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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32 – Devo: (I can’t get no) Satisfaction


It’s one of those well-known, quirky facts that Delia Smith baked the gateau on the front of the Rolling Stones’ album Let it Bleed. Much as I love Delia, I’ve always hated that gaudy sleeve, with its glace cherries and pink icing. It’s like the cake in ‘Macarthur Park’, the one that someone left out in the rain. Maybe it’s meant to be ironic; the songs on Let it Bleed are about the darkest and profoundest the Stones ever recorded, and have little to do with bake sales. Unless it’s a nod to the wedding in ‘You can’t always get what you want’. I don’t think so, though. I think it’s deliberately awful, like most Stones album covers. All those Mick Jaggers in wigs on Some Girls – nightmarish. The graffitied toilet on Beggars Banquet – the model putrid loo of every dive venue you’ve ever gigged at. Worst of all are those nasty leather trousers on the front of Sticky Fingers. Yuck. As if anyone would want to pull down that infamous zip. Great tunes, guys, and congratulations on this year’s fiftieth anniversary, but you really are the ugliest band in pop history.

Now, Stones covers, on the other hand, are often rather ace. There’s a long history of fruity and zany takes on the Jagger-Richards canon. Being a huge teenage Bowie fan, I was disappointed to discover that the original ‘Let’s spend the night together’ was so mimsy and midtempo; the Aladdin Sane treatment, built around the mother of all piano tantrums and a hyperventilating Ziggy, prefigures Bowie’s subsequent Hollywood psychoses and remains the best non-original track he ever recorded. The Mo-dettes’ post-punk ‘Paint it black’ is another all round good thing, swapping the melodrama of the original for gleefully off-colour harmonies and ticklish bass; bright Dulux spatters instead of portentous brow-furrowing. But the wonkiest of all, and the cleverest of all, has to be a 1977 rendition of ‘Satisfaction’ from a load of high-school geeks with flowerpots on their heads.

Satisfaction’ is one of the original mythical outlaw songs of youth culture: a pillar, a monolith, a UNESCO world heritage site of rock ‘n’ roll. So ubiquitous, so emblematic is it, that it’s hard to reassess what makes it revolutionary. It undoubtedly marks a key cultural moment. Chuck Berry’s carefree road trips take an abrupt turn into Europe, and in the old, dark continent, having no particular place to go is seldom a liberation; it’s more like a burdensome angst you carry from one drizzly, ruined cityscape to another. All the base elements are there – cars, girls, cigarettes – but there’s no syncopation, no funky looseness, no air anywhere. The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ was designed for uptight white British men to dance to. Warping the Funk Brothers’ crashing Motown rhythm section, Charlie Watts’ rigid four-four tattoo instead spawned a legion of laddish terrace singalongs: the cock-waving karaoke of Primal Scream’s ‘Rocks’, the Carlsberg and ketamine hubris of The Stone Roses’ ‘I am the resurrection’. Pale imitations all, though uncannily on the button; when the wind’s in the right direction, that particular British arrogance that leads to a sort of triumphant failure can be thrilling for some, and the ‘I try, and I try, and I try’ of ‘Satisfaction’ makes effort sound so effortlessly sexy. Still, it’s a song that doesn’t recognise borders. Otis Redding’s early cover is a fantastic take. Just as Aretha redefined Otis’s own ‘Respect’ as a feminist rally, so does he translate ‘Satisfaction’ into a razor-sharp comment on African-American frustration and belatedness. The anarchic mid-seventies Residents version, on the other hand, makes a big meta-noise of it; only a power cut would bring satisfaction there. But for me, Devo’s reworking is a triumph of antiheroic nerdism, and a fantastic justification (as if any were needed) for the year-zero, deconstructivist stratagems of post-punk.

Devo’s reputation is a rather curious thing. In Britain, they registered early, but then only slightly. Their first album, the absurdist cult classic Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo sold well, and ‘Satisfaction’, as the lead-off single, just stalled outside the Top 40. In the USA, on the other hand, they attracted quite a following, and became an early MTV presence. Nevertheless, people didn’t really know what to do with them. They were a mutant pop act from a parallel universe, aliens who accidentally landed in America and found her cultural baggage and customs strange and ripe for rip-off. And America didn’t always approve. They were accused of being cold and calculated. They were fey and faggy, or else, fascist. No doubt this had something to do with their love of synthesizers, or their associations with Brian Eno (not to mention their sometime scout shirts and plastic Kennedy wigs combo). But if they were a kind of Ohioan Kraftwerk, their satire was way more gleeful than any deadpanned ode to motorways and pocket calculators. They were electro-pop as designed by Looney Tunes, blowing up an ACME bomb in the face of primetime network television. Meep meep! It’s Devo!

