Thursday, 20 October 2016

Elton JOHN: The Very Best Of Elton John

(#416; 10 November 1990, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Your Song/Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long Long Time)/Honky Cat/Crocodile Rock/Daniel/Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting/Candle In The Wind/Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/Philadelphia Freedom/Someone Saved My Life Tonight/Pinball Wizard/The Bitch Is Back/Don't Go Breaking My Heart/Bennie And The Jets/Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word/Song For Guy/Part Time Love/Blue Eyes/I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues/I'm Still Standing/Kiss The Bride/Sad Songs (Say So Much)/Passengers/Nikita/I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That/Sacrifice/Easier To Walk Away/You Gotta Love Someone

And so, back to Elton John.  During the liminal period there are going to be (and there already has been, thinking of The Carpenters, David Bowie, et al) a lot of pauses to look back and take some stock in the 20th century before it inevitably disappears.  Certainly this is the case here; as much as this might look like it's capitalizing on the success of Sleeping With The Past, it is, to quote Elton himself, different.  "My old life stops with the release of this history...A new life starts here, thanks to a willingness to change..."

Which is one way of saying, I've had enough of being a pop star now and would like to do other things; this, for better or indeed worse, is what I have done.  This is fine, and it is fairly accurate to say that this is indeed what people will remember him for, more or less - being a compilation for the UK, it doesn't have a lot of his US hits - no "Island Girl" (perhaps this is just as well) or "Tiny Dancer," no "Mama Can't Buy You Love" (Thom Bell, sigh) or "Ego" (which only helped to invent the Pet Shop Boys) either.  If I was to put together a best of it would be quite different, but this isn't to say this is a bad compilation; it's a fairly standard one though, and so much of it has been written about here on TPL already that I am only able to skim through it and highlight what John and TAUPIN* have accomplished, as best I can.

"Your Song" is already proof that the divide between the two here is going to be a partnership, sure, but also a battle.  Ha, says TAUPIN, I am going to write a conversational lyric which breaks the fourth wall and is a song as much about how useless words are as how great they are, a song about honesty and love and you, Elton, are going to have to set it to music and sing it just so."  This was the deal, that John had to set TAUPIN's lyrics to music, and it works so well here, you'd want someone to dedicate it to you, even though there are a thousand somebodies to whom it too is their song.  I don't think of these two as Friendly Forebears, but every once in a while they most certainly are. 

I wrote about "Rocket Man" here and I can only note there's yet another best of by Elton John with that title.

"Honky Cat" is a fun song and since TAUPIN is from Sleaford and grew up in the countryside of Lincolnshire, all I'm-just-a-dumb-hick-me references are sincere.  It also has two voices - one of the cat himself, and one of those who are telling him to go back home. 

"Crocodile Rock" is pure cheese, all Sha-Na-Na and Pat Boone, and Marcello wrote about it excellently here.

"Daniel" is about Vietnam, but like so many songs about that war, it hides it; or perhaps the condition of the war by now is so pervasive that just about every song of the time can be referred to it.  This is Stevie Wonder's favorite Elton John song, btw.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is one of those defining songs - of its era, and of Elton and TAUPIN's career.  Again, the reference to a plough is a genuine one, as if Honky Cat has grown up here a little and can appreciate what the rural life has, instead.

"Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" is the first all-out rock song here, as in "OMG this rocks, must play air guitar NOW" sort of way.  It is a shot, a jolt of pure energy, with Elton gleefully WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOing and a lot of references to working class youth, braces and boots (is this about skinheads?) and motorbikes and getting pissed, one way or another.  The mellow part of the 70s, officially, is done.  Not for Elton is the Glam Slam stomp (though he was friends with Marc Bolan, of course); when Elton rocks, he ROCKS. 

"Candle In The Wind" comes next, a bit jarring, and here Elton I sense that this is really TAUPIN speaking through Elton, as was his power to do, at times.  I appreciate that he is trying to get across the nobility of Marilyn, who as I remember was the movie star the feminists most wanted to rescue from being merely seen as a sexpot.  This song helps that cause; and of course will one day be rewritten to suit another woman who died in the midst of trying to refashion her own life.

"Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" is a BIG ballad, complete with the Beach Boys singing in the back.  It's a song of romantic torment, with "I can't find, Oh the right romantic line" and this is again clumsy, but in the talk of blinding lights and ladders, it's a song of hope and dread, of a terrible fear of loss.  Elton and TAUPIN were now in the big leagues, no longer just two people brought together in 1967 (when TAUPIN was just 17) to write songs but outdoing just about everyone else in writing huge songs like this. 

"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is a loving version of the song, able to rest in it longeurs, dip into reggae for the chorus, and it's always the case that in a cover version, the qualities the singer brings to it are ones that were always lurking there, brought into light by Lennon (who does background vocals here).  Elton is that sturdy voice, believable, as if there really were newspaper taxis, marshmallow pies and the amazing Lucy herself, floating in the sky.  Elton had guested on "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and this was the sequel in a way.  It was the last time Lennon appeared on a US #1 in his lifetime....

Big breath here.

There are certain songs which have a very strong effect on me, and "Philadelphia Freedom" is one of them.  It is credited to the Elton John Band, and this is important; it was orchestrated by the same man who worked with Barry White, so you know it's going to be huge and sweeping and bigger than life.  It was written deliberately as a single, unlike everything else here (Elton and TAUPIN just wrote songs, man, and the label picked the songs they wanted as singles). 


First, the bass; Dee Murray, the late Dee Murray, is AWESOME here, and I am now going to give props to his band, who tend to get overlooked, in general.

TAUPIN was told to write a song about Billie Jean King's tennis team the Philadelphia Freedoms, and then replied that he didn't write songs about tennis.  I can see Elton rolling his eyes now, telling TAUPIN to just write something with that name, then. 

It's a song about joy, about making decisions, and about what and where home is.  Is it in a place, or in an ideal?

I'm crying already.

As you can see, it's ultimately a song about being free, a topic that has a lot of different meaning in the contexts it appeared in - the US Bicentennial (those flutes conjuring up a Bicentennial minute, seen by me on our family trip across the US in the summer of '75) and the US being proud of itself after the nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate.  But something else is here too, "the ones left behind" - those who aren't free, but who have the beacon of the US to look to - "won't you shine the light---" and the equal conjuring up of immigrants.  Not just of the past, but of the present.  Even right now, as you read this.  The melody is foursquare and solid, so it can leap up and soar and it works; and TAUPIN didn't mean it to become a patriotic song, but it cannot help but be heard this way if you're an American.  This is a distinct case of the music taking the words right over, and Elton sings it as if it's a new anthem.  Considering it's about a feminist heroine, about sport, about a woman who eventually comes out (sung by a man who will, one day, do the same) it's about sexual freedom, as well.** He even got to perform it on Soul Train, which adds another dimension altogether

I really can't say enough about this, in part because I must relate it to my own father (not that he had much to say about popular music) and his own needs to be free and happy, his own push-and-pull relationship to the US.  And again there is the city vs. the "good old family home" and the urge, the need to get out and see the world.  This is what my father has ultimately given me, I feel....

And exhale....

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is also about freedom, and it's a rare case where Elton seems to have told TAUPIN about that time he nearly died, were it not for the intervention of Long John Baldry saving him from death.  So Elton speaks with a rare authority here, and thus the song is a  hymn.  "Thank God my music's still alive."  Just how he got into such a terrible way (the lyrics are about his getting out of what sounds like a wedding from hell) I don't know.  But death was an option until Baldry talked him out of it.  As bitchy as the lyrics are (there are lines about stocks and bonds which may be metaphorical or not, I don't know) the gratitude here is real.

"Pinball Wizard" is from Tommy and it is fairly straightforward, with a bit of "I Can't Expain" thrown in to boot.  I have never seen the movie, though of course Elton towers over everyone, only to be outdone either by Ann-Margret or Tina Turner, depending on how you see things.  Ah, the 70s.

