42 – Abba: The Day Before You Came


I’ll tell you a story about Abba. Far from the sunny, happy foursome that grinned from my Dad’s album covers, I actually thought they were a bit rude when I was a kid. The most played album of all was Greatest Hits Volume 2, which contained so many of those gleaming popjets d’art that define their incredible sound: ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Knowing me knowing you’, ‘Gimme gimme gimme’. It was a car staple, a constant loop. And every time we got to the final strains of ‘Chiquitita’ (a sort of bierkeller, clash-glasses, slap-knees schlager fadeout) I used to get a pit in my stomach. I knew that the next track was about to leave a trail of mess all over the speakers.  Even now, I have an irrational hatred of ‘Summer Night City’. I don’t think many people would consider it a peak – though it went Top 5 in the UK, even Bjorn has admitted it’s ‘really lousy’ – but while its clog-heavy disco thud is a bit annoying, I’m not sure I could find anyone who actually blanches on hearing that first, clashing chord. It wasn’t the music that was the issue with me as a child anyway. No, it was the fact that Abba were singing about…coitus.

Well, that’s the last thing you want to have to encounter with your parents present, even if you’re sitting in the back of the car. You do everything to change the subject. Only you can’t when the tape is playing, and asking it to be fast forwarded is just giving it even more attention than it deserves. So my solution was to talk – to chatter incessantly – through the entire track. About anything that wasn’t coitus. Butterflies. Athletics. Stamp Collecting. Ah, I used to think, thank God ‘I Wonder’s round the corner. Bet you never thought you’d hear that. Of course, when I grew up, and the internet happened, and lyrics became searchable, I finally laid to rest the mystery of ‘Summer Night City’. The line is not ‘fucking in the moonlight’, but ‘walking in the moonlight’ (though you can see how I jumped to the wrong conclusion when it’s followed by ‘love-making in the park’). You still won’t find it on my playlist though.

Still, as a lover of Abba more generally (and who isn’t?), it’s their ambiguities that always intrigue me most. And by that I don’t mean the clichéd conjectures about wife-swapping that invariably dog lazy commentary on the group. It’s the music, stupid. Yes it’s big and shiny –still possibly the most brilliant studio production in the pop canon, in the true sense of that word – but the sheen is so frequently misleading. What I hear more than anything is unabashed longing. Listen to a few Abba songs back to back and you might be startled by the number of sighs and shrugs among the high-on-life harmonies. Abba are champagne pop. They bubble and fizz, and the giddy foam overruns the glass; but while the first few glasses are warm and tingly, there’ll be tears later and hangovers in the morning. At midnight, it’s ‘Dancing Queen’, shimmying onto the floor in a cascade of multi-tracked grand pianos, or ‘Take a chance on me’, flirty and determined; hungry eyes across the room. There’s even some superior early-hours chillout: an unexpectedly dramatic country-pop epic, ‘Eagle’ (Abba do Fleetwood Mac and beat them at their own game), and ‘The name of the game’, whose introduction is the sound of bedroom lights going off and stockings being shed (though judging by the video it could just as easily be the sound of someone dealing the cards for another round of rummy). All of these jewels come from Abba’s sales peak, the years 1976-78, when they had hit after hit all over the world (even America) and seemed the very paragon of pop; ambassadors for the lovingly crafted single, sometimes daft, sometimes even a bit weird, but seldom anything other than feel-good and endorphin-rich. Then the seventies turned into the eighties; leaves began to brown and roses fade. There was to be payback: Abba were to get sad. And my oh my, does any classic pop band do sad with so much…sadness?

To be fair, the melancholy had always been there, lurking in the speakers. Sweden’s all light in the summer, all sunny sparkle; but even that is tempered by the knowledge that winter is going to be sometimes crushingly dark (‘Summer Night City’, I grudgingly concede for the purpose of example, is a tribute to Stockholm’s 11pm sunsets and 3am sunrises, but it doesn’t sound remotely happy about it). One of Abba’s earliest hits, 1975’s ‘S.O.S.’, is a masterpiece of pop bipolarity, lurching from desperate verses to powerhouse choruses as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And in 1977, Abba spent five weeks at number one with ‘Knowing me knowing you’, a song so operatically sad-happy – thrilling major-key choruses and triumphant guitar solos picking through the spoils of separation – that they had to remake Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the video (don’t you think Frida looks uncannily like Julianne Moore too?) But in 1980, the weather changed for good. Both couples were either divorced or about to be, and their songs became a sort of public talking cure. Even the more upbeat numbers on the Super Trouper album are wistful (the rather adult Rive Gaucherie of ‘Our Last Summer’) or downright neurotic (‘Lay all your love on me’ is one of the angriest disco records you’ll ever hear: banks of synthesizers like a stack of furrowed brows). ‘Super Trouper’ itself may have a fairground bounce in its step, but it’s really about fame fatigue; a sighting of Frida’s lover will ‘prove to [her] she’s still alive’ (check out its more radical cousin, ‘I’m a marionette’, a nightmare ode to stage fright). ‘Super Trouper’s verses also share their chord sequence with ‘The winner takes it all’, which is perhaps the greatest example of Abba chiaroscuro. A tour-de-force of extended metaphor in which marital discord is miraculously translated into major-key defiance, ‘Winner’ deploys a battery of sweeteners to help the medicine go down. That leap of a seventh in the main chorus melody, the sound of heartbreak trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps; the grand piano, octaving and trilling, keys smiling in the gloom; but then, oh then, the break in Agnetha’s voice as she comes to shake her adversary’s hand, the questions hovering hesitantly on her lips (‘Does it feel the same when she calls your name?) Kissed on the left cheek, slapped on the right; Abba don’t half put us through the mill.

But they saved the darkest till last. ‘The day before you came’ was released in late 1982, a year on from 1981’s sombre farewell album The Visitors. The Visitors is the critics’ favourite Abba, the album least dogged by misguided pastiches and bouts of whimsy. It updates the story of ‘Winner takes it all’s jilted wife in poignant pop-reggae (‘One of us’, their last ever top ten hit), muses on death to the ticking of a metronomic clock (‘Like an angel passing through my room’), and, believe it or not, even stages a Cold War psychodrama (‘The Visitors’ itself). But Abba’s leftfield turn into anxiety and paranoia wasn’t finished yet. ‘The day before you came’ really is a complete curveball. It bombed on original release; the Blancmange cover version actually sold more copies. But gradually, over time, it’s become a fan favourite, and a proper piece of pop mythology. I bet you didn’t know that it came in at number six in the NME’s ‘greatest pop songs of all time’ survey; that’s light years ahead of ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Fernando’.

Its sparseness is the first thing that strikes the ear. Where most of the great Abba arrangements are poster-paint, Spector-esque affairs, ‘The day before you came’ is a black outline with a few tints to highlight it; if The Human League had proclaimed themselves ‘the electronic Abba’ over the previous year, then the four-piece were responding in kind with their own unique take on minimalist synth-pop. As Agnetha sings her first lines, we immediately realise that she is going to tell us a story: ‘I must have left the house at eight, because I always do / My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due’. OK, so this is a day in the life: Paul McCartney woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across his head; Agnetha woke up, read the paper, and made her desk ‘around a quarter after nine’. Except she keeps having to reassure us that she’s remembering it all correctly, that the details tally. ‘I must…’, ‘I’m certain’, ‘no doubt’, ‘I’m pretty sure’: virtually every line is appended by such qualifications. By the time the first verse is over, I’m pretty sure I’m listening to a witness statement. Or else a woman who has just awoken from a coma and can’t quite recall the run-up.

The dolorous minor-key music doesn’t help here (or in fact, it does; it helps layer the song with creeping dread, even fear). Vaporous backing vocals swirl in and out of the mix like fog around a streetlamp, sometimes flashing a glimmer, elsewhere retreating into the dark. Baroque keyboard lines shimmy around the root chord, emphasising its determination not to waver from the minor. Agnetha goes on enumerating the most banal details, all still in that mysterious past tense (‘I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two’) but begins to offer some clue as to her motives (‘And at the time I never even noticed I was blue’). It’s at the moment that she sings ‘Without really knowing anything I hid a part of me away’ that you begin to think the ‘you’ in the title must (‘must’!) almost certainly be a lover, someone who has saved her from meals for one and solitary cups of coffee in the works canteen. If a lover, then why so on the brink of despair? Why does it sound like she can barely keep it together? They have split up, clearly, and she’s trying to think of how she functioned before they met in the first place. Yes, that’s what it must be. She’s remembering how life was back then in order to regain her life in the here and now. ‘Before’, she was somnambulating through her schedule; now, she finds herself doing the same. The day before is the same as the day after. And the day after that. The backing track moves on, metronomically, never relenting; almost funereal.

And there’s the rub. You see, there are many people who think this song is actually not about a relationship at all, but about death. There are all sorts of fanciful theories out there (the internet is awash with pop conspiracists). Some take the line that the lover has died, and she is actually coping with grief. Others think that she has been murdered and is singing from beyond the grave. Indeed, it does feel like she is almost stalking or haunting herself, tracking the movements of the person she once was. If you subscribe to this view (creepy when you think that Agnetha herself did have a real life stalker at one point), the last verse becomes almost unbearably spooky, as the heroine makes her way home, ‘stop[ping] along the way to buy some Chinese food to go’, then sits alone watching Dallas (stabs of staccato synth suggesting there’s a shadow rising behind her) before retiring to her bed to read a bit of Marilyn French (Why on earth would she be reading French? This Hitchcock blonde is a feminist into the bargain…) The last thing she hears, and indeed that we hear from her, is the rattling of rain on the roof, before the ghostly backing vox (sounding more and more like a horror-movie theremin with each refrain) and diminished chords furrow, flicker and fade gradually into silence. Definitely plausible.

But what do I hear? Well, for me, this is a song about very adult things, but not the things you think. No, this is a song about disappointment. Agnetha has had a brief affair, maybe even a one-night stand; the video certainly makes it plain that sex has taken place, but that for whatever reason the relationship simply cannot continue. This may have been the defining thing in her life. She may never get another chance. That instrument used to such devastating effect in ‘The winner takes it all’ – the break in the voice that lets you know that tears are welling within – is crushingly sad, as are all those candid details about needing a lot of sleep and liking to be in bed by ten. You just want to give her a big hug. But in a grown-up world where work-life balance is skewed in favour of the former, and the only mates she seems to have are the ‘usual bunch’ she meets for lunch, it just may not be possible for her life to get any better or brighter. Gosh, Ibsen couldn’t really have done it any better. As for the song-video combination on this one, forget Bergman. If the song is about meeting your maker, well, this one could play The Seventh Seal at chess on a beach and win hands down.

And ultimately the song is also about Abba themselves. ‘Turning out the light, I must have yawned and cuddled up for yet another night’, cries Agnetha at the end. And this was indeed what happened, as legend would have it; the last thing they ever recorded, Agnetha putting her headphones down and walking out of the darkened studio into the daylight, never to return. It’s a bit fanciful; they did of course do promotion for the song on television, and it wasn’t even the last single to be released – that honour went to the chirpier ‘Under Attack’. But I do wonder whether this song’s musing on mundanity is a projection, even a prediction. Post-Abba, life may be all custom calls and in-trays, railway timetables and TV schedules. It will certainly be private, even reclusive (much has been made of the visible copy of Garbo’s biography in the ‘One of us’ video, as if Agnetha had planted it to indicate her growing preference for anonymity; ‘The day before you came’ added to the growing mystique). Whatever the case, life post-Abba would be miserable. As indeed I imagine it was.