And who were the Wile Coyotes Devo sought to outwit? Carters. Reagans. Televangelists. Cowboys. Hipsters. Right-wingers, left-wingers, it was all fair game. The early highlight ‘Mongoloid’ looks awful on the track-listing, a hangover from a pre-PC age, and yet as soon as you play it you realise it’s a critique of bigotry. Still, the crunchy guitars and police-siren keyboards flirt with danger, so you never know; Devo’s songs are often double-messaged. Perhaps their most recognisable number (and certainly their most infamous video), ‘Whip it’, lashed through the mythology of the ranch and scored a blow against American machismo just as Ronnie made his way to the White House. It even deconstructed the riff from Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ (devo-lved it, as they would have it). Their cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Working in a coalmine’ is also vicious underneath the goofy surface. Miners here are all but dehumanised machines working to the metronome, and certainly no sentimentalised proletariat, that’s for sure; the dignity of labour is dead. These mid-period Devo anti-classics would be rather chilly were it not for their love of beefed-up Moogs and souped-up Korgs. Listen to ‘Jerkin’ back and forth’ and marvel at how big it sounds. I’ve been waiting for it to come on at clubs and get-togethers for years so I can flail around to its ludicrous largeness; looks like I’ll have to programme it into my party list, because no-one I know seems to have ever heard it. Shame really. Devo’s most consistent target for spoofery was always pop itself, as testified by that other tribal chant, ‘Through being cool’: ‘Eliminate the minis and the twist’, they order, taking a swipe at the iconography of the sixties and their own newfound cult celebrity in one fell blip-bloop.

Of course, they’d already done this on ‘Satisfaction’, which manages to deconstruct the Stones original to extraordinary levels while still sounding (just about) like pop. In an age of radical reinterpretations (The Slits skanking Marvin Gaye, the Flying Lizards doing ‘Money’ with teaspoons and rolling pins), it gets the gold medal for fearlessness, taking perhaps the most iconic rawk behemoth and, well, jerking it back and forth. As I mentioned earlier, the Stones’ original gains its libido not just from restlessness, but relentlessness. Devo turn this inside out. The rhythm section hits on a groove so single-minded, so tunnel-visioned, that it’s almost impossible for the guitars and the vocals to keep time with it. They slide on and off course, batted away by crisp hi-hats and toms that seem to be running at a completely different time signature, such that words carry odd emphases: backing vox get trapped into ‘sat-TIS-faction’, while Mark Mothersbaugh wonders how white his shirts ‘COULD’ be. Jagger’s lyrics begin to sound by turns surreal, by others inane, never more so than when the word ‘baby’ is repeated over twenty times in a rapid-fire spasm; the repetitions of rock cliché are condensed and intensified, and Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ becomes a stuck record satirising all the other stuck records of rock history, a history barely twenty years old at the time of recording. Perhaps there’s a ‘baby’ for every one of those years, rock lock-jammed and gibbering, caught in a spiral of diminishing returns. The very fact that Devo are covering this song is symptomatic of this decline, this de-evolution.

But then it isn’t anything of the sort, is it? Because this ‘Satisfaction’ doesn’t sound like any other. It’s newly minted, diamond-hard and still feels radical to this day, fresh every time you hear it. Yes, it’s postmodern; yes, it’s ironic; yes, it takes the piss. But it can do all these things and still love what it’s doing. It enjoys fiddling with the beat and fucking with the legend. Mark’s yelps aren’t paranoid tics. They speak of a man who rather enjoys being goosed, rather likes being surprised by the tickling stick. And that’s what Devo did for moribund American rock; they reached out from the undergrowth and pinched its bum when it wasn’t looking. Their ‘Satisfaction’ is the sound of five grown men who should know better plunging their faces into that lurid Let it bleed gateau and licking the cream off each other’s noses. Just thank God they never got round to spoofing Delia Smith.  


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31 – Kate Bush: The Man with the Child in his Eyes


In 2005 I worked underground in the bookstacks of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. My days were spent pushing trolleys of reading room orders, taking extended tea-breaks, and, if I’d been despatched to my favoured C floor (yes, it was like something from Being John Malkovich), the hours would tick by in a blissful torpor as I riffled through the old issues of NME and Smash Hits. Sadly, these nuggets of pop history have now been incarcerated in a warehouse near Swindon; there is no stackie thumbing them in a dusty recess.

