Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: F

F is for …

… FABRICLIVE 07: John Peel (drmigs)

Woohoo, it's a new year, I've just seen Coventry absolutely mug Wolves with two of the spawniest goals in history, and I'm feeling good. Therefore it's time to go crazy and take a break from my “This is my favourite band with the letter … and this is why I like them” approach to this feature, and try something different. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you FABRICLIVE 07: John Peel.

Fabric is a swish nightclub for the learned music lovers of the Big Smoke. Many a fine DJ has sets there, and the reputation of these sets is so good that you can buy CDs mixed by the guest DJs. Good, no very good, and what's better is that they come in natty little metal tins, so even the card-carrying un-cool can feel a tingle of distinction merely upon the purchase of one of these CDs. Lamentably I only have FABRICLIVE 07. I keep meaning to buy more; however when faced with the choice of others in the series, my pathetic music knowledge leaves me unable to decide whether 6, 18 or 21 would be the next album for me.

So what's with this album? Well, John Peel really. He doesn't make any attempt to mix the tracks, he just concatenates a wonderfully eclectic mix of tunes, including such gems as the Bad Livers’ cover of ‘Lust For Life’. It makes for a really good album that is worth buying and listening to over and over again. However, for once I'm going to try and make a point that's subtler that just “I really really like this, and these are the reasons why …”.

This Christmas could have been re-named the John Peel Memorial Christmas, with his autobiography and tribute album being marketed to death. The autobiography I can't profess to have read, but I have heard the tribute album. The album is a good collection of music, all of which John liked. But as is hinted by Andy Kershaw in the sleeve notes, the record label vetoed certain songs due their lack of widespread appeal. And therein lies the flaw in the tribute album. John Peel played what he liked and what he thought was good. He didn't adhere to a Saga FM “give the public what they want” approach to music. I readily admit that much of what he played was way too leftfield and hardcore for me, but I'm eternally grateful to the musical integrity he displayed. A rare quality in mainstream radio broadcasting.

Therefore, when listening to his tribute album this Chrimbo, I couldn't help but think, these are mighty fine songs, but it's not really as good as FABRICLIVE 07. So if you want to capture a memory of John Peel, his autobiography is probably a good place to find a written memory, and FABRICLIVE 07 - more than the tribute album - is (in my humble opinion) the best musical source to celebrate his distinctive musical taste.

… The Fall (Pete, seguing neatly if inadvertently to Peel faves)

Admittedly, perhaps a surprising choice as I haven’t really heard much of their stuff. True, I do possess the 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong compilation and rate most of its songs. Having said that, as the band recently released their 86th album (or 84th, depending on who you believe), I do feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of their back catalogue. Nevertheless, despite being a very distant sort of fan, I still consider them to be a remarkable band for the following reasons.

84 albums. Prolific or what? I thought I should repeat that figure for any bands out there that faff about for years trying to come up with an adequate follow-up to their debut album. In addition, they’ve also somehow managed to make it through 24 Radio 1 Sessions, although this is arguably mainly down to John Peel’s fondness for them.

The assorted ex-members (including the very short-term) and producers. Apart from Marc Riley, Ian Broudie, Coldcut, Mark Radcliffe among others, I should also mention Dave ?, the band‘s first drummer, whose surname nobody can remember, Eric McGann , who quit the band in disgust at their van driver turning up in a Hawaiian shirt, as well as Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy, who apparently kept Mark's false teeth in a mouldy old acoustic guitar case after Mark left them in his car, thinking it was a taxi. Definitely a band with a particularly rich history.

And lest I forget, the legendary Mark E Smith, occasional classified football results reader, cameo actor, dentist’s nightmare (after Shane McGowan naturally) and front-man extraordinaire. The only constant in The Fall’s line-up which has featured over 40 different members over the years. He may be unpredictable, his music may be odd, abrasive, of varying quality and, frankly, at times rubbish, but he is an unsung genius.

I should really go and see ‘em sometime.

