Thursday, 21 May 2015

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Hot City Nights



(# 371: 24 September 1988, 1 week)

Track listing:  I Want To Break Free (Queen)/Alone (Heart)/New Sensation (INXS)/Crazy Crazy Nights (Kiss)/Summer of '69 (Bryan Adams)/Big Log (Robert Plant)/I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner)/Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton)/Livin' On A Prayer (Bon Jovi)/Hot In The City (1988 Remix) (Billy Idol)/Start Talking Love (Magnum)/Here I Go Again (U.S. Remix) (Whitesnake)/Lavender (Marillion)/We Belong (Pat Benatar)/Look Away (Big Country)/Spirit Of Radio (Rush)


The information on this album is scarce; from what I can tell it was advertised on tv and even at this late date, if the timing is right (as it clearly was here) enough people bought it to get it to #1; it may well be that this is the last such compilation that appears here.  So much of this album has been covered by TPL already that I may as well get those out of the way first, with their relevant parent compilations....

The first song here is by Queen and is a current R2 staple, though at this time I guess most of these songs were R1 staples.  Anyway, it's on NOW 3 and I'm bound to get to it at some point again, knowing how beloved Queen are, and all.

I wrote about Heart on NOW 10 and it's still scary, maybe even a bit obsessive.

Kiss are just as meh as ever, also on NOW 10, and like I said before, they were so much better when they wore makeup and didn't think of doing solo albums.

"I Want To Know What Love Is" appears on the otherwise wretched Agent Provocateur.

I have nothing to say about "Wonderful Tonight" save that I'm not sure I'd marry a man who wrote this song about me, but, well, that's rock 'n' roll I guess.  There is a live version of this on his new career retrospective, which coincides with his Royal Albert Hall concerts.  Of course.

Much more about Bon Jovi soon; for now this union rocker is on TPL's NOW 9 review.

This compilation's title Hot City Nights comes from "Hot In The City" by Sir William Idol, and Marcello wrote about it on NOW 11

I also wrote about Whitesnake not making any sense on NOW 10, though I note they still have their fans, as they too have a new album out, as the appetite for rock never really goes away.

"Lavender" by Marillion is on Misplaced Childhood, and I bet if the original lineup got together they could still do something interesting, considering the current political circumstances.

As you can see that's a lot of this album dealt with already, so, here comes the rest...

If I hadn't had my Plath reasons, when in London, I probably would have ended up staying in Earls Court; I was told it was full of Australians, though I didn't really know what, if anything, that implied.  I figured they were upbeat and friendly and cool, just as INXS were, because everyone liked Kick. Why?  It was rock and it was poppy and they had a sax player as part of the band and Michael Hutchence was clearly into it. They'd had a hit with the rockin' "What You Need" in N. America (from Listen Like Thieves) and were huge in Australia and ready to take on the world - they finally got a break in the UK with "New Sensation."  It's big, optimistic, loud, upbeat, with the consoling "you're only human, what can you do?" big shoulder of the band to lean on.  (According to a quote on wiki, their label didn't want to release Kick as they thought it was..."They said there was no way they could get this music on rock radio. They said it was suited for black radio, but they didn't want to promote it that way.")  Yup, future singles like "Mystify" and "Never Tear Us Apart" were never gonna make it on rock radio.  The mind boggles.  Is Kick a great album?  Of course it is, but all their dumb label could think about was marketing.  Already you can sense a shift in what rock is, and in fact this album already feels like a half-relic showing what was, amidst the flood of the new, whether it be from the UK, US or Australia.  (In case you've wondered why it sounds like there's a bit of plucky acoustic stuff in there - INXS were fans of XTC and for all I know named themselves that way in tribute.)

I have heard "Summer of '69" so many times now, especially since I lived in Canada for a good long time and it's practically an anthem there, that it's hard to remember when Bryan Adams was this guy from Vancouver (by way of Kingston, lest anyone forget) with an annoying manager who didn't like CanCon and he made stadium rock like this which may well be about an act of love and not a year, if you know what I mean. It's done so straight and Adams is clearly more in love with music than he is with this girl that even with this idea in mind, it's still not a sexy song.

Following that comes Robert Plant and "Big Log" is about driving along, thinking about the one you love - but it's very laid-back and Plant doesn't really howl at all here, just moseys along, taking his time, "my love, my love is in league with the freeway" and there is pleasure in this coolness compared to the huffing and puffing elsewhere.  Plant's band are laid back too, just strolling along...space and time open up and pause as the road goes by, as "passion will ride."  Rock 'n' roll is about escape, but also about being pulled by desire, and this song contains both, with Plant sounding like the veteran he is, by now.

Speaking of the Midlands, here is Magnum and "Start Talking Love."  Magnum are from Birmingham, they are rock and this song is from their seventh album and yet I don't really know them and based on this song I can't say I actually want to know about them.  They have their fans (a live album of theirs made the charts just recently) but when I think of 1988 and rock I don't really think of this...

...this is a huge digression, but anyone who reads TPL must know I digress, so....

...in truth my idea of rock is being turned and altered all the time in '88, alongside so much else;  so much so that one of the best albums of the year is rock, sure, but not rock as Magnum would understand it.  It's ....




Lincoln by They Might Be Giants.  I really cannot say enough about this album besides it has more wisdom, sympathy, wordplay, invention and so on than anything which was considered (such an 80s phrase) "cutting edge" at the time.  I won't go through every song (there's 18 of 'em) in detail as part of the joy of TMBG is that there are surprises, puzzles, things which make no sense logically but do emotionally, not to mention ineffable moments that are hard to describe.  The proto-Gen X rant of "Stand On Your Own Head"; the sublime "Where Your Eyes Don't Go"; the anti-war "Pencil Rain"; the late Baby Boomer rock anthem "Purple Toupee"; the misery of saleswork in "Snowball In Hell."  There is something here for everyone, from those in love to those who love the bottle too much, from pure pop devotees to jazz fans, to fans of just weird songs that make no sense (I still am wondering what "Cage & Aquarium" is about).  It is just greatness, and yes, I will write about their next album, Flood, when the time comes....

...and now, back to Hot City Nights (cue photo of a city at night when it's hot).

Pat Benatar is one of those figures who were always there on the radio, from 1979 onwards; she had hits in N. America years before breaking through in the UK (with this song and then "Love Is A Battlefield") and was so tough-sounding (and classically trained, too!) that I could admire her, but never love her.  She is such a great singer, though, that she can make any song take on more meaning than it actually has (not that "We Belong" has no meaning) and even give meaning to songs that otherwise would be a mess (does anyone know what "Red Vision" from Seven The Hard Way is about?).  Benatar always seems to deal in absolutes and extremes, a very rock stance, and she is a feminist, singing about (for instance) "Hell Is For Children" before child abuse was a more acceptable topic for songs later in the 80s/90s.  And like so many here, she is still out there touring, if not making new music.

"Look Away" is on NOW 7 and originally on the album The Seer and it's a sad song - though busy-enough that you might miss it. I mention it here separately as Big Country's music is so important in understanding how things are now in Scotland, and it is too bad that this is where their appearances, however slight, on TPL end.  I often wish I could get in a time machine and save various musicians at various times, and Stuart Adamson, who should have lived to see what is happening now (imagine Big Country at the Commonwealth Games...).

And now, quite unexpectedly, we go to Toronto.  Turn to 102.1 on the FM dial, and hear....CFNY, the Spirit of Radio!

Yes, in a kind of closing/opening loop that seems to be my motif for '88, here are Rush, Canada's own Ambassadors of Rock and they are singing a song inspired by the very station that I am, at this point in '88, still listening to, though in a different way (see previous entry).  The song circles and swirls around itself, a song about the magic of radio and music and the energy of both ("invisible airwaves crackle with life" - music as the life force).  Music, which can get bogged down in "endless compromises" but nevertheless soars and conquers, even as the salesmen and corporate forces strive to make rock 'n' roll  (the spirit of freedom and defiance and I'm yes being idealistic here good humor and generosity and energy)...well, there's that and there's the world of radio with its playlists, prejudices and sometimes suspicious DJs to flatten everything out and make it a commercial enterprise.  Rush released this on January 1, 1980 to show their fans they knew what time it was, that the 80s were going to be different and to praise a station that was trying to do something different in the commercial context - to be alternative long before such a word was used to describe music.

This song stands for a whole huge period in my life that, in '88 terms, hasn't disappeared but is starting to wane; a feeling that I was connected to the wider world through one station, that life itself could be improved and mediated through music alone.  With my interest in language, rhyme and literature in general coming back, I was leaning harder on the music I loved and leaning hard now too on the written word, and finding things in it I couldn't find in music.  The numbness I experienced in London was still there, sure, but the sense of purpose and even mission I had with language was taking over.  Rock 'n' roll says that sometimes you have to strive to figure out your voice - and that was what I was doing, as well as sensing that music was (coincidence?) beginning to shift alongside me.  Hot City Nights is the music of my youth, for the most part; the kind of stuff I'd hear at the mall, booming out of fellow students' cars, on Q107 or CHUM* - CFNY played INXS and Billy Idol and Big Country and Rush, of course.  The red-purple night, the zooming head and tail lights of the freeway cars, the rock life wasn't to be mine, not in quiet Oakville it wasn't.  But with poetry and hip-hop and new ways of thinking about music were taking over, and making that version of rock seem old-fashioned, indeed.

*Other radio stations in Toronto, The Mighty Q being the main rock station in town.     



      

        




Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Kylie MINOGUE: Kylie





(#370: 27 August 1988, 4 weeks; 19 November 1988, 2 weeks)

Track listing: I Should Be So Lucky/The Loco-Motion/Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi/It’s No Secret/Got To Be Certain/Turn It Into Love/I Miss You/I’ll Still Be Loving You/Look My Way/Love At First Sight

“Watching Alice rise year after year
Up in her palace, she's captive there”
(Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, “Watching Alice,” from the 1988 album Tender Prey)

Neighbours premiered on BBC daytime television on Monday 27 October 1986, just over fourteen years since restrictions on daytime television hours had been lifted. ITV had taken immediate advantage – Emmerdale began as an afternoon soap – but the BBC, fatally cautious as ever, hummed and hawed and tentatively set about developing Ceefax. In actuality October 1986 was a fitting time for daytime television to find itself; it was slowly and perhaps grudgingly acknowledged that its captive audience not only included children, pensioners and young mothers and/or housewives, but also the long-term unemployed. There was still reckoned to be enough slack in the capitalist system for something approaching a “dole culture” to be sustainable (although this turned out to be an illusion, built on a combination of reckless City speculation and one-off episodes of large-scale Government expenditure; by 1987, under media pressure and with another General Election looming, the slow clampdown on all of this had begun).