Anyway, for someone who usually lives a little in the past, I was quite excited by contemporary pop music in 2005. Being in a band myself at the time, a band that gigged with some regularity in London, I was more aware of what was ‘out there’ than at any other point in my life. Many stack shifts were curtailed at lunchtime so I could hop on the bus to the Smoke and make a sound-check or a rehearsal.  It seemed like a rich period for bands, one of those sporadic, brief purple patches thrown up by the British music scene when every third person on the Tube seemed to be carrying a guitar or scribbling down lyrics. I’ll be revisiting this in more detail anon, so won’t bore you with anecdotes from my days in the backrooms of the Putney Half Moon, but I might draw your attention to one top ten hit from that year by the Futureheads: an ebullient cover of ‘Hounds of love’ that briefly made them indie kings.

The Futureheads were my favourite new band at that time, and their debut album might still be the defining statement of that mid-noughties guitar-pop starbust. It was all catchphrase and crunch, tight in the jeans and even tighter in the harmonies. But it was also such warm stuff; never calculated or posed,  it was a world away from London (speaking as a native of the North East, I can officially confirm that Sunderland is indeed a few light years from Shoreditch). At Glastonbury 2005, a few hours after one of the most apocalyptic storms in living memory, the Futureheads split the crowd into three sections, each with their own ‘aw’ or ‘oh-oh’, and ‘Hounds of love’ suddenly became the happiest sort of singalong, one of those archetypal festival moments when the stage radiates enough sun to dry the mud. Though it sounds unforgivably clichéd, I remember thinking at that moment that this was exactly what my twenties were about. As Wordsworth might have put it, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven’.

Later in the year, I bought Kate Bush’s album, Aerial, possibly on the day of its release (amazing how hazy my memory of seven years ago is). It sat on top of the Futureheads in my pile of CDs, but the two couldn’t have been more different. Where ‘A to B’ and ‘Decent days and nights’ yelped about the frustrations of youth, of not having the answers to the big questions, ‘Mrs Bartolozzi’ and ‘A Coral Room’ voiced the thoughts of a middle-aged woman doing the laundry or the grief of a fortysomething for lost objects and drowned cities.  Kate didn’t necessarily have the answers either, but only because she’d long ago stopped asking. Aerial and her latest, Fifty Words for Snow, are proof positive that it pays to take time out. Much as I discussed in the last entry on Scott Walker, there’s something magical about art that emerges when it needs to, art that matures at a point of sudden, epiphanic realisation, art that issues from moments such as mine in that claggy crowd of geeks and hipsters. It’s that jolt as you stand outside of your own body and realise that you’re an object; that you’re something to behold.

Kate Bush’s entire oeuvre is characterised by these complex issues of self-placement. One of the many beautiful things about the Hounds of Love album is its realism, its humanity. That seems quite a contrarian view; this is a work that devotes its whole second half to a sort of pre-Raphaelite, Arthurian fantasy. But the songs that people remember – ‘Running up that hill’, ‘Cloudbusting’, and the title track especially, are subtle explorations of human weakness, odes to the fragility of the human ego. ‘Running up that hill’ voices feelings most of us rarely allow to surface, imagining what it would be like to inhabit the body and mind of a lover. Even despite sex (and sex is never far away in the work of this most sensual of songwriters), it would require a ‘deal with God’ to swap places, an intervention of supernatural proportions. The thunderclap drums at around three minutes confirm it; stealing a moment from the beloved would be akin to Prometheus taking fire from Zeus. Still, the song’s wisdom is its acknowledgement that no matter how close you are to someone, there will forever be a wall. Kate has agonised over this ever since Cathy was left out in the cold beyond Heathcliff’s window; there’s no such thing as empathy. What genius, then, to balance it alongside ‘Hounds of love’ itself, a titanically dramatic tattoo battering in sync with the lovesick heart. The only swapping of places here is the transfer of metaphor. The realisation that she too is a fox caught by dogs, trapped and panting breathless in the crush and force of love, makes her ‘ashamed’, perhaps of having to express herself through analogy; ‘there’s nothing real’ about the situation, it seems to defy all logic. This is how people in their late twenties fall in love, you see. It’s not hearts on pencil cases and fervid diary entries; it’s much more catastrophic than that, because you’re old enough to know that reason should prevail and yet it’s invaded by the extremities of feeling. Nothing for it then; you just have to dive in. ‘Here I go’, she hiccups, driven by a momentum she can’t control. Take your shoes off, throw them in the lake. Let go, be smothered, give yourself up to the pack.

