Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: M

M is for…

… Manchester (Ben)

A few weeks back, this very feature found me celebrating Glasgow’s near-impeccable musical heritage and pedigree. But, as I implied then, were you to ask music lovers which British cities could justifiably lay claim to having been creative epicentres as important in the grand scheme of things as London, Manchester would no doubt top the list by some distance.

The irony of it all being, of course, that everything was jump-started by one of the English capital’s most celebrated groups. As Jon Savage suggests in ‘England’s Dreaming’, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of the Sex Pistols gig at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976. Despite Malcolm McLaren’s very vocal attempts to drum up interest in his charges (including standing outside the venue shouting), Johnny Rotten and co did not prove a massive draw. However, some of the faces in the crowd were soon to become very familiar – future members of Joy Division and The Buzzcocks, Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett and a youthful New York Dolls fan and serial NME letter writer by the name of Stephen Patrick Morrissey.

The gig gave The Buzzcocks the impetus to push on and form their own scene at some remove from punk’s London heartlands; when the Pistols returned on 20th July 1976, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley’s mob made their debut. As documented in Michael Winterbottom’s superb film ’24 Hour Party People’, Joy Division were inspired to pursue their own idiosyncratically bleak and uncompromising vision. And it ultimately led, some years later, to the literate, sophisticated and quintessentially English music of The Smiths (see Swiss Toni’s piece below).

But there’s another strand to Manchester’s musical history – one in which groove is valued over grit, collective experience in clubs over solitary confinement in bedrooms, live-for-the-minute hedonism over melancholic wallowing. Ian Curtis’s suicide on 18th May 1980 brought Joy Division to an abrupt end, but out of the ashes rose a new band who tentatively heralded this new dawn: New Order. 1983 single ‘Blue Monday’ is rightly legendary – and not just because it remains the biggest selling 12” of all time, or because New Order’s label Factory still managed to make a loss due to the elaborate packaging costing more than the single’s retail price. It was a song custom-made for the dancefloor.

It was another Factory act, though, that really embodied the new club crossover ethic. The fact that they even drew inspiration from ‘Blue Monday’ for their name was revealing – but so was the change of adjective. Along with fellow Mancs The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays embraced club culture, got E’d up, partied incessantly down at the Hacienda and in the process wrested indie from the clutches of bitter misanthropes like David Gedge and bedsit poets like Morrissey. They might not have been interested in music as cultural commentary, preferring pills, thrills and bellyaches, but what they produced is in many ways as much a reflection of and on the times as the contents of The Queen Is Dead.

As declared in a caption on the episode of ‘Rock Profiles’ (Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s pre ‘Little Britain’ collaboration) dedicated to The Happy Mondays, they are one of Manchester’s most successful exports; “other exports from Manchester include crime, poverty and arrogance”. That might just as well stand as the ingredients in the recipe that created the city’s last great contribution to British music. Oasis had the swagger, the hunger, the grit, the determination, the fuck you attitude, the hedonistic streak, the appetite for destruction. The North / South fault lines within Britpop were clear: Blur were by contrast literate, thoughtful, middle-class. The Good Mixer in Camden might have been Britpop’s birthplace, but Oasis – along with Manc bands like The Charlatans and (The) Verve (Wigan, I know – but close enough) – made Manchester synonymous with it and with mainstream indie in general.

Over the last decade there’s been something of a lull. Oasis have been a bloated and tedious parody of themselves for years. Having emerged from Manchester’s club scene as Sub Sub before moving in the opposite direction to New Order, Doves are worthy but a bit dull. Nine Black Alps have turned their back on the city’s heritage and looked across the pond for inspiration, at a time when New Yorkers Interpol and The Rapture are ignoring the heritage of their own city in favour of taking tips from Manchester's finest (Joy Division and The Happy Mondays respectively). There was Badly Drawn Boy, Twisted Nerve and the so-called New Acoustic Movement a few years’ back, but that was mercifully strangled in its infancy by The Strokes.

It won’t be long, though, before Manchester has another band of which to be proud. You can’t keep a good city down.

… Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Del)

This album was revolutionary for many reasons. The political overtones were almost unheard of from a mainstream soul artist. The scope of the record is still relevant today. The musical themes resonate through all nine tracks, so it feels seamless. Even the cover shot was a shock for the Motown execs, who expected their artists clean cut and clean shaven. But more than that, it's the almost dreamlike quality of the music that makes this an all time classic.