The daytime programming on offer on BBC1 was not reckoned to be much beyond filler status. Indeed, the first Monday’s programming began with a grotesque “documentary” which should never have been allowed to happen – the title Who’s A Pretty Girl, Then? has already told you much more than you need to know – followed by a curious mixture of public obligation broadcasting (a programme for the disabled entitled One In Four, an unexciting-sounding televised ‘phone-in show called Open Air, which involved a very young Eamonn Holmes) and children’s television (Play School, Henry’s Cat, Phillip Schofield, an edition of The Clothes Show which I will likewise try to pretend never existed) mixed with fairly random stuff – a Gardeners’ World special from Pebble Mill, a rerun of The Onedin Line, a Rhoda spinoff called Valerie (which also featured a very young Jason Bateman), something called Star Memories (wouldn’t happen now) in which Nick Ross asked Su Pollard about her memories – plus the obligatory news and weather bulletins, and right in the middle of all this, at 1:25 pm, Britain’s first view of Neighbours.

In truth it should have been considered for a teatime rerun right there and then, rather than what was on at 5:35, namely Masterteam with Angela Rippon (“Will the MICKLEBARROW MORRIS MEN dance their way to gold tonight?”), but that didn’t happen until the beginning of 1988, by which time it had become clear that the soap was astonishingly popular. Paul Morley describes Neighbours as being “a virtual matrix of all the differences in white Australia” and really it was not very much; devised by Reg Watson, who in a previous ATV life had helped formulate the notion of Crossroads, nothing much happened in its episodes other than endless sunshine and barbecues as well as minor drama, the endless chronicling of love lives and the learning of lessons. One felt that this was what might be offered on the Village’s television channel, and what world, if any, lay beyond the partially anagrammatic Erinsborough?

Kylie Minogue came into the series some time after this – she had begun working on Neighbours in April 1986, but these episodes didn’t filter down to British television until much later – but her Charlene Mitchell instantly became one of the show’s most popular characters, essentially a portrayal of a girl who didn’t want to be portrayed as a “girl” (her eventual trade was as a welder). In 1987 she appeared with other cast members at a benefit concert for a local Australian rules football team and performed “The Loco-Motion.” Much to her surprise this went down a storm and the demand for a record rose. When released – as “Locomotion” – it topped the Australian charts for seven weeks.

The record had come about because the Stock, Aitken and Waterman team had sent one of their engineers – a Canadian named Mike Duffy – to Australia as part of a work exchange programme. While there, Duffy produced “Locomotion” in what he felt was the trademark SAW style, and telephoned Waterman to let him know how the record had done and play it to him. Waterman was amazed by the news but distinctly unimpressed by the record – “The Loco-Motion,” as performed by Little Eva, was one of his favourite pop songs – and when Minogue eventually came under SAW’s direct aegis, Waterman made sure that the song was re-recorded.

In 1988, no album sold more in Britain than Kylie – to date it has gone seven times platinum – and few 1988 number one albums give me greater headaches. As you may have guessed, I have had some considerable amount of time to think about how to approach this record, and at one stage I planned it to be the centre of an epic rant about false memory syndrome, the decline of the British music press and the pandering to a white, male, middle-aged, middle-class audience of consumers endemic in both. All that was needed was for the record to be great, greater than all those “classics” nobody wanted at the time but which everybody now professes to have “loved.”

The trouble is, yet again with the twenty-year-old Kylie, there really isn’t any “there” there. But a greater difficulty lies with the approach of SAW. I understand their late eighties function as a sort of walk-in Hits 4U facility, their renegade status as independent operators with comparatively limited facilities who could compete on equal terms with, or even outdo, the corporate majors – and this best asserted itself in their dozens of fine singles.

With Kylie, however, the problem is much the same as was the case with Rick Astley, namely that SAW weren’t very good at albums. Here we have an album utilising the standard pre-Beatles formula of half-front loaded hits, half-filler, containing four top two singles and three pop classics of which any musician would have a right to be proud – “I Should Be So Lucky,” “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi” with both subject matter and enigmatic chord progression worthy of My Bloody Valentine, and “Turn It Into Love,” where for once Minogue sounds committed to something, emotional – but further delving reveals there still to be flaws; Hazell Dean, I recall, endured some terrible stick from Kylie fans about "stealing her song" and never had another Top 40 hit thereafter, and although SAW provided Dean with a very different arrangement of the same song, I wonder whether Dean’s hearty decisiveness isn’t actually more suited to the song’s emotional tenor. Certainly no outraged Mandy Smith fans expressed concern about Kylie doing her “Got To Be Certain” (which admittedly would have been unlikely, as Smith’s version was not commercially released until 2005).

But the rest of the non-single work here is simply dull, uneventful, so much so that their ennui envelops even the hits. The problem is not that Kylie is too poppy – conversely, it’s not poppy enough. There’s always the shade of SAW’s ingenuity poking through here and there – the unexpected harmonic diversions throughout “It’s No Secret” (the closest the record comes to Motown), the odd jelly plate of wobbling bass which grumbles throughout “I’ll Still Be Loving You” – but things like “I Miss You” aim for bland jazz-funk AoR which was certainly not SAW’s strong point, while “Look My Way” resembles an offcut from the first Madonna album five years too late.

More concerning is where, if anywhere, Kylie herself is in all of this. The record was quite clearly and squarely aimed at teenage girls and I don’t think that at this late stage of our civilisation further white, middle-aged, middle-class male critical output is needed. But so many of these songs – none written by the singer herself – set her up as a kind of pop doormat; she is forever being used by him, or only dreaming of him, or frantically and needlessly apologising to him (which is what her “Turn It Into Love” is really all about). And there is nothing in her voice, which is indistinct, feathery and sometimes inscrutable, to suggest what she plans to do about all of this mess. She certainly doesn’t sound like a singing actress, or even like the former child star that she was (The Sullivans, The Henderson Kids) struggling with the notion of growing up – it should be noted that in 1988 alone, Tanita Tikaram was a year younger than Kylie when she released Ancient Heart, and that Debbie Gibson was two years younger when she put out Only In My Dreams – albums whose songs were written by the artists themselves.

Really she doesn’t sound like much of anything, and her robotic retread of “The Loco-Motion” indicated that Waterman was right to be uneasy about revisiting the song, which in its 1962 original was composed, as Dave Marsh put it, of lots of little sounds which in themselves didn’t mean very much but when compressed together sounded like the biggest sound there had ever been – and in the late 1962 context of nuclear uncertainty and emerging girl power probably sounded like a (happy) explosion (the low sax harmonies resemble a bagpipe drone). But in 1988, 1962 was already a long time ago, and putting together jigsaw pieces of voice-tracking over a determinedly anonymising dancebeat was no substitute for what the original had suggested. Here it is just another harmless suburban nightclub floorfiller for the unfussed – a description which couldn’t be applied to the single which kept it off number one – and, as with the rest of this record, does nothing to suggest that this was somebody who would go on to have number one albums in four different decades…and counting. “How would the 12 labours of Hercules compare with the toil of Terry thrice weekly?” runs the description of the Wogan chat show as broadcast on Monday 27 October 1986. Or the toil of working out what can’t be got out of Kylie Minogue’s head? Even the alleged happy ending of "Love At First Sight" - not the last time she would record a song of this name - is disturbing in the context of what has preceded it. Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" - most music critics' idea of 1988's best single - is really no more than a crudely-disguised paranoid Motown stomper which R Dean Taylor could have pulled off with great bubblegum aplomb, but its careful and gradual self-obliteration, of both self and truth, is perhaps more in keeping with Minogue's "Been hurt in love before/But I still come back for more" than is comfortable.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 12





(#369:  23 July 1988, 5 weeks)


Track Listing:  With A Little Help From My Friends (Wet Wet Wet)/Circle In The Sand (Belinda Carlisle)/Wild World (Maxi Priest)/Love Changes (Everything)(Climie Fisher)/I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That (Elton John)/Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy) (Scritti Politti)/In The Air Tonight ('88 Remix) (Phil Collins)/Don't Go (Hothouse Flowers)/Everyday Is Like Sunday (Morrissey)/Mary's Prayer (Danny Wilson)/Don't Call Me Baby (Voice Of The Beehive)/Can I Play With Madness (Iron Maiden)/These Dreams (Heart)/I Will Be With You (T'Pau)/Doctorin' The House (The Timelords)/Boys (Summertime Love)(Sabrina)/I Want You Back (Bananarama)/I Think We're Alone Now (Tiffany)/Who's Leaving Who (Hazell Dean)/There's More To Love (The Communards)/Get Lucky (Jermaine Stewart)/Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You (Glenn Medeiros)/Theme From S-Express (S-Express)/Push It (Salt 'N' Pepa)/Bad Young Brother (Derek B)/The Payback Mix (Part One) (James Brown)/Car Wash (Rose Royce)/Pink Cadillac (Natalie Cole)/Just A Mirage (Jellybean featuring Adele Bertei)/A Love Supreme (Radio Mix) (Will Downing)


"The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and the establishment of the new, constitutes a period of transition which must always necessarily be one of uncertainty, confusion, error and wild and fierce fanaticism." John C. Calhoun


This TPL piece is an important one for me as it closes, as it were, a kind of loop; a loop that, had things gone differently, never would have begun in the first place.  I would not be sitting here in London writing this had I not met a certain person, just as the loop, effectively, would not have begun had I not been in London and been told what I was told.  It is hard to write about this as some of what I was told turned out to be true, truer in much larger ways than I could comprehend at the time, and the very act of writing for this blog (or any music writing I do) is of course against what I was told.

My time in London was in many ways quite predictable - starting with my cheap night flight out of Hamilton Mountain Airport, sitting in the smoking section in the back (not because I smoked, but because I felt safer there) seated between a woman reading a horror novel and a man determined to get every liqueur offered, including a lurid green one that looked so awful, it could have been medicine - and for him, perhaps it was.  Both were English, and I'm not sure either were awake when the golden honey light of sunrise happened, a warm glow that I took symbolically (don't forget I'm a real Plath person now) that my new life was beginning, that I was plunging, however uncertainly, into The New.  The only thing I recall about Gatwick were some other passengers returning from a place called....Ibiza...wearing straw hats that indicated this, tans, t-shirts, and so on.  I found my way to the train, saw the crowded houses of whichever towns I passed, ended up in Victoria Station and dealt with the heavy change (compared to Canadian) and made my way up to Hampstead, where my hostel was and I was to stay for nearly a month.  (Yes, I could have stayed in Earl's Court, but Hampstead was a lot closer to Plath's London.)