… fans (Jez)

A couple of weeks ago I went to see a band I hadn’t seen before. I was surprised and disappointed to find the venue packed to rafters. I’d really hoped for a private gig, I’m used to listening to the band in solitude and it was difficult to understand that they don’t communicate solely with me. The gig followed a tried and tested format: audience cram in, lights go down, performers enter the stage, lights go up, entertainment ensues.

Of course for a while you can’t take your eyes off the stage, the proximity of such talent intoxicates even more than the warm piss you are slurping from a flimsy plastic beaker that has cost a fiver. After a while though the mind begins to wander. I started to take look around at my fellow gig-goers. They surprised me to say the least.

The performer was aged about 30 but the average age of the audience was about ten years older than that. Many looked even more mature and had a style that could best be described as – comfortable. I was pleased that they were having a night out, it had probably been a while and their carers would be glad of the rest. Upon closer inspection these ageing happy clappers were wearing similar loose fitting clothing to me, quiet shades with brown slip-on shoes and clutching coats in the hope of an early exit, sensibly avoiding the rush. Slowly the horror dawned on me: the fans you find at gigs represent that painting of you hidden in the attic perfectly.

I was enjoying a private gig after all, just with three thousand other versions of me. Nurse!

… feedback (Ben)

I’m not quite sure what started it (Nirvana’s ‘Territorial Pissings’, perhaps), neither am I sure why it’s the case, but I must confess to a long-standing love affair with feedback.

Feedback is essentially the high screeching noise produced either inadvertently or deliberately when playing a guitar close to amplifiers and speakers with the volume cranked up.

Feedback exists at the point where music becomes pure noise and chaos, but, just as bands like Low do with silences, certain artists routinely incorporate it into their songs, manipulating it for particular effects.

The late Link Wray has been widely celebrated for his pioneering use of feedback (as of the powerchord), but, as with so much, it was The Beatles who effectively brought feedback into the mainstream. ‘I Feel Fine’ begins with a carefully controlled blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peal of feedback that I like to think hints at an uncertainty and insecurity bubbling under the saccharine surface. In this light the repetition of lines like “I feel fine” and “She said so” come to seem like someone protesting too much. Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into it.

Then, in 1967, The Velvet Underground took things a step further with the freeform melee of ‘European Son’, the whistling feedback more an integral part of the song than it had been in ‘I Feel Fine’.

Three more great tracks in which feedback features prominently:

‘Never Understand’ – The Jesus & Mary Chain
Listening to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s extraordinary debut single is like straining to hear The Beach Boys on a poorly tuned radio in the midst of a blizzard. What is potentially a neat, snappy surf pop song is snowed in and submerged beneath layer upon layer of whining feedback. In terms of musical self-sabotage – or, as far as I’m concerned, any other terms you care to mention – it’s a classic.

‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ – Nirvana
The key difference between Nevermind and In Utero is that the polish and coherence of the former meant messy and ugly noisefest ‘Endless Nameless’ was relegated to the status of bonus track whereas its equivalents on the latter – the cathartic expression of self-loathing that is ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ included – took centre stage. It begins and ends like an air raid siren, and every sharp jab of feedback inbetween is like a needle to the nerves. Radio friendly it is not. Sarcasm is actually the highest form of wit, you see.

‘Starfield Road’ – Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth have practically forged a career out of their experimentation with the textures and nuances of feedback. ‘Drunken Butterfly’ (from 1992’s Dirty) is a particularly good example of this, and the noise that Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo tease out of their guitars at the end of ‘Pattern Recognition’, the opener on 2004’s Sonic Nurse, serves as proof that feedback continues to fascinate them even as they approach their fifties. Perhaps their most arresting use of feedback, however, is that which marks the opening of ‘Starfield Road’ (from 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star) – not so much a wailing wall of sound as a descending staircase, the pitch decreasing in steps until the drums kick in.

… Ella Fitzgerald (Alison)

Because Ella’s voice is the most incredible voice I ever heard.

