Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Art Of Noise A - Z of music

Welcome to a brand new feature, which is exclusive to The Art Of Noise (ie it won’t be appearing anywhere else). A very simple idea, but then the best ideas often are.

Each week a panel of contributors – which includes both bloggers and non-bloggers – will write a short music-centred piece. The subject could be a band, an artist, an album, a song, a genre, an instrument, a manager, a label, a record shop, a magazine, a critic, a fanzine, a concept – the only limitation is that the chosen subject must begin with the letter of the week, ‘Sesame Street’ stylee.

So, let’s start at the beginning…

A is for…

Adam & The Ants (Alison)

Not cool, but who needs to be cool when you’re dandy? Starting out as an artsy post-punk group in the late 70s, Adam’s drive for mainstream success led him to bring in Malcolm McLaren, who proceeded to nab the original line-up for Bow Wow Wow. Backed by new Ants, hit after hit, they dominated the early 80s and certainly my early childhood.

Lyrically, there was nothing too challenging: “Young Parisians are so French, talk nothing but French”. Drumming, chanting, howling / yelping, and incoherent babbling were the ingredients of a perfect Ant track. But nothing without Adam and by 1982 he dropped the Ants, though his writing partnership with Pirroni (an original Banshee) continued. The image was at least as important as the music. I always loved the fact that the sight of Adam & The Ants could make my folks tut disapprovingly, but then a couple of Castaways into any mobile disco night out and they’d both be up dancing. I was actually bullied into loving Adam & The Ants; my big brother was obsessed with them and needed a backing singer. He got to wear the make-up and frilly blouses, while I stood in the background “a didly qua qua”–ing.

You certainly couldn’t claim that all output was good; many of the tracks fall on their arse when you listen to them now. After a couple of years of unmemorable songs, in 1985 Adam Ant offered up the fantastic ‘Apollo 9’ and the awful ‘Vive Le Rock’. Then all went quiet until the mid nineties when Adam tried to fit credibly into a business that was only prepared to consider him a novelty act from the past. Then, every tabloid’s dream, he unravelled in full public view. Hopefully he’ll be better soon and the fickle British public will learn to respect our Prince Charming of Pop.

Alabama 3 (Dr Migs)

You woke up this morning, / Got yourself a gun, / Mama always said you'd be / The Chosen One. / She said: You're one in a million / You've got to burn to shine, / But you were born under a bad sign, / With a blue moon in your eyes”.

Every now and then a piece of music becomes so synergistic with a different media form that one without the other just doesn't seem quite right. Think John Barry's James Bond theme, think ‘Dr Who’, think ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Woke Up This Morning’ by Alabama 3. ‘Woke Up This Morning’ has such a direct chill to it that it simply forces you to sit up and pay attention. And I for one wanted more.

Alabama 3 are an undeniably dark band. For one they’re made up of ex-rehab patients who share a twisted outlook on life. All Brits, they sing with Southern US accents, and base themselves out of Alabama State Penitentiary (albeit their recording base is Brighton). Their music isn't dynamite, rather the cold barrel of a Smith & Wesson pressed against your temple – as you fall to your knees in the car-park of a low-rent motel. Don't search them out if you want some sing-a-long light relief.

Should you chose to sign up to this genre, the rewards are good. I can hardly profess to be learned of their work, but what I've heard I like. And what I've heard are a couple of albums and an mp3 or two. Their tunes tend to be either experimental or self-indulgent, but always idiosyncratic and wrapped up in a sound that (I think) is a fusion of electronic, blues, techno and gospel. This can (unsurprisingly) lead to a hit 'n' miss feel to their albums. But the hits are well worth the misses. Personally I'd much rather hear a few gems and a few turkeys on an album than ten mediocre songs.

If I were to be pinned down to what my favorite Alabama 3 song is, I'd have to fudge and say two. The passionately anti-national ‘Woody Guthrie’, and the beautifully dark ‘Devil Went Down To Ibiza’. Two different songs that show the two sides to the band. As the prophet said: “Seek and ye shall find”. Seek I say, and enjoy the sound that is Alabama 3.

amplification (Ben)

What do Bob Dylan and Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel have in common? Not much, you’d imagine – and you’d probably be right. But both appreciated the value – or indeed necessity – of sheer volume.

In 1966, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for electric mid-set. He’d done it before, but this time it elicited Keith Butler’s now legendary heckle of “Judas!” Dylan’s alleged response off-microphone – “Play fucking loud!” – exemplifies perfectly why amplification is key to rock ‘n’ roll, a musical form historically rooted in dissatisfaction, unrest and outright rebellion: noise annoys. “Going electric” was Dylan’s way of kicking sand in the eyes of all those folk purists who thought they could pigeonhole him and claim him as theirs. And, of course, if you’re going to make a point – as his songs invariably do – then you’re better off making that point loudly.

