Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: L

L is for...

… Lambchop – ‘Up With People’ (Del)

We are screwing up our lives today... Come on progeny”.

That doesn't look like much of a chorus on paper, does it? But then again, neither does “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah...

The most joyful song to come from the Americana scene. Or from any other scene. Ever. There's deliciously lo fi brass, clapping and oooh's all over the shop and profound lyrics about a “welfare state of the soul”. It builds like no song has ever built before, to a climax of such unrestrained euphoria it's impossible not to grin a wide grin and wave your arms in the air. It chases the blues away for six glorious minutes, and wraps its gleeful arms around you. It's a record that makes you feel glad to be alive.

Garry Mulholland summed it up perfectly in his brilliant book ‘This Is Uncool’: “It simply says that people are shite, but then again, so am I, so best celebrate anyway”. Damn right. Turn the gospel choir up in the mix, break open the party poppers and head for the dancefloor. If you've never heard this before, listen to it now.

… Lionel Richie (Swiss Toni)

Apparently ‘Hello’ been voted the worst music video of all time, but I was nine years old, and I thought it was great. Rarely has the medium been used to such good effect as it was in 1983 when we watched agog through our tears as a blind pottery student fashioned an amazingly accurate model of Lionel Richie’s head before our eyes.

Ah Lionel Richie. Allow me to pause for moments as I let you rejoice in the mental images those two words have undoubtedly conjured. Big hair. Big Chin. Big Nose. Tidy moustache. Massive talent.

Am I close?

Lionel Brockman Richie Jr. With the possible exception of Barry Manilow, can any other man claim to have brought the world such easy listening joy? (100m records sold and counting.) Starting with The Commodores in 1968, Lionel has shown time and time again that he knows his way around a timeless classic: ‘Easy’, ‘Three Times A Lady’, ‘All Night Long’, ‘Say You, Say Me’, ‘Hello’, ‘We Are The World’, ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’… The list goes on.

Where many people in his position might be content to sit back in their mansion counting their royalty payments, as well as continuing to write his own material, our Lionel takes an active interest in seeking out and nurturing new talent. Only recently this giant of the industry could be seen taking the time to unselfishly pass on the benefits of his experience to the younger generation with an appearance as a coach on the BBCs ‘Fame Academy’. Our Lionel seemed to take a genuine shine to Lemar, and we were treated to their moving duet on ‘Three Times A Lady’. Pure TV gold.

He’s quite the driver too – judging by his appearance on Top Gear as their “Star In A Reasonably Priced Car”, where he was travelling so fast that he managed to lose a wheel from his Suzuki Liana when taking a corner. Perhaps our modest hero simply didn’t want to show anyone up with his driving skills.

For all his other talents, it is for the music that he will be remembered. Of all his remarkable canon of songs, ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ has to be my favourite. Taken from the multi-platinum album of the same name, it’s a song about the simple joys of… well, dancing on the ceiling.

Everybody starts to lose control / When the music is right”.

Who can’t relate to that?


… ‘Local Hero’ – Dire Straits (Paul)

Taken from the soundtrack to the actually quite decent 1983 film of the same name, ‘Local Hero’ is one of a very small list of pieces of music that every Geordie knows.

Written by Mark Knopfler, whose band Dire Straits were no strangers to the North-East, the piece of music forms the soundtrack to everything that happens in Newcastle, and is what Newcastle Utd run out to at St James' Park. Needless to say it's also the piece trotted out during the television coverage of the Great North Run every year.

Starting slowly, with a melancholic melody which lasts for the best part of a minute, the tune finally kicks in and immediately lifts the mood of the piece, turning what might have been an incredibly depressing instrumental into one that is in fact life-affirming.

For me, it will always be a piece of music close to my heart.

Its links with my roots, and my football team, are seared in my brain, and had the Mrs not put her foot down I was quite convinced we should have had it played as we left the church following our wedding...

It may not have a massive significance outside of Newcastle (and I'm sure is positively reviled in Sunderland for obvious reasons) but to me it is the Geordonian National Anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’? Nah, give me Knopfler on a guitar any day. Ha'way the Lads!