But it’s the first line that really impresses itself on me, and it’s absolutely Kate: ‘When I was a child, running in the night, afraid of what might be’. Bush’s career began when she was a teenager; she’s grown up in (and, latterly, out) of the public gaze, and when you listen to her albums in sequence you get a sense of psychological and emotional development virtually unparalleled in pop music. It’s extraordinarily moving to hear her son Bertie featuring on her latest recordings, because much of her best material has concerned itself with the relationship between the adult and the child they once were, or else with the child fantasising about growing up. From the off, there have been songs about menstruation, about carrying babies, about losing sons to war, songs from the perspective of a foetus in the womb. There have been women recalling their days of courtship (the astonishing snatches of Molly Bloom’s monologue in ‘The Sensual World’), and grown women desiring the superpowers of the playground (‘Rubberband Girl’). Of course, to her detractors, she’s a harpy from faerie-land, a pagan waif from a gothic novel; but even these aspects of her art are borne of a Carroll-esque conviction that sometimes the realm of the young bears more logic and sense than anything beyond the garden or above ground. ‘Sat in your lap’, from my favourite Bush album The Dreaming, paints the adult world as a nightmare of unfulfilled yearnings and unanswerable riddles. I always think of it as being voiced by a teenager on the threshold of responsibility, her head bruised by all that ricochet drumming (how on earth did such an angular, modernist noise make the top twenty? I’m forever in awe of the early eighties public). ‘I want the answers quickly’, she sings, ‘but I don’t have no energy’ (something utterly contradicted by the propulsion of the track). And then it all crescendos into some sort of druidic chant, invoking pilgrimages to Salisbury and journeys across the water. Knowledge doesn’t come from being a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘scholar’; it’s a matter of primal connection. It’s rather strange that among all the Tennyson, Bronte and Joyce, Wordsworth hasn’t yet figured among Bush’s inspirations. As he had it, the child is father to the man.

The man with the child in his eyes’ is, I think, the equal of any Prelude or Romantic sonnet. I could have chosen two dozen Bush songs for this blog, but on a good day this is the one that really makes me well up. Though it was released when she was nineteen, she actually wrote it six years earlier, if you can believe it. It is the work of a child, what a literary critic would call a piece of juvenilia. If you think of it in that way, it’s a piece of wispy escapism, the sound of a young girl sitting in an orchard with a jotter on her lap as the apple blossom falls on her scabbed knees. It’s hard to get beyond this, perhaps, knowing as we do that Bush wrote it at her parents’ farm (though she grew up in South East London, so the country maiden image can only stretch so far). But its richness defies the age of the composer. Despite its ephemerality – it’s barely two and a half minutes long – it modulates continuously, a butterfly refusing to settle on any one bloom (‘Wuthering Heights’ is similarly rangy, parading key changes usually only heard in classical music). This evanescence is hinted at in the lyrics, the love that ‘won’t last forever’. Is this a schoolgirl pash? If so, it seems to be on the borderline of acceptability, for who on earth is this man with the child in his eyes?

Well, he’s a figment. Only Kate sees him; I’d go as far as to say he’s her muse. If her love doesn’t last forever, it’s only because inspiration is transient, of the moment. This may be why the song sounds so sad, despite being ostensibly about something or someone that sparks creativity and brings temporary joy. At thirteen, she’s already learning that the most beautiful things in life are tainted with the stain of their own mortality; more Keats than Wordsworth here. The chord sequences mostly travel downwards, accompanied by reflective oboes and French horns. It’s all very mossy and damp and English-sounding, like George Butterworth mourning the decline of the plough-team or Vaughan-Williams losing sight of the ascending lark. This suggests seasonality, that in fact the man or muse will be ‘here again’; but it’s an ongoing negotiation between possession and loss. And between these two states is the shimmer and gleam and magic of knowledge; the bridge sections of the song, their glistening chromatic shifts recalling the silvery tinkle of fish in Saint-Saens’ aquarium, capture it like a magnifying glass channelling a ray into a flame.

It’s a little epiphany that sets the tone for all other such moments in Bush’s career, the ‘moments of pleasure’ she recalls in the song of the same name. And ‘The man with the child in his eyes’ is a kind of metonym for Bush’s art itself. It’s the seed, the germ, the point of origin, and it’s at the centre of all her other songs. The child in the man’s eyes is himself.  Stripped of all adult knowledge, he rediscovers the innocence of infancy; the paradox being that this very process is knowledge. But he’s also Kate Bush herself. Every statement she makes contains the trace of her earlier incarnations; she is forever trying to balance adult disappointments against the possibilities of the Secret Garden.  I think I may well have learned more from listening to her over the years than I ever gleaned from scouring the shelves of the Bodleian: little did I know that knowledge was sat in my lap all along.