I first took notice of it sitting after Sunday lunch in my favourite restaurant, seeing off a bottle of Rioja. The background music in the place is always pleasant if a little unremarkable. But this particular Sunday one song soared out of the background. Later I discovered it was Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis song ‘How High The Moon’. At the time I recognised the song itself from the opening scene of ‘Biloxi Blues’, a great film which no-one has ever heard off. But the version playing was twice as fast and the long instrumental section of the song was filled to bursting with nonsense vocalisations. I sat listening, entranced, as this amazing voice skipped effortlessly and playfully over the seemingly impossibly fast tempo set by the double bass.

I think my favourite thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she manages both to be the most incredible and the least snooty jazz vocalist, all at the same time. Jazz is not a music genre I know and it’s always seemed a bit pretentious. But you just have to listen to the recordings by Fitzgerald to hear the honesty, vulnerability and fun in her performance.

A classic example is the live Berlin version of ‘Mack The Knife’, as Ella concedes, a song you don’t often hear a girl singing. Halfway through she forgets the words and improvises to the end, even including a Louis Armstrong scat impersonation. Those visiting chez Alison’s after a night on the beer will be familiar with ‘Stone Cold Dead In The Market’ a duet with saxophonist Louis Jordan. The song tells the rather sombre tale of a wife murdering her abusive husband after he comes home from drinking. Sad in premise, the real-life couple’s faux Jamaican accents are hilarious as Ella states how she “lick him with the pot and the frying pan, and if I kill him, he had it coming, man!

Born in Virginia in 1918 and raised in New York where she became an orphan at 14, Fitzgerald was discovered at an “Amateurs Night” competition. She had intended to dance but, intimidated by the other talent, she sang instead. She went on to win 13 Grammy awards, more than any other jazz musician. Her solo and collaborative discography is immense, with her eight songbook albums being the most critically acclaimed. Ira Gershwin said: "I didn't realise our songs were so good until Ella sang them". Unbelievably, despite her immensely powerful voice, Ella was shy and often too insecure to speak: "I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don't have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you'll understand".

The First Lady of Song died in 1996 but her charm, wit, beauty and voice will live on.

... Ben Folds (Damo)

I´m in an internet cafe in Barcelona with 20 minutes on the clock so I´ll keep this simple. Which is very easy for me with Ben Folds. Why do I love this man? Let me count the ways...

1. Most virtuosos are boring and self-indulgent. Ben Folds is a virtuoso pianist. But he´s not Joe Satriani.

2. Many people with a wonderful voice use it for their own benefit. Ben Folds has a wonderful voice. But he´s not Celine Dion.

3. Many people who are brilliant lyricists use their skills just to show how clever they are. Ben Folds is a brilliant lyricist. And he´s not Jim Morrison (thank f%%k).

4. Many musicians who think they are funny are not. Ben Folds is a very funny man. He is not Robbie Williams.

5. Most bands tend to tie themselves into either the “serious” or “funny” moulds, but believe the two to be mutually exclusive. Can you imagine Radiohead writing a funny song? Or Blink 182 writing a serious song? Oh, they did. But that was because they weren´t happy and they split shortly afterwards.

A very simple summation of why I love the man (time restrictions enforced that)... but basically, for being an absolute smartarse in every way without me wanting to give him a slap, I salute him.

… Foo Fighters (Swiss Toni)

I don’t know if this even counts as a controversial opinion anymore, but Foo Fighters piss all over Nirvana. Kurt Cobain clearly wasn’t entirely without talent, but Dave Grohl’s been playing the long game. Better to burn out than fade away? Just the delusions of a selfish junkie about to leave his daughter without a father.

Grohl first came to our attention as the last in the long line of Nirvana drummers. It was in this capacity, and whilst waiting for the strung-out and unreliable Cobain to turn up for the In Utero sessions, that Grohl recorded ‘This Is A Call’, which became the first single put out by Foo Fighters. It’s no ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, sure, but it’s still a pretty good marker for things to come, and it rocks. Initially this was intended only as a studio project, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic helped Grohl out as they both waited for Cobain to show up. With Cobain’s suicide though, Grohl soon put together a proper band and Foo Fighters were up and running. A phoenix rising from the ashes of Nirvana, but the best was yet to come: Foo Fighters have now recorded more albums and been together longer than Nirvana could manage, and Grohl is showing few signs of slowing down yet.

