Thursday, January 10, 2019

One From The Vaults - A Godawful Small Affair: Twenty-Six "Blackstar"

The following was originally published on 17 January 2016, a few days after the death of David Bowie.  I am surprised by how much of the album review I stand by, but for context I have provided an additional sentence on my continued relationship with Bowie's music.  Don't expect (little) wonders, darlings; turns out I'm still feeling the loss a little too hard to take this any further.

"BLACKSTAR" (2016)

THE COVER: I wish I could present this without further comment, but for the sake of continuity it's worth noting that the vinyl version is actually black on black.  It's so black, it's like, "how much more black could this be?"  The answer is none.  None more black.


A confession: I did not expect to be writing this.  I assumed "The Next Day" was a retirement album, one last jolly before liberating obscurity.  Then unexpectedly - and perhaps now in context, suspiciously - a new, extremely confusing ten minute single was released.

We now know that the new, less conventionally-structured songs on this album owe much to Bowie's decision to work with musicians who were more familiar with jazz than pop, meaning that the natural constraints of rock music are lifted, and the listener is offered a more challenging yet equally rewarding experience.

I didn't listen to "Blackstar" the song more than once before the album came out, figuring I didn't have to; buying the album was my default position, what I had heard was at least enough to convince me it was more interesting than, say, "Tonight", so there really wasn't much point.

What I can say about it is that I thought it was essentially throwaway pretension on the first listen and got that quite wrong; it's a grower that has at least three genuinely great moments in, moments earned by the journey that gets you there and that justify the sheer length of the piece, which remains an anomaly in rock or pop music.  I also find it helps to think of it as three separate movements; indeed its closest touchpoint in the oeuvre is probably "Sweet Thing"/"Candidate"/"Sweet Thing (Reprise)" from "Diamond Dogs".

So track one's in the bag.  What else have we got?  Well, "'Tis a Pity She Was A Whore" is my particular favourite - but then it would be; whilst much of the album takes obvious cues from Bowie's unfairly maligned nineties output (the unrestrained saxophony of "Black Tie White Noise", the pummelling intensity of "1. Outside", the joyous, scrambling beats of "Earthling"), this is a track you could easily drop onto any of those albums.

"Lazarus", now lent new context (we're getting to that), "Dollar Days" and closer "I Can't Give Everything Away" are the more classically Bowie tracks, in so far as he has a classic sound; they ring with the confidence of "Heathen" and "Reality", but shorn of the more traditional cladding of those albums they fly with the abandon of the new, sounding as vital as any of his material has.

The one slight here - the "TVC15" of the album, if you will - is "Girl Loves Me", which is partially sung in a combination of invented languages.  It has been criticised in some areas of the press for containing swearing, about which I really couldn't care less; I just think it's a slightly less interesting and more repetitive trudge through the musical themes of the album.  Much like "TVC15" though, I bet Bowie was well pleased with it.

All in all the album was far more exciting and forward-looking than you would expect of any 69-year old's artistic output, and left us all wondering was next, and what, if anything, was there left to achieve?  That's the funny thing about life, though: as long as you're still alive, there's always one thing left to do.




And so this time we really do come to a rather final halt; no new albums will there be, no rumoured demoes will I countenance, no further entries for Extra Credit, no peachy prayers, no return for the Thin White Duke.

Which means I should probably try and have a stab at putting my personal admiration for David Bowie into a few inadequate words.  Where do I start with this one?

Firstly I would say that I haven't ever seen so many people that I care about be so perturbed by the passing of a stranger.  I think the reaction to Michael Jackson's death was probably fired by more people, as he was the larger international star, but in terms of people that I specifically share relationships with this was a real hammerblow.

Obviously people react to this in different ways; I and my contemporaries Tim and Ben are blogging.  Another friend put on a tribute night that amped up the attendees to the point the police were called.  Many have taken to social media to express a dislike of cancer.  Whilst I may feel the latter sentiment can go assumed and unexpressed, it's a valid way of assimilating the news, and yet more proof of its wide reach.

