Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music: Y

Y is for …

… Yellow Brick Road (Caskared)

Oh, where to even begin? I’ll start with ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ rather than launch straight in with the Captain Beefheart, or Eminem, or Moy, or Harold J Peders, or Kidzone, or Allegro Milano, or Cliff Ames and Kyle Andersen, or Pinky Skeleton, or Crash Alley, or Brian Withycombe, or The Jesus Trip, or A’ State Hustlers, or The Shadows, or Dalva D, or Chad Lawson, or Elton John, or the “tribute to classic rock” band called Yellow Brick Road, or any of the others who have been inspired in some way by this enigmatic paving.

‘The Wizard Of Oz’ was an incredible feast of a film. Why? Because because because because. I still gasp everytime I re-realise it came out in 1939. Although not the first film to be in glorious technicolour, it used the medium brilliantly: Dorothy Gale is swept up from sepia toned Kansas by a tornado landing in a rainbow-coloured fantastical place. In musical logic, of course, Dorothy meets a lion, scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion and they follow the yellow brick road – well you would. “Follow the yellow brick road / Follow the yellow brick road” wind throughout the film. The music is sumptuous throughout, and Judy Garland voice carried her solos with emotion and enduring sincerity when she was just sixteen years old. The tin man has a bit of an accent shift due to dubious aluminium powder poisoning the original actor, but apart from that it still stands up as a pretty seamless production.

And the yellow brick road itself? It’s the gold standard, Oz is an ounce and it’s an allegorical protest against bimetallism – the wicked witch has silver shoes; or the yellow brick road is the walk to justice through using our hearts, our heads and our courage, and our small black dog, loyalty probably, and gingham, um, the matrix of interweaving elements creating an abomination of a pattern, oh but I like gingham, er. And apparently nothing to do with the synchronicity of the Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon if played as a soundtrack. But the idea of the yellow brick road and its spiralling munchkin-celebrated end at the entrance to the Emerald City is iconic.

The film was not instantly well received but gained an enduring notoriety and many musicians have referenced it but most famously by Elton John, which has in turn been covered ad nauseum. Elton John’s double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was written with Bernie Taupin and took twists and turns on their journey through musical styles just as all good prog-rock should. I’m not a fan, but the titular track is a cracking piece of singalong camp… much like its inspiration.

… Yellow Magic Orchestra – ‘Computer Games’ (Del)

Beep beep beep beep. The city is Tokyo. The year is 1980. A whole new generation is being introduced to a new form of music. But it's not records. It's not on the radio. It's computer games.

Who else but Japanese electronic geniuses YMO would take the music behind these primitive disposable video games and turn it into art? Along with the likes of Kraftwerk and The Art Of Noise, their electropop sound was incorporated into hip hop and disco, black music scenes that had never really heard anything like it before. I originally came across this as part of a Grandmaster Flash compilation. Hip hop is the great magpie of music, and takes what it can't find in its own black music heritage from other cultures across the world. YMO continue to influence artists across the board today, being sampled left, right and centre. You only have to listen to the dense electronic production of Timbaland or The Neptunes to see the fingerprints of these electropop pioneers.

I love starting a DJ set with its myriad bleeps and squeaks, like an explosion in an amusement arcade. It still sounds epic and otherwordly over 25 years later, and always catches people's attention. It's got that wonderful feel of retro futurism, sounding like a future we left behind so we could continue living in the past. An age before Pro Tools, 64 channel mixing desks and 128 bit mastering. Weird how we use more technology in music than ever but few records sound quite as forward-looking as this.

… ‘Yes’ – Manic Street Preachers (Swiss Toni)

You can buy her, you can buy her / This one's here, this one's here, this one's here and this one's here / Everything's for sale…

It seems slightly strange to say it of one of the most successful guitar bands of the 1990s, but the story of Manic Street Preachers always seems to me to be tinged with regret and only partially fulfilled promise. They’ve sold millions of records worldwide but will they be remembered for their music or for the disappearance of their non-guitar-playing guitarist on 1st February 1995?