Nigel Tufnel’s pride in the fact that his amp goes up to 11 might be more to do with primal machismo than politics (as is the boastful title of Motorhead’s third live album, Everything Louder Than Everyone Else), but the fact remains: decibels are fundamental to what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

Which is why the NAM (the New Acoustic Movement – remember that?) – mercifully short-lived and killed off by The Strokes – was its antithesis, wetter than water and just as colourless. It is perhaps significant that some of the most celebrated leftfield indie acts of recent years – The Arcade Fire, The Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens and company – have plumped for an amplified sound to match their populous stage presence.

With bands like Mogwai, it’s a matter of feeling the music physically as well as emotionally, your whole body set in vibration (via the quaking floor) rather than merely your eardrums. You are quite literally moved. For me, tinnitus isn’t so much an unwelcome post-concert condition as evidence that I’ve taken something of the gig home with me.

Of course, amplification is more than simply a matter of volume – rock ‘n’ roll characteristically involves or demands an extraordinary amplification or exaggeration of appearance, mannerisms and ego, a fact to which the likes of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Morrissey and John Lydon attest, as do the catalogues of behavioural excess otherwise known as band biographies (Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ being a prime example). Rock’s credo is not “Turn it down”, but “Turn it up”. Preferably to 11.

Anderson / Butler (Phill)

For many music fans of a certain generation, the classic songwriting partnerships would be Lennon / McCartney and Jagger / Richards.

For people slightly younger it might be Page / Plant, Strummer / Jones or for those who should remain nameless Gibb / Gibb / Gibb.

In the 80s it was Morrissey / Marr or maybe Berry / Buck / Mills / Stipe.

For 90s indie kids, in those dark pre-Britpop days, there was only one songwriting partnership worth bothering with - Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler of Suede.

Like most great songwriting partnerships, Anderson and Butler were two very different characters. They were both talented individuals, but together something else altogether...

Anderson - androgynous, with cheekbones you could grate cheese on, flouncing around in a blouse, preening and pouting.

Butler - silent, peering out from beneath his fringe, making a beautiful sound ring out from his guitar.

Suede's debut album was the first I ever bought. The tape I had eventually destroyed itself, I played it so much. Even listening to it today, it sounds to me like a masterpiece. The three singles ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘The Drowners’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ are all stone cold classics, amongst the best of the 90s. The rest of the album was packed full with seedy and sordid slices of sex and drugs, all delivered in Anderson's trademark mockney yelp.

At the time the band seem incredibly exciting and dangerous, though in retrospect much of what surrounded that band, and particularly the pronouncements of Anderson in interviews, were a little bit foolish. “I am a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience”, he was once quoted as saying in Melody Maker.

Sadly as part of the recent wave of Britpop Revisionism (a topic I will talk about next week), Suede's influence on 1990s British music has largely been relegated to a footnote. What we must remember that in the early 90s the British music scene was stagnant and dreary place. Suede did the hard work and paved the way for other bands to follow.

Butler of course left the band in 1994 during the recording of second album Dog Man Star, leaving Suede to lurch into self-parody, eventually stuttering to an end few years ago. Now they're reunited as The Tears, but it's now over a decade too late.

As an aside - I bumped into Brett Anderson and Suede keyboard player Neil Codling at an Ultrasound gig (anyone remember them) in the late 90s. Anderson seemed like a bit of a tit and slightly out of it. But I wasn't surprised, just slightly disappointed - as by then the mystique had already gone.

anyone (Jez)

It’s simple really, but that’s the beauty of it. From its origins in the underclass, popular music has evolved into something that spans the social divides. From Dizzee Rascal and Crass to the Rolling Stones and Genesis, pop music’s Venn diagram would look like a giant’s chain mail. And the reason for this? It is perhaps the only cultural pastime that can be attempted by anybody. Whether it’s a one chord thrash, a kid with a kazoo and a tambourine or schoolboys attempting a rock aria, nobody needs to be put off giving it a go, even if you call your band Ugly Rumours. John Cage doesn’t feel you even have to make any noise at all.

I’m not suggesting that anyone can (or would even want to) make a living from it. Only one in twelve bands signed to a major label ever gets to release a single. It’s a fallacy that the cream rises to the top. The life of a band is often dependent on the breeze of the marketplace rather than the talent they possess. Often to be found here are the rich seams of originality that companies were unwilling to give a chance to but were disinclined to let anybody else do so just in case they’d missed "the next big thing". This is no matter; there are so many undercurrents, subcultures and fleeting glimpses to thrill and disappear almost before they even arrive. Longevity is rarely something to be celebrated. The mixing pot is to be rejoiced. For me, I don’t care for the homogenous karaoke machine. And you know what? I don’t have to, because there’s something there for everyone that has been made by anyone who’s anyone.