See, Abba’s ambiguities go on and on. This is the longest of my blog posts by far, trapped as I am in the Abba labyrinth. If only I’d known this song back in the days when ‘Summer Night City’ blared out of my Dad’s Volvo speakers. I could have talked incessantly as ever over the rude bits, and only got round to my interpretation of the first verse of Agnetha’s sorrowful Schwanengesang. There is always more to spare. There’s always another listen. Undoubtedly you’ll always want to hear this song again: The day before you came.


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41 – Public Image Ltd: Careering


Last week, televisions were pumping out The Jam and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, as Channel 4 broadcast yet another Tube retrospective. For those who grew up with Youtube and iTunes, The Tube was not a docusoap about the London underground, but a pop programme from another time and planet. It was hosted by a boogie-woogie Blackheather called Jools Holland and a flirty punk fairy called Paula Yates, and it was filmed in Newcastle. You could be forgiven for thinking that Tyneside was a grim place in the 1980s: dole queues and Jimmy Nail in a hard hat. But for three hours every Friday, it turned into a noisy Freshers’ Week disco replete with inappropriate come-ons, exhibitionist dancing and impulse haircuts. The Tube was somewhere to the left of Top of the Pops. The chart acts of the day were well-represented – to think that one of Madonna’s earliest TV appearances was a Tube broadcast from the Hacienda! – but it also offered a chance to perform album tracks and one-offs. Then there were the interviews, sometimes dull, sometimes shambolic, sometimes completely unexpected (for example, a rare sighting of Scott Walker coming out of reclusion to promote Climate of Hunter). And, naturally, there was a hell of a lot of Howard Jones.

From Muriel Gray’s leftie squatter demeanour (she was a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art!) to Michael Hutchence’s Samson barnet, The Tube was the eighties in microcosm, just as the nineties yin-yanged between earnest old Later and the vanity and vomit of The Word. Every pre-internet generation had its spirit-of-the-age, sign-of-the-times music programming (and lo and behold, Later is still with us, a jolly old BBC institution). But for so many, it is still The Old Grey Whistle Test that proves most durable in the memory. The gatefold-sleeved seventies! Beards! Bob Harris proclaiming the greatness of Lynyrd Skynyrd! Not so old or grey, it seems, Whistle Test refuses to die a dignified death. The number of Tube retrospectives pales into insignificance compared to the frequency with which the BBC wheels out its archive of old Boz Scaggs clips. It seems that the phrase ‘music lover’ is a synonym of ‘seventies’ and a near-cognate of ‘hi-fi’. And Whistle Test erected an altar to that holy trinity, with a Strat for a crucifix.

Of course, that’s the rehearsed and rehashed version. Peek beneath the fug of smug and you get clip after clip of groundbreaking noise. The cliché is that Whistle Test didn’t know what to do with punk – Bob Harris’s infamous put-down of the New York Dolls, like a parent weathering an adolescent tantrum – yet here we have Patti Smith at the peak of her genius, and there we have The Damned smashing it up with glee. Harris gave way to Annie Nightingale, who reigned supreme from 1978 to 1981, and suddenly it was as if Peel’s festive fifty had gone visual. Many of the performances from those years, my favourite years in the entire history of pop music, are hair-raisingly brilliant. For all the surface anarchy, The Tube never cajoled truly great performances from its roster (though there are some pearls to be found). But Whistle Test? Just watch Gang of Four shredding their way through ‘To hell with poverty’ in 1981. Andy Gill, inscrutable of face but fleet of funk, gyrating over his guitar. John King, looking for all the world like a young estate agent who’s had his lager spiked with amphetamines, sweating his way through the slogans. I wonder if Norman Tebbitt ever saw it. Or what about Siouxsie Sioux, bathed in chilly blue light as she hiccups her way through ‘Metal Postcard’? On Top of the Pops you’d get the Banshees miming to one of punk’s greatest crossover hits, the irrepressible gongs-and-cymbals artillery of ‘Hong Kong Garden’; and on Whistle Test, despotic death-dirge. Fabulous.

Your legs might have twitched to Gang of Four: definitely danceable. And your head might have nodded to Siouxsie and the Banshees: metronomic, marchable. But what in God’s name would you have done in 1980 when Public Image Ltd performed ‘Careering’ to an unprepared public? Is that…Johnny Rotten there? The old punks were scratching their Mohicans in disbelief. And Sid barely cold in the ground! He’d be turning in his grave, though undoubtedly tangled up in a confusion of offbeats. And what happened to the golden rule of punk – three chords repeated over three minutes? This tune doesn’t even have chords! Not a single bloody one!

I first heard ‘Careering’ on a Rough Trade post-punk compilation in the mid-2000s. We were at the height of a revival of sorts, but while certain bands du jour clearly found inspiration in some of the other bands on the album (XTC, Delta 5), I found nobody attempting to emulate PiL. Nevermind the music itself, there was no-one around even entering into that spirit, that ethos: a vertiginous position balancing on the very cliff-edge of popular music, surveying the great canyon of nothing below. Of course, that frightening freedom no longer exists – PiL’s brave new world is, as they might have put it, a metal box now, contained, catalogued and knowable. Back in 1979, however, it was terra incognita. I’m not sure I would have even opened the box, for fear of what might have lurked inside. At least with Pandora it was butterflies. But with Public Image Ltd it was bacter-iaaaa. You thought it was clichéd to call a song ‘infectious’? Well, think again, friend. This one will have you running to the doctor for a prescription.

The Metal Box album had already been previewed by a hit single in the summer of 1979, ‘Death Disco’. I kid you not; it got to number twenty in the UK chart. Perhaps the public were expecting more bright fodder a la ‘Public Image’ itself (a top ten effort with chiming guitars and self-referential lyrics that now sounds tame compared to what followed it). Perhaps they were so hung up on disco at the time that they conveniently ignored the death. Well, you could sort of dance to it; it even plundered Swan Lake, though it sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky’s being murdered in a souk. It’s actually a song about cancer – surely the only one to have ever made it onto Top of the Pops. To think Mike Read would one day initiate a ban on Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That was in his regal, Saturday Swapshop days. It’s quite something to watch him in 1979, introducing ‘Death Disco’ just as he might have announced The Dooleys or Boney M. The next single, ‘Memories’, also had a crisp disco hi hat, though as in so many of the tracks on Metal Box, it’s processed and phased, and ever so slightly deprived of oxygen. It got to number sixty. There, that’s more like it.

There is a real case to be had that the hour-long (yes, hour-long!) Metal Box is the most far-reaching of all those post-punk albums released in 1979. As distinctive and original in its sound as Unknown Pleasures, it nevertheless takes rock music even further away from its origins in the blues. Only two years earlier – less than the time it takes your average band to write and record one album these days – John Lydon was fronting a group that played standard 1-4-5 progressions and mouthed off about rebellion. However thrilling The Sex Pistols were, they were trying to replant a seed, trying to re-water the roots of rock ‘n’ roll: anarchy and thrash. Metal Box pulls up the roots completely. ‘Poptones’, for example, is hilariously named. Whatever pop might be, it’s certainly not this spiralling, enervated shoulder-shrug. The album even ends with a track called ‘Radio 4’, surely the least rock ‘n’ roll of all stations. A synth instrumental of cool, neoclassical beauty, it’s the final shock of an artwork that defies all assumptions.

These tracks variously coil like snakes, bang off their own walls like spiders trapped in glasses, wind and bend like Borgesian mazes. And in the centre of the labyrinth, a Minotaur. ‘Careering’ is the most radical track of all, a ‘song’ which as its title suggests, constantly ricochets against its own sides. The fade-in beginning sends a ripple of electricity through the room. Detuned synthesizers, an anguished howl, a bang that could be gunfire, a door closing or an industrial machine clanking in an abandoned factory, and then Jah Wobble’s dubby bass right up in the mix. Mist and shadows; almost unbearably high and low frequencies spaced out, stretched, as if all previous pop music had been operating within only one octave.  The sole anchor is that bass-line; in fact, it’s the only thing that seems to have anything resembling conventional pitch. Still, it’s slippery and uneasy. You have to work to follow it. And if you don’t follow it, you’re lost in something near to agony. Or ecstasy. I’ve yet to figure out which.

‘Is this living?’ asks John Lydon, which is really a question about dying, of course. We give birth astride of a grave, in the words of Samuel Beckett. Yet perhaps it’s a rhetorical question that actually yields an answer, and a surprising one: a resounding ‘yes’. Rather as I feel with Magazine’s ‘The light pours out of me’ (you can read my thoughts on that here), this is music that sees life and death as the same thing, and thus despair and release are also the same. To many people, ‘Careering’ will sound like torture; a thumbscrew record. But once you readjust your ears and clear your head, it really is the most marvellous noise. Perhaps watching the Whistle Test clip will convince you, as it did the rather shellshocked Annie Nightingale after Lydon’s bathetic ‘that’ll do’, that this is ‘the most powerful performance [you’ve] ever seen’ on a television music programme. Keith Levene doesn’t so much play the Sequential Circuits synth as karate chop it into battered submission; all it can do is spew out whooshes of air and cries of pain; his guitar is no less a percussion instrument here, completely denatured. The visual presence of Lydon is almost a distraction – spirit of ’76 stuff – but then, that’s also the point; this is a familiar figure gone utterly offroad, ironically thinking nothing of his ‘career’ and everything of his ability to create something unspeakably original with what little conventional talent he has. The whole package is almost queasy. It’s borne of that state of mind that usually only belongs to the ill and the fevered, where the body and mind are simultaneously both numbed and hyperaware. You see, it isn’t really a song at all. It’s a quality of air; a change of state; a visit from the afterlife. You also need an aspirin after you’ve listened to it. Or a bit of Haydn. Something clean and symmetrical, something with form and tradition. This thick, sulphurous stew of reggae, Krautrock, Eastern drone and microtone is pretty much British popular music’s Rite of Spring moment.

Three years later, and Public Image Ltd (sans Levene and Wobble) appeared on The Tube. You know what they played? ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Johnny, you can’t half be rotten sometimes! Still, there was a brief time when you were more Radio 4 than Channel 4. And more radical than either of them. And it’s all there in that metal box. Open the padlock, and set those bacteria free.


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40 – The Pet Shop Boys: West End Girls


Unreal City, under the brown fog of a winter dawn. Earth hath not anything to show more fair. Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing on into the night. London – the lifeblood of the country and the vampire that sucks it back up.

Among other teenage favourites such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, the Eyewitness Guide to London was a library staple. Before the age of seventeen I never made the trip on the route of the Flying Scotsman down to King’s Cross; in fact, bar a school coach trip to Dover en route to France, I’d never been further south than Matlock. But there I was, lying on my bed, fitting Monopoly streets into the A to Z, memorising the names of the boroughs and their railway stations. I was doing what probably thousands if not millions of ‘provincial’ Britons had done before me, embarking on a love-hate relationship with a city I’d never seen.