Speaking of Tina, she used to open her show with "The Bitch Is Back" and while this is about a woman and on paper TAUPIN makes her look mean, Elton takes it as a compliment and rocks out to an extent that even Dave Marsh, from Detroit man, likes it.  "It's the way that I move, the things that I do!" growls Elton, as the band explodes.....(and if you listen, you can hear Dusty Springfield in the back there.  HAH!)

Thus endeth the first tape....

"Don't Go Breaking My Heart" zips and zooms away with more WHHOO-HOOs and Kiki Dee is there to cheer Elton up.  It brings back that hot summer of '76, with the strings as a cool breeze.  It's moving to hear Elton have someone with him - bringing her into his Imperial Phase existence, which this certainly is.  He is once again unsure, and she is reassuring him that she is loyal; they did this themselves, and "nobody knoww---whhhhhhhoaaas it."  Punk may be exploding in the streets, but this song is what I knew of the time - an actual love song, with courage and vulnerability in it.  That they dress down for the video is equally fitting.

For me there are two main Elton John songs - one is "Philadelphia Freedom" and the other one is "Bennie and the Jets."

It is a vamp of a song, weirdly reminiscent of "Station To Station" by Bowie; and it is a riposte to Bowie's Ziggy Stardust.  This may have been meant by TAUPIN as a satire on the megaglitz of 70s rock, but Elton turns it into a jazz song, and there's clapping from the Hendrix Isle of Wight concert thrown in by Gus Dudgeon and then Elton goes into the voices of the teenagers who read it in a MAGAAAAAAAAAAAAAZZZZIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNEEEEEE OH HO and the splendour of the music takes right over from any satire whatsoever.  And the fourth wall gets knocked down again. 

This wasn't meant to be a single, by the way, but a station in Windsor, Ontario decided to treat it like one, and then Detroit, just across the river, picked it up, and then it crossed over to the black radio stations and eventually got to #1 in the US.  It's weird and wonderful and is so part of US popular culture now that this may be his best known song there, and both Mary J. Blige and Frank Ocean have sampled from it.  And yes, it's a jazz song, going right back to the roots of where a teenage Elton started, before he knew TAUPIN.  You're soaking in it!  The reason it's here in the chronology was (inexplicably) it wasn't released as a single until October of '76, two and a half years after it was a hit in the US.  It's not like any other single, and I'm glad it's here.  It is perfect.

"Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" I associate with a totally hapless Elton appearing on the legendarily batshit Christmas '76 episode of Morecambe and Wise.  If you haven't seen it, it involves prophecies of some one coming and going, Subbuteo legs, dancing turning into boxing, John Thaw and Dennis Waterman up the creek without a paddle and an ending that simply could never happen now.***  At one point Elton says "Can we say funky?" and you just know the Imperial Phase is over.  The ridiculous costumes and whizz-bang days are gone.  TAUPIN gives him nothing but breakup lyrics to compose songs to, and this is one of them.  It has a French feel to it (the accordion helps) which reminds me that TAUPIN is the son of two French immigrants.  Yeah you folks, half of the UK's most successful writing duo involving the postal service is secretly French. 

Elton does moping music really well though, and everybody who has been dumped can relate to it. 

At this point Elton and TAUPIN take their own break from each other, and while they do "Ego" together, Elton gets to work with various people including Thom Bell.  I'm not sure what else happens, but he gets to do a few more good songs...

"Song For Guy" is an instrumental that ambles along to a cha-cha beat straight from that button on the organ there; Guy being a motorbike courier for Rocket Records, the label Elton set up for himself once he finally escaped his draconian two-albums-per-year old contract.  Guy died in a traffic accident, and this is Elton's tribute to the teenager.  It is wordless, save for the words "life isn't everything."  It is sad, but not mournful - it has that absent quality that sounds as if there is indeed something missing...

After this, it is all very hit and miss.  "Part Time Love" is Gary Osborne's lyrics of everyone cheating on everyone else, as if the 70s culminates in nothing but a lot of wacky bed-hopping.  Already the music sounds like it's from a musical, with a chorus line in the back singing along.  It's just embarrassing. 

"Blue Eyes" is something else though; suddenly it's 1982 and Elton is taking his time, going into his lowest register, pausing and confusing those who forgot he could still do this and pull it off.  It is not soppy or dull, which unfortunately a lot of the rest of the songs here are.  They are the equivalent to the Stylistics after Thom Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi. 

"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" sees him back with TAUPIN, who encourages people to feel bad, if only so they can then feel better.  It's a "I miss you too honey" of a song, with overproduction from Chris Thomas, a bunch of backing singers who aren't as intrusive as David Bowie's but are somehow just as annoying.  "Wait on me girl."  Elton sings it as if it's just another song, really - it's as if his real enthusiasm is elsewhere, not here.  Even the near-obligatory Stevie Wonder harmonica solo can't help it.

"I'm Still Standing" is sonically one big nyah-nyah and is just as headache-inducing for me as "Modern Love."  This is Elton in his ha-ha-I'm-okay-look-I'm-marrying-a-woman-and-everything-HAHA period, and it's not pretty.  It's not even listenable.

Speaking of denial, "Kiss The Bride" is either TAUPIN pulling a very mean prank on Elton, o r else it's actually what Elton felt.  There are plenty of songs about this whole theme of wanting to attend a wedding and cause a fuss, but "It Should Have Been Me" (preferably sung by Adeva) is so much better than this, it's not even funny.  Or if you want rock, "I Knew The Bride" by Dave Edmunds.  No Elton, you don't want to kiss her, come on.

"Sad Songs (Say So Much)" sounds like a commercial, complete with needless over-explaining, an annoying chorus of backing singers, simple music and the irony that it's a cheery song about listening to the blues.  Or Joy Division, I can't tell.  "They reach into your room" is a creepy way to sing about music, as if music can actually walk in and touch you, like a ghost.  When all hope is gone you don't listen to the blues, you dork.  You listen to music that can give you hope, energy, LIFE.  Rich people luxuriating in the blues is one of the most irritating things in rock, and this is a big slice of it.

"Passengers" is apparently about South Africa and apartheid and the condition of miners, but it is so repetitive and allusive and so forth that I am not really sure that comes across.  This wasn't even a single in the US, and the US loves Elton John.  It's no "Biko" or "Free Nelson Mandela" for sure.

"Nikita" is a song from the Cold War, part one (are we in part two yet?  I can't tell).  Remember in La Femme Nikita how she's supposed to be deaf to any mayhem because she's listening to this song?  How could that be, unless she's got it up to maximum volume? Nikita is a Russian woman who has eyes that are like "ice on fire" and she is pitied because she doesn't know the joys of life in the West.  At bottom this seems to be some kind of odd pen-pal relationship, with the woman being all Eastern Bloc enigmatic and himself wondering why she hasn't leapt to be by his side.  SIGH.  Yes, that is George Michael in the background, and Nik Kershaw on guitar.

"I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That" takes us to 1988 (I remember it from my trip to the UK; this and "A Word In Spanish").  Here he contradicts his free-loving self in "Part Time Love" and rebukes an Other who wants lots of lovers.  It's got a good beat and you can dance to it, and Elton sounds actually pissed off, for once.  But again, for a better song, see the Pet Shop Boys' "Domino Dancing."

Which brings us to "Sacrifice" - one of the coldest breakup songs of all time (yep, TAUPIN is breaking up with someone again).  "Mutual misunderstanding" is the theme here, but it sounds to me as if no sweat is broken here, no feelings hurt - the song is memorable, sure, but if there is no sacrifice here, was there something really there to begin with?  It all feels so insubstantial.  So many of Elton's songs from the 70s were as solid as buildings, as natural as a tree you could lean against; this E-Z Rock ballad swirls around jealousy and temptation but the song waves these human emotions and feelings off, and Elton is singing is fine...maybe this is about his own divorce?  About something bigger?