So there I was, checking in at what seemed to be an old mansion turned into a huge hostel; I put my stuff away and went down to Hampstead to see what was what.  As you can imagine my memories of this trip are subjective in the extreme, fragmented because of my grief.  I am not nostalgic for this time save for the freedom I had - the freedom I really had to deal with, as there was no one (outside of the hostel's Cinderella-style curfew rules) who could tell me what to do.  Or so I thought...

At some point early on I must have met up with The Journalist; we went to Covent Garden for some free music/dance performance, and who knows if I had (by then) got my A-Z; I must have gotten it soon enough though, as even with it I found the streets puzzling.  I know I went (all hostelers got a coupon) to Madame Tussaud's for free, just as I remember seeing Hidden City at a cinema on Rupert St. (irritating) and going to every museum I could cheaply.  The city was polluted, busy on busy streets but somehow quiet and deserted on others.  There were no open-top tourist buses - if I wanted to go somewhere, I took the underground and then walked.  My Frommer's Guide and A-Z were the only guides I had, and besides a few errands to do with my mom's craft jewelry interests I had no real obligations, besides ones that were self-imposed.  I didn't eat meat, so did the best I could in that regard, and no, I don't remember the food being all that great save for Pizzaland, where I had a very fine pizza - their hot, spicy one - a few days before I left.

I went to the Tate as Turner was my father's favorite painter, only to be bossed by a man not that much older than me who was taking some class of 7-year-olds around the old section, the one where you have nothing but religious paintings with their gold halos.  He told me to bend down so I could see the gold halo as it was supposed to be seen, and of course I didn't; I had already handled - delicately! - gold leaf as part of my mom's jewelry production.  I didn't tell him this, as I was more privately irritated that someone who, hello, wasn't my father would tell me how to appreciate art.  I went on to the Turners and tried to feel my father's spirit - if it was anywhere in London, it would be there...

...and that, unfortunately, is pretty indicative of my experience in London - I was okay (well, relatively) by myself, but my encounters with others did not always go very well, outside of the hostel, where I got along with everyone, save for declining (politely) some custard someone there thought I should try.  These girls my age and younger were not bossy or brittle or bitter; some had a right to be, I guess, but they weren't.  (My own problem with the hostel was the women's bathroom which had moss on the ceiling - I kid you not - I felt unsafe in there, and didn't use it.  Otherwise, it was fine.)  I went to other museums, walked around Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road a lot, made forays down King's Road and Fulham Road and Portobello (to Rough Trade, where I heard "Peek-a-boo" by Siouxie and the Banshees and said it was good and the English girl next to me agreed).  I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and Natural History Museum, and of course the National Gallery.

But at some point I must have bottomed out - it was a warm day, and I was in...Bloomsbury?....at a small museum of porcelain and other delicate things.  It was empty, unlike some of the larger places (which didn't seem all that crowded, mostly) and I went to the washroom and slumped down.  I was numb.  I was feeling so many things that I could feel, genuinely, nothing.  I did not know what to do but keep going, keep looking.  I expected more music in my time in London, to go see a gig somewhere, only to be stymied by the double problem of my curfew and there being not much to go see anyway.  The Journalist was remarkably uninterested in music for someone who had a radio show to do every week, so I didn't even know where any of the venues I'd read about in the NME or MM were, I didn't get to talk about music with him that much - we tended to see movies together instead.  We saw Wings Of Desire in Soho, and a suffocatingly awkward double bill in Finchley of My Life As A Dog and an Eric Rohmer movie called Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle.  I read Time Out and Martin Millar novels and of course Plath, and the music weeklies.  The world of Smash Hits was too shiny and happy for me, as you'd expect, and things came to a head when I visited The Journalist in Catford.     

To preface this:  I liked to hang around the Vale of Health in Hampstead Heath a lot - I felt at home there.  It has a small deep pond and I once saw a dog go in and then dry itself out by shaking and getting its expensively-attired mistress very wet; she told him to stop, but of course he didn't.  I would sit and read on the bench there (not knowing that Shelley liked to hang out there, an age ago)*, minding my own business as usual.  And then I was sexually harassed - I won't say how, it wasn't directly physical as such, though the jogger in question asked me something and I politely refused.  Did I want to see him do that?  No, I did not. I was horrified, and when I told The Journalist he didn't seem to be that concerned that anything actually wrong or bad had happened.  If I'd had any sense I would have dropped him like the proverbial hot potato, but my stoic determination to keep going trumped it.  And so I went to Catford...  

...and if I said the high point was going over a bridge and seeing the Houses of Parliament reflected in the Thames, like a lovely Monet painting come to life, well, it was...

...because this is where I was defeated, where I was exhausted.  I must have talked about writing, about music writing in particular, only for The Journalist to tell me that my ambitions to write for the NME or MM were just plain wrong.  Never mind that I was the wrong gender (this went without saying); I hadn't gone to the proper university, made the right friends, I wasn't part of the gang and therefore would never be accepted.  Better I stay on at Ryerson and write straight journalism, rather than write about music.  Period.

I don't know what I said to him, but I know how empty I felt on the way back, and revolted.  The only thing I've read that is akin to how I felt is (and if you're eating right now, apologies) this:


"The whole thing becomes an awful brown goop.  I pour this into a baking dish and cover it with a lot of milk  Then I bake it. While it bakes, it smells like a rotting body.  Finally, after thirty minutes it is ready.  Now, I am no baby....Yet, when I open up my oven to get out my celery loaf, I begin to dry-heave. It smells just like I put vomit in a baking pan and baked it for thirty minutes. I slam the oven door shut, spray the entire place with Lysol, and leave my apartment." - Rebecca Harrington, I'll Have What She's Having, pg. 75


That I went back to see The Journalist - unannounced, to talk some more - is both terrible to me now and yet predictable as well.  I did not know what to do.  I cannot remember what I said or what he said, only that when I left to go back to my hostel, that was it.  I met up with him in a pub - before, after? - and gave him a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, by Lester Bangs.  I have no idea if he read it, though he at least thanked me.**

The door had been open, and now was shut.  No way was yours truly going back to the UK to write for a music paper after Ryerson; it was a closed shop, and I was not going to spend any time knocking on the door, when it was pointless to do so.  I did not consider how this situation was likely the case in many areas of UK culture in general - I didn't even think of which universities were involved, or anything.  It did not bear thinking about, like a math problem way too hard to understand.  Nor did I look at these papers, even, and try to figure out who these people were, maybe write to them and try to get some idea of how things actually were.  I was twenty-one, naive, alternately stubborn and easily influenced.  I did not know about the turbulence at the NME or the radicalization of MM, and again if someone had told me that my future husband knew some of the MM staff, well, that would have been an even further leap than the ones about Public Enemy and The Fall.  I flat-out would not have believed them.  I was condemned, as I saw it, to keep my musical discourses and enthusiasms and so on to the home front.  My instincts told me I wouldn't enjoy university, so I would have to teach myself.

I went to Pizzaland, I went to the Hayward Gallery to see the Ned Kelly paintings by Sidney Nolan, and flew back to Canada eating a huge Cadbury hazelnut bar and reading the NME, as ever.  I babbled happily to my mom about the Southbank experience and the Italian restaurant I'd been to that had phonetic spellings of everything on the menu but didn't know what a Shirley Temple was.   

It was with all this in my experience that I listened to NOW 12 and while no song brought everything back - I wouldn't want my experience to come back, it was too damaging, as good as it was to be out of Oakville, learning to live day to day with not much support of any kind, certainly not emotionally.

Thus, my views on the songs here are brief - I didn't really pay much attention to chart pop at the time, and even if I did and liked it, this increasing void in my life was bigger, more constant, and everything else became part of it, or was a dull mockery of it.  I bought a lottery ticket for the Terence Higgins Trust and the man wondered if I was Swedish.  I found out that being a young woman on my own in London period was difficult (not just in the Vale of Health but walking around Covent Garden).  The city had fewer people than now, but was more polluted.  My only refuges were my fellow female hostelers and music.  One of them told me that July 22nd was my 'name day' - my unofficial second birthday.  That this woman's last name and mine were almost the same was a nice coincidence too, but I liked that it was in the summer, when I always wanted a birthday, so I could go out and have fun, and not be stuck inside, avoiding the cold.  This reassured me that a new life was possible, new perspectives were good things to learn, from a new birthdate onwards. 

NOW 12 is strictly a tale of the adults vs. the kids - very clearly the two tapes are organized this way, so if you know what you want, well, you can just get to it and not have to wait.  The first tape is for the adults and is just as exciting as you'd expect, ie not very.  I've been told it's what Radio One was like at the time, pretty tame, but there are joys in that too, along with boredom.   The Second Summer of Love is happening, grooviness is back in style, but I experienced none of that, and probably wouldn't have been able to, in any case.  I'm not even sure I envied them, though I could see they were having a good time, riding around in cars booming house music and drinking too much maybe and unbridledly enjoying themselves.  Meanwhile I walked around hot, mostly empty museums or puzzled over my A-Z or tried to enjoy vegetarian restaurants in Fulham or Bloomsbury....         

...to the music...


"With A Little Help From My Friends" by Wet Wet Wet is perfectly nice - Marti Pellow doesn't do very much to annoy me with his vocal, uh, stylings, and it's all for a good cause, of course.  Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father is one of those charity albums that pulls off the impossible by being good the whole way through, in part because the right bands/singers did the right songs; The Fall doing "A Day In The Life" at the end is just as good as Sonic Youth's epic "Within You Without You" and The Wedding Present and Amelia Fletcher  own "Getting Better."  There is a nod to jazz with Courtney Pine Quartet, just as there is a nod to Liverpool with The Christians. Billy Bragg and Cara Tivey have the b-side to Wet Wet Wet with the song at heart of the matter - "She's Leaving Home" - as the charity was Childline.  I'm still retrospectively pleased this got to #1 from an NME compilation, essentially, but that's how big the album was....

My main reaction to Belinda Carlisle is a lot like my reaction to all the wax figures I saw - nice, nearly right, but not quite believable somehow.  I can admire the art, the slight growl in her voice, but this is not the fierce young woman who once dyed her hair pink when The Go-Go's were a punk band; it's not even the older woman who made Talk Show in 1984.  Something has been lost; she now just sounds...professional, and just what the listeners of R1 then (and R2 now) consider to be good pop music. But my attitude then (as now) is that this is nice, sure, but not moving or necessary.

"Wild World" is a real early 70s song brought kinda-sorta up-to-date here by Maxi Priest, who does his best with Cat Stevens' song.  "I'll always remember you like a child girl" is one line, but I am always confused as to who is singing it to who.  Is it a song a guy sings as his (young) girlfriend leaves him?  Why does he hope she finds lots of nice clothes to wear?  Has she been in captivity or something?  If she's so naive, why doesn't he go with her?  Or is she leaving him for being so condescending all the time?  A lot of questions for a song that glides by easily and smoothly, riding the melody lightly.