The Holy Bible is their career in microcosm: released six months before Richey Edwards’s disappearance, it was hailed by many as a masterpiece but sold so badly that it wasn’t even released in the USA. The lyrics, 75% of them written by Richey, deal with some bleak issues indeed: anorexia, the holocaust, self-mutilation…

The only time that I ever saw the band performing the songs from this album was at the Reading Festival in 1995. They had a mid-afternoon slot, but made enough of an impression on me that the first thing that I did on my return was to try to buy the album on its day of release, only to be thwarted by the fact that in those days shops didn’t open on Bank Holidays. I saw the band play live several times after that, but after Richey’s disappearance, the band decided to mostly leave these songs unplayed. Perhaps they were simply too painful.

This album, and the opening track in particular, mean a lot to me personally. In September 1995 I left to spend four months studying Renaissance history in Venice. One of my clearest memories of that time is of walking back to my flat at about 3am in the morning from an evening spent in a bar somewhere across town. My walk took me across the Grand Canal at the Academia Bridge, through Saint Mark’s Square and on past the Bridge of Sighs. Usually this route would be absolutely teeming with tourists and pigeons, but at this time of the day it was completely deserted. The fog was gently rolling off the Lagoon and the Basilica was only visible as a hulking silhouette. It was magnificent, and these are priceless memories.

My soundtrack? Tucked into my coat pocket was my Sony Walkman (with graphic equalisers and bass boost, naturally), and in my Walkman was a cassette of The Holy Bible. As I made my way home I was listening to the opening song over and over again:

Two dollars you rub her tits / Three dollars you rub her ass / Five dollars you can play with her pussy / Or you can lick her tits / Choice is yours”.

… ‘Yesterday’ – The Beatles (Paul)

"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away" – The Beatles produce yet another strangely touching lyric, accompanied by a strong melody. A hit is born.

A few years ago, I was invited to a wedding, and the bride and groom to be asked us to list our five favourite songs, presumably so that the DJ could pick some and make sure he was a real crowd pleaser.

Sadly a change of venue meant that the DJ in question never actually made the wedding and the exercise became a pointless one.

However, it really got me thinking. Not, what are my all time top five favourite records (a la ‘High Fidelity’). Instead I was drawn to the question: what are the five most inappropriate songs to play at a wedding?

Which is where The Beatles come in.

I'm always open to suggestions as to what should be included on the list, but so far I'd nominate:

‘Yesterday’ - The Beatles
‘Killing In The Name Of’ - Rage Against the Machine
‘I Hate You So Much Right Now’ - Kelis
‘It's The End Of The World As We Know It’ - REM
‘Smack My Bitch Up’ - The Prodigy

… Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips (drmigs)

Those of you who have followed my polemics will have realised by now that I like my music to have narrative and melody wrapped up in an experimental coherent album. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is the definition of this formula and is awesome (and yes, I say that in light of my comments on superlatives last week). It really is a very good piece of work.

The Flaming Lips had a summer to remember in 2003, much of it built on this album (but some of it was also built on fluffy bunny outfits). Like all good albums its cornerstone is a song of beauty. ‘Do You Realise??’ is one of those tunes that has such a clarity to it that if you open yourself up, it will move you. Simple as that. I don't mean to turn all macabre, but it's the sort of tune that you feel ought to be played at the funeral of someone you are close to. It doesn't wallow in cheap sentimentality; instead, there is an intimacy to the song that concentrates on the merits of living now rather than re-living the past.

The album isn't just one song however. It's a story, the story of… Yoshimi battling the pink robots. Track one, ‘Fight Test’, sets the scene and leads into the vibrancy of the next tracks, ‘One More Robot’ and ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Parts 1 & 2)’. The album then permeates into more ephemeral realms with one track after another following Yoshimi's physical and mental rollercoaster. Yes, all that sounds weird, and it is. But it's a good weird, a weird that is artfully managed within a crafted musical structure.