The last two songs are the obligatory "new songs you've never heard before" ones and they are so dull as to constitute a crime.  "Easier To Walk Away" attempts a kind of New Jack Swing beat, and is all about love mysteriously "holding you up for ransom."  No, I don't know either.  What the heck was TAUPIN thinking here?  "Oh-ho-hooo, love, it's so oppressive, you can never trust the other, oh poetry I shall die."  Since when did he turn into Morrissey? 

"You Gotta Love Someone" is about the importance of loving someone before you go do something crazy.  Like "stop the world and steal the face from the moon."  This is getting to "Instinction" levels of WTF-ness here.  "You need two hearts on one side."  Well, thank you, TAUPIN.  Next time I feel like getting a "slice of the sun" I will remember that I am happily attached to someone.  Musically this is a genteel tune that sounds like someone doing an Elton John song. It's bossy and even Don Was' production cannot save it.

What to make of all this?  Would it have been better for Elton to have just stopped making music after a while?  I doubt that would have happened, but like Bowie I think his heart was elsewhere in the 80s, as it is now; the omission of "That's What Friends Are For" here kind of points to where his interests and energies are - namely in LGBT rights, worldwide, as well as raising funds to help those with AIDS.  If  your heart is elsewhere and you made your mark musically by the time you turned 30, you just keep going and touring and eventually pause here to mark the end of that life, and a new one of love, both personal and brotherly.  You can still dress up and make a spectacle of yourself, of course.

We don't return to Elton John for some time here on TPL. His '90s will be one of heartbreak, triumph and the biggest UK single of all time; his good works will get him knighted in 1998, and even now he is so big and well known, for his WHOO-HOOOs as well as his sensitive ballads, that he can get Putin on the line to talk about what matters - equality, pure and simple.  Oh, and freedom, which in his best song is given (by TAUPIN) is given so many dimensions, so many facets, as to be as close to my heart as some woman my own age in Russia, or anywhere else. 

Next up:  the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.

*In the sleeve notes to Sleeping With The Past there's a Herb Ritts picture of Elton John with his lyricist and he's just called TAUPIN as if he was a brand or a corporation or something.  This picture is also used for this compilation, and he looks quite smug, is wearing leather jeans and looks more like Steven Seagal than anyone besides Seagal should.  Hence, I will refer to him in all-caps.

**It's even about the right to have a pop single be five minutes long.  DJs in the US carped about Elton's songs being too long, so Elton gave them this, a home run of a song, and of course it went to #1.  It got to #12 in the UK as he didn't want to have the stunning strings butchered by the Top Of The Pops orchestra.

***Imagine a UK showbiz figure of your choice (my choices here are Will Young or maybe Idris Elba), a machine gun, and Ant and Dec.  You're welcome.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Paul SIMON: The Rhythm Of The Saints

(#416: 27 October 1990, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  The Obvious Child/Can't Run But/The Coast/Proof/Further To Fly/She Moves On/Born At The Right Time/The Cool, Cool River/Spirit Voices/The Rhythm Of The Saints

On Then Play Long we have already had explorations of what is to come in 1991, as during this liminal period it draws everything else to it like a magnet; but for now - and the next couple of posts to come - there is a sense of things winding down, as well as a sense that the next thing, the new thing, is not far off.

Paul Simon could, by 1990, be said to be hip again - the huge success of Graceland (an album that still pops up now and again in the UK album chart) led to a best of compilation and lots of anticipation as to what he would do next.

Simon looks warily at the camera in the booklet, as if to say he has done all he wants to do now, and would like some privacy, please.  Those expecting (including his record company) another huge album were perhaps taken aback, as he went to Brazil to record and write, and hence the big drums, the beauty and sadness.  The record company rejected his running order and put "The Obvious Child" first as they wanted something upbeat for a single, though there is toughness to it, a kind of middle-aged knowledge that isn't conducive to wacky videos.  "The cross is in the ballpark" sticks out here, in the story of Sonny aging and looking back - who is the "obvious" child?  What does this mean?  The massed drumming is sharp and clacks along like a train, the song grows quiet and then jumps up once more, the parade of Sonny passing him by. 

"Can't Run But" is like mercury in your fingers, or the Chernobyl dust blowing across the world.  The natural world can't be escaped, just as feeling squeezed, destroyed by love (this is the core of the album) cannot be escaped.  The grief, anger and exhaustion of being rejected, divorced, is here.  So, oddly, in this nervous song, is the music industry.  "The music business thrives" even as the singer suffers; Simon, from all evidence here, was divorced from his wife Carrie Fisher, and his misery at this is something he has to work with, cannot avoid.

"The Coast" is more upbeat, dedicated to, in part, Derek Walcott*.  It is about a family of musicians who shelter from the rain in, where else, the church of St. Cecilia (yes, her again.)  The musicians may as well be Simon himself, who talks here about loneliness and then proclaims that sorrow is "worth something" not just as an experience but as an actual negotiable thing for musicians.  "That's worth some money" he repeats, as the neat music burbles along and the sun rises, the stars fall, the world shines; and misery is turning to music, which then becomes money.  The coast here is "injured" as Simon must have felt himself; but that optimism about his new love (he met Edie Brickell in the fall of '88) comes through here too, in a song that is amiable enough but that is also frank about what this album is, in part...

"Proof" is jaunty enough to be on Graceland; it slides and skitters and yet has a toughness that is about the actuality of things, the proof of things, not faith ("an island in the setting sun") - it's the true bottom line, and you get the idea that some of his idealism is lost, and the physical world is the only thing that can be trusted.

"Further To Fly" is a record of his sadness, the love ebbing away, "the open palm of desire" is insatiable, and she is elusive, pushing off like a season goes, disappears, and leaves the lover bereft.  This is the guts of the album, quietly knocking around, steadily circling and flying away, just as she leaves, and things are left broken, his whole life like "a conversation in a crowded room going nowhere."  This is not the luxuriant Nowhere of Ride, big as the world, but being left behind at a party, being left behind in your own house.  So much for the cinematographer's party from Graceland (where he met Fisher perhaps?)  Now he walks the street and wonders if he's crazy.  Welcome to the liminal period, Paul.

The drums insist, pick up, carry him on.  "She Moves On" is about watching her leave on the plane, back to Los Angeles, back home.  He still loves her, but she "cannot stop" and speaks through the backing singers, saying that he has underestimated her power.  Simon is as lost as Bryan Ferry was,  "abandoned, forsaken" and yet this is sorrow, shock recalled in tranquillity - that it is over, that the break is definitive, as the plane escapes through the clouds and again the physical world is altered; she is gone.  I first heard this album as background music in a restaurant, and it is always thrumming with life, but not enough to be truly distracting. 

"Born At The Right Time" is a song that made me feel a bit uneasy, to say the least.  Us twenty-somethings (that term, you know the one, didn't exist just yet) were beginning to understand that we were all pretty much born at the wrong time, altogether. When Simon complains "the planet groans when it registers another birth" I can't help but here that line from "I'm Stone In Love With You" about "the population boom."  (As you'll recall, he is the first man on the moon.)  The song praises these babies born who will never suffer, never struggle, who will "never be lonely" and "never be lied to" and I am wondering just what Simon is on, here.  Everyone suffers, you know?  But the somehow smug music (I don't know how it is, it just sort of shuffles along to its first class seat) makes it sound as if us hapless young listeners have lost again, that it's the children who matter, not us.  Why deny the obvious children?  (And are children coming up again here as symbols of innocence, or again something more physical?)

"The Cool, Cool River" is a lot better, a song of optimism, but one of anger - it pauses, meanders like the river, then sets off briskly again.  The river of prayer is what Simon has to ride on, to get away  from the anger which cannot be healed.  When heaven is mentioned, the horns come in forcefully, as Simon testifies to his ultimate insignificance and he can only say "sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears."  The natural world shifts and changes, "battered dreams" are still there to be dreamt, the future is still there for those with the strength to get through hard times.  Clearly the trip to Brazil was one of hope as much as anything else, a change which helps him - that he gets to work with so many fine musicians is a bonus, of course, but this is a sombre album....