It's an impossible task to try and describe how wonderful the music and vocals are on this album so I'm not even going to try. But there's something magical about the way it all comes together. 'What's Happening Brother' follows the story of Marvin's brother returning from active duty in Vietnam, finding such bittersweet happiness in returning home, looking past the headlines to what's really going on:

What's happening my man / Are they still getting down where we used to go and dance / Will our ball club win the pennant, do you think they have a chance? / And tell me friend, how in the world have you been?

It's joyful, yet behind it lies an intense sadness. Time lost, the terrible things our war hero has seen, and the fact that he feels a stranger in his own neighbourhood. It's a sympathetic and emotive portrayal of the solider, who realises that those left behind are suffering just as he has in battle.

These are quite simply the most beautiful protest songs ever penned. By the time the chiming piano of 'Inner City Blues' breaks through the strings, hand claps and harmonies, Marvin had changed the way soul music would be written and produced for ever. And of course, he had that voice. What's Going On was hugely successful, making hit singles out of political statements and social commentary. Motown didn't want to release it, which would've been a musical warcrime. Music for the soul, but also for the mind, this is what makes Marvin Gaye not only one of the greatest singers of all time, but also one of our most extraordinary artists.

… ‘Men Of Harlech’ (drmigs)

So there you are, faced by 4000 Zulus in the mid throws of a war dance, what do you do? Well it's obvious isn't it? You clear your vocal chords and send forth the baritones. Or that's what the films would have you believe. But why would any movie-going public possibly buy into this?

Well, communal singing in the defiance of an aggressor is a well-recognised way to generate l'esprit d'coeur. Somehow, the words of a song sung alone, however rousing, sound hollow in comparison to an ensemble of voices. In the film ‘Zulu’, 'Men of Harlech' is initially sung as a brave defiance of the Zulu war dance. However, it later morphs in to a rallying call to unite the British army - a call to arms that gave the soldiers self-belief. By the end of the song - to a man - their prerequisite lamb-chop sideboards were left bristling with pride and vigour. All had the same purpose, to battle for Britain and each other.

Leaving aside the morals of the British military history in Southern Africa, why does this scenario seem so plausible? Well, although the literal equivalent isn't prevalent today, there are similar precedents. In particular I think of the combative examples in the sporting arena. Rugby is as an obvious example, as the parallels with military battles are abundant (nation vs nation, physical combat etc). In preparation for their international matches, the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka, a Maori war dance. It is customary for the opposition to passively observe this dance, but now and again it is faced. Notably, the Irish faced the Haka in the late 90s. Up stepped the forwards - faces made from spare parts, stomachs from spare tyres - and with arms around each other's shoulders they sang a chest-pumping rendition of ‘Danny Boy’. Within bars the backs had joined in, and then the whole crowd. By the end of the Haka, the All Blacks looked strangely meek.

Again, go to any protest – be it union, peace or religious – and songs are sung. Songs that unite the people. So is this something special to confrontation - communal singing empowering people? Of course not. It taps in to something that readers of The Art Of Noise will all have experienced; the experience of live music. Music, when live, takes on a quality that is greater than the sum of its parts. Be it in a Baptist Church, a classical orchestra, or in a muddy field in Somerset; music is a thing to be shared. Because when music becomes a collective thing, it has the power to hold the emotions of a collective. It is dependent on the maker of the music as to whether it is used as a force for good, hedonism, domination or control. But the essence of the effect is the same. Music changes the way people act, and that is one of the many reasons that we love it.

… Missy Elliott (Caskared)

Pop fact number 1: Damon Albarn named his daughter after her.

Missy Elliott rules. She’s one of the most important figures in rap and she continues to drive and invent without becoming clichéd or tired. She inspires across the genres just as she samples from as diverse sources. ‘Get Ur Freak On’ melds Asian tabla, ‘Teary Eyed’ has an electronic soul, her hooks mix up and deliver. She’s respected both critically and popularly.

Pop fact number 2: You can buy the Missy Elliott clothing range in boutiques across the globe.

When walking along Kuznetsky Most in Moscow I double took at the gleaming boutique window. Staring back out at me was a cherry red tracksuit with “Missy” emblazoned across the chest. Her looks can be amazing – cue her iconic inflated Bakelite suit circa ‘Supa Dupa Fly’. Her MTV award outfits of golf tartans or sequined DJ tracksuit are certainly idiosyncratic. But back to the music.