It's these types of albums that expose the flaws in your generic formula of three tracks that will become hits and seven filler tracks that complete the album and pay the mortgage. That kind of album is lazy and opportunistic. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is the antithesis of that formula.

I feel there isn't much more to say really, as by now I'm preaching to the converted. If you're reading this website, the chances are that you will have come across this album already and formed an opinion on it. If it's not you're cup of tea, fair enough, but for me the album is damn near perfection. I can listen to it when I'm feeling distracted, when I'm feeling intense, or when I'm feeling nothing. It always does the trick. It's awesome.

… Younger Younger 28’s, Havant Asda, 20th August 1999 (Skif)

… or to put it another way, gigs in unusual places. If you’re a humble punter, the gig ideal is about the experience you can get (see my entry for “watching”), while for the bands or promoters it should be about the experience they are able to give. Ideally, this should be more than just be the bands themselves performing, as they could do that in any room above any pub in any town anywhere

For a really memorable gig, the setting plays an important part. I saw about 200 gigs at Portsmouth’s divine Wedgewood Rooms before I headed north but it’s hard to distinguish the memories of them as they all took place in that same visual “box” on the right as you walked in the door and headed, almost certainly, immediately to the bar on the opposite side.

The example I use to squeeze this idea in here is the Younger Younger 28’s, a chirpy synth-pop band led by the wonderfully handled Joe Northern that did the rounds around the end of the last century. One of their success-chasing gambits was to do a tour of supermarkets, and they rocked up at my local Asda (formerly the Havant Hypermarket before US ubër-grocers WalMart started to coil itself like a boa-constrictor around the UK retail market) to play just inside the automatic entry doors. A hack I knew from the local rag was also in attendance so in certain respects their publicity gambit was working. They reeled off a short set, including their single, to a gathered audience of about 30 people of which probably only the News journo, Claire, and I were there actually to see them. Then they left us with our empty baskets to go about our lives. Not long after, Asda knocked down the store and rotated it 90°. If only YY28’s had turned heads so significantly. As it was, they gave up the chase in 2001.

The flaw in my discussion here is that despite the venue, I can’t remember anything about the Younger Younger 28’s music now; aside from the fact you could position it somewhere between Bis and Showaddywaddy. Point is, I can’t remember their songs and I don’t think it inspired me to buy any records either. However, I am not suggesting that the setting for a gig “makes” your enjoyment of the music; after all the experience of hearing live music is slightly different from the experience of the “event”, if you get me.

Saying that, I’m sure many Glastonbury regulars would say different. Indeed, I count myself very fortunate that my only experience of Low in a live environment was in the Union Chapel, London on a snow-blanketed Valentines Day. Being sat in the pews (freezing, thanks to the outside conditions) made the experience of their sound much more special and memorable than if it had been in an identikit university venue or such.

Whether it makes the event memorable, or increases the spectacle and aural pleasure provided by a band’s music, I am in full praise of odd venues. I remember seeing a Czech folk band playing in Cesky Krumlov when I was hostelling there. They were sat round the picnic table that was shoehorned into the front room of a Vltava-side bar that wasn’t itself much bigger than said table. Around 20 of us were able to squeeze in around it, some of the other punters sat around the table with the band as they played. Wonderful, as were the skiffle band playing a brilliant version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ on the King Charles bridge across that same river 100 miles north in Prague. My two favourite memories of that holiday, I reckon.

I also liked my one year at the Truck festival too, not so much the main stage set up on the titular vehicle, but the fact the punk and hardcore kids were annexed to the sweaty barn ghetto, where occasionally they would appear, apple-cheeked and glistening, while us more twee types poked our heads beneath the flaps of stage-tents that would struggle to comfortably house a nuclear family.

Edinburgh in full festival flow is always fun too, with any space capable of housing at least four punters considered a viable venue. One year I ended up in a fully tiered and seated venue set up in the back of a lorry. It was a one-woman show. To a one-man audience. Some of you might point out that this is a music A-Z but a decent proportion of the Fringe brochure each year is taken up by musical artistes who, like every other performer, can end up doing their shtick in churches, office buildings, Masonic lodges, on the street or such. A couple of years ago, one comedian did a show for four people a day in his Mini. Know your audience.