Dave Grohl is endlessly written up as the nicest guy in rock, but for me it’s all about the music, and Foo Fighters have been steadily getting better and better. Nirvana have been mythologised out of sight since Cobain’s pointless death, but with ‘All My Life’ (from the album One By One), the Foo Fighters finally and categorically left them for dead. This is a monstrous, bucking monster of a song with a snarling beast of a hook. Nirvana were never this good. It’s not all balls-out rock though: the latest album (In Your Honor) showcases a whole album’s worth of acoustic songs, including an unlikely duet with Norah Jones… (what would Courtney have said if Kurt tried that one?)

But if Grohl is the renaissance man of rock, spare a thought for Taylor Hawkins… the man who drums for the best drummer in rock. Now that’s a tough gig. For some reason John Lennon’s quip about Ringo springs to mind, but let’s twist it around a little. The best songwriter of his generation? Cobain wasn’t even the best songwriter in Nirvana.

… fromage (Paul)

Fromage. Big steaming dollops of the stuff. Oozing from DJ booths up and down the country, and for four years the soundtrack to many a great night I had in student union bars, parties and nightclubs in Nottingham.

Despite pretensions of musical snobbery, everyone likes to lose their inhibitions every so often, and hit the dancefloor with absolutely no delusions of grandeur, no respect for their own reputation, and absolutely no desire to remain “cool”.

I may be an indie kid at heart, but get a few drinks inside me and I can still be seen strutting my stuff on a dancefloor to the naffest of records. Chesney Hawkes may have enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent times, but he will always be remembered for one record, and it’s a sure-fire dancefloor filler at weddings, bar mitzvahs and student nights the world over.

The thing with cheesy music is that, despite its naffness, everyone revels in it. If we’re all in it together, then it can’t be sneered at, because we’re the ones in on the joke.

Therein lies its glory.

So next time you’re at a wedding, dancing to Dexys Midnight Runners, Steps or even The Village People don’t worry about feeling self-conscious – you’re in good company, and everyone is dancing for the fun of it. Just keep going, soak up the cheese and relish the fact that, whilst tomorrow will see you return to your normal disdainful approach to such rubbish, tonight you can “reach for the stars” with impunity.

... The Fugees – ‘Ready Or Not’ (Del)

Let's face it, pretty much the only really good thing they've ever done. Sure, 'Killing Me Softly' and 'No Woman No Cry' were good enough covers, the former certainly earning its place in pop history by virtue of Wyclef going "One Time! Two time!" But they weren't truly great. Fugee-La was... passable. The rest of The Score LP was... OK. Patchy. Sold a frightening number of units. But it's 'Ready Or Not' that has been their greatest achievement so far, and by the sounds of their new material back together, will remain that way.

The key is to listen to the instrumental. Just that slowed-down Enya loop, that minimal beat, the almost inaudible twinkled keys over the top... and that's it. Dark. Moody. Brooding. They all apply. Then add the voice of her generation, Lauryn Hill. She sings. She raps. And she does both better than almost any other female MC in history. Wyclef and Pras add their own lethargic rhymes, but it's Lauryn's hook and rap that powers the whole thing.

The video cost 2 million quid. The record company knew which song to chuck the cash at. And it worked. Made them the biggest act in the world. Turned them into international stars. And eventually, mercifully, led to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and, sadly, to Miss Hill losing her marbles down the back of the sofa. Wyclef has made some terrible records that have crossed over to the mainstream, and a lot of better ones that haven't. That's pop for you.

The Fugees actually neglected to clear the sample from Enya's 'Boadicea', and were it not for her grace and favour, they could've been taken to the cleaners. In the end she settled for a hefty donation to charity, and the record stayed on the shelves. The sample has of course turned up elsewhere, via Mario Wynans and The Pirates Feat Shola Ama. But they don't even come close to the original, merely rode on its coattails for a bit and fell to the way side. DJ Zinc's anthemic drum ‘n’ bass reworking maintained the vibe of the original and took it onto the dancefloor, where the original had been to slow to break through.