"Give A Little Love" by Aswad is so Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood that it's hard to recall Aswad being tougher - Live And Direct being their key album.  This is stuff for school assemblies and in this context I guess it's an iron fist in about five velvet gloves.  It's reggae as volleyball background music, or, as the cover of NOW 12 suggests, hanging around the pool music.  It's so light, it's barely there.

"Love Changes (Everything)" is one of those songs that would have made me furious at the time.  You've been crying for weeks, pal?  I have heard many songs about love, but this just makes it sound so...weaksauce...even though I hadn't fallen in love yet, even I knew that real, actual love was not just someone saying it changed "everything."

I mean, ask Elton John what love is and by 1988 he will at least know it means being true to yourself and your code.  He had come out of a disastrous marriage to Renate Blauel and was now being all jaunty and himself again, and this song - wherein he will not be a multiple partner of another - is one of some strength-through-self-knowledge.  He's not upset with his Other; if s/he wants to be like that, fine, but include him out, as the phrase goes.  "I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" points directly to the future TPL subject The Scissor Sisters, sure, but this sounds like someone - unlike the previous song - who knows what the heck he's talking about.

Now, when I was on my way from Gatwick to London I had a hopeful idea that if I was lucky I would be walking along some fashionable street in London somewhere and suddenly - voila! - I would meet Green Gartside.  Of course this wasn't going to happen, I knew it, but I should have realized that he was living in New York City at the time and so seeing him (in his hat - the photo of him in NOW 12 was my idea of him) was impossible.  Oh how I longed to be in that rarefied world where I would wear nothing but jewelry from museums - not reproduction stuff but original work by living jewelers - eat really good vegetarian food and talk about how completely awesome Scritti Politti was with some guy about my age who would then explain to me - oh, not in a condescending way, for once! - that they started out as a post-punk DIY philosophical Camden collective, but now made pop good enough to make the rest of the singles in the chart sound even worse than they did.  That Miles Davis shows up is proof, I think, of how hip he was to said awesomeness.  I don't even know how to describe how great this is, as it just floats and has great changes and pushes away all the cliches about love, while sounding wildly, languidly romantic itself.  In the context of this whole first tape, it is the breath of fresh air, the inhaling of a delicate but powerful perfume, that indelible moment when the sun breaks through the clouds after the rain, and everything shines.  I would still like to meet Green Gartside, but I don't know if he'd take any of this praise - there is nothing, for instance, show-offy about Miles Davis here.  He comes in and plays and from what I can tell enjoys himself.  "He wants the world to love him but then goes and spoils it all...for love"  "Oh Patti (Don't Feel Sorry For Loverboy)" is one of those songs that should become a classic in pop and jazz, and there, I've just declared it to be one.   

"In The Air Tonight ('88 Remix)" is just about the same; I can't really say more about it than already is discussed here.  I think it's back due to its use in a commercial, possibly British Telecom.

End of side one....turn over...and...


"Don't Go" is by a band I got to see a couple of times in Toronto, Ireland's own Hothouse Flowers.  Ireland was experiencing something of a wonder year in pop terms in '88 (much more of that to come later on) and this song got a lot of exposure as they played during the all-important lull period in Eurovision when all the points all tallied and the audience is fairly exhausted and just wants something pleasant to while away the time before they complain about voting blocks and how (okay, this is just me) the French never seem to win the thing.  (No way were Twin Twin the worst thing in 2014; that's what happens when you express joie de vivre these days.)  "Don't Go" is a song sung to a dying friend of the narrator, and it's the only song I've ever heard where a black cat is a sign of life, of possibility, and not bad luck.  Maybe it's a Celtic thing?

"Everyday Is Like Sunday" is like the flipside of "Circle In The Sand."  Both used to be lead singers of popular 80s bands; both are out on the beach; both sound a little forlorn, though of course Morrissey is calling for a nuclear bomb to solve his woes, even though, I notice, he is with someone else.  Would Belinda Carlisle ever sing such a melodramatic, adolescent thing?  No she would not, though I suspect moody young men in little dumps of seaside towns all over the UK related to this song strongly.  The sort who would read Plath (maybe) and Larkin (for sure).  Those guys.  To his credit, Morrissey sings really well here, and it's the best song on his first album.

"Mary's Prayer" is by Dundee's own Danny Wilson, and despite all the religious imagery ("leave a light on in Heaven for me") it's a love song and not a song that an unsuspecting nun would think was about the Virgin Mary.  This is soulcialist pop by nature, but is not political unless you count making seemingly effortless pop that is as elegant as Bacharach political.  Their album Meet Danny Wilson has Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy as guests on a song, which points to how friendly chart pop acts were to jazz at this point - more, much more on this later...(Danny Wilson's main songwriter at this point was Gary Clark, who later on became a songwriter professionally, and Liz Phair and k.d. lang amongst others.  The more you know.)

...Johnny Hates Jazz has been dealt with here.

If there was a band I could identify with when I flew over to London, it was Voice Of The Beehive.  Not that I dressed like them, but they were fellow California girls who caught the Anglophile bug and came over as soon as they heard Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" (or thereabouts).  They wore brilliant clothes, one of them  - Tracey Bryn I think - went out with Steve Mack of That Petrol Emotion, and their album Let It Bee is just amazing the whole way through - but the last song, a song about being an American girl in London, "Just A City" has always been my favorite.  "There's A Barbarian In The Back Of My Car" was co-written by Mark Manning a.k.a. Zodiac Mindwarp, about the then-happening grebo movement - and "Don't Call Me Baby" was the big single, a song about lost and perhaps maybe-one-day-again love, sung with joy and even generosity ("I think she's pretty" she says about her ex's new girlfriend).  But until they are together again, she wants her dignity - to be called by her name and not baby (echoing, oddly, Janet Jackson's "Nasty").

"Can I Play With Madness" by Iron Maiden is of course great, and its placement here next to Voice Of The Beehive has to be an inside joke (Daniel Woodgate, a.k.a. Woody, played drums for them).  Can we play with Madness?  Of course we can!

"These Dreams" by Heart is a big lush gothic-y ballad about living another life, written by Martin Page and Bernie Taupin.  It was originally offered to Stevie Nicks, but seeing as how she only ruled this sort of thing in the first place, she turned it down; Heart recorded it and got their first US #1.  I have never been goth or romantic enough to be swept away by such songs, but it is part of the whole female spectrum of experience and, well, what can I say?  Ann Wilson makes it her own song, so its being written by two men is not something I mind.  And as Bush Sr. looked to become the next US president, who wouldn't want to "live another life"?  There is something afoot, even in this calm song...

I wrote about "I Will Be With You" by T'Pau here.  And so ends the first tape; and thus begins the second...

1988 - What The Hell Is Going On?

The second tape of NOW 12 starts with a song that is not so much pop or rock as an art statement done in musical form.  There is something genuinely scary about it, beyond any obvious reasons for it giving me the creeps.

It all started so seemingly normal - Jimmy Cauty wanted to make a house record using the theme music to Doctor Who.  But try as he could, it would not work, and so (according to Cauty and Bill Drummond's The Manual) they had to use the glitterbeat shuffle, which they knew was dangerous, "clubfooted."  ("We think the British love/hate relationship with that said beat can only be tried once a decade.  They won't take it any more than that.")  Now, this is complicated, and while Jimmy Cauty and his bandmate Drummond (for they are The Timelords; having a car "be" Ford Timelords was a nice video idea, but wouldn't fly on TOTP) wrote The Manual afterwards to explain how to get a UK #1 single, they don't (or maybe can't?) hear their song as the spell it really is.  It's not a song with a narrative, a story to tell.  "Pump Up The Volume" jumped around from the 60s to the present and made the future sound really good; this monster of a song is like some kind of invocation of the early 70s - Sweet's "Blockbuster," the glitterbeat schaffel shuffle, the Doctor Who theme itself - all with Cauty and Drummond yelling "Doctor Whoooo-the Tardis!" and having a Dalek become a yuppie - mixing up Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney character ("Bish bash bosh!") with the yuppie idea of "We obey no one! We are the superior beings!"  This is not a novelty single, though I'm sure it was seen as such, and bought, I'd guess, by boys of all ages; this is art.

Yes, The Timelords (shortly to become The KLF) are an art project that are unwittingly heralding the entry of the time of uncertainty as mentioned at the beginning - a time where no one is quite sure what is going on, and self-released weird-ass things like this can get to #1.  I may have seen "Third Term Third Reich" graffiti near Camden in '88, but The Timelords have let something repressed be expressed, celebrated, even.  Gary Glitter came on TOTP to perform (I'm not sure how he did this; I don't really want to see it) the song, which then got him on the cover of the NME.  And suddenly a huge art song (it's not like Cauty and Drummond thought it was all that great, by the way) lets the Minotaur out again, and, well, you know.  Lowest common denominator is one thing, making Doctor Who hip again (and thus saving the show - this is detailed in John Higgs' book on The KLF) is another, but making that man more popular than he'd been in a decade....well...that is art.  It is dangerous, it unleashes things that can't be predicted or controlled, and this inane song - more a mash-up than song, really - interrupts the chart, detournes it, makes the whole thing into something of a...joke?  Regular pop dozes along, and there are The Timelords, waking something primal and scary up, something very male, very British (at the time I had no idea who Doctor Who was, let alone what a Tardis was, didn't get the musical or comedic references...).  It's about the least subtle #1 ever, and of course it was a huge hit.  "Doctorin' The Tardis" was where The KLF began; their project - to make music which would somehow end the music industry - will be covered here on TPL in full, one way or another.  We are going into The Void now - the "End of History" as it was called at the time, and this song marks the beginning of the "interval" mentioned already.  What the fuck is going on, indeed.

"Boys (Summertime Love)" is one of those Italo Eurodisco smashes that is a big hit because of the simplicity of the song (boys, love, good times) and the risque video that was made for Italian television, and was banned in the UK, leading to who-knows-what fantasies by boys who fancied Sabrina.  This song is just as concentrated as the previous one, and became a hit with the Ibiza crowd of 18-30, who brought it back to the UK, where it of course was a hit.  Sabrina herself was later produced by Giorgio Moroder, and has been a fixture, if I can put it that way, in Italian culture ever since.

"I Want You Back" by Bananarama is of course them and SAW; it's all about the narrator looking around her room - he's left her - and demanding that he come back.  (Nothing but brutal simplicity so far here on side one, tape two.)  The song's lyrics were written by Keren Woodward (who also plays bass), Siobahn Fahey and Sara Dallin; but by the time the single was released, Siobahn was out and Jacquie O'Sullivan was in her place instead.  There is something a little (appropriately) desperate about the it, as if the man in question really is going to come back if the 'ramas don't care what they have to do.  And suddenly, even though they were already stars, they are now SAW stars - and their next album doesn't appear until 1991, where SAW only produce a couple of songs.  I'm not sure if this is the last time Bananarama appear, but it feels like it is; like a whole decade is slowly sliding from view....