Secondly I would say that part of the reason his death has such resonance, and particularly in close proximity to releasing an album this eclectic and future focused, is that there is a genuine fear that there won't ever be another artist like David Bowie; someone who is left largely to his own devices by the recording industry to the extent that he is able to repeatedly inspire consecutive generations of people by adjusting his focus, rather than being encouraged to stick to a familiar formula that can be marketed in a set way.

Frankly, I personally think that this is the case, due to the changes in the industry since the sixties; the immediate post-Beatles landscape legitimised experimental and chameleonic acts, but the return of the rock dinosaurs post-Live Aid, the culture of big band reformation and how it has almost split the industry into two parts, not to mention the Internet, which has freed artists to be heard but also freed them from any hope of making any bloody money out of it, limits the possibility of this happening again.

But then again, I'm getting old.  I wouldn't know the new Bowie if I saw it, as I'd be too busy deriding it for not being the old one.

Finally, it's made me realise how inextricably Bowie's music has been woven into my life, and how many of my significant memories are tied in to it, including of course seeing him in person at Phoenix 1996 (full-on Outside era noise with some classics thrown in for good effect) and Glastonbury 2000 (all-out greatest hits, with a particular focus on "Station To Station" for no apparent reason).

Then there's the first dance at my wedding ("Let's Dance", obviously); the time I performed "Starman" in Karaoke Bar Champion on the outskirts of Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Tokyo; the many Bowie covers of popular beat combo The Eighteenth/Desperate Living, including but not limited to "Jump They Say" and "Heroes"; singing harmonies on "Space Oddity" with my mother shortly before leaving home; or any of a hundred heated debates at Orme Watch HQ.

..And since then, he said, in a single piece of additional, original writing: listening to "Aladdin Sane" three times in a row with my new girlfriend due to drunkenness and distractions, giddy with the first flushes of a big, big love; re-listening to the Glastonbury 2000 set earlier this year and remembering how the between-song banter shaped the vocabularies of two of my most enduring friendships; and simply frugging out and cutting a fine rug at Mirror Moves' Battle of a Billion Bowies...  His music is still dropping in now and then to define moments of my life and make new memories, which might be the best tribute I can possibly pay.

Essentially in closing, I apologise for my hypocrisy.  For years I have said that we shouldn't be sad when an ageing celebrity who's had what appears to be an excellent life dies.  However: now I am sad.  But good lord, what a legacy to celebrate, and I'm glad I got a chance to do it in some small way.

(NEVER REALLY) THE END

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Look out the window... Yeah!"

1. BRAIN DONOR "She Saw Me Coming" (2001)
From the album "Love, Peace And Fuck"

And so the number one spot goes to the only group to feature twice on this countdown, with a track from the very same album.  This truly was the year I rediscovered Brain Donor…
Like “Odin’s Gift To His Mother”, this is presented at an ungodly volume.  Unlike it, this is snappy and no-nonsense, performed at pace, replete with enough lyrics to comfortably fill it and, crucially, has a rock ‘n’ roll swagger that makes it less testosterone-flavoured than its aforementioned album-mate.  It’s an earworm in the “Wrath Of Khan” sense: an absolute head-wrecker, that is tight and demented and makes me wish I was a bouncier person in general, and could summon the energy for a living-room-wrecking bout of limb-flailing and shouting “YEAH!!!” and “WHOOO!!!”.
But that’s not very me, really.  So perhaps best not, eh?
Is it my favourite song ever?  No.  It’s bloody good though, a worthy annual winner, a safe pair of hands for the crown.  But it got me thinking: what IS my favourite song ever?  The answer is “96 Tears” by ? And The Mysterians, with an honourable mention for “Search And Destroy” by Iggy And The Stooges.  But I’ve been in off-cycles for those songs; you can’t overdo it, or the magic is gone.  I can see me retiring “She Saw Me Coming” in a month or two, so as not to empty that particular bottle of its precious lightning.
So if this isn’t my favourite song ever, then can I pinpoint why it’s my most listened-to song of the year?  Well I think it has become, essentially, my entrance theme – the unofficial nation anthem of me.
It’s my go-to song any time I can’t seem to get out of bed, or I’m genuinely scared to leave my flat, or I’ve got an hour to do three hours’ worth of work, or I need to do another five minutes of cardio to be able to look at myself in the mirror without shame, or M. Bison just will not go down at the end of a hard-fought World Warrior tournament.  It helps me tap into the parts of me that work the best, and the parts that everyone likes, and be able to be that version of me for just a little bit when I don’t feel like I can.
It’s not a cure-all, but it certainly makes things seems more achievable; and that’s about the best compliment I can pay any song.  It has been a dizzying 2018, and this song has been its overriding soundtrack, cutting through the funk, confusion and uncertainty and keeping me livid, electric and alive all the way.
And that’s that!  In closing I’d like to say “listen to Retrospecticus.”  And a Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