… locomotives (Skif)

Look back through the canons of blues, folk and country and trains are kinda omnipresent. While it is true that you don’t get many itinerant troubadours penning odes to the majesty of the Virgin Pendolino (“Well, I’m-ah ridin’ that rail through Wakefield Westgate”), the train remains an important representation within popular culture, particularly music, albeit nowadays more as metaphor, rather than as icon.

In terms of the train as lyrical device, you might point at Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train’, Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ or U2’s ‘Zoo Station’ to see the use of the, err, loco-motion (I guess that counts too) as representative of a journey; an episode; growth; the gaining or loss of love; or even perhaps rapid descent. Life and death stuff. Oh maih oh maih.

That is not to say that tunes more explicit in their appraisal of rolling stock are without subtext, indeed poverty, working conditions, interspun tales of love and the bringing to life of social and economic history were all part and parcel of “the ride”. Great tunes like Woody Guthrie’s ‘Wreck Of The Old 97’, The Carter Family’s ‘Engine 143’ and the traditional ‘Wreck On The C&O’ show that railroad disaster, in its literal sense, has been a popular dramatic narrative, often based on true events. We can even trace the history of this back to the 1870s, William McGonagall’s poem ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ documenting the tragic events of 28th December 1879 which, thanks to him, will be remembered for a very long time. Around the same time in the US, the oral tradition was giving birth to hammer songs that would eventually develop into famous ballads such as ‘John Henry’.

Trains have made vital cameos in other classics, for example, Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ that places the progress of a distant train against the stagnancy of the incarcerated felon. Alright, so he shot a geezer just to watch him cark it, which suggests no real motive and borderline psychosis, but the point is: he ain’t going anywhere; the train is.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the music of the early part of the 20th century should seem so obsessed with the locomotive. After all, the songwriters were doing the rounds before wide ownership of the car, and often came from backgrounds that would have been unlikely to be able to afford one anyhow. Additionally, in the US in the 20s and 30s there were, of course, the mass migrations caused by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Now THAT is what folk songs are made of.

In eulogising the Dust Bowl / Depression period, it is to be expected that those who lived through it, or descended from such struggle, play up the noble travelling spirit, hopping from wagon to wagon (eg ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’, as performed by the likes of Hank Snow and Merle Haggard.) Needless to say, Boxcar Willie sung about virtually nothing but, although I guess he did kind of, ahem, box himself in with that handle. The use of the railroad for less-than-legal means was certainly not glossed over though, Leadbelly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ celebrating some brass-necked smuggling action. These images have lived on through Dylan, Lonnie Donegan, Elvis and the like, but it certainly hasn’t been confined to what we might term the more rustic genres.

The sound of the trains themselves is often mimicked in song, even by pioneering artists, Kraftwerk spiriting their proto-electronica on the ‘Trans-Europe Express’, while Captain Beefheart barked out ‘Click Clack’ in inimitable avant-blues chugging style. Elsewhere, in post-punk, Pere Ubu went down the disaster route with ‘Louisiana Train Wreck’, while Gang Of Four complained that ‘Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time’. Even in twee-pop, Talulah Gosh had their ‘Steaming Train’ while artists as wide ranging as XTC, Magnetic Fields, Lenny Kravitz, Mission Of Burma, Duke Ellington, Elton John, The Blue Nile, The Cramps, Robert Wyatt and Boz Scaggs (I could go on for some time here) have utilised train imagery.

Trains bring people together, and have attached to them notions of community and, quite often, socialism, while some of the tunes associated with it have often verged on a kind of early, narrative form of travel writing. Indeed Woody Guthrie’s extension to a semi-autobiographical novel ‘Bound For Glory’ is wound tightly around the concept of riding the rails.

Without doubt, the train is a much more romantic figure for song than the individualistic car and certainly the same majesty cannot be applied to a bus, as anyone who hasn’t fully suppressed memories of the Vengaboys will no doubt testify.

… London Calling – The Clash (Jez)

Take a listen to that, it’ll change your life”, said a mate of mine as he handed me a tape with seemingly hundreds of song titles lovingly scrawled on the cover. I remember thinking that I’d never be able to recognise all of the songs no matter how many times I ever listened to it. That was, of course, before I’d heard it.