...and into this void appears, out of the shopping mall, Tiffany!  "I Think We're Alone Now" is shiny and efficient the way a mall is, but she can sing, the song still has its suggestiveness (starting with "Children behave!") and since Tiffany is a teenager herself, she can be trusted.  This is big music - not in the sense of Mike Scott's "The Big Music" but big as in forward, unironic, not even glancing backward to say, yeah, we know it's a cover.  Tiffany wasn't even around when this was a hit; bubblegum's second generation has begun...

Hazell Dean's "Who's Leaving Who" is - ta-da! - a cover version.  Jack White and Mark Spiro wrote it and it first appeared on Anne Murray's (yes) Something To Talk About from 1986.  One gay icon covering another gay icon's hit?  And making it into a big Hi-NRG song produced by, yup, SAW?  Well, how could it be bad?  I don't know the Murray original, but when Dean plaintively sings "I don't know the answers because I don't know the questions" well who can say they haven't been there themselves?  The song dizzies itself with one mind-boggling question like that after another, until you just want to lose yourself in it completely or sit down somewhere quiet and empty your mind of all thoughts.  Nearly the same thing, anyway.

The Communards' "There's More To Love Than Boy Meets Girl" is plaintive too, Jimmy Somerville having to explain to the listener that "I would like to shout it from the highest mountain" but "all around there's violence and laws to make me think again."  The song goes along in its modest way, polite, not as dramatic or orchestral as the Pet Shop Boys but almost classical (lest we forget where Richard Coles' roots are), taking a pretty melody and making a point with it, and the point is never to give up loving and fighting for that love to be seen as just that - not abnormal or heinous, but like any other love, unpredictable, uncontrollable, wild as this song is relatively tame.

Jermaine Stewart - say his name to me in '88 and then (as now) I would say - hmm, "Get Lucky" huh?  Okay song, nothing really there that grabs me though.  It's nice; but nice is not really enough anymore, really.  Whereas once he had a song called "The Word Is Out" that was pretty darn great.  Another "Get Lucky" has long since eclipsed this one, and you can only wonder how he's going to fare if he tells the other about cherry wine this time.

Only in my soppiest moment - perhaps while on my second cider at The Old Bull And Bush - would I even admit to liking Glenn Medeiros' "Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You."  It was #1 the entire time I was in London and yet I don't remember hearing it anywhere, but then I didn't really listen to commercial radio or hang out in places where this would be played - not malls, I didn't see any, not gas stations either (as a native Angeleno I got a bit spooked by the absence of these two California staples).  It's a tremendously earnest song and sounds like it should be from a soap opera, and Medeiros himself is not my type.  It's something for girls younger and more feminine than me; girls who want fluffy gronks from their boyfriends and dowry chests and all that Seventeen magazine stuff.  This is drippy and unironic and of course huge for those who were missing Rick Astley.  This song was later covered by Englebert Humperdinck; that says it all, pretty much. 

And now, the last side....

What is that noise?  It zigs and zags, then pops up all disco and counts down in Spanish - why it's "Theme From S-Express" by S-Express!  Did someone say a song with no narrative?  Did I hear someone else say "Hmmm - that's Baaaaaaaad" only to be answered by a "No....that's Good"?  Karen Finley asks for the ghetto blaster to be turned off but it ain't gonna happen.  Rose Royce's sample gets mixed up but good by Mark Moore into all kinds of corners, and screams and "I got the hots for you" and laughter and lust and wide, clear open skies are here for those who dare to make records as heavy-breathing and yet light as this one.  Perhaps "Doctorin' The Tardis" was seen by some to be clubfooted indeed, as this came first and was slinkier, and is still played on the radio, unlike the former....

Salt 'n' Pepa's "Push It" is still an amazing record to hear; Salt and Pepa's voices are right up close so it seems as if they are somehow in your speakers with their semi-sarcastic "Oohhhhhbabybaby BabybabyOOOOOOOOOOhbabybaby" and Hurby "Love Bug" Azor's production is minimalist magic; "AAAAAAhpush it" the song starts, with the cowbell and tough beats from Spinderella;  it invites all the sexy people on to the floor, and then Salt 'n' Pepa take over, begging/ordering the boy to be like the music, to "push it good...push it real good."  Is that Ray Davies being quoted at the end?  Why yes, in one of those moments that indeed proves that "rap is not afraid of you."  Their joy at doing this song, the heavy breaths, the weird Devo turns in the song - this is the present that keeps ripping into the tidy world of Radio One, the song that was performed at the Mandela concert that took off, a kind of taking control that leads to loss of control ("boy...you got me so...I don't know what I'm doing.")  All that and a irrepressible sense of HERE WE ARE that is sexy and fun

Derek B's "Bad Young Brother" is not quite the UK equivalent to Public Enemy or Salt 'n' Pepa, but in his wordy way he gets across that he is indeed bad (no...that's good) and he is going to be around a long time.  He raps in an American accent (well, what can I say?  Grime is a ways off yet) and yet happily states that he gets paid in pounds not dollars.  Derek B had a great deal of attention and respect at a time when rap/hip-hop was only seen as a passing US fad, something the UK could enjoy but not actually participate in.  Well, Derek B was at the Mandela concert too, and who knows if he influenced those to come?  He certainly produced them, remixed them, after his career took him in that direction; he even co-wrote "Anfield Rap" despite being a West Ham fan, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself.  Not until Dizzee Rascal would anyone be as popular and that, as I said, is a long time coming...(but lest we forget from this time, Monie Love; and from the early 90s, Blade).  RIP, Derek Boland, DJ and rapper.  (Oh, and this song is a very good one, as all his were.)

James Brown!  JAMES BROWN!  "The Payback Mix (Part One)" is just that - you all have been listening to rap and hip-hop and now here are where all those samples came from in the first place.  A little confusing, since it's a medley that more or less starts with "Sex Machine" but this is a time when samples weren't cleared and paid for, and now is time for Mr. Brown to get his dues.  It's the funkier stuff - "Soul Power" is in here, as is "I Know You Got Soul" - anything where people might say "OMG, that's where that weird squeal in Public Enemy came from!"  It came from alto saxophone in The J.B.'s instrumental called "The Grunt," that's where.  (You're welcome.)

In case you think The Timelords have opened up a wormhole into the 70s, "Car Wash" got back in the charts as S-Express's use of Rose Royce's "Is It Love You're After" brought this previous hit of theirs, with its indelible claps, back into the chart.  I wonder if they used the same picture of the band - i.e. not them but an actual car wash big ol' mop - on TOTP at the time? And how many songs actually reflect work as it's experienced, tough at times, unglamorous, fun but also tiring?

Moving on from the car wash to the car, Natalie Cole's version of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" is all dance ready, lighter on the beat but not skimping on any lyrics.  That it's a woman singing about a guy's car is an interesting spin (miles away from "Fast Car" for sure) and she laughs at the end, as if you don't know the whole thing is hello metaphor after all.  The song starts out with a car revving up that sounds just like the beginning of - I can't help it! - Public Enemy's "You're Gonna Get Yours."  Love is bigger than a Honda, but then love is bigger than a Cadillac, too....

While Madonna is off doing some soul-searching and getting ready to divorce Sean Penn, her onetime producer Jellybean is here with another song - "Just A Mirage" - with Adele Bertei as the singer.  Bertei's life is quite something, coming straight out of the midwest (like Madonna) and being out in a time when the music industry wasn't quite ready for that yet; she sang in the background for many, but here is front and center for a song that is much like how I felt at the time...so much of what I thought would happen in London didn't happen, it felt at times as if the city, the real, palpable place, was unreal, and so on.  I had high hopes, higher than I thought they were, and they were dashed; I tried to have fun, but either bumped into people or was left haplessly on my own, a subject of prey to others...

...but I also was in the city where he was, not that I knew it...

...but there are other things.  Things that are much bigger.  I cannot paint my time in London as being thoroughly bad and disappointing.  The weather was good; the hostel was pleasant and nothing I had was stolen; I got to walk around a lot and by the time I was ready to leave, could help newcomers find their way around.  The place didn't scare me so much, even though I had seen relatively little of it.  (Not once did I go south of the river, for instance, or east of Old Street station.)   Hanging around Covent Garden one day I saw a poster of a snappily dressed black guy photographed mid-jump. I guessed it was supposed to represent the hip jazz scene at the time, which was more about dressing up and going to a club and making the scene a la Robert Elms than actually sitting down and listening to jazz as something to do, either in a concentrated way or as background to doing other things.  I grew up in a household where jazz was the accepted music and always on if my father was around, unless he wanted to listen to something else.  I never saw it as a fad, or as odd, or difficult.  Nor was I ever given a short history lesson by my parents as to who was who and what was supposed to be good or valuable; I pieced it together myself, bit by bit, over the years.  (I found out about Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington, for instance, at the same time, and ragtime after that, not before.)

I say all this as I am sensitive to the fact that a lot of people are wary of jazz or intimidated by it, as they may have had some opinion or idea of theirs criticized when they heard something and didn't like it or (even worse to some) didn't know who it was.  Jazz has enough problems without people who are curious about it feeling this way, and I wish it was more in the mix on general radio (Radio Two, for instance) and not confined to one hour.  And you know what?  If you like some jazz folks and not others, that's fine.  There is no rule you have to like them all, or know precisely what is going on at all times (I've heard John Coltrane's Ascension and Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz; you need to listen to them a lot).  If you don't know where to start, ask around (though I'd say listen to Thelonious Monk, but then I would).  You've got to be courageous though; jazz is not going to come to you, always.  People who always want jazz to be pleasant and easy are going to be disappointed, and Philip Larkin's views on Coltrane are a good example.*** 

One way into jazz is through pop; and Will Downing's "A Love Supreme" is as good a place as any to get to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme is a very fine album that came about in a few days in 1964 - once Coltrane pretty much knew what he wanted to do, he wrote out parts for his quartet and it was recorded a few months later fairly quickly, as jazz albums pretty much are.  The basis for the whole thing is simple; Coltrane had an experience - religious, mystical? - in 1957, and had been waiting and working away, trying to figure out how to put his response to it - maybe even his experience itself - into music.  As you can see this took a long time, and the modal and repetitive section "Acknowledgement" is where Will Downing's song comes from.  The bass of Jimmy Garrison goes "thum-THMB-thmp-thmp" and then Coltrane himself comes in and chants "A love supreme, a love supreme" right in time with that heartbeat rhythm, and after that is "Resolution" and "Pursuance" and "Psalm."  It's going to be an odd thing to say, but I suspect that if there is any dislike of this album it's due to the religious aspect of it rather than the music; Coltrane, in the liner notes, says:

"During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead to a richer, fuller, more productive life.  At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."