“It’s the only way you’ll ever know…”

2. PHILIP BAILEY AND PHIL COLLINS “Easy Lover” (1984)
From the album “Chinese Wall”

No, really.

Welcome to THE EIGHTIES.  Thatcherism!  Sinclair Computers!  “Bridge To Your Heart”!  Generation 1 Transformers!  The SDP-Liberal Alliance!  Peter Beardsley!  Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch!  That deferential little Tory royalist snotrag, Ben Elton!  Managed declines!  Keke Rosberg! Phil Cool!  The golden years of “Neighbours”!  An American president who did say ‘well’ a lot!  The constant threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction!  Quatro!

And, of course, Phil Collins by the absolute brimming-full bucketload, be it as part of a now more socially responsible Genesis, his solo offerings and Motown coverings (that would somehow go on to be a massive influence on nineties American hip-hop, because reasons?) and this, a collaboration with a second Phil, albeit one dignified enough to go full Philip but not snooty enough to adopt a second ‘L’.

Philip Bailey: who he?  He was one of the two lead singers for Earth, Wind And Fire, dabbling in solo projects during a hiatus for the band.  Phil Collins produced the album “Chinese Wall”, from which this is taken, and was also linked to EWF by the Phenix Horns (don’t blame me, that’s apparently how they spell it), EWF’s brass section, who not only played on Collins’ solo output but also some early eighties Genesis songs – although it looks like Collins wound up suing them, so I doubt they’ll be working together again.

The single was a transatlantic hit, standing at number 1 in the UK singles chart for four weeks, and hitting number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, only thwarted by a fellow leviathan in Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  And why wouldn’t it be?  Without wishing to Patrick Bateman this, it is the Eighties in a single song: all sizzle and no steak, poorly-aged synth sounds and historically weak production, with a sharp-suited, annoyingly self-referential video about making the video…

So why is it good?  Why do I like it so much?  It’s unlikely to be childhood memories, as this would have been radio only – no rogue copies in the home, the only Phil Collins available was pre-“Invisible Touch” Genesis.  It doesn’t seem to have been on the soundtrack to “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (though it’s only now I notice that “Pale Shelter” was – another missed opportunity).  And there is no one overriding memory I attribute to this.  It’s just…  Good.  I just like it.

As such, I do feel like I’ve spend more time than is reasonable in my 38 years attempting to defend this song, and always without a great deal of success.  It just does not stand up to any kind of intellectual dissection, being as it is a monolithic reminder of a period when music largely lost any semblance of soul in a slick of synths and production techniques that really, really didn’t like bass.  Yet stick it on, and it’s a tricky one to stay mad at; toes start tapping, air drumming commences, attempts at harmonies lead to tune butchery, and a good time is had by all.

Before I go, special mention must be made of a unique listening situation from earlier this year: in a rowboat, on a river in Bath, surviving numerous water-gun assaults, in celebration of a stag do.  If that’s not classic “Easy Lover” territory, I don’t know what is.

Reader, gird your loins for the final entry, where you’ll join us in our “White Van” for the latest “Messages” as we “Get Off Your Pretty Face”!...  Hang on a minute…

Sunday, December 23, 2018

“Whatever cools you down, take a look around…”


3. GIRLS AGAINST BOYS “[I] Don’t Got A Place” (1994)
From the album “Cruise Yourself”

We’ve touched (and gone) on this before, but Touch & Go Records had what I remember to be an almighty roster of Premier League noiseniks, though having just read a partial list of them this seems to extend as far as all the bands I mentioned last time, plus The Rollins Band, Butthole Surfers and a load of other ones I haven’t heard of.  That’s the old rose-tinted classified ad in the back of the Melody Maker for you.  But on the plus side, they did give me free stuff…

For yes!  As mentioned some six entries ago, this song came to me on a 7” from Touch & Go records, sent to me free when I ordered another batch of Jesus Lizard singles, in a physical version of Amazon’s now-classic “People Who Liked This Also Bought…” scary spy function.  And despite not having Putinesque access to my buying habits for the last twenty years, they were perfectly correct in their assumption that I’d like another crushingly loud band with an unusual approach to playing and a non-standard lead vocal.