... Apple Venus Vol I (Jonathan)

Apart from Sonic Youth, I'm not sure that I can think of a band capable of recording what might very well be the best record of their career twenty years after their first recording. In rock music terms it's improbable, almost impossible to imagine a band redisovering, much less retaining, their best form. I can't think of another band, that is, except XTC.

When Apple Venus Volume 1 was released at the tail end of 1999 I stumbled across it in a record shop, thinking dully, "Ah, whatever happened to XTC?" In the late 70s and early 80s they made some of the best and most original punk-pop in the world, a kind of small-town UK Talking Heads. By the mid 80s they were creating the oddest kind of English pastoral music, a peculiar blend of psychedelia and folk mixed with lush string arrangments, African rhythms, and Partridge's peerless lyrics and improbably original melodies. Since 1992's lacklustre Nonsuch they had been on strike and then, presumably, retired.

Apple Venus, which had been pulled together in Andy's shed in Swindon during the missing years, was and is an utter and effortless delight. Eschewing the rock arrangments of their previous records, and without the guitars of Dave Gregory, who had lost his patience during the seven year hiatus, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding created a dazzlingly ambitious orchestral pop record.

'River of Orchids', the opener, is a glorious, complicated rant against cars set to a collage of rain drops, sequenced string samples, horns and layered voices. "Take a packet of seeds, go out today", Partridge sings, "I want to see a river of orchids where we had a motorway", declaring "I had a dream where the car was reduced to a fossil". In terms of composition it's quite unbelievable; like much of XTC's best stuff, there are times where the melodies veer alarmingly off-kilter. More than one listen and you'll remember them for ever.

If all that hippy stuff sounds a bit romantic, 'Your Dictionary' documents the break down of Partridge's marriage and is one of the most bitter and direct pop songs I've heard ("S.H.I.T - is that how you spelt me in your dictionary? Four-eyed fool you led round everywhere") before effecting a remarkable volte face at its close, switching to a joyful epilogue, Partridge declaring "Now your laughter has a hollow ring and the hollow ring has no finger in. Let's close the book and let the day begin, and our marriage be undone".

XTC were never the sort of band to dwell on spite, and in Colin Moulding, who only contributes two songs to the album, they have the perfect counterbalance to Partridge's occasional side-swipes. On 'Fruit Nut', Moulding (every bit the settled family man, although he now writes a tone lower than his natural timbre because he's shy of singing in front of his children) sings "Tending my fruit, tending my fruit, well you've got to have a hobby. A man must have a shed to keep him sane". It doesn’t seem fair on poor old Colin that he, a man capable of writing songs as unbelievable as 'Making Plans For Nigel', should have to play second fiddle to Andy Partridge, even if the latter is the country's finest songwriter and lyricist.

'Easter Theatre' is possibly XTC's finest moment, deliciously complicated and odd, Andy singing "Flowers climb erect, smiling from the moist kiss of her rainbow mouth" over fragmented strings before a rousing chorus, "enter Easter and she's dressed in yellow yolk". What the hell IS this song? Contemporary classical music? Psychedelic pop? Impossible to say. In the sleevenotes Andy writes that during the haunting, worn-out sounding middle eight he felt "every pore of my skin … smiling fit to burst". Likewise.

Yet the closing triumvirate of songs are the most astonishing feature of the record. 'Harvest Festival' is the centrepiece. Partridge sings "see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows" and recovers from spite: "See the flowers round the altar. See that you two got married. And I wish you well". And gets away with a recorder solo. The surrounding songs, the heartbreaking 'I Can’t Own Her' and 'The Last Balloon' are equally wonderful - stark, slow, deeply personal ballads.

The latter picks up where 1989's 'Chalkhills and Children' left off. In that song, Partridge sang "And I'm getting higher, wafted up by fame's fickle fire 'til the chalkhills and children anchor my feet". But 'The Last Balloon' finds Partidge with a big enough vessel to take everyone else with him. "Climb aboard", he impores, "climb aboard you menfolk. You won't need any bombs or knives. Climb aboard, climb aboard you menfolk. Leave all that to your former lives".

The song fades slowly out as the balloon drifts away. Over minimal, fading piano chords and an astonishing flugelhorn solo from Guy Barker, Partridge croons, "drop us all. Drop us all. Drop us all like so much sand". The album slowly fades out.

XTC never left Swindon. They just kept watching, and they kept getting better.

You don't see that much these days.