Twenty years later, that album has been one of the few constants in my life. Each track has its own meaning, perhaps bookmarking a memory or instilling a feeling that wasn’t there until the track had started. And that’s pretty fitting because each of the nineteen tracks is completely different. It’s an extraordinary display of a band losing their shackles while retaining exquisite taste. For example the track listing consists of: track one - powerful post-punk stomp of a title track; track two - rockabilly; track three - boozy bar room jazz… The list goes on as varied as an album could ever be.

What’s more extraordinary is this was only The Clash’s third album. The eponymous first album was immediately hailed as a ground-breaker, while the second was a critical disaster (actually it was pretty good) produced by the guy who’d just worked with Blue Oyster Cult in a record company attempt to “break the American market” as it was probably phrased by somebody at CBS. Then London Calling arrived.

When Strummer died recently I was doing a shitty job that I completely hated. I’ve never really been an impetuous person but on hearing the sad news I just jacked it in. Life is just too fucking short for your spirit to be sapped by those wankers who feature in ‘Koka Kola’ (track thirteen, sing-along anti-capitalist rock).

My mate was right; the album had a profound affect. It raised a spirit in me that wasn’t previously there.

Life’s for living. Cheers Joe.

… longevity (Ben)

Last week this feature found me waxing lyrical about Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth. This year they are celebrating twenty-five years of existence. It goes without saying that they’re no longer exactly youthful. They have succeeded in patenting a trademark sound that is unmistakeably them, yet one that has also gradually and fruitfully evolved over time. Role models par excellence.

How many bands and artists – both good and bad – have come and gone in that quarter of a century? Bands are continually forming and splitting, artists are continually being pushed to the fore by record labels only to be neglected when things don’t turn out as hoped or expected.

Only this week one of the hottest and most hyped new bands of 2005, Test Icicles, announced they were calling it a day. (The reasons behind the decision seem to be unclear, but it can’t have helped being comprehensively overshadowed by labelmates The Arctic Monkeys on whom Domino’s promotional efforts have no doubt been focused for the last six months.) Flick through a five year old copy of NME and I doubt you’ll find too many bands that haven’t gone to ground or the grave. The music press thrives on finding the next big thing, and that means that once you’ve had your time in the sun it’s time to move on and by the time “that difficult second album” appears, you’re well out in the cold, unfashionable, old news.

Beyond the pages of NME, in the world of mainstream pop, of course, longevity is perhaps even harder to come by – but it does happen. Who could have predicted Will Young would outlast Gareth Gates, or that Liberty X would still be appearing on ‘Top Of The Pops’ when Hear’Say were down the dole office? That Sugababes are still a going concern is, I think, more down to the uniformly high quality of material their songwriters turn out than the personnel, but you’ve got to concede (grudgingly, perhaps) that Robbie Williams’s extraordinary solo success has had as much to do with his natural talents as a performer as it has with the songs that Guy Chambers and now Stephen ‘Tintin’ Duffy have put in front of him.

Of course, in the early days it was touch and go for the man famously dismissed by Noel Gallagher as “the fat dancer from Take That”. Life Thru A Lens hardly set the world alight, and it was only an inspired choice of third and fourth single – the still-ubiquitous ‘Angels’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’ – that saved his career. Imagine, then, what we would have missed out on if Parlophone had decided Radiohead were one hit wonders (even if that one hit, ‘Creep’, was brilliant) and dropped them in the wake of what is a very patchy debut album, Pablo Honey. Of course, the label kept faith, The Bends followed, then OK Computer and the world was theirs.

Other bands have turned from caterpillars to butterflies in much the same way. Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips lived in parallel relative underground obscurity until finally making the breakthrough with the superb career-defining albums Deserters’ Songs and The Soft Bulletin within a year of each other.

Fortunes wax and wane. Morrissey has ridden the peaks (The Smiths, Vauxhall & I) and the troughs (‘National Front Disco’, the Finsbury Park Union Jack fiasco), and now his forthcoming LP Ringleader Of The Tormentors is being hailed in some quarters as the best of his career. If you’re a pop fan, then swap Morrissey for Madonna and Ringleader Of The Tormentors for Confessions On A Dancefloor. Of course, with artists of some years’ standing you need to beware of that dangerous reviewer’s phrase “a return to form” – but then one of the delights of long-established bands is that there’s a back catalogue of records when they’re “on form” just waiting to be discovered. REM, for instance, seem to have gone a bit stale of late, but I can’t stop listening to 1984’s Reckoning.