The whole package is quite something.  The production of Girls Against Boys records is something I’ve always described as “head in a box”; you feel hemmed in by the music, surrounded, like it’s coming from eerily close to your ears as opposed to speakers on the other side of the room.  It’s even more claustrophobic on headphones…  Hm, maybe not ‘claustrophobic’ – I’ll reserve that for the Manics’ paranoid classic “The Holy Bible”.  I think the word I’m looking for is ‘personal’; like it’s happening only for you, and nothing else is happening outside of it.

As a lapsed bass player, it’s really good to hear a band with a two-bass, one-guitar line up as well – it’s always refreshing, and never less than extremely heavy (see also Enemymine).  As a result, there is nothing crisp about this song; everything is fuzzy, jittery and scratchy, like a case of bugs beneath the skin.  Meanwhile, a gentleman who must smoke 80 Marlboro Red a day is drawling the kind of half-awake vocal J Mascis would be proud of over the top of this juddering cacophony.  It was arresting from the second I put it on the turntable, and it still jolts me into livid attention every time it starts up.

It’s been starting up rather a lot lately, given it was the very first track that I looked up upon joining the still-unnamed streaming service, as despite my income-powered buying up of seemingly every CD I had to pass on as a teenager, the album of origin for this track, “Cruise Yourself”, had stayed tantalisingly out of my reach.  I haven’t looked back since.  And in closing: isn’t it nice, in these increasingly cynical times, that a song that was gifted to me as a freebie could have such an impression?

Here comes 2!  And “I’ve Had Enough”!  So let’s show some “Devotion” and take a trip to a “Boogie Wonderland”…

“I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria…”

4. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE "Sleep Now In The Fire" (1999)
From the album "The Battle Of Los Angeles"

What’s ol’ painty-can Zack De La Rocha doing here, eh?  Can’t be anything to do with a high-pace exercise playlist I put together when I joined the gym…

This song is from after I’d forgotten RATM existed, which happened about halfway through “Evil Empire”, when it became clear that the excellent first three tracks (seriously, how good is “Vietnow”?  Go and have a listen.  Go on, I’ll still be here.





…How good was that, eh?  And thanks for coming back) were not quite illustrative of the mediocrity of the rest of the album.  I still hear songs they did after that album and think they’ve done a comeback single – and more fool me, as there’s some great material from that era which I’m still catching up with, this track being a case in point.

Unfortunately, much like Rasputin, it was a shame how they carried on.  Bereft of De La Rocha, who they lost on a trip to Homebase to pick up some cornflower gloss for his bathroom skirting boards, RATM’s musicians formed Audioslave with the now sadly missed Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, who had a heck of a set of pipes and was a good guitarist in his own right.  The partnership yielded one extremely good lead single in “Cochise”, one OK follow-up in “Show Me How To Live”, and the rest…  Anyway, moving on!

Worse was to come, as the rebels reunited and went utterly mainstream.  But in their defence, they were only taking advantage of an unlikely avenue for re-ignition: getting the UK Christmas number one spot.  At that stage, whoever won reality television show “The X Factor”, which conveniently wrapped up the week before Christmas, got Christmas number 1 – they were in the biggest shop window available in the late 00’s, a prime-time Saturday night terrestrial television show.

In 2008 some dissent had emerged around the incumbent’s use of the song “Hallelujah”, and campaigns were launched to get different, more credible versions to number one – and they failed.  But the next year, RATM’s F-bomb-ridden classic “Killing In The Name” was picked as the protest song of choice, and with the band’s blessing (and their constant promotion of it once the originally grassroots campaign looked like being a winner), it stormed the charts and squatted atop the Xmas hit parade.