This summer’s festival promises the most bizarre venue yet, the Udderbelly to be put up in Bristo Square. It will be a giant marquee in the shape of an upturned, purple cow. I don’t care if no musical acts play in it; I feel duty bound to tell everyone I meet about it regardless. In addition to this, the Fringe programme’s venue listing this summer will also feature a swimming pool, a bouncy castle and a tree.

Any other suggestions of odd places you’ve seen live music, do please leave them in the comments box.

… Young Marble Giants (Phill)

There is a temptation when creating and recording music to cram as much in as possible. More sounds, more ideas, more instruments, more samples, more, more, more.

Young Marble Giants were something else entirely. They were a band who valued quiet restraint, rather than empty bluster. For YMG, space and silence were something to be treasured and revelled in, only further serving to emphasise the icy, pure, clear voice of singer Alison Stratton.

In a 1980 article written in Sounds Magazine. Dave McCollough said: "Images the music makes are: tiny Welsh tearooms, childhood fear, coffee-bar intimacy, murder, lost love, sleep, tension and longing constantly underlied by an enduring eeriness in the music".

From South Wales, Young Marble Giants formed in the post punk era of 1978, comprising the aforementioned Alison Stratton and the Moxham brothers Philip and Stuart. Isolated in the Welsh valleys, they created stark, otherworldly music that transported the listener to somewhere else, yet was as cold and emotionless as the provincial world they were seeking to escape from.

YMG were / are an enigma. Their debut album Colossal Youth was released in 1980 on Rough Trade and is a thing of understated beauty, comprising fifteen gems of minimalist pop. The record remains a masterpiece and was / is like nothing else that came before or after. Simple, intimate and as sparse as an Arctic tundra, most songs just comprised vocals, bass and a guitar or organ, with perhaps a drum machine for backing.

In YMG songs, no note or lyric is wasted. Songs are skeletal and succinct. Each song says everything that the band wants to say, it is a statement of fact. There is no debate and no need for anything else.

After Colossal Youth the band released a few more tracks and EPs, before splitting up. Their career was a mirror image of one of their songs: short and to the point. Nothing wasted, never outstaying its welcome, but leaving the listener craving more.

Today, even in the wake of “Cool Cymru”, the band are largely unknown. However their influence on bands like The Sundays, Goldfrapp and Portishead is clear. In his journals, Kurt Cobain listed Colossal Youth as one of the ten records that changed his life: "This music relaxes you, it's total atmospherics. It's just nice, pleasant music. I love it. The drum machine has to have the cheesiest sound ever. I had a crush on the singer for a while - didn't everyone?"

Who are we to disagree with Kurt...

… Young Parisians (and other live bootlegs) (Pete)

There's something rather endearing about the live bootleg isn't there? Yes, I admit that it shows a complete disregard for copyright, but the way I see it, if the band / record company don't want to record a live performance then someone else should be able to, and release it as well. But, back to the topic at hand. Your average bootleg will have a dodgy cover, the sound quality will vary and if you're particularly lucky, a few typos as well.

My copy of Radiohead's Young Parisians, recorded at their Amnesty International benefit concert back in 1999, is a prime example. The cover image was almost certainly scanned from an issue of Q, the sound is iffy on the later tracks (that were recorded elsewhere), while the tracklist includes the obvious typo of 'No Suprises', and also features the added bonus of a new song called 'Lust'.

Still, I've been always been quite lucky; out of the ten or so bootlegs I've bought, every single one of them has been listenable, and I've been able to appreciate an example of what the band in question sound like live. Certain friends of mine haven't been quite so lucky though; purchasing a live Supergrass recording which must have literally been recorded in the venue's toilets. Alternatively, there was the Stone Roses CD that was in fact a thrash metal band playing somewhere in Germany.