"Spirit Voices" is a song he wrote, with Portuguese lyrics by Milton Nascimento; it is the story of his time in Brazil, where he goes to the forest to have some "herbal brew" (ayahuasca) which is hallucinogenic, and he hears the trees sing - this is where Nascimento's voice come in, soft and sweet as the music.  "Do your best, heart, and have trust" is the ultimate message of the trees, and it is an earthquake (real?  unreal?) for him, to have his experience there in a place of healing, the drink one of "holy water."

The album ends with the title song, one where Simon goes straight into prayer - asking once again that he not be blinded by his weaknesses, that he will soon be "crawling out from under the heel of love."  The prayer is to overcome the enemy, "to dominate the impossible in your life" but he still sounds as if he is down, not triumphant; on his way, and nowhere near getting to where he wants to be.  The music is quietly optimistic, modest, and one line sticks out for me:  "Always a stranger when strange isn't fashionable."

So the quiet samba takes Paul Simon away from TPL; he will not be returning for some time, during which the Russian Futurists will do a fine song named after him; he will release a few albums and age reasonably gracefully, but things like Surprise (produced by Brian Eno) is the closest he gets to TPL in the noughties, only really returning this year with Stranger To Stranger

Meanwhile, somewhere in Germany, two Englishmen make an album with Harold Faltermeyer.

Behold, then:

If the world is changing, then you have to change with it, as Paul Simon learns; some people disappear on you and that is that. 

But of course, there is romance, and there is now something else:  illness.

The two have been likened to each other, but now that metaphor is becoming, for many people, real.  The loss in "Being Boring" is built into the elegant languor of the song itself - now, at a time of crisis, on a swirl of harps, comes Neil and Chris to give us all roses, to - how gauche to say it plain - stand up for love.

It starts with Zelda, who was never bored, and comes to Neil getting on the train to London, exploring the city, relying on friends....the 90s arrive and "all the people I was kissing, some are here and some are missing...."

This is one of the songs of the 90s; do not hold back, do not worry, and take what time you have and use it well. 

If this album sounds tougher than Introspective, then that is because they heard Violator by Depeche Mode and looked at each other and said OMFG we have to do better than that.  In so many words.

"This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave" practically describes itself, hammering away at the insanity and uncomfortable paranoia which seeps in, the bowing and scraping, the "hopelessness" that haunts the narrator, even in his sleep.  "When we fall in love there's confusion."  To be a stranger in your own land....

"To Face The Truth" is about a break up, or about one that is not going to happen as the narrator - a woman, insist the Pet Shop Boys - is unable to be logical, rational, as she is so in love, and unlike Simon does not want proof of her man's infidelity.  The music glides along, a semaphore for panic beeps alongside the long slow lines.  She gets no answer when she asks, and so will not go further; a static situation...

"How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously" is about Bros.  There, I've said it.  Yes, I know they had the same manager, but, by extension it's about pop stars talking up the rainforest and the ozone layer and not really getting into the guts of the thing, just riding these crises like skateboards into the papers.  Yes, it's mean, but it's also accurate...(with a lovely New Jack swing, as well)....

"Only The Wind" is a song of storm and calm; of drama and denial.  A man, a woman, the aftermath of domestic abuse; the man narrates, blaming the hurricane on the weather, and not himself.  It's a song that sounds like a weather report at first, but the piano line is beautiful, the lie of "everything's okay."  "My hands are not shaking...."  The couple are cursed; she is invisible, but should leave.  This is how you sing about an issue, kids.  Subtle, but straightforward.

"My October Symphony" is about Russia, about music, about how to make a revolution into a revelation, bring Motown and Moscow together.  The start is from Shostakovich's Second Symphony and it's "October!" in Russian.  Change is in the air, but what is going to happen?  At this point in 1990, no one quite knew, and the air was full of uncertainty.  The music hems and haws, ooohs and aaahs, as one revolution is remembered in the midst of another....

"So Hard" jumps and beats along, funny but serious, ridiculous but real.  A deliberately old school kind of song, but the kernel of the thing is affairs, double crosses, broken hearts.  Why can't things be easy?  Do people love to hurt others because it is easier than actually being loyal?  A cousin to "Domino Dancing" in a way, only this the narrator is also in on the act, not the one who is being betrayed.  Love is the thing that counts, not affairs....

"Nervously" is about two boys too nervous and shy to get together; it builds up, romantically, awkwardly, with the charming line "right from the start, I approved of you."  The song opens and opens up, gathers courage, and by the time the drums come in you know they are a real, genuine couple, the happiest one here. 

"The End Of The World" pitches us once again into drama, housey pianos, and girls and boys who are or aren't phoning each other, slamming doors and causing scenes - ones that are easy enough to make fun of, really.  Destruction?  Need some sympathy instead says Neil, the real end of the world is perhaps upon us but in the meantime, have some feeling for your fellow humans who are suffering.  Even if it looks melodramatic, to them, it's real....

...and now the end....

....The quite roar, the "endless thoughts and questions" of the tormented, the jealousy of the Other blinding the narrator to what is actually there.  Slow, ponderous, sad; the intensity of the feeling throbs and ebbs, the drums thump and the orchestra (a real one) takes over, and the ambiguity of the line at the end means that maybe the narrator is also jealous....possibly?....

So much excellence here, with Behaviour, and it's hard to see how their imperial phase was over, but it was; an unhappy album for the most part, but one alive to the present and its problems and joys.  A revolution is here, and the Pet Shop Boys are here to remember, to remind us what the end of the world is more likely to be.  Not something a prophet said, but a phone ringing, or not.

Or it could be something else, of course.

The very fact that there were AIDS charities and people willing to step up and record for this album was cool, as it was something unthinkable even a few years before, when AIDS as a cause of death was hushed up, and when "That's What Friends Are For" was released the air slowly seeped back into the room.  By late 1990 the world was ready, only too ready to buy this, as at the time there was a race to find some medicine to make the virus slow down, or be blunted in a way. 
Hence, Red Hot + Blue.

The delights of the album are many I will try to point out a few.  .I am also writing about this as of course it feeds back into "Being Boring" but is a way of saying goodbye to some artists who have already appeared on TPL, and hello to some who sadly never had number one albums.

"I've Got You Under My Skin" is Neneh Cherry talking straight about ostracization, the shunning that made Diana such a revolutionary figure.  Neneh talks of a girl who injected, shot up, and got infected that way.  She is as sharp as possible here, in a way that Cole Porter would have understood.  (For the record, I think Cole Porter is great, and like the PSBs is pretty much faultless lyrically. I will quote bits that I really love.)  "Share your love, don't share the needle."

Oh hello Neville Brothers!  Hello New Orleans! "In The Still Of The Night" is a lovely song of longing, as so many of these songs are, and Aaron Neville's voice is just as trembly and tender as ever here, climbing the stairway of Porter's melody elegantly. "Growing dim on the rim of the hill."

Sinead is back!! "You Do Something To Me" is almost a dress rehearsal for her tortuous (her anguish is palpable) Am I Not Your Girl? album of 1992.  She goes from a whisper to a yelp, a traditional orchestra behind her, just as it would have been in 1929, when it was written. 

Salif Keita!! Welcome to TPL!  "Begin The Beguine" is sung by him in Yoruba, and the song is translated by him as well; it about a song that is remembered with great joy, then sorrow, and then longed for in joy again.  Make them play!

Oh hi there Fine Young Cannibals!  Acoustic FYC for that matter, doing "Love For Sale" in a way that reminds me that young men and young women saw Roland Gift as a sex symbol at the time.  I can fully imagine the BBC banning this at the time, just as they banned so many songs.  Of course it's sexy, it's even got girls in the background getting all...interested.  We won't encounter FYC again here, so it's nice to hear them once again....

"Well, Did You Evah?" is a song from High Society, and I love this version by Debbie Harry
and Iggy Pop just as much, if not more than the original.  The bit where Iggy talks about Los Angeles in the middle is endlessly funny.  "I hear they dismantled wasn't elegant enough."  I expect Cole Porter would have loved this. Iggy is a true Michigan hick, which really works here - it's swellegant!