Pop fact number 3: ‘I Want You Back’ went into the Top 20 in the UK charts.

Who else can make a Spice Girl sound good? Missy has her acolytes and prodigies that are helping shape the next generation of krunk, or whatever the hip young things are calling it, including Tweet (with empowering, and very rude, lyrics) and Ciara. The names she has collaborated with – be it as a producer, writer or guest vocal – are stellar. Elliott alumni include Madonna, Mary J Blige, Wyclef Jean, Timberland, Ghostface Killah, Nelly Furtado, Big Boi…

Pop Fact number 4: ‘Gossip Folks’ was a rebuttal to tittle-tattle.

Musi ques, I sews on bews, I pues a twos on que zat / Pue zoo, My kizzer, Pous zigga ay zee”. One of the most played songs on MTV, ‘Gossip Folks’ is Missy putting right the rumour mill. Her lyrics are rhythmic, high-density, and often arch. Her voice ranges from the strained and distorted, to slacker, to melodic singspeak, always using the syllables to beat out complex and captivating cadences. I refer to my statement: Missy Elliott rules.

… Morrissey / Marr (Swiss Toni)

Right. For starters you can forget about the Woolton Parish Church Fete in Liverpool in 1957 where John Lennon met Paul McCartney. Don’t worry about that primary school in Kent where Mick Jagger first met Keith Richards. You can also keep your Liebers and your Stollers. You can stick your Burt Bacharachs and your Hal Davids up your jumpers. You can certainly cast the Elton Johns and the Bernie Taupins from your mind. Butler / Anderson, Strummer / Jones, Doherty / Barat, PJ / Duncan… you can forget about all of them. For me the greatest songwriting team of them all began when a certain cocksure Mancunian guitarist knocked on the door of a nondescript terraced house and asked if he could speak to young Steven.

Morrissey / Marr.

I was a latecomer to The Smiths. It wasn’t until I was eighteen years old that I really discovered them via a taped copy of The Best of The Smiths Vol 1. It was track six that got me, ‘Half A Person’. There was something about the lyrics, something about the mournful tone of the singer that really chimed with me. That was it. I was hooked. By that time The Smiths had broken up. I vaguely remembered hearing about them when I was at school, but they were one of those bands that I hated on principle (like The Cure) for no other reason than I didn’t like the people who liked them. I was happy with my Whitesnake and my Iron Maiden (dear God!). Ironically I discovered the other day that I actually watched The Smiths making their debut on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Apparently they played ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ and a gladioli-waving Morrissey made an indelible mark on an impressionable generation. He made no impression on me at all, and my only memory of the programme is of Billy Joel performing ‘Uptown Girl’.

Better late than never though. From that summer in 1993 onwards, I couldn’t get enough of it. From the greatest hits albums I discovered their back catalogue, and I was staggered, especially by Hatful Of Hollow (which at the time you could only get on import CD, and I eventually got hold of a copy from a record fair held at the NEC in Birmingham). Like millions of other teenagers, before and since, I was mesmerised by Morrissey. In my hormone-addled adolescence, it felt as though he was talking directly to me.

In the darkened underpass / I thought ‘Oh god, my chance has come at last’ / But a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask”.

Story of my life, mate.

Those lyrics spoke to me then, and they speak to me now (even though I have subsequently managed to get myself a girlfriend). The more I listen to The Smiths now though, the more I am beginning to appreciate what Johnny Marr brought to the table. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the more solo material that Morrissey releases, the more I realise how good Johnny Marr was. It’s not that Morrissey’s solo stuff is bad – although a good chunk from the 1990s needs to be approached with caution – it’s just that the instrumentation that accompanies him is consistently underwhelming. These days, Morrissey sounds his best when he is accompanied by lush orchestration. When he is accompanied by guitars, as his is on his new single ‘You Have Killed Me’, it just sounds a bit limp. Not so with The Smiths. Marr’s guitar work for the band was consistently good, and occasionally breathtaking (the coruscating intro to ‘The Queen Is Dead’, the wobbly bit at the beginning of ‘How Soon is Now?’, the blistering intro to ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’).