This, to me, is not just a cash-grab masquerading as revolution, but also a total besmirching of the grand tradition of the UK Christmas number one.  As holders of this once-honourable office, it is your duty to turn up on Christmas Top Of The Pops in a Christmas ganzie – not one of these archly ‘cool’ efforts with “GARLIC BREAD?” or X-Wing fighters or stuff from bloody “Breaking Bad” on, but a proper one, in red, white and green with reindeer and holly and that kind of shit all over it – ideally in a rocking chair, and croon your hit with a knowing smile whilst fake snow falls around you. 

Instead they turned in a turgid pre-taped live performance, which naturally cut off before the unbroadcastable bit of that song, as we all wondered what the point was, and certain online groups completely missed the point and started planning what obscure classic they were going to get to number one next year.  But since the band themselves won’t do it, then I’ll embrace the festive spirit of forgiveness, and put aside those differences to remember when RATM had a shred of credibility, by giving this cracking tune a quick airing.

Next time, remember to drop by the “Cash Machine” on “Park Avenue”, as we’re off to “Kill The Sexplayer”!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

“Fate, up against your will…”


5. ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN “The Killing Moon” (1984)
From the album “Ocean Rain”

I fucking hate “Donnie Darko”.  I’ve always been suspicious of films that you “simply must” see, especially those with convoluted plots; what usuallyy unfolds on viewing is a poorly-told tale that relies on pretty but dim actors, the kind of faddy visual effects that make the film look fifty years old after five years, plotting that constantly points at you and shouts “aaaaaah!  Weren’t expecting THAT twist, were you?”, and/or a great soundtrack of largely unrelated vintage bangers, designed to fool the viewing public into thinking the film was as good as the songs (delete as applicable).

However, even I will concede that there is one sequence in that film that is very impressive, and I remember being tipped off about it at the time by a housemate who had his ear to the ground on cult films and had given it a whirl in the cinema.  It’s the opening sequence of the film, and it’s set to this stunning piece of music*.  (At least, it was; it’s been replaced in the director’s cut by INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”, and shoved unceremoniously into another part of the film.  Apparently not even the director thought his film was good…)

I’ve also, at some stage, decided that I don’t like the Bunnymen in general (I’ve no beef with Echo, he was only following his programming).  Image-wise they seem far too in thrall to ol’ painty-can Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, the one side of the Holy Trinity that I absolutely cannot stand, and I suspect some of their more arrogant comments may not be solely be for effect.  But this, here: this here is great.  Just sublime stuff – dramatic, ominous, with tons of little touches peppered throughout for careful listeners, yet at no stage is it obvious, overblown or patronising; it’s an infinitely rewarding listen.

And that’s the thing, that’s the mark of true quality: I can’t get down with its creators, and I despise the film this was most memorably used in, yet this and “Bring On The Dancing Horses” (itself at 37 in my annual countdown) are immense songs of undeniable quality.  They make me feel feelings, and I truly believe that they shall echo through the ages as long as human ears remain to listen – yet I’m not exactly clamouring to listen to “Songs To Learn And Sing”.

In other words, this is exactly the kind of song that I listen to more for having access to an unnamed streaming service, with the ability to find practically anything ever done and stick it in a playlist.  It’s almost like changing musical history to a certain extent – accepting the parts you like and discarding those you don’t, and in a more surgically precise way than previously possible.  Is that cheating?  Almost certainly; but each of us will judge the extent we want to do that for ourselves, as listening habits swing away from physical formats and the previously all-encompassing concept of ‘the album’.  It’s not how I ever pictured listening to music.  But it certainly has the odd silver lining.

* = I have deliberately not looked up whether or not this is correct, in terms of whether I have the right scene or not – this is my recollection of one viewing of the film ten years ago, and a conversation with a housemate approximately 15 years ago.  If wrong, happy to be called wrong.

Next up: what is this, the “Year Of The Boomerang?”  You can’t “Take The Power Back” if you don’t “Know Your Enemy”…

“Way down below, and up above…”

6. THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION “2 Kindsa Love” (1996)
From the album “Now I Got Worry” 

YEEEEE-AY-EH!!!  C’MON!!!  BLUES EXPLOSION, BABY!!!  I SAID I GOT THE BLUES!!!  I NEED HELP!!!  THE BLUES IS NUMBER ONE!!!  I SAID: THE BLUES IS NUMBER ONE!!!  ADAM COLE, BAY-BAY!!!  I SAID I GOT THE BLUE - THE BLUE MONSTER!!!  SIZZLIN’ BACON, MAN!!!  EVERYONE SAYS ‘HI’!!!...