Asian Dub Foundation (Pete)

Or rather my first proper gig. Yep, besides the odd pub gig watching friends play out some short-lived dreams and the '97 Reading Festival, (more of which in about 15 weeks) ADF's gig in Prague during the spring of 1998 was the first time I paid to see a signed band at an indoor venue. And they were corking. For a Britpop kid looking for something beyond Britpop, Chandrasonic's frantic guitar and Master D's rapping was a refreshingly different sound and they remain one of the most energetic live bands I've ever seen. Although, with hindsight, it's certainly possible that a few excellent Czech lagers may well have artificially heightened the enjoyment at the time. I saw them a few years later in Berlin, but they weren't quite as memorable as the first time round.

However, the real reason this gig sticks in my mind is that my mate Si and I managed to blag our way backstage. Perhaps it was easier being two English lads abroad, but a quick pre-gig chat with the sound and lighting engineers outside Roxy (the venue) resulted in an invitation backstage. Wow. Not bad for a debut gig. Admittedly, it wasn't all that exciting, we had a few sandwiches and some beers from the rider and chatted to the band while they eyed up Si's then girlfriend. And that was it. Rock 'n’ roll eh? Nevertheless, backstage is backstage.

The Auteurs (Swiss Toni)

1993 was a good year for albums. We had Suede’s much trumpeted debut, Blur released Modern Life is Rubbish, Radiohead made their debut with Pablo Honey, Belly released Star, New Order released Republic featuring the song with the best intro ever (‘Regret’), Nirvana released In Utero… tucked away amongst this lot was the debut album by The Auteurs.

From the first chime of ‘Showgirl’ through to the final flourish of ‘Home Again’, it is abundantly clear that New Wave is a masterpiece. It was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize that year, but Suede’s win (by a single vote) heralded the beginning of the Britpop era, and by 1994 the bang and bluster of Oasis was pushing the subtler charms of bands like The Auteurs into the fringes. They had a cellist for heaven’s sake! Although further releases quickly followed, it felt as though the moment had passed: Now I’m A Cowboy in 1994, After Murder Park in 1996 and How I Learned To Love The Bootboys in 1999. All were well received by the critics, but only sold moderately – an absolute crime in the era when even no-hopers like Menswear could get into the charts simply by hanging around in the Good Mixer and being mates with a few journalists.

In Luke Haines, The Auteurs had arguably the most acerbic and inventive lyricist since Morrissey, but this was an era when lyrics seemed to be undervalued like never before (just listen to ‘Supersonic’ and tell me that you disagree). It is somehow hard to imagine Noel Gallagher being brave or talented enough to come up with ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, isn’t it?

Since they dragged the lake / You know they seemed au-fait / Cordoned off some wood / And gave the photo to a psychic / Presumed dead / Unsolved child murder”.

‘Idiot Brother’ actually foreshadows the arrival of Definitely Maybe and the Gallagher brothers by a whole year.

(That's) you and your idiot brother / Waiting in the wing / Which one holds up the other? / Which one pulls the string?

Perhaps Haines had gazed into the crystal ball and seen what was coming.

Other bands may have sold more records, but while Parklife and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory remain rooted firmly to the shelf, New Wave is the album I keep going back to.

* * * * *

Right, that’s it for this week – thanks to Alison, Dr Migs, Phill, Jez, Pete and Swiss Toni. Would it be insulting your intelligence to say what’s coming up next week? Probably – I don’t think we get too many Maroon 5 fans on here.

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


Blogger Flash said...

Marvellous stuff!

Adam Ant? A true legend & my very first hero.

Anderson/ Butler? I agree with every word. And I do remember Ultrasound. Saw them once & their whole set consisted of 2 songs, one an absolute beauty (Stay young) & the other a 20 minute drivel-fest that had me losing the will to live. Still got the album though.

Asian Dub Foundation? I'm very sorry Pete but I somehow managed to see this lot 5 or 6 times & I bloody hated the tune-free racket they made.

Were I to have chipped in I would have brought Ash to the table.
In a nutshell, clever pop songs that rock! Can't knock Ash.

1:28 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Pete very nearly chose to do Ash ahead of Asian Dub Foundation - I imagine this would have met with your approval!

2:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bugger...well like I said they were only good the first time I saw. In any I prefer Ash, and I've seen 'em tonnes of times, but all I could come up with on them was a load of rubbish. Oh well.

4:10 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I thought seriously about doing Anthrax.... no! wait! come back!


4:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm...judging my last comment, it would appear that I have lost all knowledge of English grammar.

7:33 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

'A' is also for Amber - which will be one of the top records of 2006 from... heck, you've got mail.

11:03 pm  
Blogger LB said...

no a-Ha?

*shudders with disappointment*

Rick Astley? Marc Almond? Alisha's Attic? Air Supply?

There is an iPod lurking there *no-one* needs to see.

I'd maybe have lobbed in some lusciously vocalled classic 80s pop from ABC, though....

9:08 am  

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