I finally made the journey on a school trip in 1998. The A-level art students headed off to the National Gallery; I visited UCL with a friend, had a slice of overpriced pizza for lunch in Leicester Square, then reconvened with the English lit students to see Othello at the National. It was sticky hot, and I felt disappointed for most of the time. It was almost worse to come to London for one day, and not get to do or see any of the things on my list, than never go at all. The schedule was so overdetermined I had no time to gawp at the tube posters or read the blue plaques, no time to catch myself realising I’d jumped through the rabbit hole into Wonderland.  But then, post-play, we had to cross Waterloo Bridge. The skyline shimmered into focus, St Paul’s ghostly with floodlight, the river lapping against the Embankment. I’ll be back, I said to myself, and a blood-rush flushed me all over. London isn’t a city of instant epiphanies. You don’t see it and die; it can be ugly and gawky, ill-assembled and unphotogenic. But there are always clicks; joints snapping into place; gear shifts. That moment on the bridge was one such: like a photographic print gradually darkening in the developing fluid, London was emerging.

Listen carefully to the opening of ‘West End Girls’ and this is exactly what you hear: London flickering into life, beginning to glitter through the fog. It’s morning, and someone walks into the light from the Paddington concourse. Their heels take to the wet pavement, and their heart beats faster as they scour the street for a taxi. The pulse begins to assert itself, and then the synth string chords – those chords – dark, cool and grand, clean and sleek as a black cab. And a pause, ever so slight, before the new arrival decides to walk; to take in the rush on foot, buoyed airily by the Pet Shop Boys’ smooth minimalism, slinking through the crowds. It’s all there in the video, as a rapid montage of random faces gives way to Neil and Chris, who take to their heels in a vaporous, ghostly Soho, like sombre night-watchmen coming off shift. ‘West End Girls’ is the sound of London settling into focus. Eight million people waking up to the distant rumble of tubes and screech of buses; eight million people rubbing their eyes as the greatest synth bassline in eighties pop music rings out from their clock radios.

It must have been quite an awakening, back then in 1985. It seemed to arrive fully-formed; not just a song, but an aesthetic (though the original Bobby Orlando version from the previous year proves how crucial Stephen Hague was in realising the song’s latent atmospheres). This was not the barroom and dog-track London of Ian Dury, nor was it the hazy, romanticised cityscape of The Kinks. Tennant and Lowe are, of course, northerners, and thus outsiders, though they don’t so much crash the party as float spectrally in a corner with a martini and a raised eyebrow. When the Boys first broke into the charts, much was made of Tennant’s former career at Smash Hits, the foremost evidence cited for his apparently ‘ironic’ take on pop. But I’ve often thought that the beautiful balance they strike between the knowing and the credulous is the product of northern eyes surveying southern landscapes. They are detached, perhaps even sceptical at times; but there’s also that Eyewitness Guide in the bedroom, a city learned and loved, an excitement at having gone through the portals at King’s Cross and slipped into the anonymity of the throng. Despite Tennant having said on more than one occasion that ‘West End Girls’ was inspired by The Waste Land – ‘too many shadows, whispering voices’ is a true summary of Eliot’s fractured epic indeed – the song is too stimulated by what’s going on around it to be either a lament for the lost or a prophecy of doom. It does sound dangerous – there’s something dark and doleful in that bass – but it’s the kind of danger that makes you feel alive and adrenalized. It’s determined to keep its cool, determined not to spend its money all at once; but despite this caution, it’s still the sound of two northerners who will never quite fail to wonder at their adopted home.

It’s a dichotomy embodied by the Boys themselves: arty, askance Tennant, asking questions and pondering significances, and hedonistic Lowe (you can take the lad out of Blackpool!), disappearing into the massed bodies of the rave or shopping incognito at the record exchanges (check out the 1989 B-side, ‘One of the crowd’, Chris’s very own credo). It’s why their songs at their finest have such cross-cultural appeal; the Guardianista manifesto of ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’ (‘Left to my own devices’) can coexist quite happily with the football terrace reworking of gay utopianism (their definitive cover of ‘Go West’, which was taken on in earnest by Arsenal supporters). It’s what makes them so English, yes (another epithet interviewers and critics find impossible to avoid), but more than that, it’s what makes them so London, and more specifically Northern and London. In no other city in the world do you get quite so many disparate people rubbing shoulders in the crush; underfunded social housing and potholes on one side of the street, while the opposite side gleams with stucco and swept pavements. This is the world the Boys both celebrate and lament, and often with an emphasis on the relationship between regionalism and metropolitanism. It’s mourned in ‘King’s Cross’ (the station from which Geordies spill out into the city like foaming brown ale from a broken bottle), and especially ‘The Theatre’, which again makes specific reference to  expats from beyond the Watford Gap (‘Boys and girls come to roost / From Northern parts and Scottish towns / Will we catch your eye?’) But then there’s the funny B-side ‘Sexy Northerner’, about a guy who takes the capital by the scruff and recasts it in his own image. London is always up for grabs, and the Boys will be there as the daybreak traffic hits, on through lunch at the office, then dinner, pub, club, and into the demimonde of the dead hours. You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job. You wait till later, till later tonight…

You see, London is all about almost unlikely juxtapositions, and the Pet Shop Boys pull off some of the unlikeliest. The astonishing ‘Dreaming of the Queen’ (perhaps the most moving song they have ever written) is the most surreal. It’s an elegy for the AIDS dead (‘there are no more lovers left alive’) sung by ‘Lady Di’, whose own marriage is failing; the ‘Queen’ of the title is both the monarch Neil visualizes in his dream, chastising him for being in the nude, and, perhaps, the patron saint of all ‘queens’ everywhere who are traumatized by the epidemic. It’s timely – on release in 1993, all these events were highly topical – and timeless, commenting on the ways in which our subconscious finds its own warped logic to deal with the crushing events of history. And then that heartbreaking line, ‘Yes, it’s true / Look, it’s happened to me and you’ (a rejoinder to an earlier AIDS lament, ‘It couldn’t happen here’). London is a place in which ‘big’ history is made all around us, in which we constantly rub up against grand monuments and memorials; it’s also a place that can find space for the ‘me and you’. At its best, Tennant and Lowe’s songwriting focuses through both of these lenses. Remember ‘Shopping’, seemingly a deadpanned celebration of the personal benefits of the credit boom, but actually a broadside against Thatcher’s privatisations? No eighties band was better at defining the emptiness of consumerist luxury than the Pet Shop Boys, and I’m not just talking about the immortal ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money’. Stick on the original version of ‘I want a dog’, and marvel at the boredom of desire; the blank-eyed intonation of ‘oh, you can get lonely’; the killer couplet ‘Don’t want a cat / Scratching its claws all over my habitat’, expressing withering disdain for any mog that ruins Terence Conran’s finest.

In ‘West End Girls’, of course, there are cats and dogs, paws and claws. The greyhounds of Walthamstow (east end boys) and the Persian princesses of Kensington (the girls of the title). Another great juxtaposition, and one that makes London sexy in a constantly surprising way. All sorts of mythologies catch each other’s eyes on the escalators. The Kray brothers lock stares with Charlotte Rampling; there’s a frisson of sexual danger, a possibility of pugilism. But London has to brook its own contradictions in order to survive. It surfs breezily above them, just as the track itself is both shiny and seamy, dark and light. The song is all tensions: African and European (the jazzy trumpet and rich gospel backing vocalist knocking against Tennant’s high white plaint), passive and active, dispassionate and yet full of deep, deep yearning; yet it’s miraculous how these coexist with such effortless panache. These are the frictions of all great British pop, but seldom do they ever sound so exotic and lush. The Pet Shop Boys really did change the game; this is a London both real and imagined, both as good as the real thing and somehow even better. It’s not surprising that it was number one all over the world, including America, and no accident that it even featured prominently in the Olympic shebang last year.

You see, for all the expert satire, it’s easy to forget that the Pet Shop Boys are still actually in love with London, and that its allure will never pall. ‘We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past’, intones Neil in the last verse. In London, you can be someone different every day, ventriloquizing the people around you, learning to walk to their gait; only the present, and your presence matter. Just to be there at all; to be swimming in the tide. East End boys will always chase West End girls, and perhaps vice versa. Northerners and foreigners will always be both repelled and fascinated by the Unreal City. As long as London exists, so will ‘West End Girls’; so will a thousand teenagers from elsewhere dreaming in their bedrooms about ‘running down, underground, to a dive bar in a West End town’. As T.S. Eliot would have it, we shore these fragments against our ruin. Or else, we save ourselves with the power of a synth bass, a crunchy snare and the ecstasy of urban romance.


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39 – Roisin Murphy: Orally Fixated


So, about having your cake and eating it…

Music may be the food of love, but you don’t find many songs devoted to munching and crunching. Don McLean wasn’t actually singing about a nice shortcrust with a gooey filling, was he? That beret that Prince blathered on about wasn’t literally decorated with the finest crop of new-season raspberries, and neither ‘Peach’ nor ‘Cream’ saluted a superior dessert.  Drinking, of course, is much more glamorous. It can be sexy, dainty, even dangerous. It can be done with a straw. It’s Mick Jagger going for a soda at the Chelsea drugstore in ‘You can’t always get what you want’, or Kelis raising blood pressure with her milkshake. And then the romantic ravages of the binge – as we know from Amy Winehouse, rehab is a studio full of horns and shimmering strings. Funny how alcoholism and drug addiction have inspired a plethora of songwriters, yet bulimia and anorexia are absent from the rock canon. Perhaps eating is simply too mundane a narrative. Ian Dury didn’t sing about sex and cake and rock ‘n’ roll, after all. And when Rufus Wainwright confessed to loving cigarettes and chocolate milk, he reminded us nevertheless that these were ‘just a couple of his cravings’; clearly a mouthful of Frijj helped the little pills go down.

When food does make an appearance, it’s often either for metaphorical reasons or in the name of narrative realism. At one end, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (‘the world is just a great big onion’), at the other Joni Mitchell (the lady of the canyon who ‘may bake some brownies today’).  Or else it’s whimsy – The Sugarcubes exhorting us to ‘have some salad’ or ‘bite an apple’ in ‘Eat the Menu’, Kate Bush  asking us whether we’d like a guava in ‘Eat the Music’. Yes please, Kate!  And then occasionally it’s both analogy and whimsy. Winning first prize in the ‘eccentric extended metaphor’ category is 10cc’s ‘Life is a Minestrone’, in which said life is ‘served up with parmesan cheese’. It’s also a ‘cold lasagne suspended in deep freeze’, while ‘love is a fire of flaming brandy / Upon a crepe suzette’. Typical of those pop pranksters to write a song about the redundancy of metaphor. When 10cc split down the middle, Godley and Creme re-emerged as a duo, and went one better with ‘Snack Attack’. Or one worse, depending on how you read lines as daft as ‘my willpower’s gone, I’m down on my knees / Praying to the God of cottage cheese’, or the rhyming of ‘flapjack’ with ‘Jack Kerouac’. Eat to the beat indeed…

All this becomes a little excessive, even indigestible, when you ruminate on it too much. Get me some antacid house! But then, if you still have an appetite, you might want to devour Roisin Murphy’s 2009 single ‘Orally Fixated’. It’s not for the faint-hearted or the heartburn-prone. It might turn your stomach. At the very least you’ll probably have to swallow a couple of Rennies. Having said that, you might want seconds, or even thirds.