(cough, splutter)

Good lord, it’s difficult to operate at that level of intensity for more than a few seconds at a time!  Kudos, then, to the almighty Blues Explosion, who were able to manage it for 90 to 120 minutes every night of repeated world tours, playing to bigger houses than their cult-ish record sales would suggest due largely to one simple factor: they are fantastic live.

When former Pussy Galore rabble-rouser Spencer recruited similarly chaos-oriented allies in apparent bluegrass guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins, who uses a kit so small it is insulting to measure it in pieces, some kind of voodoo magic was invoked, and the resultant ultra-power trio set out to immolate stages the world over, with their reputation spreading through word of mouth, when that was a thing: “you HAVE to see this band”.

The first time I saw them properly live at their own show, rather than a festival slot, was…  Well I’m fairly sure it was November 27, 1998, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.  Fairly sure, anyway – it fits the timeframe.  The opening of that show was them playing this song, followed by “Flavor” and “Attack”, without stopping.  It never occurred to me that live music could be presented like that, and whilst it could well have been meticulously planned, it seemed incredibly loose and free-flowing – indeed, nigh-on dangerous, to the meticulous setlist-writer and sweaty between-song-drinker that I was as a nascent performer.

The song itself is nestled away halfway through side one of “Now I Got Worry”, a less accessible but arguably deeper picture of the band than presented on their previous album “Orange”.  Both this song and “Orange”’s highlight “Bellbottoms” have a feeling of the brakes cutting out as you careen down a hill, so there’s certainly some consistency there.  In a very Blues Exploison choice, it actually gets quieter during the chorus – though that is in comparison to the verse, which is so loud it sounds like the guitars are screaming in agony.  There’s a really odd but cool overdrive effect on this tune as well; very crunchy, very nice.

Again this was a gateway band for me, and with a little help from my friend Laurie, I was soon all over garage rock past and present – they sent me backwards to The Stooges and The MC5, introduced me directly to Andre Williams, The Countdowns and Brassy, and branched me off into Guitar Wolf, Rocket From The Crypt, The mAKE-UP – God DAMN it, how good were The mAKE-UP? - and The Gories, and their descendants The Dirtbombs and Demolition Dollrods…  To name but a few, or I’d be here all day.  Given all that they have ushered me towards, I will always be more than happy to step up to the stand and wail in their honour.

In our next, probably less shouty instalment, it’s time to “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, as “The Cutter” beckons – but beware, for “Nothing Lasts Forever”!  (Also: some Electrafixion songs.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

“How ‘bout the power… To move you?”


7. TENACIOUS D "Wonderboy" (2002)
From the album “Tenacious D”

Oh dear; here’s another band I was unfairly humourless about back in the day.  Bit of a theme in this part of the chart, it would seem; perhaps I’m making up for lost time!

So back in That Day, they had these things called print magazines – “gimme two ‘zines for a bee”, you’d say to the manager of your local general store – and one of the ones I read was called ‘Bizarre’.  It started as a combination of lurid shock-and-gore and well-researched pieces on cult media, and eventually wound up as softcore porn and gawping at alternative lifestyles – but during the a transitional period where it was doing all four, seemingly up to four thousand pages a month and in danger of breaking most newsagents’ top shelves, I spotted a little boxout about a band called Tenacious D.

It explained that said band featured one Jack Black, and I immediately smelled a rubbish vanity project.  Black is an actor who I took against somewhat unfairly based on reputation and trailers alone; at that stage I’m not sure I’d seen any of his films in totality, yet I carried such enmity towards him you’d have thought he’d kicked my cat.  Since then I’ve definitely softened my stance towards his acting, and feel a little bit unfair for my previous position – an emerging theme in this little series.