And that's what this album is about; it's a big thank you note to God, and if that idea gives you problems, well, then the whole album is going to be frustrating.  Not that it is necessary (I think) to believe; all you have to do is know that Coltrane does, that his gratitude is real and his relief that he is even able to express himself after so long ("as time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail" - he was baffled as to what to do, as you'd expect).  He and his quartet are not making church music (he wrote his own psalm) as such, but expressing what must have been unfashionable to do - to thank God for what happened, for granting him that which he wanted - not fame or fortune, but to make others happy through music.

That this album did so well in 1965 was mainly due to the rock audience (particularly the Californian rock musicians and prominent culture types) getting into it and making it one of the jazz albums of the year; from what I can tell it became fashionable to listen to via these people and your more serious jazz types, rather than be a big hit album right away.

Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey and his pals - all of them were influenced, one way or another.**** This has hung on to make A Love Supreme one of the few crossover albums that people have, even if they don't own much jazz, because of its reputation.  (It is, for instance, #188 in the NME's best albums of all time list, c. 2013, and regularly appears on Greatest Albums Of All Time lists in general.)  What they might expect (the NME curiously calls Coltrane "angry" here; he isn't) and what they get are not always the same thing.  Such renown can turn others against this album or even Coltrane himself in general because of this supposed fashionability, and thus people who might actually enjoy him never even listen to him, prejudiced as they are.  As you can imagine, to someone brought up with jazz and classical and pop and rock and even Hee Haw - such thinking is needlessly labyrinthine.  I can understand loyalties in music - you just like the way someone sounds, and sound is everything in jazz - and you can prefer one player to another.  That's fine.  But I am now far and away from Will Downing...

....who did this song with Arthur Baker and wanted to pay tribute to Coltrane (who died of liver cancer at the age of 40; his early death has contributed to his mythos).  Alice Coltrane, his widow, said fine, but the song has to be about God, and so it is.  It is an r&b song based on that heartbeat thump that works very well (if only its author could have heard it!)  Downing sings and Baker produces and Stanley Turrentine, who does a fine job of playing without in any way trying to "be" Coltrane.

Was I aware of this song (or many of them) at the time?  No, not really.  I went to a free dance club night thing at the Old St. YMCA one night and may have heard some of them there; again I was at a pub in Muswell Hill and may have heard others.  Did I know A Love Supreme?  I'm sure I would have recognized it, even if my parents didn't own it, as parts of it were staples on jazz radio...    

In this odd and disturbing time, it's somehow very comforting that NOW 12 ends with a song that traces itself back to an act of humility and gratitude; the brutality that began this tape is now replaced by elation and elegance, a feeling and knowledge that there is something much bigger out there, bigger than can be contained by any hostel, pub, museum, underground carriage, restaurant or even bookshop.  Music was pretty much what brought me to London, and while I didn't get to see anyone perform or even talk about it much, music was going about its surprising, detourning, vivid and reassuring best.  As you can see there is a thread of jazz through all this; the interval periods over time are usually jazz-friendly, but of course they stand out for me as the best as having lost my father, they remind me of him, even if he wouldn't have liked them - and even The Timelords are here to redraw a line, or to wipe one out, to blow the dust off, just as jazz does.

A new time is here; the first and second tape show the diverging ways of music, and then they are drawn, however briefly, together by the music of a man who wanted to keep expanding his understanding of that beat, those rhythmic patterns, to create what he maybe heard when he had his experience.  He didn't get to do that, and others in jazz and other musics have taken up that search for him, with all kinds of results.  (As serious as your life by Valerie Wilmer is about this in particular; Jimmy Garrison's on the cover.)  I like to think my father was the same; and thus passed this down to me.  That search for the sound, more than anything else.

I flew back to Hamilton in early August, glad to be going back, away from people frowning at me in phone boxes, sleeping on bunk beds, feeling isolated and more alone than when I came over.  Music and some kind people are what kept me going; poetry and music would keep me going into the last year learning to write at Ryerson.  NOW 12 is a late gift, somehow, to hear; trashy and dull as some of this is, it's sweet and lovely as well.

I will end with a Coltrane quote:  "I think the best thing that I can do at this time is to try to get myself in shape and know myself.  If I can do that, then I'll just play, you see, and leave it at that...I think all that we need is sincerity, empathy."  

  



*In case you are wondering, I did go to Chalcot Square and sat in the park there and read Plath, and no one was around - it was very quiet - and at another point I was wandering around Hampstead Heath and found myself unexpectedly at Parliament Hill Fields, where I walked around contentedly until coming across a group of older women, one of whom was speaking rather meanly about another woman, spitefully even.  This did not detract from my experience - how close to the sky I felt (and still feel) up there, how wide and open and free I felt (and still feel)!  Everywhere else I felt hemmed in, oppressed.  And I got firsthand knowledge of how the women Plath would have encountered were like, or at least some of them.

**I may have written to him again once I got back home, once or twice.  Then I gave up.  Then I couldn't listen to him anymore - it was too traumatic.  Before I left I talked with him and he told me CFNY was being sold and turned into a more commercial station - one that would play - shudders -  George Michael.  At some point he must have left CFNY - early 90s I'd guess - but by then I was no longer paying any attention.
***Philip Larkin called A Love Supreme "turgid" and accused Coltrane, who was a modest and searching soul, "insolent." His biggest fault, though?  "He did not want to entertain his audience:  he wanted to lecture to them, even to annoy them."  Cough.

****As was, as you'd expect, Jimi Hendrix.  Recently I took a book out from the library about genius and it goes on about painters and scientists and writers and classical composers, but doesn't mention genius in 20th century music terms except for The Beatles and yep, Jimi Hendrix.  I know it's a short book and everything, but for no jazz people to be mentioned at all is pretty atrocious.  

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Tracy CHAPMAN: Tracy Chapman


(#368: 2 July 1988, 3 weeks)

Track Listing:  Talkin’ Bout A Revolution/Fast Car/Across The Lines/Behind The Wall/Baby Can I Hold You/Mountains O’ Things/She’s Got Her Ticket/Why?/For My Lover/If Not Now.../For You


“Few of us sufficiently recognise the importance of courage in the life of the imagination, and that it can make us free from fear and open to the fullness of reality.” – Max Harrison, The Wire, December 1986/January 1987


...and so spring has come, I’m still at Ryerson, condolences are given to me without much response on my part – my grief is private, my urges are to experience the new.  The world has blown down a door, a whole wall, and I am spending my time adjusting, ever so slowly, to this new view.  I help to choose the music for the memorial at Sheridan College but don’t attend (just as I didn’t attend my father’s funeral as my mom didn’t go either); I manage, come May, to pass all my courses and move on to the next and final year.  Music means everything and nothing, is either great or terrible, it either somehow touches me or it does not.  My chronology for this year is badly damaged and in this and other posts for ’88 I am not going to write about albums in their “proper” order.  I don’t even recall buying that much in the first half of the year, save for ordering Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father from the NME, which I listened to incessantly, as I did their other tapes from around this time, Indie City 1 & 2.  Instead I was caught, quite unawares, by poetry; the PBS station in Buffalo (channel 17) had shown the original run of Voices & Visions in ’87 and their modest sister station (channel 23) was showing it in reruns in the spring of ’88.  By chance one night (May 12th to be precise) I turned it on and there it was, a whole show about Robert Lowell.  I liked it, and tuned in the following week for a show on someone I didn’t know called Sylvia Plath. 




I don’t think there was another viewer more primed and ready to dive head-first into Plath’s life and work than me, and before long I was reading what I could get and I think I even got a tape or two of her reading her own work as well; this was a life and a language that I could understand.  I suddenly had a new standard in music – poetry – and plainspoken American poetry, at that.  I didn’t regard her extreme and intense life as odd, as being a “half-orphan” (as the government officially regarded me) already made me different from 99.9% of my fellow students at Ryerson.  I felt akin to her, without being much like her – she a Yankee, me a Californian – and I became more open to poetry in general, to the arts, to (big breath here) life itself.  At some point in late May I visited Washington D.C. with my mom to stay with my godmother Genie; and then in June, the Journalist himself visited us in Oakville while staying with his parents on his own little break.  My mom called him, not unkindly afterwards a “roundhead” and he wrote down a bunch of radio shows to listen to in London, and a place to eat that was cheap – we got along fine, and my mom regarded him favourably as she could tell he was not at all the sort of guy who would invite me to some illegal rave somewhere, give me Ecstasy, or anything like that.  He was (and presumably still is) about as square as a broadcaster could be, and thus by early July I got my hostel association membership, booked my room, and looked forward to my visit.  A few days beforehand my mom gave me Plath’s Collected Poems in paperback, and I took it and my Walkman with a copy of Indie Top 20 Vol. 4 and who knows what else – clothing, shoes, Woolite, a pen, a day planner, my Frommer’s Guide etc.  I was ready to meet whatever fate I was going to meet, all the while wishing I had already been in London....


....and here is where my chronology begins to warp.  I know very well Rank was released in the fall of ’88, but it had already happened in 1986; the concert, I mean, in London’s still-not-all-that-fashionable Kilburn area.  The Smiths are dead; long live the The Smiths.  Their end came around the time my father started to lose his memory, started just as that slow catastrophe was starting, and Morrissey’s solo single and then album in the spring of ’88 didn’t move me that much.  He seemed to be forever skirting around something without ever pointing to it, and I already lived somewhere where every day was like Sunday already, though it seemed so impermeable that the idea of a bomb or strange dust was unthinkable, unimaginable.  For me it was as if Morrissey was too come-hither but wasn’t really going anywhere or hithering to an actual solid feeling.   Whereas Rank shows The Smiths at their acme - fierce, playful, digging into the music and being passionate - with Rank there is no holding back.  Morrissey grunts and growls and the words sometimes sound as if he is not just singing but having a violent physical reaction, as if he has been waiting his whole life to do this one thing, and here he is and he is tossed and turned by the music, sad and angry and funny alternately, and there is no encore because there is nothing left to give.  This is the concert I never got to go to, so it’s not nostalgia for me to praise it, even though it might come off that way. 


At the same time, even then it felt like an echo of a previous age, a time when things were different, when I was waiting to see if Ryerson would accept me, when my own writing ambitions were nebulous, before the fall of ‘87/winter of ’88 formed me, more or less, into the young woman I was.  I didn’t have much of an idea about that – my ambition to write – especially as poetry made my language alter, just as learning French had changed my English.  A career in straight-up journalism where I interviewed, shaped a piece, tried to be neutral – was not for me.  I could hardly be neutral about anything.  At best I could be diplomatic, persuasive, but I had no outlet for that, my journal and my mom being the two outlets where I could talk about music (I didn’t write that many letters to the Journalist).  I knew I was too opinionated and naive to write about music just yet, but somehow I didn’t think even too much about that.  (I was wholly inspired by all the fine writing about music I’d encountered and never saw myself as “in opposition” to any of it.)