"Miss Otis Regrets/It Was Just One Of Those Things" is by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues, and it's slow at first and then the merry fizzy hop later, and you can imagine Miss Otis' anger easily enough, with Shane as the blithe man who could never murder anyone over love, as he never takes it that seriously.  Everyone still misses Kirsty, I think.  Too bad Shane doesn't do the prologue to the song, where Juliet and Eloise are mentioned....very nice to have these folks all here at TPL, I feel....

Hmm, now doesn't this sound familiar?  Paul Simon?  No, it's David Byrne!! He too has the Brazilian musician, but the joy of this is so unlike the injured Simon.  "Don't Fence Me In" is perfect, on his "cayuse" he travels the world, and while it's not a love song here (though most are) there is a love of the world in it that is just as strong. 

"It's All Right With Me" by Tom Waits is just as weird and crouched over and growly and New Orleans as it should be, and it's even a beautiful melody when he sings it.  As he does, in his own way.  "It's the wrong song in the wrong style."  TPL will get, in its way, back to old Tom soon enough, dear readers.  

Annie Lennox's version of "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" is probably more in keeping with what you would expect of this album, but it is a sad song that is only too appropriate here, and she has the right voice for it.  "How strange the change from major to minor" must be a direct influence on "the minor fall, the major lift." 



U2 are back to normal, thank GOD.

"Night And Day" sees the Brian Eno influence back, and literally not a minute too soon.  It's an obsessive song, but since when did Bono sound anything but possessed, really.  Electronic, dark, romantic and swoony.  The return of U2 was the big story at the time, as I recall; a lot of girls listened to this a lot, I bet. 

Les Negresses Vertes' take on "I Love Paris" is particularly great as it is sung in French and English, and you know they know about Paris and how it drizzles and sizzles (not enough usage of those words in songs) and they sound as if they could be on the street doing this, as well as a club.  (And I love London, for the same reasons.)  More French music to come in the fullness of time here on TPL of course....

And now, from Canada, k.d. lang!  Welcome aboard!  "So In Love" is the song that got the airplay in Canada of course, with much made of the video, as well.  k.d. may have been a country star at the time, but her love of the American songbook is evident here, and eventually she will make a whole album of duets with Tony Bennett.  The song is lovely but the punctum here is strong too, all things considered. 

"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" is again from High Society and The Thompson Twins say farewell to TPL in the best way possible, with probably their best recording, ever.  Also a snub to the 1%, while we're at it.  Tom and esp. Alannah's sneering is brilliant.  "And I don't cause all I want is you!"  "And sleep through Wagner at the Met?"  Did someone say...hip hop?

And hello Erasure, TPL will be getting back to you soon, of course.  "It's Too Darn Hot" is sensual, hot (well, of course) and I love the phrase "pitch the woo" but I fear it's out of fashion, now.  At first Andy sings in his low register, but gets back to normal towards the end; it's done in go-go style.  (Almost none of the songs are done exactly as they were written, but then part of the joy is hearing these songs as new songs, more or less - certainly it introduced me to Cole Porter, at the time.)

The Jungle Brothers!!  Hello!! "I Get A Kick Out Of You" is something they make their own, and here is the only mention of safe sex, and oh yes I am sure the original was banned over here, if it was even a single.  See also "Ain't That A Kick To The Head?" by Dean Martin. 

And now, Lisa Stansfield - HI! - she sings this as if it was written for her, and the line "even the janitor's wife has a perfectly good love life" is A++ Friendly Forebear from Cole Porter.  I think she does her own jazz albums later on, which I should investigate.  "What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?" is still a good question.

Jimmy Somerville is here, as you again would expect, with a song of tough optimism.  "From This Moment On" is a love song of not just adoration but eternal love, and yes there's a huge nod to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" here, too.  Not sung by Jimmy but in the original lyrics:  "The future looks so gay."  Indeed it does. 

And now two songs, one from an American woman - "After You, Who?" by Jody Watley.  One of those songs that is so brilliant it's intimidating, but the warmth of Jody's voice makes it a real thing, somehow....and one from a Scottish man, Aztec Camera.  "Do I Love You?" is a brilliant ending, Roddy Frame's voice cracked and East Kilbride rough, but passionate and an answer, of sorts, to the previous song.  Quiet, and another avowal of eternal love, beautiful, tinkling like stars, love that can and will endure everything.

What to make of all this?  That love is difficult, can leave you bruised, that compassion and sympathy for others is vital, and that love can get you through what seems like the end of the world.  Paul Simon finds solace in nature and his own stubborn will and optimism.  The real storms of life can be treated with empathy, the real things that matter are what count, say the Pet Shop Boys.  And a multitude of voices sing about valuing love over everything on behalf of those who need as much care and friendly actions and words as possible. These are eternal verities, but at the beginning of the 90s it was essential they be restated, and I cannot overstate how important they are now.

Next up:  a boy from Pinner and TAUPIN.

*As I was getting heavily into poetry at this time, this rubbed off on my mom, who read and loved Derek Walcott.  We went to Harbourfront to see him read and she waited patiently to get him to sign her book, not where writers usually sign books but on a page where her favorite poem was, instead.  He was grumpy about it, but did it, anyway. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The CHARLATANS: Some Friendly

(#415:  20 October 1990, 1 week)

"They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own." TIME magazine, July 16, 1990

"Some say I'm vague/And I'd easily fade/Foolish parade of fantasy" "De-Luxe" Lush, Mad Love EP

And so we reach that most awkward year, 1990, yet again; a year, by evidence, when no one knew exactly what was going on.  I know TPL has been here for some time, but it could be said that the 90s started in 1987 with the successes of “Jack Your Body” and “Pump Up The Volume.”  It could also be said that the culture wars started in 1987, with The Closing of the American Mind and The Church of SubGenius.*  The fin, as Angela Carter had put it at the time, was coming early this si├Ęcle, and in some ways this liminal period was bound to be unpredictable and disturbing, by turns.**

As it was, by July my mom and I had left Oakville behind for Toronto, as we both worked there, and a friend of ours was leaving her apartment for Japan to teach flamenco dancing, as she could find no other work; and so we got the place above Clay Design at Brunswick and Harbord, in the whole mix of University of Toronto local houses, streets and vibrations.  It was a hot summer, a wet one (I recall the kitchen ceiling had a leak) and a contentious one, nationally.  The Meech Lake Accord, the Oka Crisis, the “Into the Heart of Africa” show at the Royal Ontario Museum – people were rebelling, speaking out, protesting and changing things up.  The 1990s were not going to be a laidback decade – I could tell that, already.  

At the time I was still listening to CFNY (though I think they were calling themselves 102.1 The Edge by now) and trying my best to keep up with things.  We, for some reason, didn’t bring the television with us, so I had no television to watch, just as there was no door on my room (my mom rigged a piece of cloth for a door) nor on hers; indeed we slept on futons, and kept doing so for the rest of the and books were the thing, as well as nights deemed too hot to cook, so we would go out to eat, always seeming to hear either Ottmar Liebert or the Gipsy Kings in the restaurants’ sound systems.  It was an odd time, a time for Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet to have their classic Savvy Showstoppers album out, with the hit “Having An Average Weekend” used as the theme music of the show The Kids In The Hall.  I say odd as I had to adjust to actually living in Toronto, and not simply knowing it by my time at Ryerson or the previous trips we had taken as a family for this or that purpose.  I was a resident, and had friends who also lived in Toronto; to live somewhere so big was a bit intimidating. 

But my  life was as mundane as ever, save for poetry.  The University of Toronto neighborhood had plenty of new and used bookstores, all of them interesting and different, from the abnormal psychologies and literary angles one on Harbord (I definitely got a book on Plath there) to the used place called Harbord Books that had cookies for sale and up on Bloor there was Book City, which was two floors of books, new and discounted, with a college-student-gonna-read-Chomsky-now-see-you-later kind of feel.  I started to slowly but surely get the poetry books of all the Voices & Visions poets, from Whitman to Plath, and tried to read the LRB and had no idea who Gazza was, nor how soccer could be so significant. 