Murphy has form here. Bar their two top ten singles, the pleasant-enough earworm ‘Sing it back’ and its more shimmering follow-up ‘The time is now’, I must say Moloko barely registered with me back in their brief nineties heyday. Were it not for my partner I may never have re-investigated them; the first mixtape he ever made for me had a track called ‘Lotus Eaters’ on it, from their first album Do You Like My Tight Sweater. Its compendiousness, its slightly jarring juxtaposition of P-funk, trip-hop, chunky synth and acid-jazz, struck me for some reason as wonderfully daft. Its recurring interpolation of KFC’s motto, ‘finger-lickin’ good’ seemed apt too; it was like one of those tray-bake confections loaded with apparently oddball combinations of ingredients, that nevertheless feel like the best type of indulgence. Given how serious and self-conscious the 1990s could be about authenticity, and how meat-and-potatoes it could all be, it was a gleeful antidote: a salmagundi. It’s this more-is-more approach that I love in Murphy’s work. A track like ‘Pure Pleasure Seeker’ (the brilliant third single from Moloko’s most successful album Things to make and do) might be minimalist in its riffery – that slinky, chromatic, saxy bass grind – but it’s only to underline an almost monomaniacal commitment to hedonism. ‘Gotta get me some instant gratification’, coos Roisin, and as if by magic, that’s precisely what we get – maddeningly good pop music.

Her two solo albums, however, are even better; their relative obscurity (Ruby Blue got to a measly number 88 in the UK album chart, though Overpowered just scraped a top twenty placing) places them in the hallowed pop pantheon of a parallel universe, a universe in which Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and a thousand X-factor winners carry no passports. Working with Matthew Herbert, the kind of doctor of poposophy who samples the sound of human skin and suchlike, transformed Murphy into an eccentric disco concrète diva. ‘If we’re in love we should make love’, she purrs, over a backing that somehow marries quartet-era Miles Davis to crispy almost Timbalandish noughties R & B. ‘Sow into you’ is both tangled and taut, cross-threaded and collaged; a rare-groove fidget. The courses just keep coming. And then a torch ballad, ‘The closing of the doors’, to cleanse the palate at the very end. That’s what you play when you’re patting your belly and wiping the wine-glasses with kitchen roll. 2007’s Overpowered isn’t quite as Heston Blumenthal – it’s less deconstructed – but it’s still triple-star Michelin pop, referencing a Depeche Mode plink here (the title track) and unearthing an imaginary eighties soul weekender staple there (‘Footprints’). This was the height of Murphy’s lampshade-hatted glory – I saw a couple of triumphant sets at the Big Chill and the Roundhouse at this time, and was utterly bowled over by this stylish music that chewed up postmodernism and regurgitated pop brilliance on the other side.

This is one of the things Murphy shares with her American namesake, James (see my last piece on ‘Losing my edge’) – a sort of post-postmodern pop sensibility that allows for arched eyebrows and a genuine love of the genre simultaneously. But as its title suggests, ‘Orally Fixated’ is the sound of pop gone monomaniacal. Murphy has claimed that the song was written while she was pregnant, and so the ‘you’ addressed in the song isn’t hard to identify (‘you always want what I’ve got’, she complains, surely the first ever example of placenta fatigue in popular music). Taken at the literal level, the song’s lyrics draw on this experience to make wider points about the perils of addiction; deliciously, we get Alice in Wonderland – whispers of ‘eat me’, ‘drink me’, resounding and careening through the speakers. There’s much extended metaphor, much of it borderline filthy, and on a surface level it’s Freudian gastropop gone rampant.

But to me, this is a song about songs, about pop’s constant need to feed itself by feeding off itself. Not so much orally as aurally fixated. It’s a song with a severe case of ADHD: it simply will not settle. It’s perfectly conventional in its structure – verses, choruses, instrumentals – but that structure is threatened by all sorts of low-flying missiles. Cut-up samples, coughing percussion, collaged backing vocals that stutter in and out of the mix…they’re all thrown into the track to destabilise it as much as possible. Studios are dangerous places these days; when any effect is possible, you have to exercise severe restraint, have to rap your own knuckles as they reach for yet another reverse cymbal or synth patch. That’s what seems to be happening in this song: the multiple sonic effects are a series of tics and twitches sternly reprimanded by a producer who’s often barely in control. They keep popping out against the song’s will. Gradually they take over, until a comedy guitar solo fretwanks all over the speakers – an obscene but seemingly unstoppable incursion. Then the track gets stuck – you’d be forgiven for thinking the CD had jammed (though of course this in itself a retro affectation, a pre-MP3 throwback) – and malfunctions into pure chaos, before somebody comes and pulls the plug and puts it out of its misery.

This self-sabotaging record isn’t for the faint-hearted. It often sounds deliberately ugly, though Murphy’s gorgeous, velvety voice glides above it, a siren luring the listener intentionally towards the rocks. It’s a bit of a monster, much like the child (or lover?) in the lyrics, feeding parasitically off its host. Like ‘Losing my edge’, it revels in pop’s obsessive recyclings, though here you get the sense it’s much more about the perils of the mixing desk than the exhaustion of the record collector. ‘Ain’t you heard that less is more?’ asks Roisin at one point, clearly a rhetorical question when the track is overloading itself all around her. Some people might think that in ‘Orally Fixated’, more is too much, but I for one think that on this occasion more is more. Moreish, in fact, like your favourite cake. Have it. Eat it too.

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38 – LCD Soundsystem: Losing My Edge

LCD Soundsystem Publicity photo 2007

When the BBC Sound of 2013 artists were announced a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help feeling just a teensy bit weary. I often try to give the acts a listen, but I’m aware that there is a long list of also-rans from years gone by that have failed to prove the pollsters right. I found myself glancing over the artists singled out in previous years, and my eye wandered over to 2003, astonishingly (though unavoidably) ten years ago to the day.  The list yielded some well-established names – Dizzee Rascal and 50 Cent being the most recognisable – as well as some who seemed ubiquitous at the time but are no longer radio staples (Sean Paul). The garage rock revival was clearly at full throttle, though all the listed acts hailed from outside the UK: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (a great band), The Datsuns (who?) and Electric Six, who if you remember planned to start a nuclear war at a gay bar. Silly lads. Nestling in sixth place were Interpol, who were certainly my group of the moment back then; I was addicted to their beautifully tortured album Turn on the Bright Lights. For our nascent post-punk band, they were both model and muse. It seemed that finally there were bands out there which shared our tastes and aspired to hog the same niches as us. That could only mean one thing – that this would be our time, and we had to grab it by the balls.

Somewhere in the bohemian crucible, the cultural laboratory that was early to mid-noughties Shoreditch, we found ourselves in a mouldering basement studio on Curtain Road with strangulated acoustics and mirrors in odd places. It all sounds a bit Nathan Barley now, but at the time I remember thinking to myself: these are your twenties, use them! They were certainly very different to how I’d envisaged them as a teenager. I never imagined I’d be working in an Oxford library through the day and playing the batcaves of the Hope and Anchor or the Dublin Castle at night. I never imagined that I’d have to know what a D.I. was, or that I’d be asking grizzled soundmen with greasy beards for D.I.s on a regular basis. Least of all did I predict that many a Saturday morning would be spent on the X90 coach with a keyboard stand between my legs (a sort of gunmetal stick-insect, highly adept at bashing shins and bringing lesser objects tumbling in its wake), looking up at the towers that line the Westway, thinking ‘fucking hell, I’m in a band’. The tube to Old Street, the stink of frying onions and wet concrete in the subway, then coming back into the light, blinking at skinny men with their skinny ties and skinny jeans and their elegantly-wasted coats, too big for their pixie frames. Ah the mid-noughties! Funny how back then I felt like an outsider – chubby and professorial as I was – and yet now it seems I was part of something after all.

Funny too how the period has come into sharp focus in the years that have followed. It’s now utterly unremarkable for an ‘indie’ band to crank it up to 100BPM and ride a crisp hi-hat, but in 2004, Franz Ferdinand’s ‘music for girls to dance to’ seemed a bit nuts, in a glorious way. While it was ubiquitous in 2004, time has been kind to their classic opening salvo, ‘Take me out’; that moment when the Strokesy strum of the first verse unravels into a grinding, disco-rock boogie was effectively the manifesto that set a whole era in motion, and it was far sexier than any guitar band had a right to be (I grew up in the nineties, when it was de rigueur to sling your guitar low over baggy jeans and look permanently as if someone had pissed in your pint). I promptly bought an old Roland JX-3P from E-bay (very 2004, eh? Couldn’t afford a Juno though) and dreamed of the uber-hybrid synth-pop-rock that had previously been always out of my reach: finally my love of Gary Numan could be married to my love of The Pixies – London says so!

And then, the ‘guerrilla gigs’. It wasn’t just the Libertines and Bloc Party and all those New Crossers announcing their gatherings by text an hour before plug-in and lift-off (remember, we’re talking that innocent time just before Facer and Twitbook). No, we were there too. Somewhere in Hoxton, trembling with fear (or at least I was), in some basement with a load of hipster moustaches in lab coats. Not so much the velvet as the synthetic fibre underground. It’s what happens when art students get together of a weekend: morbid party games (they were actually playing ‘pin the leg on the amputee’), artificial light and substances a la mode. As for the house party in Wood Green, where the room was so small the guitars had to be played vertically and the floor was carpeted with so much broken glass you had to tiptoe round your instruments, well – that was a nadir. Still, that party sticks in the head for several reasons. First and foremost, the neighbours’ complaints and the ensuing police sirens; secondly, the band who arrived without any gear and had to borrow our stuff unannounced; and thirdly, the playlist that boomed out of the speakers when the bands weren’t shredding their trainers on the shards or stepping over mooning, coke-fired couples. While we were untangling our own wires and leads and praying for our sanity, the speakers boomed out ‘Olio’ by The Rapture, and again I had this weird feeling that I may never be such a part of the zeitgeist ever again.

‘Olio’, and indeed the album it kicked off so menacingly, Echoes, almost certainly constituted a watershed moment in the music of the 2000s. They were the second band I saw at Glastonbury in 2004 (after a much mellower set from Wilco), and for about forty minutes a sunny field in the West Country turned pure East Village. Luke Jenner ‘sang’ like an exotic ululating bird – a bird that had parroted PiL and Gang of Four – and it was all cowbells and Korgs a-go-go. And, I’m pleased to report, not a lab coat in sight. During the standouts – ‘House of Jealous Lovers’, ‘Sister Saviour’ – all of the great groundswell rock and pop movements of yesteryear seemed to coalesce. I looked around me at the crowd, and listened to the demonic hybrid at work on stage, and it was all there – punk, post-punk, synth-pop, acid house. A big, brilliant, splodgy Pollock canvas; a glorious fucking mess.  This is pretty much the condition of post-internet pop music, music with such unlimited resources that it’s always going just a bit too far (or else audibly trying to rein itself in with sometimes thrilling results). And it’s pretty much James Murphy’s specialist subject. As the producer of that first Rapture album (and much else of wonder besides), and the man behind the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, he was – is – the high priest and professor of noughties pop-anxiety, the Gilles Deleuze of dance-punk. So symbolic is he of that period – of analogue rebellion against the impending digital revolution, rebellion made possible only by the digital – that it almost seems as if he’s the invention of Pitchfork. But he is real, nonetheless. Remember – he was there.

