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.


Blogger stevedomino said...

what a cool idea! good work, all of you - looking forward to future installments, and catching up on what I've missed.

2:27 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

Woody Guthrie is an excellent choice. Have you heard the Mermaid Avenue albums by Billy Bragg and Wilco? The ones where they took some of Woody's lyrics (there's a whole archive of them without music) and put them to music. Both albums are excellent and well worth a look.

Actually, I read a little snippet about this in Bob Dylan's book. He talks about how he went to see Woody in hospital shortly before he died, and Woody asked him to do the same thing. Bob went out to Mermaid Avenue, but the weather was really bad and the street was flooded, so he had to wade up to the front door. When he got there, Woody's wife wasn't in, but his little daughter answered the door. Bob clearly frightened her, so he decided to come back on another day. He never did.

What he says next is basically one of the reasons I increasingly hate Dylan. He remarks that it was these same archives that Billy Bragg and Wilco used to produce their albums in the 1990s, but then rather sniffily declares that he would have done a better job.



10:08 pm  
Blogger skif said...

Didn't know that Dylan bit, cheers for that. I rather enjoyed William Bloke and co's efforts on the Mermaid Avenue discs. Saw a couple of the shows Bragg did with his own band of those songs, and a night at the Portsmouth Pyramids was particularly special. It clearly meant so much to him to be involved in the project.

10:30 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Yeah, I'd forgotten that bit from 'Chronicles' - good point, Swiss.

And thanks, Steve!

7:13 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I saw BB playing in Bristol on that tour, and he was brilliant. He's more stand up comedian now than musician, but he was absolutely fantastic - his gig at the Leftfield bar is something of a tradition for me at Glastonbury as well. He usually turns up with a blank piece of paper as his setlist and does requests. legend. He was backed by Hefner at Bristol, as I recall, a band I fleetingly considered for my "H".


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Anonymous Viagra said...

I thought you meant G3, but with another guitar player, as they usually do. But not all. so far from reality. Now, I'm really curious about the G4 you meant.
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