I listened to music – loved Pod, Bossanova not so much; was still obsessing over The Chills, so much so that I got a guide book to New Zealand and read it with a kind of mild mania. I read the Village Voice and visited Washington D.C. just as the line in the sand was being drawn and Kuwait invaded; listened to Tairrie B’s The Power of A Woman and The Fall’s compilation 458489 B-Sides.  I stole a poster for The Stone Roses’ “One Love” and put it up in my room.   I was too busy to slow down and think, hm, maybe I need therapy.  There was always another book to read (I started reading the classics according to Kenneth Rexroth – more on “the canon” later) and another album to listen to.  But by the time Some Friendly appeared, I was worn out.   I was sensitive to everything and was ignorant about a lot – not the happiest situation, and it would exist for a long time. 

At some point I became so sick I had to stay at home, as I could not speak.  I had what I guess I would now call psychosomatic laryngitis and I felt a bit as if I was in a free fall.  The music that had sustained me would continue to do so, but what Concrete Blonde talked about on their 1990 album Bloodletting – “The Darkening Of The Light***” – was taking place within me, and suffice it to say that where The Charlatans were coming from and where I was coming from were so different, as to be opposing worlds.  Which I know they were.   Baggy was never going to be my thing, as it was fundamentally upbeat, male, new-old-fashioned, and rather casually ruthless.  It cared about record collections (more on them, anon) and groovy sounds and seemed to be broadcast from some other planet. 

A planet where magazine covers like this one, published just weeks after we’d moved to Toronto, could never appear:
Was I part of this rather aimless and unfocused generation?  One look at it and a friend’s anger became vocal – that was in no way her.  She knew what she wanted to do and was going to do it.  But was it me?  Well, what else was I?  From the looks of it, everyone in the UK music world was hell-bent on having a good time and/or becoming famous, and people around me were ambitious too, for their goals, whether they were professional or romantic.  None of that applied to me, and I watched these ambitious people achieve, achieve and achieve in 1990/91, feeling no compunction to be the same way.  I was not surprised when they succeeded, nor was I surprised when they failed, as had to happen; I already knew the universe was not really 100% with me all the time, just as I knew I was (how did I know? I just did) not going to meet anyone, male or female, with my exact taste in music in Toronto.  Someone who liked Swagger by The Blue Aeroplanes, Big Fun by Inner City, the Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye compilation, Goo by Sonic Youth, Submarine Bells by The Chills, Ex:El by 808 State, Supernatural by Stereo MC’s, Born To Sing by En Vogue, Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy...

I have tried once again with The Charlatans and because it takes me back to this period, when I was always too numb or too sensitive, too angry or too passive.  They are a rockin’ little Hammond organ-driven combo at this point, all youth and possibility, and off chance moments of greatness (“Then” is my favourite song).  It is steeped in references to the past, ones explained fully in Telling Stories (influences include the following:  Felt, The Brilliant Corners, The Claim, Talk Talk, The Rain Parade, The Pixies, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Spencer Davis Group, The Fifth Dimension, The Doors, New Order, Johnny Leyton and It’s Immaterial).  Some of this is, suffice it to say, not apparent to me, but then I don’t know all this music (to me the Paisley Underground remains underground, save for The Bangles).  However I don’t think any amount of listening is going to fundamentally change my experience of this album – it’s good, great at times, and the first indie rock number one album of its kind since The Smiths (not forgetting Burgess’ favourite band  New Order), but like I said, baggy was not really for me.  (Nor especially is indie disco, which I have at least seen, sort of, in person.)

To the album, briefly:

“You’re Not Very Well” is quite cool; Burgess’ voice is kind of nasal, whiny, the sort that is effortlessly and almost stereotypically English.  Not twee, exactly, but already it’s the first song and he’s seeming to say he is superior to where he is from, in a way.  This rejection comes straight from The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection.”  The superiority complex leads to....

“White Shirt” is punk in sentiment but sounds like the 60s in a near-car-commercial sort of way.  The chipper arrogance continues, and this from someone who was happy to work in an office.  Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll danger, as one magazine would later say.

“The Only One I Know” is a big song; a sad song; the kind of song that sounds like Steve Winwood could have sung in the Spencer Davis Group in ’66, no problem.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how you look at things, I guess.  This hit sold the album, and certainly sold it to me, at the time.

“Opportunity” is slower, a bit shoegazey (The Charlatans as a group had not much time for shoegazing groups).  I think Burgess said this was about the Poll Tax riots, but then so many songs were inadvertently about it at the time, right there in the charts.  It sounds too vague to apply, and the whole “station to station” reference just makes me think of Bowie.  Maybe it’s about being lost on the Underground?

“Then” oddly enough sounds more like the actual “Station To Station” – the beginning part where  it’s always backing up on itself – only somehow flatter, and not able to escape the way Bowie does.   This song is in part about the Gulf War that was going to happen, but the actual Gulf War will provoke music much angrier than this, in 1991.  Still, this is a simmering song that sounds as if it’s coming from a place.  Rob Collins’ solo at the end is good, and I am not surprised to find out he was an angry player, who really threw himself into it, not in a showoffy way but with real feeling.

Oh, and it’s not prog.

“109 pt. 2” has a bit of dialogue form Angel Heart in it, and is more psychedelic than anything else so far.  Instrumental, with more Collins goodness as I think there are echoes of who knows what future hauntological musics here....until the end, when I there’s what sounds like a gunshot.  Welcome to the 90s....

(side two)

 “Polar Bear” sounds more like 808 State with guitars than anything else, and Andy Bell liked the title enough that he wrote a song for Nowhere with the same one.  This is the most “baggy” song besides the big hit so far, and I can imagine hearing it in Eastern Bloc, too.  As I have never eaten a Revel, I must have taken this to be a drug song at the time.  Cough.

“Believe You Me” Well hello whacka-whacka guitar, this does sound familiar, doesn’t it?  Yet it is a Collins song, so if you just listen to him, then it makes a bit more sense.  The “having a funky time on the weekend at the Blow Up club” song.  I am trying to get the intimidating vibe that is supposed to be here, but I cannot be intimidated by Tim Burgess. 

“Flower” is bass-led (for once, it’s a relief) and it’s influenced by the Pixies, without the whoops and yells and interruptions they had, that deadpan sense of humor, just a kind of quiet-loud-quiet that will become more prominent in the 90s.  Burgess sounds pretty mean here, but then bad girls are what make pop interesting.  And girls will decide themselves if they are bad, or not.....

“Sonic” is when I have to stop for a moment and wonder wait a minute now, isn’t that the same chord as “You’re Not Very Well”?  I guess this is what they mean by an album hanging together, but it’s getting to be a bit claustrophobic for me.  It’s a nice song, though. 

“Sproston Green” is the big closer; named after a real place, with all the band moments in place – Hammond, business-like drumming, big chords, enough to make the folks who remember the 60s happy and those born in the 60s feel both new and old at the same time.  I keep thinking of a band that will have many of these elements, but will do something different with them, but as they are just forming in 1990, I can’t mention them....yet. 

 Is the arrogance of the Charlatans earned?  Are they the best band in Britain?  So many times this is said by bands, and that arrogance can convince enough people in the media to repeat it, if only as copy, as something to report, rather than fact.  For what it is, Some Friendly is good; but I cannot say it stuck to me at the time, the way other albums did. 