Oddly enough, the very next day, BBC Radio One’s Evening Session (or, if cancelled, whatever had replaced it by mid-2002) played their song “Tribute”, and my housemates at the time loved it.  Their debut album became an unofficial soundtrack for the house, along with such luminaries as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Queens of The Stone Age and (ahem) Sugababes.  And this led me to reassess my somewhat blinkered original opinion.

You see, this is a comedy band, and comedy is naturally hit and miss; certainly some of the sketches that pad out that debut album can test one’s patience.  But where it excels, oddly enough, in its reference for the source material: classic rock.  The track “Tribute” itself, whilst definitely wearing its humour on its sleeve, shows superior musicianship (helped along by one D. Grohl) and a good understanding of how such a song should be structured.  So it’s a big ol’ muso thumbs up from me, there.

But this track, for me, is the stand out of the album.  Epic, slightly melancholy, extremely silly; it’s got the lot.  It must take a heart of stone not to feel a rush of sheer joy when they describe the titular superhero as having “the power to kill a yak…  From two hundred yards away…  WITH MIND BULLETS!!!”  And it takes me back to Python Express, and that unforgettable fifteen months of the first flush of adulthood – epic, slightly melancholy, extremely silly.

Next time: get out your “Bellbottoms” and dig that “Ditch”, as we check in with a “Blues X Man”!

“And now we meet in an abandoned studio…”


8.  THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA “Video Killed The Radio Star” (1998)
From the soundtrack to “The Wedding Singer”

See, here’s where I take a bit of an issue with the streaming service in question’s analytics (nope, they’ve still not paid me).  I recall listening to this version, like, five times at the most, and The Buggles’ twenty-seven thousand times in late spring/early summer; although come to think of it, I’m not sure I was on the paid version of the service by then, so maybe it wasn’t counting back then.  Alright, I’ll let them off this time.

Anyway, everyone gets a bit sniffy about PUSA (no, I’m not typing it every time), including teenage me back when “Lump” and “Peaches” were out.  How dare these American clowns crash my deadly serious Britpop party with their obvious fun-having and catchy punk-pop tunes?  Why, they didn’t even have enough strings on their guitars, the cads!  And I also remember this song being the final straw; as if the disrespect of their mere existence wasn’t bad enough, they have to drag a classic of early electronic pop through the dirt?  For shame, Presidents!  I will take my leave of you!

Bearing in mind the fact that an American high-energy two-guitar three-piece would soon become my favourite band (but will we be hearing from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – for it is they?  You’ll have to keep tuning in to find out, you cheeky sod!), hindsight has shown me to be a great big bloody hypocrite when it comes to these lads, as they’re actually good fun, great writers of snappy tunes and more musically accomplished than their setup would suggest.  So let me use this seldom-read blog to offer an official apology to the band – I was young and na├»ve, and I can assure you I now know better.

But this, of course, isn’t one of theirs, and wasn’t originally anywhere near their down-the-line punk stylings – though it is a fabulous adaptation, and more reverentially treated than their somewhat odd cover of the MC5 classic, “Kick Out The Jams”.  It was used on the soundtrack of the decent comedy flick “The Wedding Singer”, which must have got them a few bob, as that was a pretty big film at the time, and was also released as a single with the movie’s branding on the packaging.

The Buggles’ version, on the other hand, is massively electronic in backing, with an odd, heavily accented and clipped vocal delivery that sounds like it’s coming live from days gone by, helping immensely with the message and the atmosphere.  It is heavily associated with the start of MTV, and not just lyrically: it was the first video ever shown on the channel.  ‘Ey, remember when MTV showed music videos?  Eh?  Eh?  You’d ‘ave to use yer brass ‘and to tune t’telly in!

I think people tend to remember that video and underestimate the emotional punch of the song, which is at its heart a tale of obsolescence, of the inevitability of the world moving on and of things changing to the extent where, in the words on the songs, “you are the radio star”.  And, therefore: dead – killed by video, or whatever ‘it’ is when what you’re with is no longer ‘it’ and what ‘it’ is seems weird and scary.

It won’t just happen to you – it’ll happen to all of us, which to me makes this a universally poignant song, and an oddly appropriate one to be listening to on my Bluetooth headphones, and via this new-fangled streaming technology, shorn of any ties to an album or back catalogue.  It’s not how I expected to be listening to music at all, and as a lapsed musician, it’s not how I intended my own music to be enjoyed.  Which suggests that in this case, *I* am the radio star – and in turn explains why this gets me right in the feelings, every single time.