Of course, the tragedy about Morrissey / Marr is not just how Morrissey is not quite the same without Marr, but also how Marr isn’t the same without Morrissey. He’s worked with loads of people (including The The, Electronic and now with The Healers), and I’m sure he’s doing alright… I just can’t help but wonder what might have been. But then, it’s that wondering that makes me appreciate the genius of The Smiths all the more.

… Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters (Paul

Imagine the scene: it's the summer of 1998, my friends and I have just completed our first year exams at university and the summer is stretching out before us with only a handful of days of solid socialising left before heading home for the break.

With festival season fast approaching, the rumours spread like wild fire.

Apparently, there's a band called Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters playing at Rock City tonight. Naturally, we reckon it must be Dave Grohl and co playing a secret warm up gig before their scheduled appearance at Glastonbury next week.

So off we trot, making sure we arrive nice and early to get tickets and a good position to see the stage. Strange that they are playing the smaller downstairs room, rather than the main auditorium, but presumably it's because it really is meant to be an intimate gig. One of those "once in a lifetime, tell the grandkids" moments.

Excitement mounts as we stand and wait.

Then out they come.


It's a bunch of blokes wearing dresses.

There are at least five of them, and none of them look like they've even met Courtney Love, let alone become involved in a massive legal dispute with her (although there's a school of thought which suggests they've possibly raided her wardrobe).

And so it was that we watched Mr Miyagi & The Undercover Kung-Fu Fighters perform their unique brand of cross-dressing rock. Seemingly aware of the confusion and rumour which had preceded their gig, the lead singer actually apologised for their not being the Foo Fighters, or Ash (as some other rumours had apparently suggested) mid-way through the set.

However, even eight years later, two songs from that night stand out in the memory.

The first, a rousing rendition of ‘Turtle Power’ from the soundtrack to the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (incidentally that soundtrack was the first album I ever bought, but we'll gloss over that. Cassette, since you ask). The second, their set closing cover of the ‘Postman Pat’ theme tune (I kid you not.)

It may not quite be a "tell the grandchildren" story, but it's certainly one of the most memorable gigs I've ever witnessed.

… Muse (Pete)

The first time I saw Muse I didn't think much of them. In fact, I didn't realise I'd seen them supporting Skunk Anansie in Liverpool (in 1999 I think) until a friend pointed this out a year or so later. But since then they've become a favourite, especially live, which might strike some as being a wee but ironic.

Like quite a few bands around that time, the first time I heard their stuff properly was on the dance-floor of Sophienclub in 2000 after four (or more) beers. 'Showbiz', and the anthemic guitars of 'Sunburn' and 'Muscle Museum' in particular offered something new, even if they came enclosed in the worst album cover in decades.

Being a three man band is always difficult; either one runs out of ideas (like the Stereophonics) or you flirt with additional band members a la Supergrass and Ash. But Muse have still managed to come up with tight, energetic rock with the odd flushes of punk as well as mad classical pianos. The sort of music you play very loud when you're driving. So what you might say? How about "difficult second album syndrome"? What of it; simply come up with the 'Newborn', 'Bliss', 'Plug In Baby' and the like instead. The cover of 'Feeling Good' was a particularly nice touch too.

Muse are frequently accused of overblown and self-important pretentiousness. I say, sod it. You need a bit of excitement now and then. In any case, when they play live, this pretentiousness comes across well. The full-throttle rock of 'Plug In Baby' at dusk, with a backdrop of a lightning storm over a Reading stage? Yes please! Oasis following on was a letdown in comparison (or so people told me). They've even made a gig in Portsmouth entertaining.

Nevertheless, I still go through phases with Muse. The pomposity can get overwhelming at times; there are only so many times you can hear Matt Bellamy's banshee screams among the general hysteria. Still, you only have to hear the opening bars and military beat of 'Sunburn' to realise that they're a special band.

And to think that people once regarded them as just “the next Radiohead”.

… ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’ – The Magic Band (Skif)

… or how I stopped worrying and finally understood Captain Beefheart’s more avant-garde material. Perhaps this is a shameful admission but while I took to Don Van Vliet’s Mojave-inspired desert blues with its subtle polyrhythms pretty much straightaway, it did take me a long while to fully get my swede around the more free-jazz stylings of Trout Mask Replica. I didn’t hear the similar-in-ethic follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby until recently, due it being the only Beefheart LP that hasn’t been fully re-issued, but again I imagine I would have found it difficult to love, at least initially.