What with my mind being taken up with packing, getting new dresses, keeping a sharper ear than usual on the UK news, and wondering (besides the few errands my mom sent me on, to do with her craft jewelry business) what I would do when I got there.  I had no idea.  Into such a void all kinds of things can happen, and while I am loathe to write too much about the London I found in the summer of ’88, (which will be discussed in the next piece) I can say that I wasn’t thinking about finding anyone in any way, that I didn’t consider that I would be walking the same streets, taking the same Underground, sweltering in the same heat, as anyone who could at all become important to me, besides the Journalist himself.  I wasn’t even thinking that “Plath had found her guy in the UK, and so would I”  - even as I nestled my copy of her Collected Poems in my bag.  I know that I was intense – moody, you might say – due to grief; impatient, numb to everything at times, feeling everything at full force at all times.  An inner gear had changed.  My aesthetics were changing too, or maybe just being sharpened. 


Thus, The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj is another step back and forth – performed in London before I arrived, and yet not released as an album until October.  It hovers over this trip to London and my time there and after like fog.  Never mind that it is about someone from the Netherlands (my last name is Dutch, more accurately Frisian) coming to London and taking over.  It seems to be about the band itself, about music, about the then Thatcher government – all done live, with Michael Clark’s dancers, the songs just as intense as those on Rank, maybe even moreso?   I never got to see this either, so while those who did enjoyed it  don’t find the music apocalyptic, I do – something is ending here, or starting – hard to tell.  All music sounded final, terminal to me, raw, at least that could break through my scepticism, my need for the direct and actual.  The Fall are as sharp as possible here, the one-two punch of “Big New Prinz” and “Overture From ‘I Am Kurious Oranj’” making the stage-in-my-mind as big and dramatic as possible.  I always liked The Fall before, even when, admittedly, I wasn’t exactly sure what the heck Mark E. Smith was talking about – but here there’s a focus, something of a coherent story, and (to use a word I used back then) it was indeed (as is) a boss album.  The songs suit movement, slow and fast; there is real pathos in “Van Plague?” and sorrow in “Bad News Girl” but the moment it all comes together is their version of “Jerusalem.”  

I have heard joyous/dutiful choirs and crowds sing this before and since, but what can they bring besides the crushing realism of The Fall’s version?  It begins a lot like The Smiths' “The Queen Is Dead” only slower, the bass singing the song, and then the bare bones of the melody – “Da Dum Da Da, Da Dum Dah Dah” – over and over, as Smith more or less recites the poem by Blake (how could I not love this album – it’s got poetry in it!) and then the pause...as Smith talks about slipping on a banana skin and not getting anything from the government and being “very....disappointed.”  As if to say, you people, this is what Blake wanted and you just want (or will settle for) compensation.  “It was the government’s fault” the banana skin was there, he says, but as the music speeds up he gets back to the heart of Blake’s poem – “bring me my bow of burning gold/bring me arrows of desire/ my spear, o clouds unfold”  and then “and though I rest from MENTAL FIGHT/I will not rest until Jerusalem/is built in this greenanpleasantland” – and that phrase returns like an itch that cannot be scratched – “It was the fault...of the government” as the band goes full-tilt, as the many faults of the government seem to –well, to me – parade by.  “Jerusalem!  Jeru..salem” Smith sings in between, the green and pleasant land that is the myth of what some think already exists far away from what Blake is talking about – the “dark satanic mills” being the ugliness of Thatcher’s Britain, as much a mindset as anything directly visible or audible.  To hear a poem/hymn done like this was liberating, enlightening, not so much making something new as taking something old and showing that it wasn’t really all that old, after all.  An event like William of Orange being invited to take over the British throne was a moment for a nation that was struggling to deal the IRA, with the seemingly endless Thatcher government and its policies (including the by-now law of Section 28) and The Fall seized on it and made it make sense to me, a mere visitor.  The unreality of my life – my unwanted but fresh new life – was made more unreal by going to London, and I realize that there is a bigger-than-life quality to this music that must have made up for the grubby realities I was faced with, all the time...

But, again, I must emphasize that even with the Journalist I had no hopes; I wasn’t going to London thinking anything would happen and yet...I read up on I Am Kurious Oranj and where were the live parts of it recorded?....somehow I was being propelled “slowly slowly” as Smith sings in “Cab It Up!” into the future, so slowly there was no way I could suspect it myself. 

Now, I must mention that this next album I bought in London, and no, I don’t know why either, as it had been available where I was since April, but...being so attuned to the UK press and release schedule, I dutifully read the NME interview with Public Enemy in the early summer of ’88 and then got it in London at (I think) a Virgin Megastore, possibly the one on Tottenham Court Road.  (Cue wistful sighs from those who wish any kind of music store was there now.)                    

It wasn’t like I didn’t know them – I had a tape of Yo! Bum Rush The Show after all – but something in me must have sensed that getting It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in London was somehow the right thing to do.  I do not recall the person at the counter giving me any kind of “you don’t look like the kind of person who buys this sort of thing” look.  Maybe I had already given myself away as an American and well of course I would buy this, they’re Americans too, after all.  But then there’s the act of buying an album, and the act of listening to it.  I put it in my Walkman, pressed play, and waited...

...                                                                                                                                                        


....

...somewhere between that pause and the noise, the eager anticipatory noise of the crowd, it is likely that nothing happened.  What I could not know – did not know – for a long time was that I had just crossed over a metaphorical bridge, from there to here, and that from here my future began.  I am going to slow down now and give you (in case you haven’t heard it) the full introduction...
“Hammersmith Odeon, are you ready for the Def Jam Tour?  Let me hear you make some noise!”
(crowd noise, growing, makes obligatory noise)
“In concert for BBC Television tonight and a fresh start to the week (referring directly to his own show, though I didn't know that at the time), let me hear you make some noise for PUBLIC ENEMY!”
Air raid siren starts...
“PEACE!  Armageddon has been in effect - go get a late pass – step.”
Air raid siren continues...
“This time around the revolution will not be televised – step.”
Air raid siren continues ...
“London England...consider yourselves...warned!”
So said Professor Griff in early November of 1987, right there in the city where I walked and sweated and searched in near vain for something to sustain me and it was right there, right there in my Walkman, right as I took a damn break at the yeah-you’d –think-they’d-bring-it-back-now-huh Harrod’s Health bar, where I got my expensive fresh orange juice and sat and looked at the lyrics and credits and could only wonder at what the hell was happening.  I had no time to listen to the radio with this on my hands, and it was just as well, as (from what I gather) hardly anyone actually played anything from it, unless they had to**.  This nice young woman from nowhere had stumbled into the avant garde practically without even trying.  It was not so much a conversion experience as something more intense.  It was as direct as that thirst-quenching juice, but how many loved PE as I did instantly in London?  What else could give me the courage to express myself?  Plath was good, but her example was not one to follow the whole way.  I couldn’t be PE either, obviously, but the freedom the album gives the listener is important, that courage Harrison mentions here, that opens the window and inhales...
...while Simon Reynolds might call this band and album “domineering” I just hear the actual YELP that goes back to Whitman, that rhymes (poetry again!) and samples and is damn close to being jazz at times (“Jazz is the umbrella under which all other musics stand” says Sonny Rollins).  I can only pity the UK music writers who didn’t get that connection, that PE were going back (in spirit if not actuality) to the Last Poets, Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane (more later), Charles Mingus, Max Roach...and with their willingness to make pure noise that makes sense/nonsense, they weren’t that far (for me) from The Fall, even.  Reynolds can talk about hip-hop being “heartless” but what is Chuck D but a big beating heart trying desperately to get something across?  And unlike Morrissey, he actually has a point – he is louder than a bomb.
...if someone had sat down next to me at Harrod’s Health bar and looked over and told me, kindly, that there was someone else also going around London also listening to this and further back, he was actually there at the Hammersmith Odeon (I had no idea, despite having an A-Z, where that was) making the noise Dave Pearce was requesting, well, what could I have thought?  It is just as well this didn’t happen, as how could I have believed it*? 
The heck, I didn’t even know it was Dave Pearce, let alone have a sense of providence that this, this was the key to so much, that after hearing it I wasn’t going to be the same, just as after watching the show on Plath I wasn’t the same.   I was far, far away from the studious music writer who would listen carefully and make notes and so on.  I was immersed, in some kind of new world, a world of both this and The Fall and The Smiths and the Wedding Present (I joked I just wanted to go to London to get a tape of George Best)... a world where so many bullshit notions of being on this side or that side of music wars or theories or God knows what made no sense whatsoever.  Nation of Millions isn’t an album that I can talk about normally, because of the extraordinary way it promised something to me, waking me up with an actual air raid siren, as if only now was something truly remarkable going to happen, but I had to stay awake, alert.

 And the first thing was to find my voice, the voice that had been stifled up in my room, my journal – and the trip to London was the first BIG step in that.  I knew I had to have that voice in order to even deal with the idea of that other person, let alone the actual other person...I was too much of a mess to even deal with myself most days, let alone meet anyone important, and getting to know this music was the main thing, beyond the basic necessities of life...it’s not an easy-going album, but then I wasn’t really an easy-going person.  The rhetoric of Chuck D was something I enjoyed as sheer language and message, and I didn’t regard hip hop as “paranoid schizophrenic” – which is Reynolds’ idea of the male ego at its extreme. What if your song was on the radio and then the DJ said “I promise you, no more music from the suckers”?  PE aren’t so much paranoid (I’ve always heard “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” as being about emancipating yourself from mental slavery, as Marley sang) as assertive, telling their side of the story, because not everyone in the music/media world liked them, or would even talk to them, and if a prominent DJ called them suckers repeatedly on the air, well, what to do, how to respond?  I was quickly learning that as much as I liked reading the UK music press, there was something amiss in it; too much wafting away on this theory or that, not enough solid consideration of where this music, literally and figuratively, was coming from***.