For a voiceless, exhausted and unknowingly-in-need-of-therapy me, it all went by in a hazy, noisy swirl; I did not have the same reaction as one James Brown did, then of the NME, who wrote about them as if on drugs (hm, remove the ‘as if’), drugs that in no way could interest me.  The world was common, mundane, with its bright spots; The Charlatans are a band who are on their way to something here, though whether it is the past instead of the future it is hard to tell.  There are bands pushing against the past, like a swimmer pushing against the wall of the pool to propel themselves forward; and there are ones content to swim around in that past, touching the wall once in a while, but who are buoyant on tradition, history and perhaps more than a little nostalgia.  Some bands keep pushing, and some don’t.  You can list all the influences you like, but if the songs aren’t sticking with me, well, why should I be interested in the influences?  There are those even, out there, who don’t really believe bands can be influenced; they just steal things and hope no one notices....and in the meantime, we leave the north and head to Oxford: 

Nowhere by Ride was a little closer to what I liked.  I liked the cover – if Some Friendly is druggy/fuzzy, Nowhere is just...oceanic.  It’s bigger than anything, and that bigness comes with an impatient “Seagull” rising and rising at the beginning, and the ocean itself, waves against the shore, at the end.   This too is indie, though Creation instead of Beggars Banquet, meaning they were under the peripatetic and somewhat malign influence of one Alan McGee, who talks about them in his book Creation Stories as if they were a prize heifer, more or less.  The songs either soar and fiercely rock, or they gently ebb and flow, and the songs are about paralysis, love, escape, the idea of nowhere, of nothing....the odd noises at the end of “Paralysed” like there’s a lot of folks out there with psychosomatic laryngitis, trying to say something, but what?  It’s all AAAUGGGGGGAAUGIIIIIIIAAAAHHHH.....You can hear that Andy Bell will join Oasis one day in songs like “Taste” – upbeat, big, embracing, even if the song is again about the ephemeral, the longing, the not-quite-there....”Here And Now” has train references and a harmonica, but that’s about all it owes to The Smiths; it is too busy blasting outwards, harmonies (Mark Gardner and Mark Gardner, I think) are modest, indie, English...

“Nowhere” is HUGE though.  If there are MBV leanings, they come out here especially strong, that harmonica there, but the gentle voices set against nothingness....a kind of void I would have to get used to, as the decade wore on...the song is floating, a bit dubby, not at all psychedelic as such, but here are the waves as the guitar cuts off, and the seagulls, and that sense of being neither here nor there...a very different and unsettling ending, one that leaves the listener stranded, figuratively.....

There was an album that sustained me through all this, but it wasn’t Some Friendly or Nowhere; it was this:

I know Gala is a collection of EPs Lush had already made, but this didn’t matter to me; what mattered was that this was good.

Tremendously good, and done with such ease, though I know that probably wasn’t the case.  Their sound is shoegazing huge, but somehow even more open, free than Ride.

Now, I know Lush are mostly just okay musically; but it is perhaps their limitations that are their strengths - only on 4AD could their gauzy sound make much sense.  The stop-start songs (such as the God-like “De-Luxe” - truly a song that saved me, it is all joy) and the songs that are one chord and then another similar chord afterwards are given a lot more oomph by the drummer, Chris Acland.  Drummers are, I know, not really all that respected or loved by the public, but if a band has a great drummer than half the battle is won (U2 are an excellent example of this, as was Blondie).  Drummers are supposed to be a bit dim, but then so are catchers in baseball (wicket-keepers in cricket) when in fact this cannot be the case.  Lush veer from languid (“Sunbathing, ” which starts with some off-mike laughter - much needed) to ferocious (“Thoughtforms”) to blisspop (“Breeze” - so positive, a relief from the arrogance and windswept abandon in the albums above) and everything in between, including an ABBA cover, and Acland is always there to give form, to push, to lead the group, essentially. (This is why I find it easy to imagine jazz covers of Lush songs, as opposed to Ride or Charlatans ones.)  The catcher/wicket-keeper may not seem like they are doing much, but in fact they are observing everything, slyly directing the pitcher/bowler and doing this so easily that they fool the other side into thinking nothing is happening, when it most certainly is.  As TIME magazine was so easily fooled by thinking that because this twentysomething crowd didn't aspire to be just like them, there was something wrong about them....

In a year when Fifth Column (a Toronto band that were tough and feminist and of course made fanzines and so on) was a thing, Lush were feminist too, only through a veil of pedals and not always distinct vocals. (Done this way as Miki didn't really want to sing, but had to.)  Didn’t matter.  Having two females who sang and wrote and played in the same band was enough to distract me entirely from Mancunian music altogether. With Lush I had found my first favourite 90s band, and my hapless state was made much more bearable by them.  For now I was hip deep in the culture wars, the canon, what could be considered the establishment vs. the outsiders, and this was a very slippery place to be, with none of the stability I needed.  But it was the culture, and I was only too happy listen to Lush and gain some health and energy, uncertain as to what was going to happen next.  The canon, I soon realized, was something that was inherent in music as well, and I tried to ignore it and find something I liked, and it didn't.  Lush fit this for me (I always felt that they were something I liked and understood and no one else did, perhaps because I leaned on them so heavily at this time).  Little did I understand what was going to happen, but at least by looking backwards I felt I could see forwards....

Next up:  more restaurant vs. headphone music.

*There are plenty of albums that also seem to start the 90s early, whether it’s trip hop (Mark Stewart) or Box Frenzy by Pop Will Eat Itself or You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr, not forgetting Culturcide’s Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America or even Come On Pilgrim by The Pixies and Yo Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy, not forgetting The Lucy Show or Janet Jackson.  And of course two far more famous albums, Faith and Bad.  (The word 'liminal' by the way means that social hierarchies "may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.")

**I wish I could say the same thing for now, but if you look at the album charts it is utterly depressing just how much old music is still in the chart.  By my recent count (including greatest hits comps and albums over two years old) 37% of the albums were old, some dating back to over 40 years.  The noted effect is that unless an album has several hit singles and/or is by someone famous, then a new album can appear and then disappear in the chart in a matter of weeks, perhaps only returning if there’s a tour, a tv appearance or maybe a new single.  Meanwhile ABBA Gold is at Sainsbury’s for £3. And the media, alas, aid and abet all this, particularly the older sections of the BBC, with their complete inability to stop playing music from the 70s.

To put this disturbance into some perspective, last night I was listening to 6 Music and heard a song from 1985 and then one from 1974.  If I had been listening, as I first did, to a radio in 1978 with the same year differences, I would have heard a song first from 1947 and then one from 1936.  This kind of warped sense of what radio is supposed to play is so utterly common as to be unremarkable, but is in fact stultifying.  If the sentiment of the listener is that the past is better than the present, then sticking new songs in with the older ones does not give them a fair shake, as the listener will reject out of hand, like a toddler, anything s/he does not like.  Likewise, if the listener wants to hear something actually new, s/he has to sit and wait for it to show up, if s/he can put up with the increasingly retrogressive tendencies of the station.  And then there are stations that hogtie themselves to a whole decade, and only then about 300 songs from that decade, which were hits.  Those are symptoms of nostalgia, but also of giving up.  The final impression I get here in the UK is that new music has a very tough time of it, and many have given up on anything new completely, happy to keep buying Legend and Queen’s Greatest Hits and so on ad infinitum.

***Also a symbol in I Ching: The Darkening Of the Light is a tough one, but doesn’t this seem familiar:  “In a time of darkness it is essential to be cautious and reserved.  One should not needlessly awaken overwhelming enmity by inconsiderate behavior.  In such times one ought not to fall in with the practices of others; neither should one drag them censoriously into the light.  In social intercourse one should not try to be all-knowing.  One should let many things pass, without being duped.”  The darkness does not prevail; there is light, but it is veiled.... 

Monday, 27 June 2016

George MICHAEL: Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1

(#414: 15 September 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Praying For Time/Freedom! '90/They Won't Go When I Go/Something To Save/Cowboys And Angels/Waiting For That Day/Mother's Pride/Heal The Pain/Soul Free/Waiting (Reprise)

"These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers"

I'll tell you what it's like, now.

On Saturday we went to a town outside London, not that far outside in fact. We have visited there many times and were there on, shall we say, routine business. I will not divulge the town's name except to say that it has its own distinguished place in rock and pop history and that it has a very useful second-hand record shop which has come in helpful many times for Then Play Long and other purposes in the past.