Losing my edge’ is both a manifesto for its era and an acknowledgement that manifestos are almost meaningless in an age of such rapid musical turnover. It’s a masterclass in self-deconstruction (perhaps even self-destruction, as the witty, masochistic video implies). This is not Michael Stipe losing his religion (whatever that was about); nor is it Liza Minnelli losing her mind. It’s much more worrying than that, and at the same time much more blissful. In the digital age, with every back catalogue available to anyone who’s interested, with the technological means to make a DJ or a critic or a collagist out of any Macbook muso, how can you ever find your ‘edge’, never mind lose it? What seems to make Murphy’s character hyper is the possibility that the edge itself is slipping – that there’s just an endless mise en abyme of namechecks and playlists, atoms of sound proliferating in the infinity of the internet. It’s pretty astonishing to think this track is now ten years old: ITunes had barely got its act together, and the launch of Spotify was a whole three years away. It’s not postmodern pastiche, but prophecy: Murphy’s a seer as well as a psychoanalyst.

He’s also pretty hilarious. In this track, he’s a pub bore set spinning on his barstool by forces beyond his control. We’ve all met those men – in record shops (sometimes behind the counter), in clubs, or commandeering the vinyl at house parties – who have a lusty fetish for the twelve inch and an indefatigable capacity for the bullshit anecdote. And very often their babble is little other than lists, lists and more lists. You can have a good deal of fun reconstructing the canon of cool from ‘Losing my edge’ – I’ve always been chuffed that The Human League and Soft Cell sneak in there amongst Detroit techno white labels and the grin-inducing announcement of ‘GIL SCOTT HERON’ – but it’s also a deadly accurate parody of pop music’s obsessive self-recycling, its increasingly giddy repetitions. It’s not a bitter record; baffled by the ‘kids from France and from London’, he does still acknowledge, perhaps against the tide of his feeling, that they’re ‘actually really nice’. But the most telling sentiment of all comes in the outro: ‘You don’t know what you really want.’ The what of pop has disappeared. It is all desire. Hunger. Voracity. The object itself no longer matters.

What better way to state this than with a pop object so brilliant it becomes an instant classic? The music of ‘Losing my edge’ is always in tandem with the rush of its lyrics. The intro stages an intervention, the brutal replacement of a tinny garage band (which sounds like it’s being relayed through Poundland earphones) with a blippity-bloop percussion track that refuses to relent over the track’s near-enough eight minutes. The past has been hijacked by something approaching the future, though when it calls for reinforcements, we get a morphed Killing Joke loop; the future sounds like the past, but meta-meta and megaphoned. The success of this musical blueprint is the biggest irony of all. Murphy isn’t losing his edge in the slightest; he’s defining it, in all directions. Far from being all precious and fashionista – the moustache-and-lab-coat side of the noughties – he’s just giving in to the tide, and laughing at himself being all uptight. He has his cake: and he bloody eats it too.

I ate my slice, long ago. I don’t think I’ll get another one, though you never know. It was fun while it lasted though – 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006. If you catch me with a gin in my hand by the vinyl collection, don’t be too harsh on me. I was there, after all.


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37 – Talking Heads: Born Under Punches


Can you dance in your head?

I can. There’s no limit to what’s possible up there. In a static bus queue, I’m body-popping with Michael Boogaloo Shrimp. Buying wine at the Co-op, I’m actually choreographing a Studio 54 freakout. Funny how when it’s real feet, hips and arms, I fall into the old ways. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting me at a wedding, you’ll have been treated to the timid handclap, or the David Bowie knock-knee, or the shuggy boat (ask a Geordie). Of course, anything is acceptable at a private occasion. People expect the champagne to do the boogieing, and accept all manner of disgraceful manoeuvres with good grace. But this ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around. Sometimes dancing isn’t just an urge, it’s an urgency.

In pop music, dance is sex, of course; but it’s also a raison d’etre . My parents’ generation invented pop music, and Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’ was the prototype, the first patent to be stamped. Mum would always reminisce about going to see ‘Rock’ at the cinema, and being turfed out for ‘bopping in the aisles’. There’s no clearer example of how pop music became a religion in the 1950s, with its own temples and devoted congregations. Nothing new there – for us bipods, the Terpsichorean impulse is as old as legs themselves, and it’s the essential motor that drives many a ritual. But the pop era has depended on multiple instances of dance being the only thing that matters. Dance is liberty itself.  ‘Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free’, chirped Madonna ecstatically. That’s what flailing and frugging meant in the 1980s. Have you ever seen Footloose? 1984: the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her bodyguards, miners were being battered by Thatcher’s truncheoned bullies and Ethiopian children were dying of famine. Oh, and somewhere in Oklahoma, kids were being denied their basic human right to jive. This is big stuff. Check out Re-flex’s sole hit from the same year: 100BPM recast as ideology. It brings a whole new meaning to party politics; no wonder Prince was warding off the apocalypse by dancing his life away.

There’s a tyranny of dance too though. It’s amazing how many songs actually order you to party. It’s all imperatives. Get into the groove! Everybody dance, too-da-loo-loo, clap your hands, clap your hands! Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight! I love being ordered around by those haughty Chic girls. When they tell you that ‘these are the good times’, there’s no possibility of argument. Everything they sing is incontrovertible. That’s what makes those Rodgers and Edwards records so perfect – certainty, inevitability, the sheer rightness of disco. But what if you dance out of doubt? What if you bite your nails while you tap your toes? What if your dancing shoes don’t fit and there’s the possibility of blood on the heel? Dance may well be a vertical expression of a horizontal desire – but what if there’s never any release, only a climax moving ever further out of the field of possibility? The answer you get is Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light, a still mind-blowing hybrid of St Vitus jitter and high anxiety.  Never mind the Higsons putting the punk back into funk. Remain in Light puts the funk back into funk, by reminding us that way before the f-word rode on syncopations and slap bass, it denoted something more troubled: a cold sweat, a quandary. ‘Take a look at these hands’ screams David Byrne in ‘Born Under Punches’, the Lady Macbeth of the Bowery. Two funks battling it out to the death: Byrneham Wood coming to Dunsinane.

He’s got form here, has David. The earliest, pre-Eno Heads kicked off with ‘Psycho Killer’, a stalking Parisian cat of a record – less new wave, more nouvelle vague. Twitchy of tail and twinkly of eye, ‘Psycho Killer’ led to some of the finest moments of hyperventilation in pop music – the Heads’ spidery, suspicious remake of Al Green’s ‘Take me to the river’, for example, which trades creamy soul for postmodern urban nightmare: don’t fall in love with the surface reflections, Dave, or you’ll fall in and drown. ‘Found a job’, also from the first Eno-produced album More Songs about Buildings and Food, seeks refuge from these nuits blanches in cartoon-gang disco-lite. This incarnation of the Heads, with Tina Weymouth bobbing up and down on her bass and Chris Frantz grinning at the drum-stool, would lead directly to the Tom Tom Club and the classic ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ – white hip-hop sketched with bright crayons. 1979’s Fear of Music, though, reasserted David Byrne’s penchant for troubled funk, and began to ask questions of the dance. Can you give in to disco while still worrying about the world? There are furrowed brows aplenty – ‘Life During Wartime’ imagines imminent Cold War meltdown as a Secret Seven scenario of bomb shelters and stockpiles (‘I’ve got some groceries and peanut butter / To last a couple of days’). But there’s also ‘I Zimbra’, a mad mashup of kwela and Dada that almost – almost – gives itself in to the sheer joy of the beat. Eno throws in a bit of geometry towards the end – some abstract synth shapes for the brain to ponder – but it’s perilously close to bypassing the head altogether for the loins and ligaments. And this is the blueprint for Remain in Light, a series of songs that continually rub up against themselves, staging pitched battles between the uptight and the unfettered. The single ‘Once in a lifetime’ is a perfect example of this not-quite yin-yang. Byrne’s televangelist spiel is one of the great expressions of midlife crisis; a sort of John Updike story for the MTV generation. It’s so familiar to us now – the beautiful house, the beautiful wife – but it never loses its punch. There’s almost unbearable fear in it (what will this depressed suburbanite do behind the wheel of the large automobile, pull a Willy Loman?) But I always think there’s a beautiful glimmer of hope. When Byrne asks ‘Where does that highway go to?’, he’s peeking over the horizon; when he cries ‘My God, what have I done?’, it’s the moment he realises he’s driving away, on and into the terror of freedom. Maybe, just maybe, the wondrous music has put oil in his tank. For how could the song not be life-affirming? How could those fizzing keyboard lines, like bubbles constantly rising and popping in the glass, not go to the head? How could all those percolating polyrhythms fail to cure the arthritic pains of middle age or the weltschmerz of Middle America?

And so the Heads come to the power of dance through intellectual and spiritual crisis. Listening to the first side of Remain in Light (and this is definitely an LP with ‘sides’) is like seeing a man looking in one direction as his feet carry him in another. Byrne protests ‘but…but…’ while Harrison, Frantz and Weymouth (not to mention Eno) chivvy him constantly with the enchantments of rhythm. ‘Crosseyed and painless’ relates this very story. Byrne has ‘lost [his] shape, trying to act casual’; he seems obsessively worried that he is becoming untethered from ‘fact’, but then the pulse of the music convinces him eventually that ‘facts continue to change their shape’, and the brain can expand to incorporate the change. You can indeed go crosseyed, and it won’t be painful; if you lose control, you merely open up endless new possibilities. This was the ethos behind the creation of the album, and so ‘Crosseyed’ becomes a kind of meta-commentary on recording strategy. ‘Born Under Punches’, similarly , is the sound of a guy torn between being a ‘government man’ and a ‘tumbler’ – a man in a suit with an agenda in his briefcase, and a gymnast preparing to turn spontaneous somersaults. ‘All I want is to breathe’, sings Byrne, loosening his tie. The track is constantly teetering on this edge, between limit and licence, and to hear the corporate middle-manager bursting out of his confines is almost akin to hearing a body in the process of being created. One of the many moments I love in this track is at around 1:25, when Byrne does away with words altogether: “ng-zada, ng-zada, ng-zada”, he murmurs, as he attempts to keep speech moving through the propulsive groove only to get stuck on the beat and dribble into gobbledygook. It’s panic at the disco, for sure – a ‘my God, what have I done’ moment, or rather, ‘What the fuck am I saying here?’ Byrne also has to dodge the brickbat bass-guitar and boomeranging sonic effects, like an avatar in a videogame attempting to steer a course and get through to the bonus round. But by the end, I think he’s triumphed. He has conquered his fear of music and is ready for the next level.

Apart from this, it still just sounds bloody amazing. Adrian Belew’s unhinged, blibbety-bloop Morse code of a guitar solo; the mystical, spine-tingling backing vocals; the looped offbeats that always sound like they’re about to trip up the track by the boogie-shoelaces. It’s incredibly three-dimensional music, and your arms and legs expand to match it. I urge you take the punch (see, imperatives again!), and dance in your head to the Heads. Just make sure it doesn’t come onto your I-Pod while you’re in the Co-op, otherwise you might just find you’re a-tumble in the aisles.

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36 – Aztec Camera: Walk Out to Winter


At sixteen or seventeen, winter Saturdays were my favourite. When I wasn’t at my fortnightly youth orchestra, frog-throating my way through Mussorgsky, you might have found me at Chester-le-Street market with my best mate. It was your classic mix of disposable bric-a-brac. Knock-off VHS nasties with faded cases; paperbacks shrivelled with water damage. The whole place stank of fried onions and damp tarpaulin. But, you know, it was a kind of home. Flicking through boxes of old 45s or racks of secondhand CDs was the gentlest kind of pleasure; I’m still the sort of man who hates shopping but loves browsing.