After those LPs, Van Vliet decided he’d had enough of being acclaimed but poor and headed in the direction of mainstream rock, producing two albums about as essential as the Leo Sayer compilations that should soon be flooding the market. Returning to form with three fine LPs before retiring from music to life as a painter of the American landscape, Beefheart’s legacy lives long in the realm of alternative culture.

However, this is a double entry for M quite deliberately, for I am talking about The Magic Band’s recent reunion sans the Captain and, particularly, their instrumental exhibition of the radiant ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’. The “reunion” could easily have been a disaster, particularly as the four members came from different eras of the ever-shape-shifting Magic Band and had never played as a unit prior to 2003. Nonetheless, between them they brought experience of virtually all the variant album line-ups into one cohesive unit paying tribute not only to Van Vliet’s music, but to their part in its conception and execution.

One of the most startling things about the contemporary Magic Band was the strength of drummer John “Drumbo” French’s vocal performance, but also that about a third of the set was allowed to breathe as instrumentals with Drumbo in his more traditional position; on the stool battering out startling patterns while Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston’s physique oscillated in time with his extraordinary bass lines and Denny Whalley held things together more subtly on stage left, letting the lunar notes not just float, but take flight.

The thing that captured me most, possibly because on both occasions I have seen them (at Highbury Garage in 2004 and Liverpool Carling Academy in 2005) I have been standing on the side of the stage taken by Gary “Mantis” Lucas, was the complexity of the composition. His fingerwork really was a treat to watch and, I guess, seeing it all come together in a live setting made it all click into place, particularly on ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’ with its twitch and jerk-back guitar motif, which managed to lock me in completely, forcing my body into allsorts of semi-random jolts. Filled with a heat, a passion, but also an intricacy that is the meeting of science and serendipity, this performance made me view musicianship with more than my usual respect; y’see, this was quite awesome. I am no ‘Classic Guitar’-reading muso, but listening to Trout Mask Replica or indeed the Grow Fins box-set of out-takes from those sessions is no longer a dutiful chore, it is a reminder of how rewarding music can be.

(My interview with John French can be viewed here.)

* * * * *

Halfway through, then, and this just might be the best week yet. Thanks to Del, drmigs, Caskared, Swiss Toni, Paul, Pete and Skif for their contributions this time around.


Blogger Ben said...

Caskared: Has Missy Elliott not lost some of her touch since slimming severely? A bit like Samson getting his hair chopped off.

Swiss: Remembering 'Uptown Girl' ahead of 'What Difference Does It Make?' - that is quite a public confession to make...

Paul: What a night that was - can't believe I'd forgotten about it until you sent in your contribution...

3:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben: I don't think there's anything in the inverse weight-superness ratio! I love We Run This and Tery Eyed from The Cookbook, great form. I'm not fussed with Lose Control mind.

Pete: I love the kid pomp rock of Muse! I find it is especially rousing to listen to fullblast on headphones when going to the Post Office.

6:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you can answer a question I've been wanting answered for the best part of a decade?

Why do people credit Missy Elliott (who I find perfectly enjoyable in a female-Biz Markie kind of way) with producing her stuff when it's all Timbaland?
She is constantly praised by indie types for her strange choice of samples and her "crazy sound", but that sound is the sound of Timbaland, a phenomenal producer. The only tracks Missy ever produces herself are the ones that are essentially covers of old electro tracks or very slow traditional RnB tracks she writes for the likes of Aaliyah, Tweet and Monica.

I have been meaning to ask this for years so obviously you didn't start it :-)

1:55 am  
Blogger Paul said...

The Men of Harlech scene in Zulu still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up - it's a magnificent use of music and an excellent choice.

1:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

drmigs: I've been saving up for R is for Róisín Murphy so I felt a Moloko too would overdoing it. But oh I love Flipside very very much! Ha! No one else can do Róisín now. Me bagsy.

ben: nezanau, can I get away by answering in Lithuanian? She's certainly not a tolken. She and Timbaland were working together in t'ut early days and everything I've read shows how much influence she has over her comes out. And I think certainly with Tweet she was doing more than just another RnB thing, there was a real slowNsleazy intensity there that wasn't the bland arrogance of RnB. Debate could go on and on...

Can I send out a biggup to Manu Chao too!

4:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, response meant for bse not ben. Card-carrying dyslexic here...

4:37 pm  
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