So what do you need for longevity? Patience, persistence, self-belief and talent are all essential – but so is luck and factors beyond the control of the individuals concerned. Witness what happened with Johnny Cash. He kept plugging away, but no-one was really listening. And then he hooked up with legendary producer Rick Rubin, mixed some startling covers in with own material and was discovered by a whole new generation. Rubin has now worked the same magic with Neil Diamond to considerable critical acclaim – though I doubt the sleevenotes for any of his future LPs will feature enthusiastic comments from two members of Slipknot, as those for The Essential Johnny Cash do.

Every now and again bands come back from the dead. Sometimes it’s good news – The Pixies, The Wedding Present, New Order. Sometimes it’s not – Marion and Midget.

And there are bands you wish had killed themselves off long ago in order to maintain some dignity – the Manics spectacularly failing to keep their one album promise spring to mind.

And then there are the bands and artists whose longevity is utterly inexplicable and who you just wish would had been fucking strangled at birth – Stereophonics, Westlife, Jamiroquai…

… Lost Sides – Doves (Pete)

That's Doves and not The Doves, as some are frequently tempted to incorrectly call them. Anyway, with that out of the way, I can move on. Lost Sides is a bit of an unsung gem really. If, like me, you're partial to some good old fashioned Mancunian melancholy then you'll probably own at least one of Doves' three albums. And if you do and you like them, then I should point you in the direction of this compilation (if you don't already own it).

I'll admit that B-sides albums are frequently bollocks. Bands use them to push up the pension fund by a few quid, while the listener is left with a decorative yet expensive drinks coaster. If you're lucky though you'll get a record containing material that should've really made it onto a “proper” album and in the case of Suede's Sci-Fi Lullabies is better than most of their other output, but more on that another time.

Happily, Lost Sides is the missing piece in the Doves jigsaw, as any good B-sides album should be. There are the instrumentals that wouldn't seem out of place on a regular album such as 'Zither' and 'Down To Sea'; if there's a song out there that captures the British-seaside-pier-in-winter feeling better than the latter then I'd like to hear it. The haunting 'Darker', is their, well, darkest song, while 'Valley' is a cracking but vaguely downbeat tale of repo-men and cups of tea.

There are a few unlikely candidates; the stomping 'Hit The Ground Running' is the Stones a la Goodwin and co and 'Your Shadow Lay Across My Life' sounds like a wildly optimistic (for Doves) love song. It concludes with 'Far From Grace', one of those simplistic but absolutely gorgeous tunes like 'Caught By The River' and 'Ambition' that the boys always like to finish off their albums with.

Ok, perhaps it isn't quite as good as I'm making it out to be. Perhaps 'Northenden' is a little lethargic. And perhaps the cover of 'Willow's Song' (from 'The Wicker Man'!) was more than a little odd, but I still wouldn’t regard them as album filler. Hey, ten out of twelve ain't bad, although there's no home for 'Space Face', the slice of Hacienda house and live fave from the days when they were known as Sub Sub. Nevertheless, more than just something for Doves obsessives and music completists. If you've got a spare tenner then you know what to buy next.

... ‘Love To Hate You’ – Erasure (Caskared)

Erasure released their finest album, Chorus, in 1991. It is quintessential Erasure, who are perhaps one of the most consistent bands in pop. Chorus reached number one in the UK album charts and ‘Love To Hate You’ peaked at number four in the September. The title track reached one higher, but it was ‘Love To Hate You’ that is the most memorable hit from the album, and sits up there with ‘Stop’ and ‘A Little Respect’.

Erasure came from good stock: Vince Clark was in Depeche Mode till 1981 and then formed Yazoo with Alison Moyet. After a couple of one-off projects Clarke searched for a singer through the adverts in Melody Maker and found Andy Bell, the 41st to audition. Together they formed Erasure in the 1980s, an overtly gay and ostentatious duo. Their singles reached the top ten solidly for over a decade, and they released several Best Of albums containing an astonishing number of huge hits.