After we’d filled our rucksacks with the haul, there’d be a quick run of the charity shops and maybe a custard doughnut from the Baker’s Oven, followed by a bus ride home all in time for lunch. Mum’s bread dough would be proving by the fire, teatowel over the bowl. Dad would doubtless be fiddling with one of his many radios, trying to get the best signal for the Newcastle match on medium wave, so that Mum could listen while she baked. I’d squirrel my bits and pieces upstairs, take up my headphones, and enjoy whatever it was I’d spent my paltry pocket money on. From mid-afternoon, I’d look down on the street and watch the light dim gradually; dream a little of escape, of the future I might have in some other town, but never so much as to reject what I had. The smell of fresh bread, the anticipation of the first break of crust and the melt of salted butter always brought me back.

Even though it fits the bill perfectly, I’d never heard ‘Walk out to winter’ back then. I’d probably read a little about its parent album, High Land Hard Rain, in an issue of Q or Mojo, or in the encyclopaedia of popular music in the school library (in the days before the Internet, these were the only channels for a music geek like me). But Roddy Frame (AKA Aztec Camera) was only familiar for ‘Somewhere in my heart’, a radio earworm that married an almost irritatingly tuneful melody to rather big eighties production and blowsy FM sax. It’s still his biggest hit – the only Aztec Camera single to go Top Ten – and for many people, the image of a slight, fey young chap in earnest blue denim handling a guitar way too big for him is hard to shake off. It’s a shame really, because in 1983, when he was a  precocious eighteen year-old debuting with a near-perfect pop album, Frame could give any of those wistful, lovelorn indie kids a run for their money.

There were a lot of them about at the time. I’ve already written in this blog about my love for Orange Juice, but they weren’t the only misfits penning lovestruck sonnets on the top of the school bus. From around 1982 to 1985, John Peel’s Festive Fifties bulged with winsome young men, who crooned where their more chart-bound contemporaries faked soul, and took up plectra when everyone else was buying Roland Junos on hire purchase. While some of this sounds as dated as any Nik Kershaw record, it’s acquired a sort of bohemian burnish. It’s the aesthetic superiority of the underdog; youth that, like the Thompson Twins, had love on its side, but unlike the Thompson Twins, didn’t buy an extra seat for it in business class.

It was the music of a generation that was neither aspirational nor furious; a generation that neither needed the promise of social mobility nor the possibility of a revolution to inspire it into song. In the private jet – Duran Duran. In the miners’ welfare hall – The Style Council. And in the graffitied bus shelter with a packet of Silk Cut – Prefab Sprout, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, The Lotus Eaters.  No matter what’s raging around you, there is always a majority who just get on with their lives. History’s just background; something you overhear on the six o’clock news in disjointed bits and bobs while munching your fish fingers, something that happens in between Grange Hill and Coronation Street. To hell with history; it’s all about record shops and lovesick poetry and buying your cigarettes from a certain kiosk because you fancy the girl behind the till.

These are the spaces evoked by some of the finest guitar-based pop from that 83-84 period: the town bus station, scene of exciting entrances and disappointed exits, or the town square, breezy with chip papers, thronged with suited office workers spearing salads from their Tupperware. In the most banal of settings, the most surprising and life-affirming things can happen; anything to lift the grey. One of my very favourites is ‘The First Picture of You’, by sensitive Scousers The Lotus Eaters. Look at Peter Coyle on Top of the Pops, and you can imagine what he might have been like at school. He’d have walked a fine line between being bullied mercilessly for his sensitivity and being fixated upon for the very same quality by a load of girls with hair like Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club. They probably thought he was Liverpool’s answer to Nick Heyward. Then listen to that dreamy, drifty music with its sunburst guitars. The summer light streams in through the chemistry block window, and more romantic souls are distracted from their Bunsen burners by a glimpse of life beyond the school gates. ‘It’s warm in and out’, he sings. He doesn’t mind being at school; he’s a nice lad, he doesn’t rebel. But at his core there’s a touch of Keats: the flowers ‘scream their joy’, inspiring him to ‘break into the peaceful wild’. As soon as the bell rings, he’s going to run into town and find the girl he loves, with nothing more than a fiver in his pocket and a conviction that his best years are yet to come. This is end of term set to music. It’s those few weeks where everything suddenly becomes richer, when everyday monochrome slips magically into vibrant colour.

If ‘The first picture of you’ is a small town at the height of July, ‘Walk out to winter’ is the same town deep into November. But though it’s nippy, and we’re well after the first frost, it’s not damp or soul-sapping. It’s one of those mornings soon after the clocks go back, when the sun cuts slices through the thinning trees and you breathe extra hard just to see the vapour before you. In fact, it’s what I like to think of as ‘scarf-pop’; a skinny, wiry student wrapped in soft woollens. He maybe even works on Chester market every Saturday. He’ll be the one who sells you a rare import and doesn’t mind when you’re fifty pence short. He’s quiet, but unmistakeably warm, and his song is pure, distilled bonhomie, a thermos of tea keeping the chill at bay. The student’s been studying, but little of it has come from his course books. It’s more a hodgepodge of Elvis Costello LPs and well-thumbed copies of classics from the Faber backlist. He likes to spend time in his room picking out some jangly chords; but he equally loves to put his boots and gloves on and go for a kickabout, or call on his mates and head off to a gig in a dodgy part of town. He has the quiet assurance of youth, and life holds no fear or doubt for him. Life literally is a walk in the park: a jog and a skip and all back before the streetlights fleck the sky with amber.

‘Walk out to winter’ is a song that seems inevitable when you hear it. Everything is in its right place. The chord progressions are lush but utterly logical – built from the sort of sequences you can’t imagine music being without. There’s a little tilt towards Tin Pan Alley, but it’s processed through skittery-jittery rhythm guitar and delivered in a voice that is pure, joyful normality: it just seems a natural extension of the singer-songwriter, with not a pose or pastiche in earshot. ‘It wasn’t youth, we hit the truth’, he sings with just the right amount of earnestness; he suspects he’ll be accused of naivety, but the smartest know that innocent sincerity is far superior to cynical ‘wisdom’. If anything, he’s already developed far beyond the usual juvenile desire for radicalism. The ‘faces of Strummer’ have ‘[fallen] from the wall’, and ‘nothing [is] left where they hung’. The young lovers have listened to London Calling but its Morse code has ceased, its apocalypticism has given way to the romance of the everyday. It’s all explained in the lines, ‘This generation will walk to the wall, / But I’m not angry – get your gear, get out of here and walk out to winter’. Strummer’s acolytes have turned away from the slogans, and some would argue that the loss of fierce idealism will see them go to the dogs. But Roddy has seen through this; the angry punks now wear pixie boots, brave the ‘L’ word, and listen to Gram Parsons. Or at least prefer Almost Blue to This Year’s Model. They’re not frustrated by the world outside; they don’t need to take to the streets to protest. Curled lips and furrowed brows belong in other songs. There will be time for a hundred visions and revisions. But for now, the air is tangy and fresh – anticyclonic – and the sky’s an intense cornflower blue. How could anyone possibly be angry with a warm scarf round their neck and a snowball to throw?

There’s only one snag to this thoroughly bonny song – the synth drums. Still, I’m sure they were perfectly innocent. It was 1983 after all. The Radio 1 session version is even better than the High Land Hard Rain original, adding some tingly keyboard parts for extra frosting. Choose that if you’d rather. But, as we drive through November, misting up the passenger side windows with our breath as ever, writing love messages with gloved fingers, make sure the car stereo pays tribute. You’ll pull up, park, and open the door on a newly minted landscape; stepping onto the pavement will be like that first footprint in the snow.

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35 – Magazine: The light pours out of me


Ten years ago, August would have stretched. The dust of high summer would have clogged up the clockwork somehow, slowed the tick. But days are shorter now, now I’m in my thirties. September has already knocked at the door, and here I am again, contemplating the darkening of days, the sudden need for woollens, the transition from beers and barbecues to tea and toast. I-pod mixes on the terraces give way to vinyl in the lounge, reggae basslines to frosty string quartets and fireside folk-strumming.

I love the approach of autumn: it’s my favourite season. I’m conscious that ‘autumnal’ is one of those words music journalists rely on inordinately to describe burnished Americana or acoustic contemplation, but it always fits. It’s the melancholy passage of time, the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of Keats’ ode; it’s that faded Instagram treatment people seem to love, yellowing and browning the cast of the image. In that direction tend most of those early seventies Island label stalwarts – the John Martyns, Nick Drakes and Fairports – as well as the moonshine-and-clapboard minstrels (the Crosbys, Stills, Nashes and Youngs, and their Fleet Foxy descendants). The slow drawing down of the blinds is accepted, welcomed, and harmonised, before being photographed, sepia-tinted and immortalised on the front of a cult album. Lovely.

But there are those who do not go gentle into that good night. Those who rage against the dying of the light. When I was an undergraduate student, chewing my nails obsessively and pinning song lyrics to my bare walls, autumn terms always had a tension about them. After the indolence of the long summer vacation, I would face the new university year with a vague dread, anxiously anticipating the highs and lows and the fallout costs (killer hangovers, snotty colds, nosedives in self-esteem, the usual crap). The trees were always very beautiful, but they were less a palliative than a slap in the face: how dare they revel in the season! For the first couple of years, Radiohead albums were my soundtrack of choice when indulging these bilious moods. On October 2nd, 2000, I went off to HMV (remember them?) to buy Kid A, the moment it was released. I shuffled back to my digs, lay on my bed, donned my headphones and drifted. That was an autumn and a half. I spent a lot of it contemplating ‘how to disappear completely’. But then, I began reading about this other band, one that Thom Yorke and others framed as a key precedent, one that had also been produced by John Leckie. A few months later, I went out and purchased Real Life, Magazine’s first album, and the whole world of late-seventies post-punk opened up for me. Or shall we say, it invited me in to lick its wounds; stripped off its shirt so I could count the bruises; then swiftly re-clothed and told me to quit gawping and fuck off.

Real Life was a bit of a Pistols moment for me, though woefully belated, twentysomething years after the event. But it was also a return, a comeback.  In the nineties, my Dad would record UK Gold’s reruns of Top of the Pops onto VHS. My first encounter with Howard Devoto actually came from one of those videos – a performance of ‘Shot by both sides’ that I’ve since learned was rather infamous. The first time I saw it, I found it almost unwatchably awkward; this man looked seriously uncomfortable there on TV, anaemically pale and eye-linered. Apparently, the British public were unimpressed, and Devoto’s static, bloodless performance caused the single to plummet down the charts. Now, what I find unbearable is how quickly they cut off the song, as if in protest at Devoto’s refusal to gurn or pogo. Little did they know that pop history was being made; an amazing whoosh of punk energy, delivered without any of punk’s poses, ‘Shot by both sides’ proved that post-punk was the punkest of all. Some years later, Bernard Sumner would deliver an infamous live ‘Blue Monday’ with complete indifference. Later still, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe would redefine the meaning of the term ‘stock still’ while swathed in dry ice and faced with a load of tie-dyed teenagers. But in 1978, an oddball man turned up looking almost contemptuous of the brilliant, cop-chase racket around him. In an era of tribal affinities, it seemed impossible to pin Magazine anywhere; they were shot by both sides, because they belonged to no side.