Now The Fugees are back together, but there's only one song that I'll be waiting to hear, praying they don't screw up. So take it slowly.

* * * * *

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

G this time next week - in the meantime, I'm off to chastise Swiss Toni for suggesting Foo Fighters piss all over Nirvana, and Paul for daring to claim that Dexys Midnight Runners deserve to be bracketed under the banner of "fromage". Democratic principles and freedom of speech and opinion are one thing, but...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a bold claim that the Fighters are better than Nirvana and much as I love Grohl's band, Nirvana were better. Foo Fighters have, over a ten year period created some of the ballsiest most rockin' tunes of any band, but they haven't changed the music industry and youth culture the way that Nirvana did in only a few years. That's due entirely to effect Cobain's music had on people, despite what you may think about him as a person. Apart from that, all good stuff, especially the Fabric Live, Feedback and Fromage.

9:46 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

Yeah - it is a bold claim and it's not my intention to negate the power and influence of Nirvana's canon entirely, but I will say that I reckon Nirvana would have been nothing without (amongst others) the Pixies.... Nirvana were massively sucessful commercially certainly, and influenced the music scene massively as a result of that, for good and for bad. But artistically? I think that's a harder case to argue. They're the sum of their influences to a large degree (like anyone else). Were they truly groundbreaking? Maybe we can debate that when we get to "N"

Plus the main thrust of my argument is how shamefully Cobain wasted his potential (yeah, I know that this is relative) compared to Grohl, who I think is maximising his.


11:52 am  
Blogger Damo said...

I would rather listen to 'Everlong' than 'Scentless Apprentice', put it that way. But I really don't think the last Foo Fighters album was very good. I saw them in Birmingham last month and they virtually ignored it in a two hour set (no "DOA", no "Resolve"), so perhaps they agree.

3:08 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

Having been inspired by Pete, I spotted this article on The Guardian's website:,11710,1678307,00.html

3:48 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

sorry, bit lousy at Html, otherwise I'd have published that as a proper hyperlink.

3:49 pm  
Blogger Donna said...

Hey hey - some one apart from me and my dad who thinks FooFighters might just be better than Nirvana. No getting over the initial wow factor first time I heard Sliver and then Nevermind, but if In Utero was the way it was going (good, very good, but...)the foos came along and retsored my faith in bouncy rock.

8:10 am  
Blogger Ben said...

I love the first two Foo Fighters albums, but the last three suggest to me at least a band settling into a comfortable sense of what they do - not challenging themselves. They're also not particulary exciting records, I don't think, which the first two are.

4:19 pm  
Blogger Del said...

I've always preferred Sweet 75 or Eyes Adrift myself. Actually that's a bare faced lie. It all depends on how you define it I suppose.

Nirvana only produced 3 studio albums (of which I own the latter 2), whereas The Foos have come up with 5 (I have them all). I've seen the Foos live and they rocked. Not seen Nirvana.

The trouble is, I can't get passed the fact that Nirvana changed music forever. Sure, they were using second hand Pixies riffs, but they turned rock on it's head, almost singlehandedly killing off poodleperm fretwanking cockrawk. Then released a record about how terrible it was. Then Kurt blew his brains out for an encore. The Foos have written some great tracks, but they aren't iconic. Simple as.

PS Woo John Peel's Fabric Album! Essential, absolutely. And Feedback is one of my fave things ever. Loved all the others too. I think this has been my favourite collection so far!

9:36 am  
Blogger LB said...

I don't like Nirvana or the Foo Fighters, but I don't like Nirvana more. does that count?

3:42 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

maybe Dave Grohl should kill himself. That'd bridge the gap between the two bands.

I'm not trying to be flip, I just think that the mythos of Nirvana is bound up in Cobain's suicide. Like it or not.


12:13 pm  

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