So what is so great about ‘Love To Hate You’? It begins with a hyped-up crowd and a rousing “Whoa-oh-a-oh”. The complex synthesised beats give the song its synchopated pulse. The ultra smooth synth glissandos and countermelodies give it the rich and textured sound that combine with a killer tune crooned by Bell. The depth is produced by Clarke’s combination of artificial and artificialised sounds; real percussion recordings combined with the man-made, and Bell frequently duets with his own sampled voice do-do-d-do-ing.

Andy Bell’s deep clear voice belts out the lyrics. The scansion and rhyme are tight especially “Love and hate, what a beautiful combination / Sending shivers, make me quiver / Feel it sliver up and down my spine”. It is sung with a salacious glint of hedonistic evil. The words and tune are memorable, akin to ‘A Little Respect’, and elicits a sing-along pavlovian reaction of “I love to hate you / I love to hate you / I love to hate yooooou”.

All together now…

… ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ – The Beatles (drmigs)

'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' represents songs that you first heard with naive ears, and then, when worldly experience came your way, left you thinking "Hang about a moment...". Taking this song in particular, it was particularly attractive to my young ears. When you're young, songs on the themes of love me, hate me, fight me, save me, etc. have no particular interest.* Their words hold no relevance to prepubescent ears. However, a song with tangerine trees, marmalade skies and kaleidoscope eyes, now that's just fantastic. What more could you possibly want? You hum the tune, you sing the few words you can remember, and then one day the song takes on a completely different complexion.

Now, as a songwriter, this surely takes a particular talent. You have to craft the song with two opposed dimensions; on the one side there is the melodic soft lyrics that gives the song its mass appeal; on the other side there is the veiled message that adds mystery and insight. The Beatles loved this method of songwriting, probably as it provided them a means to describe the new liberties that were recently taboo. Think of the sexual under-tones of 'Day Tripper' for instance. They're obvious when you pay attention to the lyrics, but it's just a quirky innocent song when you don't.

In modern times Babybird's 'You’re Gorgeous' has to be the greatest example of this genre. A song that had girls in the Christian Union swooning at its beauty; which I can tell you isn't the norm for songs about pornographic lusting. On this fact alone 'You’re Gorgeous' has to be held up as a work of genius.

There is of course another more forgiveable route to this “eureka” moment, that doesn't involve naivety / ignoring the lyrics. This is the bastardised remake route. The BBC's curious rearrangement of 'Perfect Day' is a prime example of this. The BBC 'Perfect Day' was originally released for nothing more than their own corporate end. The dark ode to heroin abuse was artfully morphed into a feel-good anthem. I say artfully – all they did was take the words at face value. I still wish the whole song was a big joke by a BBC producer, but in reality it was nothing more than cynical marketing. As a result, people who heard only the BBC version of the song could be forgiven for missing its real meaning. It's true message only being apparent when the original is heard.

For me, these sorts of songs are something to cherish. If nothing else, they demonstrate an artist who is fully understanding of their craft. Maybe sometimes it is good to be all things to all people.

* That said, I do admit to being deeply moved by 'Two Little Boys' at the tender age of eight years old.

* * * * *

And I'm sure nothing has changed in the intervening period, drmigs.

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


Blogger swisslet said...

since I wrote this, I'm sad to report that I have been earworming "Get out of my dreams (get into my car)".

Yes. I know.

Another good selection chaps.


8:15 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Paul: Confession time. I don't like Dire Straits and find it difficult to like 'Local Hero'. OK so there's the Geordie connection, but I preferred it when the DJ at St James' Park used to play 'Blitzkrieg Bop' when the players ran out.

Skif: I swear that on 'I Walk The Line' Johnny Cash is accompanied by a choo-choo rather than a backing band...

Pete: So are all the songs on Lost Sides actual B-sides? Or are some of them tracks that just didn't make the cut for the albums? Seems strange to have released a B-sides album after just two "proper" albums.

drmigs: Spot on about 'Perfect Day'.

1:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben: Yep, they're all proper kosher B-sides.

5:25 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

If I remember correctly he followed Blitzkrieg Bop with Local Hero.

I like it because it instantly places me at St James Park and reinforces my sense of regional identity.

1:53 pm  
Blogger Admin said...

Erasure "an overtly gay and ostentatious duo". I always thought so, but I'm sure Andy Bell outed him as straight in an interview on one of the extras on a DVD or theirs.

7:59 pm  

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