Punk was frequently driven by a gang mentality. The Clash appealed so much because you wanted to hang out with them in the street, follow their rules, swim in their slipstream. Post-punk bands were the complete antithesis. Gang of Four were ironically named on many levels, not least because their play on the Cultural Revolution suggested a little pop uprising on the side: from now on, bands could come across as if designed in a political theory seminar, and what’s more, they could still bloody well rock into the bargain. Magazine didn’t take Gramsci into the studio with them. They clearly preferred Penguin Modern Classics – the ones you now find in charity shops with creased, pale green spines, and which in Magazine’s day would most probably have sat on public library shelves, unborrowed and unloved.  This was a different kind of outsider’s music to that of The Clash or even The Buzzcocks, Devoto’s previous band. For all their outlaw swagger, The Clash were rather humanist; they believed in the power of culture to effect change. Howard Devoto, on the other hand, seemed unremittingly misanthropic. Everything is twitch and tic. ‘Why are you so itchy, kid?’, he asks in ‘Shot by both sides’; ‘Look what fear’s done to my body’, he exclaims in ‘Because you’re frightened’. This is no punk, folks: this is a man who would rather pick his scabs than pick a fight. And more than anything, he’d rather be reading Kafka.

It could all be so terribly undergraduate, but Magazine had the good fortune to be brilliantly versatile musicians, and Devoto was a viciously clever and funny lyricist to boot. ‘A song from under the floorboards’ turns Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground into an almost Pythonesque black comedy, brimming with killer lines, jaunty barrelhouse piano and thick smears of synthesizer. It’s still utterly unlike anything – chilling, daft and moving all at the same time. Existential music-hall synth-punk noir, anyone? When Morrissey covered it for a 2006 B-side, a little collective epiphany may well have erupted through the indie world. ‘I am angry, I am ill, and I’m as ugly as sin’ is a Smiths opening line if ever there was; same goes for ‘my irritability keeps me alive and kicking’. Another Mancunian misfit walked those streets before you, Stephen. He even wore cardigans.

He also stared death squarely in the chops. ‘The light pours out of me’ is Devoto’s Macbeth moment, the tragic death and catharsis of Real Life before the closer, ‘Parade’, serenades a descent into hell. In fact, ‘The light’ is post-punk’s most Shakespearean song, period. Just as Macbeth reflects on life’s ‘brief candle’ and ‘walking shadow’ before hurling himself headlong into battle, so does Magazine’s song contemplate a life in which time both ‘flies’ and ‘crawls’, ‘like an insect up and down the walls’ (yet another spidery analogy from the most entomological of songwriters). Then, just as the murderous thane cries ‘Blow, wind! Come, wrack! / At least we’ll die with harness on our back’, so do Magazine blow out the candle in their trench and jump over the top, heedless of wind and weather. The song oscillates between triumph and defeat, and as such could be an analogy for anything really; as ever, art that confronts its own death is all the more life-affirming.

But what is so special about ‘The light pours out of me’ is that the music both affirms and contradicts the lyrics. Devoto’s light ‘jerks’ out of him, ‘like blood’, but it is anything but enervating. From the first bar, an unrelenting pulse is established over which John McGeoch can assert his beautiful, mysterious guitar motifs; Devoto’s brain may prevail, but only because the band around him has established a pumping heart to feed it. Everywhere in the song, there are vital signs, indicators of its health and functionality, defying the death towards which it propels itself. The bass is deep, rich and charged with momentum. The drums sizzle crisply. Suspended guitar chords glow duskily in the background like those photos medical scientists take of the body, illuminated by infrared thermography. And then, after the second verse-chorus, at around 2:55, the song takes off into uncharted territory, guitars wailing and drums crashing in a titanic break. If the light is pouring away, then Magazine are stealing fire from Prometheus here. It’s just a thrilling gust of defiance, a fist shaken at the Maker, a sudden primal scream from the deathbed.

And the song has prepared us for it. The title refrain may not be an expression of fatalistic resignation at all. What if it is instead an assertion of courage and pride? Remember, the light is only ‘like’ blood. Instead of ebbing life, this may well be pure radiance. The light is simply pouring out of Howard Devoto; he can’t help but transmit it to the world. The exuberant blasts of thrash in the instrumental breaks are the life-force itself, a force that refuses to ebb.  So by the time the final break ends with an abrupt chord, as if someone has pulled the switch, we don’t feel the presence of death, but rather a momentary power cut. It’s a punkish move, a daring act of self-sabotage; to invoke the (now almost clichéd) Neil Young line, better to burn out than fade away.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Ultimately it’s Dylan Thomas, not Devoto’s more favoured Camus or Dostoevsky, whose blood courses through this magnificent song. But there are also chuckles here if you can find them. Watch the 1978 video and marvel at Devoto’s disinterest. He wanders in and out of the frame like an extra drafted in as a last minute replacement. This pop music thing is just a brief distraction from ‘real life’, he seems to be saying. In interviews around the time of Magazine’s return to the studio in 2009, Devoto joked about how he’d had a ‘day job’ for the best part of fifteen years, as librarian at a picture archive. It’s so remarkably on the button. At his best in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Devoto was the Bruce Banner/Hulk of New Wave. Geek chic had yet to be invented, but Magazine sowed the seeds for so much of the indie to follow. The freedom to stand still, to be deliberately obtuse, to be European, to be cerebral, to dress like a lecturer at a polytechnic disco – it all leads back to five guys who were unafraid of keyboards and seemingly limitless in their cheek. They even had the nerve to cover Sly Stone’s ‘Thank you for letting me be myself again’, restyled as a funkless expression of Devoto obstinacy. Hurrah for that, and for them.

I tried to pay homage to ‘The light pours out of me’ when I started playing in my first band. I wrote a song called ‘Waste’ which kicked off with the line ‘Time doesn’t heal, it kills’. I’d definitely been listening to Real Life at the time, and the example of Devoto was at the front of my mind; he showed me that it was possible to be in a punky band and still look like a charity shop worker. If only my song had had less self-pity, if only it had had half the majesty and drive of ‘The light pours out of me’…ah well, it was an important developmental stage, and I don’t disown it. Later I worried, though, that I might outgrow Magazine; that their neurotic froideur would cease to produce the itches and pricks of excitement it did when I first played Real Life in that college bedroom. No such problem. I don’t listen to them nearly so much these days, but when I do, those first three albums still really get me in the gut. And as autumn approaches, it’s time for my annual fix. I’ll draw the blinds, put the kettle on, nurse my cold and welcome in the dwindling afternoons.


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34 – Bjork: Hidden Place


In the words of the Ninth Doctor, lots of planets have a north. That comes as some relief to me, my origins being predominantly upwards-of-Humber. It’s nice to know that out there in faraway galaxies, there are others who like their vowels flat and their tea stewed. But I think what he was really driving at was that the North is a state of mind, not a place with boundaries and coordinates. The North is inside you as well as around you; you can evoke it, invoke it, summon it.

W.H. Auden, perhaps the greatest British-born poet of the Twentieth Century, knew the thrill of this imagined territory. His ‘great good place’ was ‘the part of the Pennines bounded on the South by Swaledale, on the North by the Roman wall, and on the West by the Eden Valley’; Crewe Junction marked ‘the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends, and the North, my world begins’. Though there’s always a degree of hyperbole in this kind of statement, I know and feel his love; my heart always leaps a little when I reach Sheffield from the south, knowing I’ve crossed into a land of faster rivers and fruitier accents. Auden had a map of Alston Moor on the wall of his Fire Island shack through the 1950s, a visual aid to his reimagining of ‘how basalt, long oppressed, broke out / In wild revolt at Cauldron Snout’. I too have my lovesick reminders: a desktop image of Yorkshire hay-meadows greets me every time I fire up the office PC. But my northern designs don’t stop at greystone and grouse moorlands. One of my favourite cities is Stockholm, a place in which crystalline Nordic light almost hurts the eyes. And last year, I made it to the southern tip of the Arctic Circle, when friends of mine married in Finnish Lapland. Aurora borealis, reindeer, snowglobe landscapes – it was a joy for the Narnia-inclined.

Auden got even further, to Iceland. You may have read his collaboration with Louis Macneice, Letters from Iceland, which expresses the poets’ fascination with a land of geomorphic drama and literary sagas. In the poem ‘Journey to Iceland’, Auden writes: ‘Europe is absent / This is an island and therefore / Unreal’. As a citizen of the world, a resolute pacifist with a complex ambivalence about questions of national identity, he valued the spaces outside of political circumscription. And yes, we like to think of islands as undefiled by border fences, even as ‘unreal’ – they are the Atlantises and Avalons of myth. But islands are also indisputably themselves, delimited as they are by the sea. Island nations aren’t like the places around them; they don’t shade into their neighbours. They often make a point of their separateness, their difference. Their unreality becomes oh so much more real.

I wonder if Auden would have seen Björk in this light. They would certainly have got on, for she is a mythical creature in herself, straight off the pages of Icelandic lore, like one of the shapeshifters in the family of Egill. She is a poet too, contorting the English language into new formations, gearing its molten words into odd shapes. She’s a prophet, a seer, a visionary; mid-song, she abandons language altogether for ululations and utterances that cannot be notated, a voice possessed by the spirit of pure, exuberant sound. And yes, she is also an island. Foreign ships wash up onto her shore, bearing gifts from faraway cultures – throat singers, dance boffins, string arrangers and beatboxers –  and she welcomes them in while remaining utterly and completely unassimilated. The best type of island: once you arrive, you never want to set sail again. Björk’s Iceland is broad and wide and cinematic; it’s also tiny, introspective and self-contained.

The first albums I heard were of course Debut and Post, whose breathtaking versatility defied any attempt to pigeonhole their creator. Björk is an art form in herself, so mutterings about electronica or dub or jazz are pretty much moot. Take ‘Human Behaviour’, her first solo single. It’s anthropology from the other side of the camera: a mighty animal (Björk) playing at being David Attenborough, observing the little people in the undergrowth. From that very moment, heralded by safari drums and a highly unstable key signature (is it minor or major?), you agree with her that there’s ‘definitely, definitely no logic’; you have to leave it at the door, or rather, on the shore. Logic is there to be misused by bumptious colonialists. Björk will not be subjected to it. Debut revels in these reversals – ‘Venus as a boy’ plays so deliciously with gendered archetypes – and Post takes it even further, its knockout opener ‘Army of me’ clambering all over the speakers like a bloodthirsty grizzly. It was so easy for music journos to turn Björk into a mad pixie, or else a harpy – there is next to no language for female genius in the rawk press – but she was really like some character from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, mutating from goddess to mortal, nymph to tree, woman to donkey. And what was effecting the change? Pure music; the power of waves and frequencies. ‘Headphones’ is one of the most perfect album closers you’ll ever find. Some time before an airbag saved Thom Yorke’s life, a bit of hi-fi headgear saved Björk’s. Listening to her sharing this intimacy with us, the awakening of ‘cells that haven’t been touched before’, it’s almost as if we can hear the clicking of her ears. This is the most impressive reversal of all. Where music is usually an outward expression of an inner feeling, here the musician is taking us, unafraid, into her very body.

