which adds something dynamic and new to old songs. In this Steeleye both prefigure and in some respects push further than many of their new-folk and alt.folk contemporaries of today. (Worthy followers include Espers and Alasdair Roberts’ No Earthly Man.)
After this Steeleye produced one more LP that is creditable, Parcel of Rogues, before slipping off into pop-rock like All Around My Hat, which, while pleasant, is nothing to write home about. But for these five years they produced some of the most beautiful, interesting, experiemental, and forward-thinking music, whilst never writing an original song. And that’s an achievement too.
… Steely Dan (Steve)
Marc-o of Johnny Domino introduced me to the ways of the Dan a few years back when we were recording our second album. Even though we were recording on an eight-track, we got pretty obsessed about getting the best takes and the best sounds out of our equipment. I guess he made the link to the legendarily exacting Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
I don’t know a huge amount about them, but I’m guessing that they weren’t great at sports when they were at school. A pair of weirder-looking jazz-nerds you would be unlikely to find. I’m also guessing they got bullied in their youth, which would explain why they’ve used their intellect to bully journalists, session musicians, ANYONE, in their career. The most famous example of this is the recording of ‘Peg’ from Aja where they auditioned an endless parade of the world’s best guitarists to play the solo, dismissing them all until Jay Gradon pulled out the winning take. This is one of the weirdest guitar solos ever, starting of all woozy like heat haze off the Pacific Coastal Highway before heading into staccato chromatic runs, ending on showy hammer-on and pull-offs.
I love the precision, I love the fact that I’m not probably not meant to like them (see also Billy Joel, ELO, etc etc). But mostly I love how they made me feel this morning. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for one reason and another and today I popped an old Steely Dan compilation Marc-o made for me into my Minidisc for the walk across town.
Something about the cool little world that they create – kind of the sleazy upper class flip to Tom Waits’ sleazy lower class visions of West Coast America, all tales of coked-out excess, dirty old men and naïve would-be models – made it feel great to be walking across grey old Derby. I had to play ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ twice, it made me feel so giddy – the “rumpty-tumpty” shuffle, the fact that you can practically HEAR the band looking at each other and going “Yeeeaaah!”, the beautiful sun-drenched harmonies, and – again – a crazy, virtuosic, jazz-influenced guitar solo played by the awesomely named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. What more do you need from music? It just made me want to run about grinning and clapping like an arse – and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it should be about? At lunchbreak I bought Can’t Buy A Thrill on CD and began what I know will be a long trek through their recorded work. Radio 2, here I come.
... Stereolab (Jez)
Everything is futile. We crawled out of the sea to manufacture our own demise. Some people compensate for this by inventing a belief system that makes their futility seem less so, somehow making everything worthwhile. Well good for them I suppose, as long as they don’t try and kill each other trying to prove their story is better than the other’s. Mind you, I don’t suppose it would matter too much anyway, seeing as everything is futile anyway.
So what’s the point in me writing about Stereolab? None really. In fact there isn’t any point at all. But I suppose as some people choose religion, well, music helps me through with the hopelessness of it all. I’m not being flippant here either, let’s face it, if I’m wrong I could well burn in hell for eternity. Shucks, it’s a chance I’ll take.
Stereolab have the ability to bring divinity into my life. Their music can draw out feelings in me that are too numerous to list here. In fact, just write a list of emotions and that’ll do the trick. Lyrics range from diatribes on global economic systems to bands forming to play gigs on the moon. From the diary of a woman who morphs into a man for no particular reason to philosophical treaties on our existence. As for the music? I couldn’t do it justice. Recurring themes and patterns, time shifts, minimalism, discord and extravagant layering. They nod in respect to jazz, classical music, Kraut-rock, industrial and have a newly discovered expertise in 70s blaxpoitation movie funk. These people can make me laugh with guitar noises.
Laws of nature decree all bands lose it and become rubbish. I can’t think what will be worse, the inevitable demise or the equivalent euthanasia to prevent this. Either way I’ll cry as though I’ve lost a relative. My proudest moment came just after my long-suffering partner and I saw them at a tiny gig in Nottingham. They came off stage and my idol Tim Gane squeezed past us in a corridor. I stared at him lasciviously, he stared at my girlfriend.
So, if there’s no God, why does their music sound like it’s being played in the cathedral of heaven by some divine angels? I’ve been born again.
… Stock, Aitken & Waterman (Del)
The most successful British production team... ever! We all know their records, and as much as some would like to deny it, we all secretly adore them. Genuine mavericks, they beat the majors at being commercially successful, capturing the energy of the gay disco scene and thrusting it straight into the mainstream. And when the record industry tried to ostracise them, John Peel and the indie press stood up for them! They're the closest the UK has ever got to emulating the music factory of Motown. It was the sound of a Bright Young Britain. And even now you can spin any of the following and guarantee a full dancefloor...
“Hey Roadblock!” “I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky”. “You give me one good reason to leave me, I'll give you ten good reasons to stay”. “Goddess on a mountaintop”. “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-take or leave us”. “Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you”. “Watch out, here I come”. And just listen to the "Oooooh”’s at the start of 'Especially For You' and tell me you don't get chills.
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Thanks to drmigs, Jonathan B, Paul, Pete, Caskared, RussL, Skif, Swiss Toni, James, Steve and Del for their contributions this week.