But on Saturday it was not the same town that we thought we knew. All the way down its main street, in almost every one of the shops that we went into (I'd say all of them apart from the aforementioned second-hand record shop), I was conscious of the fact that we were being stared at disapprovingly. Two middle-aged white people of unremarkable dress but whose voices plainly did not come from "there." I had the feeling that we were being tolerated rather than welcomed or accommodated. Passing the odd pub, I heard the odd mutter that we weren't supposed to hear. I was very glad to be out of there.

On Sunday morning somebody graffitied the front of the Polish centre in Hammersmith, a place which we have passed many times. Despite our Mayor's constant reassurances, people are continually being shouted at in the street, to their faces, to "go home."

This is the different country in which we woke up on Friday morning.

"This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses"

It's all in the past now, isn't it? That panoramic, all-inclusive society which I was taught was going to be the future when I was younger. I thought of Martin Fry's 2016 words: "I'm a man out of time 'til the stars realign." Instead we have been forced into a rather nasty, oppressive, isolationist society permitted by blatant lies and long-suppressed resentment.

With the past has also fled the future, unless you're fortunate enough to move somewhere which still welcomes the future, like the Scotland of Sturgeon and Davidson. The Glasgow Green which this morning was stickered with neo-N*zi hate slogans. Change racial prejudice for religious prejudice and you could almost be back in seventies no-mean-city Glasgow.

Those who don't "keep up," that is, subscribe to the forcefed neoliberalist programme, are trapped in the past and condemned to starve. And the excuses weren't even legitimate.

"The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we'll take our chances
Because God's stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all God's children
Crept out the back door"

Is that what people here really want? A hunky dictator who will make them do as they're told because it relieves them of the responsibility of thinking? Whatever they think they have chosen, they must now realise that they have been sold a bill of goods - no wonder the advocates were afraid of "experts," as they'd have been found out - and that, due to not hanging together, we are all doomed to hang separately.

And the word Lena found to express this best was SPITEFUL. Not a bullet fired, he said, and yet an MP was killed. It is as if SHE DIDN'T MATTER.

The future of a generation taken away from them by their sentimental parents and grandparents - SPITEFUL.

The agenda of an entire generation being sacrificed for the convenience of the aged - just like 1914-18 - SPITEFUL.


When did this start?

In 1979, when Thatcher started to order everybody about because it was "time for a change."

In September 1987, when "Pump Up The Volume" went to number one and a generation got off the pop bus. That rift has yet to heal and may never do so.

The old always taking precedence over the young - look at the radio today and tell me I'm wrong.

In 1066, when the French conquered Britain, and so many people here still haven't got over that.

Or 1776, when the exiles, sick of being ordered about at a distance by bossy Britain, FOUGHT the United States of America into existence.

"And it's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time"

We can't just "carry on," can we, like nothing had happened, like our lives hadn't been taken away from us? In 1939 nobody prayed for what was happening in Europe with H*tler's lot, but rather went in there, FOUGHT and got rid of them.

And no, I don't know what Churchill, founder of the European Union, would have made of all this.

The wounded skies, like the thunderstorm on Thursday night, presaging apocalypse.

"These are the days of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year"

They've given up on us, haven't they, those who profess to run things? They confess that they hadn't a fucking clue what was going to happen next, no plan in hand. They sold the public a pup, like those auction places in Oxford Street, and the public went for it because nobody was able, or allowed, to make a proper case for the reverse scenario.

Because thought, logic and reason are complex things. Not convenient headlines. Not "A Good Story" to prop up dying old forms of media.

The heart always knows better than the head? Sometimes I wonder if "the heart" knows a single fucking thing.

But nobody was able to make a positive case for Remain. It was all based on fear and you can't woo undecided voters with lots of sticks and no carrot. You could argue that they were backed into a corner - all they could do was emphasise what we'd lose if we left.

There were pertinent and coherent arguments for both Leave and Remain but nobody heard any of them - just the ceaseless whinnying of squeaky wheels. All a game, like the one they came up with at Eton in the late seventies. All a game for those who imagine that Westminster is the universe.

Back, then, not so much to the fifties, the fifties of John Reginald Christie and Alan Turing, but the pre-welfare thirties, with a little charity here and there on the squire's part.

Or if, like me, you studied the period Britain: 1815-51 in History class at school, you realise with horror what we're moving back towards.

"This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is OVER HERE"

"So you scream from behind your door
Say 'what's mine is mine and not yours'
I may have too much but i'll take my chances
Because God's stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things they sold you
Did you cover your eyes when they told you?"

Let me tell you how it is.

Years of working my backside off, being one of the star pupils in my year at school - and they wouldn't even make me a prefect because at age ten somebody had labelled me as "timid."

Two decades and an hour after she died I was back home on my own - you're OUT, lad. Let us know when you're moving so we can take the coffee table, LAD.

Half a century of observing people and trying to do my best - not always succeeding, but at least I tried - and what happened on Thursday is the equivalent of saying to me that my life, everything I have learned and done in it, has been for NOTHING. I am now plunged back into a society which existed before I did, which wants things to be the way they were before my parents even met, which has made it very clear that it despises me because of my ancestry and origins and which wants me OUT, LAD.

Where else would take me? I am in my fifties with a questionable heart condition (which may well finish me off before this country becomes REALLY intolerable). I have no transferable skill set that would see me right in (for example) Canada. I am stuck. It's too late for me. But not for you.

"That he can't come back
Because he has no children to come back for"

I am no longer sure that I have a country to come back to.

"It's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time."

Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was the second solo album by George Michael. It is by necessity a tentative collection of songs set down apparently at numerous set points between 1987 and 1990 and not all of it works. "Praying For Time" is a reasonably convincing fusion of Lennon's "Mind Games" and Chicago's "Hard To Say I'm Sorry." "Cowboys And Angels" is a magnificent piece of post-Marvin Gaye angst which isn't really jazz - though Andy Hamilton's saxophone could momentarily make you think that - but does underline the continuing development of Michael's subtly radical approach to song structure, which had already begun by the time of "Careless Whisper" - that is, songs which develop as stories, music which flows from the necessity of words, and which reach a conclusion rather than mechanically relying on repeated choruses. The broadly-lit motionlessness of "Cowboys And Angels" in particular suggests increasing familiarity with Antonio Carlos Jobim's work, as well as suggesting a direction in which ABC could have gone - the album could properly have been entitled The Lexicon Of A Lost Ideal, although the subject matter of "Cowboys And Angels" suggest that an alternative song title could have been "Bizarre Love Triangle." Elsewhere he is keen to let us know what he's been listening to - Happy Mondays, Soul II Soul, McCartney, the Stones and even Simply Red come up as probables throughout the record, though on "Something To Save," written in December 1988, he sounds like, if anyone, Morrissey. He's free of the past - or thinks that he is (Shirlie from Pepsi and Shirlie pops up on "Freedom! '90" which itself refers back to an old Wham! song) - and he's anxious to let us know that, although the terminal beach of his Stevie Wonder cover - from that least reassuring of Wonder albums, Fullfillingness' First Finale - indicates where his next moves might lie.

George Michael wrote most of the album, produced it and played a lot of it. In Britain its sales were roughly the same as Faith - both went quadruple platinum - but in the States it only made number two on Billboard and "only" sold two million as opposed to its predecessor's seven million. He did not feel that his record company had promoted him enough - although his reluctance to appear in any of the videos for the singles can't have helped - and he and they began a long and costly fallout. A Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2, focusing more on dance tunes, was scheduled for June 1991 release but the plug was pulled; three of the songs that he completed for the project were donated to the Red Hot + Dance compilation (including his 1992 hit single "Too Funky," whose B-side was a fourth lost album track). We do not see him again in this tale until 1996.

As regards "Mother's Pride," the song, although never a single, was played extensively on American radio throughout 1991. There was a war on, because war is supposedly the answer to everything. I do not know how the Anglo-Greek Cypriot musician Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou feels about there being an answer to anything.

The cover image is a detail of a 1940 photograph by Weegee entitled Crowd at Coney Island. The people in it celebrate furiously, as though this was the last chance that they would get to celebrate. I wonder how many of them survived the war that then came.