On 1997’s Homogenic, this aesthetic of inner as outer and vice versa begins to achieve itself. The mythical metamorphoses turn tectonic: ‘Joga’ beckons us to explore ‘emotional landscapes’ and ‘states of emergency’, the points at which plates shift under the earth or unavoidable reactions happen within the body. Where Debut and Post mash up British, American and African influences, Homogenic is defiantly Icelandic. Björk isn’t morphing into animals anymore; she is geology itself, becoming boulders and rivers and geysers. The character in the sinuous ‘Hunter’ could be Arnakuagsak, the Inuit goddess responsible for the catch, but she could just as easily be a feature of the territory. When she finally followed up this highpoint in 2001 with perhaps her career best, Vespertine, she was both compellingly present and spellbindingly elsewhere. Vespertine is one of the most personal, most erotic albums ever made, alive with minute sensual epiphanies, moments when light falls upon skin in hitherto unseen ways. It’s also awash with the grandeur of subarctic geography. It’s tiny. And it’s huge. And ‘Hidden Place’ is its physical and spiritual core.

What and where is this place? It could be the mouth of the earth, pushed upwards into volcanic eruption. It starts off in uncertainty, microbeats suggesting the little fizzes and pings of rocks forming, keyboards evoking the magma’s swirl. This is a hidden place unmasking itself, a revelation as inexorable as breathing. But this is also unearthly music. The first time I heard the choir unravelling the beautiful minor sixth chord that signals the chorus, it felt as if the stars were singing. It’s a song to watch the night sky by, a song unencumbered by light pollution. Its darkness is richly, deeply dark; its light is coruscating. Nevertheless, the song is neither about Iceland nor about the great cosmos beyond. As Björk has clarified in interviews, it’s a love letter to love. The hidden place is that space we reach as a couple that no outsider can access. Judging by the even more explicit track that follows it, ‘Cocoon’, which depicts the sleepy waves of post-coital satisfaction, ‘Hidden Place’ also speaks of somewhere decidedly female, something its video hints at while cannily remaining abstract. It really is almost enough to turn me straight: Björk, you had me at ‘through’.

This being art, though, the sex is also conceptual, even philosophical. Apparent contradictions (ahem) come together here. Björk is childlike, fairytale-invoking; yet she’s also joyously womanly. The hidden keeps revealing itself, in ever more Sibelius-ish choruses, for there are always deeper layers beyond immediate reach. And, as she notes of her man, ‘he’s the beautifullest, fragilest, still strong’. It’s here that the song veers away from the purely physical and into a reverie on the imagination itself. Fragility is power here. The song is at once jewelled with filigree and chiselled of igneous stone; it’s like a human hair, seemingly small yet possessed of extraordinary tensile strength. ‘Sanctuary’, as Björk feels it, is a mousehole; but that mousehole is gateway to a galaxy.

As you can see, I’ve lapsed into unforgivable mixed metaphors here, but that’s always a danger with Björk. There aren’t really any rules or standards. Protocol and taste don’t even come into it. You often sense that not even the English and Icelandic languages are capacious enough for what she wants to express. All these words and phrases – Vespertine, Homogenic, ‘the warmthest cord of care’ – are Joycean in their impatience with the limits of the dictionary. Often language is foregone entirely – Björk’s trademark yells and ejaculations – or else it is chopped up and served in unexpected forms (check out ‘Where is the line?’, the most astonishing track on 2004’s superb Medulla, in which the title is virtually the entire lyric, de- and re-emphasized in a cappella incantation). But most often, language is embodied just as music is. It lives on the tongue, in the genitals, in the spine (see her collaboration with Evelyn Glennie for this lumbar language in all its glory). The hidden place is beyond language, but it’s also what reveals itself when we listen deeply to language, when we take a stethoscope to its chest. Björk’s vocals always sound so…well, vocal. You can hear her lungs inflating and her lips smacking; you can hear her larynx vibrating and her mouth pouting and smiling. Perhaps, then, the song is about reconnecting us to the hidden parts of ourselves, as much as leading us to those of the singer. We are about to know our own bodies as never before.

Lots of planets have a north. You have one too. Point the compass. Part the pines. Watch your breath as you catch it.


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33 – Judee Sill: The Kiss


According to Radiohead, anyone can play guitar, but I beg to differ. I tried once, but just couldn’t get it. Years of piano-playing had wired my synapses and prejudiced my neurons, and I realised at fifteen that I would never be the hero of the hour, twiddling solos and cranking out amped-up riffs. I snarled with jealousy as I saw the cool kids rip the shit out of cheap six-strings, grinding their way through ‘Day Tripper’ and the latest Oasis plagiarisms; I purged my jealousy back home at the keys, murdering Chopin preludes and writing songs about cool kids ripping the shit out of…well, you know what I’m driving at.

In the nineties, pianos were a rare pop occurrence. They often turned up in Europop middle-eights – those chunky chords you always found in Italo-house records – but their wider use was more sporadic. Gone were the days of the (not then) Reverend Richard Coles banging out high-energy octaves in The Communards (I vividly remember Dad calling me in when I was six to watch ‘Don’t leave me this way’ on TV, a few weeks after I had played my first tentative notes in Mrs Henderson’s music room). Instead, the nineties saw pianos occupying a curious niche on Top of the Pops. At one end, there was Tori Amos, a music college escapee chewing up the scale-book in full-swing rebellion: she made pop piano look a bit scary actually. At the other end, there was Enya on a white grand with a load of red roses, apparently conjuring booming timpani and spectral choirs from the keys. Oh, and lest we forget, Liam Gallagher setting out to prove he knew the chords to ‘Imagine’. I sometimes wish he’d chosen ‘Chopsticks’; at least it would have been less predictable.

Now if I’d been alive in the seventies I wouldn’t have been short of role models. In the early part of the decade, Gibsons and Rickenbackers were decidedly démodé; it was all about learning to sit like Rubinstein with your eyes closed. And I’m not just talking about Elton, or Randy, or even Tom Waits, whose piano was fond of a tipple. There was a brief time when even non-pianists had to be seen on the stool. David Bowie appeared on Whistle Test miming to Rick Wakeman’s keys on ‘Oh you pretty things’ (Hunky Dory is a real piano lover’s record – the very first chord of ‘Changes’ sets the tone, and if that weren’t enough, there’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Life on Mars’). Joni Mitchell’s Blue, of course,is also awash with candid moments at the keys. The piano’s dynamic range allows for all sorts of moodswings that an acoustic guitar can’t quite express. Take Elton, a bipolar songwriter if ever there was – for every ‘Crocodile Rock’ (Liberace Elvis) there’s a ‘Rocket Man’ (still a beautifully heartfelt study of the fears that fame brings).

Sometimes one song can visit the whole gamut of overtones and still leave a great gap in the centre of the soundboard. Most astonishing in this respect is Laura Nyro’s ‘You don’t love me when I cry’, which really warrants a blog entry of its own.  It’s a flesh wound of a song – one of the rawest – throbbing from tiny ache to fierce stabbing pain. It couldn’t have been performed on any instrument but the piano. Pedals and acoustics allow long decay; the bare, spare chords would have withered too soon strummed on the lap. Paradoxically, the grandeur of the piano allows for its very opposite.  Its extremes, like Nyro’s, are wide. While it’s the most exhibitionist of all instruments – Horowitz rattling demonically through the Prokofiev Toccata – it’s also the most private, vector of the inner thoughts of corseted young women in Regency drawing rooms or Edwardian girls on the cusp of modernity. I always think of Lucy Honeychurch in A room with a view, who confesses to Reverend Beebe that “mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven. She says I’m always peevish afterwards”. Beebe’s answer? “Naturally, one would be…stirred up.”

This is the true power of the pianoforte. It’s all in the name – soft-loud – for it can indeed be two things at once. It can be the straight-laced spinster at hymn practice, or the guilty secret after hours. I’ll never forget the day I first played my own, hawked through the house at tight angles by my Dad and his radio ham pals. It was like Christmas morning; up with the lark, silently brushing my fingers over the keys so as not to wake my parents, anticipating days in the company of Mozart and Schubert. It’s almost as if I knew that this boxy piece of Victorian furniture would be an extension of myself: a second heart, a third arm. For years, it would be a kind of religion.

To be blunt, this is why Judee Sill’s ‘The Kiss’ brings me so close to tears every time I hear it. It’s the sound of the piano as lifeline; quite literally, as it happens, as Sill learned the organ at reform school after being busted for drugs and caught collaborating in a liquor store heist. Her life was constantly blighted by addiction on the one hand and public indifference to her talent on the other, but in the studio she wrestled with her demons and found her God. Even the most casual onceover of song titles suggests those organ lessons were evangelical in their effect: ‘Jesus was a cross maker’, ‘Crayon Angels’, ‘Soldier of the heart’ all have an air of Sunday school about them, though it’s a chapel in the sky with diamonds, and the worshippers wear Laurel Canyon hemp. No, strike that. It’s a congregation of one, in a bare, unfurnished room; just that plain, beautifully unadorned Californian voice and the purity of broken chords.

Sill isn’t always so spartan and fragile. She can even be jolly – the country picking on ‘Crayon Angels’ or ‘The Phantom Cowboy’ has a folksy, wooden floorboard feel, and the stacked harmonies of ‘There’s a rugged road’ create a community of song, happily sandwiched between rootsy Americana and gospel euphoria. But while she supported Crosby, Stills and Nash on tour, hers isn’t a music of moonshine and gin rummy on the porch; it looks, unexpectedly, to Leipzig. Listen carefully to ‘The Kiss’ – the long chord sequence that builds suspension after suspension – and you hear the unmistakeable animus of Johann Sebastian Bach in her fingers. It’s that seemingly contradictory marriage of logic and love that makes Bach so moving; or, perhaps more accurately, the logic of love that his music so miraculously communicates.

‘The Kiss’ is, of course, a love song, but it’s quite apparent that this is not romantic or sexual congress. It’s a ‘sweet communion’, and the song’s Eucharistic subject brings a whole realm of culture into play that pop music so seldom confronts. Yes, the love here is between God and servant, but it’s also very particularly female, I think (if that doesn’t sound too essentializing). Judee Sill is a Mary Magdalene figure, outside the law, but well inside Christ’s kingdom. Or else, she’s a moving version of a classic pieta figure in a Renaissance church. But this is also a love song between player and piano, between songwriter and song. The talk of crystal choirs appearing while she sleeps, calling her name, is a nod to the muse, and the ‘new song’ that is sung is her very own. Music is saving her life here – ‘dying is done’ – and the major key appears, a glimpse of a more benign afterlife beyond the struggle of mortal hours. It’s possible because of one simple gift: the ability to press your hands on the keys and play.

Song as transubstantiation, then; key changes are changes of state. But over and above my theories of musical transfer, another, even more undeniable fact remains: this is simply one of the loveliest songs ever written. I prefer the sparer Whistle Test version to the double-tracked, string-drenched album cut, though even then the original recording manages an astonishing feat, for at no time does the song veer towards the twee or lapse into schmaltz (and it could so easily have happened). I think this comes down to two things. Firstly, Sill’s undecorated voice has a toughness underneath it; it may be mousy, but it has teeth. And secondly, it’s that chord sequence, that well-tempered homage to the Kapellmeister; Sill’s own ‘musical offering’. I daren’t play it myself, though I know I could. I somehow feel I must build to it, and come at it with the wisdom of years hence. You see, I’m still learning, after all these years, after Mrs Henderson and contrary motion scales and rickety metronomes. As in music, as in life. It seems Judee knows this all too well; dying might be ‘done’, but the communion of song never is. Crayon angels sing thee to thy rest.

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