Sadly, it seems as though in this era of iTunes, file-sharing, music weblogs and live sessions from artists’ basements, the bootleg has all but vanished. At least I haven't seen any on sale for ages, which is a sad loss indeed.

… ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ – Sleater-Kinney (Ben)

As my record collection readily testifies, and as the other week’s waxing lyrical about Codeine graphically illustrated, I’m very partial to a miserable bunch of bastards. Paranoia, depression, mistrust, fear, self-disgust and misanthropy are writ large on nearly every album, single, EP I own. I’m also far from averse to bands who take what they do extremely seriously, who invest (and occasionally burden) their music with statements of significant weight – whether political, philosophical, emotional or otherwise.

Which is where Sleater-Kinney’s 2000 single ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ comes in.

It’s a perky, bursting-at-the-seams-with-life, exuberant-in-extremis punk-pop gem. Its spirit is simply irrepressible. Regardless of your mood, it is guaranteed to contort your face into a smile. Founded on Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s neatly interlocking guitars, Janet Weiss’s thumping beat and one of those inch-perfect solos (you know what I mean), it’s the perfect song to put on before painting the town a particularly vivid shade of red.

But more than that, it’s a tongue waggled goadingly yet playfully in the po-faces of those male “artists” within the world of indie rock that Sleater-Kinney co-inhabit, a pinprick to the self-inflated balloon of their pomposity. The song’s lyrical message, like the music to which it’s set, is direct and arresting. “You’re no rock ‘n’ roll fun”, Tucker begins, “like a party that’s over before it’s begun”, going on to taunt her addressee for refusing to “hang out with the girl band”. The second verse -You’re no rock ‘n’ roll fun / Like a piece of art that no-one can touch / Your head is always up in the clouds / Writing your songs / Won’t you ever come down?” – puts it even more clearly.

As a whole, the song might then be translated as: “Oi, Yorke, get your head out of your arse, stop being so precious about everything, and COME FUCKING PARTY!”.

What made ‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ even more striking is that it came from a band doggedly faithful to their early 90s roots in feminist politics and the American riot grrrl and queercore scenes. And that on the album which followed its release, All Hands On The Bad One, it is sandwiched between a song about the eating disorders of teenage girls (‘Youth Decay’) and a song about the cynical marketing of the riot grrrl image for commercial gain (‘#1 Must Have’). That hardly shrieks “FUN” at you, does it?

But, as the wry reference to “” in post-feminist call-to-arms ‘#1 Must Have’ indicates, Sleater-Kinney might often be fired up and itching to get something across, but they never resort to the humourless harangue or sociology-lecture-disguised-as-a-song to do so.

‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ works in perfect tandem with the album’s opener, ‘Ballad Of A Ladyman’, written in response to the band’s appearance at the inaugural Belle & Sebastian curated Bowlie Weekender in 1999: “I could be demure like girls who are soft / And boys who are fearful of getting an earful / But I gotta rock!”. Note: not “I wanna rock”, but “I gotta rock”. It’s a matter of necessity.

‘You’re No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun’ is a clenched fist with painted fingernails punching the air, and an often timely and much-needed poke in the eye for both soppy sensitive songwriters who take everything (including themselves) too seriously, and for those who, like myself, do too – and as such it’s one of my most prized singles.

… Youth (by way of Yazz) (James)

I remember standing next to the DJ box in Liverpool’s The State Ballroom in about 1987. I was a goth, and while my mind was relatively broad at the time – courtesy of my mother’s old vinyl collection, I could have fitted well the old dictum “I know what I like and I like what I know”. I was sixteen years old.

The State was known a year or two earlier as a fairly cool yet mildly indie nightclub. At least that was how it had been billed. (It was featured in the film ‘Letter To Brezhnev’, by the way.) And while it still played the occasional Smiths tune, and other examples of mainstream indie music, dance music was creeping in.

So I was standing there and arguing, in some annoying fashion no doubt, that this dance music was shit, and where had the guitars gone. Now this argument was already technically redundant to me – I already had dance music in my record collection; Propaganda, Depeche Mode, even Dead Or Alive (who were produced by Stock, Aitken & Waterman no less). But somehow this fact eluded me – probably because they were considered cool in some fashion, or more serious, or wore make-up (a big bonus point for me in those days).