(With apologies to Athletico Mince for the obvious nick.)

Next up we pay “Tribute” to some masters of rock, so pack your “Kielbasa” and hit “The Road”!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

“No cat would ever do that…”


9. THE JESUS LIZARD “Countless Backs of Sad Losers” (1994)
From the album “Down”

David Yow is inhuman.  Usually “he sounds like he’s gargled with rocks” is used as a compliment in music; in this case, it sounds like Yow has done that and come away with permanent injuries and post-traumatic stress.  It is a singular, strangled growl, simultaneously throat-scrapingly arid and disgustingly wet, and it is without a doubt my favourite voice in rock music.

My favourite thing about The Jesus Lizard in general is that their sound is so unique, you can tell one of their songs from verse one, second one.  If it doesn’t kick off with Yow’s irate gurgling, it’ll be Mac McNeilly’s pounding drums beating a grim, unstoppable tattoo, or David Wm. Sims with the bass sound I aspire to above all others, both top-heavy and rumbling below with a hint of overdrive, or Duane Denison, a guitarist who can only be described as shit hot, with his signature trebly wail owing as much to sirens and airborne combat as to conventional electric guitar.  To the uninterested ear, it’s just noise.  When you get it, though, you fucking get it.

I first got it when the band that at that time I loved above all others, the mighty Nirvana, did a split single with The Jesus Lizard, released by the legendary US underground record label and distribution company Touch & Go Records, of whom more shall be spoken down the line.  Nirvana’s entry, “Oh The Guilt”, was a window back to their punkier “Bleach” days after the surprising sheen of “Nevermind” – a slow hand clap there for Mr Butch Vig, who is America’s greatest Shakespeare lookalike, the very image of England’s greatest playwright, the spit of The Bard.  He could rake it in as a model for credit card holograms if Garbage ever splits up; he really, really looks like Shakespeare.

And The Jesus Lizard sent forth “Puss”, from their album “Liar”, and it was utterly without compare in my admittedly short experience in music.  Nothing that insanely loud yet oddly calm, that disparate yet united, that chaotic yet ordered, and all behind that uncanny voice – how was he getting away with it?  How do you even take care of a voice like that?  Arsenic throat pastilles?  Somewhere in my tiny mind, a voice that would not be stifled said, ‘I must know more’.

Touch & Go had a great mail order business, even in the UK.  In those days, you could find mail order record store adverts at the back of your weekly print copy of Melody Maker.  You’d ring them up and give them your parents’ credit card details, or cut out the little order form and mail it off with a cheque or postal order; then you’d tie an onion to your belt, which was the style of the times; and in six to twelve weeks you’d either get what you wanted, something else or nothing at all, for some, all, or more than all of the money you intended to spend.  Great days!  I hasten to add that I had no such problems with T&G though, and even received some little bonuses – of one of which, more will be spoken later.

I explored every inch of their back catalogue, ordered all the 7-inches and cassette tapes my allowance would allow, and immersed myself in the wonderfully macabre world of The Jesus Lizard - and later, Yow and Sims’ previous band Scratch Acid, producer Steve Albini’s bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, Yow’s collaboration with Qui, Touch & Go labelmates Girls Against Boys and influences such as Chrome; clearly they were a gateway drug to other noise rock and grindcore.

And yet I never seemed to get to see them live – everything from miscommunication and lack of money right up to a death in the family stymied me, through to the eventual dissolution of the band, after an unlikely spell on a major label and McNeilly’s departure (luckily he was replaced by the equally-capable James Kimball).  When they reformed and played a single London date, I broke that duck.  Despite their obvious ambivalence – the official tour t-shirt was a picture of some bags of money – they played many classics with their usual zest that night, and as the final, savage notes of “7 vs. 8” blasted into the venue, I delighted in my great fortune to finally see these titans of cult hard rock do what they do best.

They didn’t play this one, though.

Bastards.

Next time out, get ready to “Kick Out The Jams”!...  In a “Dune Buggy”?  Strap in, as it could be a “Lump”-y ride!