The sheer density of the songs ("Night Of The Living Bassheads" being my best example) meant that the still-used-by-some-broadcasters term "talking over records" is just plain wrong.  It's more a sound collage, with the records, as such, doing the talking as much as Chuck D or Flavor Flav.  That they sample themselves from their first album just shows how they are beginning with themselves to set up a whole new way of thinking about and creating music - this is a loud album and was recorded with the sound needles going over into the red (usually something no producer would do, but this is rap with a rock attitude).  The folks at Def Jam, Rick Rubin included, weren't allowed in the studio, and had to trust Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad knew what they were doing, which of course they did. 
One last thing - when Chuck D mentions John Coltrane in "Don't Believe The Hype" (I can only wonder what Alice Coltrane made of this) he says "writers treat me like Coltrane, insane/yes to them but to me we're a different kind/we're brothers of the same mind, unblind/caught in the middle and not surrendering."  I will be talking a lot more about John Coltrane and his supposed insanity in future TPL posts, but it's nice for Chuck D to note that before there was hip hop offending and confounding writers, there was jazz - not just anything, but something called "The New Thing" (a term that came from either Impulse! Records or LeRoi Jones).  Hip hop was the new thing now, and not everyone was ready, willing or even able to understand it.  But it made perfect sense to me, as I walked the streets of London..."Mandela, cell dweller, Thatcher you can tell her make way for the prophets of rage..."
Oh, I could go on about It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back - a title that Chuck D noticed a Toronto paper used as a headline for an article about his band, a line from "Raise The Roof" - you see how self-contained and yet somehow expansive this album is?  Okay.... 
By the time I got to London, Tracy Chapman was on the cover of Melody Maker (I think) and had become famous overnight for her appearance at the Mandela concert in mid-June; in a few months time (late September) I would see her as part of the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour in Toronto.  I was so preoccupied by Indie Top 20 Vol. 4 and Public Enemy at the time that I didn't get her album, but many did, and it is an interesting counterpoint to PE in that it's a solo female voice here, a young Tufts graduate who busked and wrote songs and didn't think she'd get a record deal, let alone one with Elektra, was a hit.  Why?  Were people a bit tired of the Reaganrock around them and wanted something simple and sincere and direct?  Well, yes; and while PE were talking about kind of the same things, Chapman appealed to those who were fans of fellow Amnesty tourmates like Sting, Peter Gabriel and especially, I'd guess, Bruce Springsteen. 
"Talkin' Bout A Revolution" is about the impatience of people but also their exhaustion - stuck in the unemployment line, waiting around for something good to happen - the "whisper" that revolution speaks in (the revolution here isn't going to be televised either), The poor are going to take what is theirs; but you better (and she sings this as if you really had better) "run run run run RUN" as revolutions tend to happen and end quickly, so you'd better be ready when it happens where you are.  Hear the whisper once and then do what you need to do. 
"Across The Lines" is about the dividing line between the whites and blacks in a town, and the town riots over the assault on a "little black girl" - boys on both sides get hurt, but most damningly, the girl is nameless but the town calms down collectively by deciding that "she's the one to blame."  This may sound like a protest album from the 60s (I'm guessing this is what Elektra wanted) but already the tone is different, somehow...

"Behind The Wall" is a good example of this - an acapella ("rock the acapella G" as Flavor Flav puts it) about a husband abusing his wife - "domestic affairs" that the police say they can't do much about.  Chapman hears and is an audio witness, but will she call the pollce anyway?  More screaming, and then an ambulance; and then the police try to keep the peace, but not before.  The song is stark, uncomfortable, and challenges you to wonder what you would do.  Also, did "911 Is A Joke" come from this?  What do you think?
"Baby Can I Hold You" is by far the most conventional song here (later covered by Neil Diamond and by Boyzone), in that it's one of romantic yearning, yearning for words of humility and true love - trust me, love means always having to say you are sorry, to ask to be forgiven, to profess that love again and again.  The Other here has yet to learn this and you have to wonder at the patience of the narrator, who has had to put up with this for a long time, and has to sing this song to tell the Other to say "baby can I hold you tonight."  It is a kind of bossy song that way, but love does mean being bossy at times, or at least decisive...
"Mountains O' Things" is a cold look at the cycle of wanting, having and then realizing that having things isn't really enough - that by "exploiting other human beings" you have lost your soul - that "mostly you are lonely" as the "good people" who have helped you are just your "stepping stones" and so forth.  The narrator keeps his/her mountain o' things as a literal barrier against his/her enemies, and these things are consolations for having no friends and no soul.  All those status symbols that rock and hip hop people are always going on about?  Traps, says Chapman, even as her narrator thinks that they can actually take these things with them in "a grave that's deep and wide enough." 
"Why?" is a stark song about just why is it that the world is so awful - "Why is a woman not still not safe when she's in her home" echoes "Behind The Wall" - and immediately reminded me of the episode of The Prisoner where a computer explodes once the simple question of "why?" is asked.  Those who know don't speak above that whisper, but Chapman says that once "the blind remove their blinders/and the speechless speak the truth" the reason why will be explained.  Well that's nice you might think, but who are these blind people, these quiet folk?  Again, is this you, the listener? 
"For My Lover" is a study, a profession, of insanity.  You'll do what?  Two weeks in a jail, twenty thousand dollars bail - what the hell is happening here?  Why is the narrator doped and psychoanalyzed?  The narrator seems to know that s/he is crazy, that s/he "follow(s) my heart/And leave my head to ponder" this, and wonders if all these sacrifices are worth it, if doing something/anything "for my lover" is really enough.  "Deep in this love" is where s/he is though, and from that perspective, everything is worth it, including being jailed, possibly even considered by the straight world as crazy.  The craziness of love wears off however, and the narrator is in the difficult place of having to decide whether suffering itself is a requirement of love, or not....
"She's Got Her Ticket" is about a girl who most certainly does know what she wants, and has not one ponderous moment to waste - "too much hatred corruption and greed" have repulsed her, and perhaps this is the girlfriend of the man who wants "mountains o' things" who has her ticket and is going to fly away.  Is she a runaway, a failure, a drop out - again, this is how the straight world sees her, but she is setting her own agenda of escape, of freedom - anything is better than where she is now, and if she has "no roots to keep her strong" then she will have to be a pioneer and make her own.  This is the happiest song on the album, in that the young woman is determined, optimistic, and has the sort of spirit that will see her prosper in her own "place in the sun."
"If Not Now" is a bit Morrissey, in that the song is gently downbeat like a Smiths song, all about how love must be grasped immediately, or else it somehow it's not real or free - that love not claimed in the moment is a denial of life itself.  "We all must live our lives/always thinking/always feeling"....the feelings take over at the end, with "For You" admitting that language itself it not able to express "this feeling inside."  With just her guitar, Chapman sings about how she loses her ability to speak once she looks into her heart, and it's Cordelia's song if it is anyone's, that intense feelings make you "no longer the master of my emotions" and thus the album ends, with literally no words left to say, no way to get across feelings...
I have left "Fast Car" for last as it is the most famous song from this album, and a song that has become a standard of sorts.  It keeps popping up on the UK charts, usually when someone performs it on a tv show like Britain's Got Talent or X Factor, and it's the single that's covered, not the whole song.  The single version of the song shows the ambition of the woman who wants a "ticket to anywhere" and the guy has the car and together she figures they can go places, literally and figuratively; when she's in the car with him, she gets the feeling that she can (the pathos of it) "be someone."  The narrator says she has "nothing to prove" but then hatches a plan - she's going to get a job, save money, and then they can both go get jobs later in the city and prosper, so she can get away from her father (who has been abandoned by her mother; the song suggests she's tired of looking after him and is going to abandon him too).  The single, however, doesn't take us to the crushing end of the song, wherein they do have that house in the suburbs that they want - and kids - and he goes out to the bar with his friends more than he sees her or their children. 

The car isn't the subject here, but her being stuck - at first at home with her father, and now as a working mom in the suburbs who is neglected by her husband, who is told that he can "keep his fast car and keep on driving."  Take it or leave it, this is where ambition and love collide, and the single version leaves you wondering if they will make it out there, and the album version gives the sorry truth that they do, but the fast car is no solution any more, but part of the problem, if anything.  The constant longing to "be someone" is not answered by work, or where you live, or even having a fast car or knowing someone who does, though I suppose those all help; to the person who feels they don't belong, nothing can help (not even the modest mountain o' things the suburban life signifies).  The song "She's Got Her Ticket" shows the woman who is free of such ideas, but the narrator of "Fast Car" wants a normal life and ends up being trapped by it, the slightly despairing melody of the song rising to some happiness with her in the car happy to be intoxicated by its speed, but then the sober reality of her life comes back to her once again...
Towards the end of the 80s there had to be a step back to something realistic, something crossing over from the blues or folk to pop, something connected to the world - something that would bridge the generations, a album of unquestionable goodness that whispers more than anything about how life is and how it could be, and the courage (that word again) necessary to make things change for the better.  It also shows a generational shift, as Chapman is part of the (at this point, not yet named) Generation X; in 1988 she is only 25 and suddenly is a superstar folk singer, her album's lyrics (the one I have here on cd) translated into French, Spanish, German and Italian - so folksingers all over Europe can start singing these songs in their own languages.  (It's nice to see this, and of course the ones in French look most romantic to me ["Pour Mon Amant" et "Pour Toi"] and the Spanish ones look the most revolutionary ["Hablando De Revolucion" y "Por Que?"])  It's a generation that is just starting to express itself, and I would say that it's the women of this generation who have the most to say; it feels awkward to call this a timeless album that could only have gone to the top at around the summer of '88 but so it is.  So much of it deals with problems that are still with us, from greed and violence and racism to the more intimate problems of honesty and realizing that so many things aren't all they are cracked up to be. 
And so I sit, kind of nervous, the night before I fly with my own ticket to London; I know I am not escaping from anything beyond a house that is now all too quiet, on a quiet cul-de-sac on a street where there isn't even a real sidewalk.  I live next to a ravine full of wild creatures, yet can see my old high school from my bedroom window.  I have to go, but have no real idea outside of my Frommer's Guide what to expect.  Big things are going to happen, a whole new world awaits....

.....next on TPL - is music enough?  Is writing about music ever enough?
*If this certain someone had told me later in ’88 that the same person was also in the audience for the concert parts of I Am Kurious Oranj (in Edinburgh in August) I would have had some kind of breakdown.  Who is this person?  It has to be a guy, right?  I mean, the hell?
And yet this is actually true.       
  ** John Peel didn't play any hip hop because he had a problem with its attitude towards women, but I would like to kindly point out that Russell Simmons signed Oran "Juice" Jones to Def Jam and his "The Rain" has to be one of the most mean songs about a woman ever recorded.  Simmons didn't even like PE until they started to sell a lot of albums, which shows you how disliked PE were, even by their own label.  I don't think Peel played "The Rain" either, but my point is all of music has a problem with its attitude towards women, not just hip hop.
***I’ve been quoting from “Hip Hop:  The Minimal Self” In Blissed Out by Simon Reynolds (Serpent’s Tail, 1990). (Sigh, I try not to be in opposition to others, but a young woman’s got to make a stand now and then...)