This is one version of “me” from my memory that I would like to erase – like the one that told my girlfriend’s friend that I was seeing someone else, truly not expecting her to pass on the devastating news. The reason I would so like to pretend that this argument in The State never happened is because that same arrogance and bloody-minded denial of the facts so pisses me off now.

I am a teacher, and since I am remotely young, I find myself in conversations with students about music. Hip hop (of the least exciting variety) and R ‘n’ B is de rigeur. The school has one notional goth, who genuinely is weird (and not in any good way), and since my appreciation for these genres is perhaps more… erm… nuanced, conversations often hit a fairly obnoxious dead-end. They are obnoxious because if I ever try to extend tastes just a little this way, or a little that (maybe a little old-school, or electro-beat, or whatever), the revulsion is immediate. Reasoning is useless.

The similarity between me in The State and my students, is, of course, age. Six months after this argument, Coldcut featuring Yazz released ‘Doctorin’ The House’. I haven’t listened to this in years, but I recall it being infectiously catchy and heralding some grand new thing. I couldn’t resist it, and in the months that followed, I bought records by Coldcut, S’Express, Bomb The Bass and any notion of my hatred of dance music was lost. It remained perhaps, a side interest, but the tall walls that separated me from it were torn down. Over the years that followed, other barriers have been removed, but I realised that such antipathy to a style of music was not natural for someone that considered themselves a music lover.

I also imagine that in six months, or a year, or even five, most of these students that have obstinately declared all but 50 Cent inferior will gradually extend themselves, if not a lot, then almost certainly a bit. “Youth”, as Oscar Wilde said, is indeed “wasted on the young” Wait until they grow up… then maybe they’ll buy Celine Dion records – but no, that is a different problem.

* * * * *

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

One more week to go...


Blogger Ben said...

Paul: My suggestion (off the top of my head) - 'You Fuck Like My Dad' by Giant Drag.

Skif: There was a band playing on the Metro when I was in Paris in April, and some friends played a gig at a bunk barn in the middle of the Peak District a couple of years ago, but the most memorable has to be the time I walked out of Rock City having just seen Rocket From The Crypt to be confronted with the band Beach Buggy playing on the street over the road. Full drumkit, amps and everything.

Pete: I'm sure they weren't the first to do it, Pearl Jam helped to take bootlegs overground by releasing "official bootlegs" of every gig on one of their tours. It meant you could go to a gig and then relive the experience at home for years afterwards. Of course it also meant a massive outlay for completists...

12:18 am  
Blogger Del said...

What a wonderful week.

ST: Holy Bible - one of my all time favourite albums!

drmigs: Yoshimi - one of my all time favourite albums!

Paul: Tammy Wynette - D.I.V.O.R.C.E

Ben: On Nottingham's Uni Radio station, URN's Best Station Student Radio Award entry 2000, which got us nominated by important radio types, a certain Paul back announces that very Sleater Kinney track. I know that cos i had to listen to the bloody thing about a million times when we put it together. But Paul's rich baritone was always soothing.

12:32 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Young Marble Giants - can't argue with that at all.
Stunning and beautiful music. Final Day continual amazes every time I play it.

8:29 pm  
Blogger bytheseashore said...

Yellow Magic Orchestra - genius.

Re bootlegs, it's worth keeping an eye out for record fairs. There don't seem to be as many bootlegs around as when the blokes selling home-made posters used to turn up every couple of months at uni with stacks of tapes seemingly recorded from the crowd with a dictaphone, but I got a copy of a Radiohead gig from 97 a couple of weeks ago. Recorded straight through the mixing desk too, which was a bonus. Stalls at fairs these days tend to have a portable CD player with them too so you can try before you buy.

If anyone's got a copy of Radiohead's first Glasto on the Pyramid Stage (97 I think), I'll promise to be your best friend forever.

8:19 pm  

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