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30 – Scott Walker: Sleepwalkers’ Woman


Back at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Russian composer Scriabin decided that musical keys had colours.  He wasn’t the first to do this (though he was certainly the first to assign F major a fruity palette of fuchsia pink); but his is perhaps the most (in)famous attempt to codify music’s potentially synaesthetic properties. Just reading about it on Wikipedia makes my eyes water a little: his never-completed magnum opus, Mysterium, was to have been ‘a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.’ Eat that, Maharishi.

True synaesthesia is, of course, pretty rare, but I’ve had a fair few bizarre epiphanies when music seems to leap beyond its limits and induce sensory overload. This overstimulation happens at live concerts especially. Two semi-staged operas at the Royal Festival Hall over the last couple of years gave my nerve endings such a workout that I was reduced to scratching my legs obsessively in the interval. The so-called tingle factor is a precious, precious thing, but it also seems to send histamine production into overdrive. Whoever thought Duke Bluebeard’s Castle could actually make you itch? Bloody Bartok and his genius!  Tristan und Isolde was just as devastating. Never mind Scriabin’s plans for the dissolution of the world in bliss. Wagner got there before him: the gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art) really could bring about world peace, though in the wrong hands it could just as easily be an apocalypse.

You’ll notice that my examples here are classical. It’s not that pop music doesn’t provide this kind of hit, but even the best rock gigs don’t quite attain that level of multidimensionality. A crucial component of musical synaesthesia for me is the illusion that several plains are converging at once. It’s music a draughtsman might plot in a series of numbered figures: it has its own architectonics. It’s hard to achieve this with the usual pop/rock setup. Not impossible, but difficult. And the trouble is it often requires overblown visuals and overwrought production in order to realise itself. How on earth, then, does the music of Scott Walker manage to hit those buttons? That strange, unworldly, rich noise that isn’t classical, isn’t jazz, isn’t rock or pop, but remains sui generis to the many ears that have loved it?

Walker is a Scriabin for our times. On the release of Tilt in 1995, he urged listeners to imagine they were suffering from a heavy dose of flu as they worked their way through its opaque, elusive music. It sounds like one of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies cards, deployed for surreal inspiration in the studio: “play your guitar as though you were ironing a shirt!”, “sing your way through an electric fence”, that kind of thing. But it also showcases an artist committed to music’s fourth dimension. Tilt isn’t really an album at all; it’s a sort of bodily experience, lurching from ache to anaesthesia and back into bloodrush. String arrangements screech like dying flies, buzz into the cochlea (‘Patriot’); church organs announce the ‘scalper in the lampglow’ (‘Manhattan’); and all the while, that purple velvet voice ripples in and out of echo, spitting plosives, flinging fricatives, trying out words on the tongue for their mouth-feel. 2006’s The Drift takes it to a nightmarishly pathological level; forget the flu, it’s full-on psychosis. ‘Cue’ comes across like William Burroughs on a binge: deathly glissandos strangle the arcane imagery, the ‘stamps tongue-swabbed’ and the ‘semen clotting to paste’. It’s what the glare of hospital ward striplights sounds like, after the morphine’s worn off. Bloody terrifying.

Walker’s as infamous now for this dark avant-music as he was once famous for melting teens’ hearts. As rock transformations go, it’s pretty unique (I doubt Gary Barlow will ever loop the sound of meat being slapped into his power ballads). The long gaps between albums, the reclusive reputation, the months in a monastery spent studying Gregorian chant and infrequent sightings atop a bike around the streets of West London have all contributed to an archetypal myth of bonkers genius. Perhaps his closest parallel is Kate Bush, but at least you can imagine meeting her in a health-food shop by the kelp tablets. Walker, on the other hand, seems all the scarier for slipping amongst us unnoticed. Asked in 1984 what he’d been doing for six years (a relatively short period of inactivity judging by recent form), he gave a typically cryptic answer: sitting in the pub watching the men play darts. Next time you’re aiming for 180, just check there isn’t an intense, monkish man on the edge of your peripheral vision. It may just jinx your aim.

Still, more often than not, it’s the indescribable beauty of Scott’s music that catches you off-guard. Even in the early days of the Walker Brothers, no man had ever sung with such richness and depth. The first song I probably ever heard was ‘The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore’, that Spectorish wodge of wonder, so magnificently lonesome, so happy in its misery. It was years and years (a decade or more) before I encountered the early solo albums, with their forays into wet-boulevard Gauloiserie and strange tributes to Bergman films. You don’t need me to tell you that Scott 3 and Scott 4 are as essential as any Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited.Rosemary’ and ‘On your own again’ practically define the term vignette. You open them up like little perfume bottles and get a whiff of concentrated ambience: cool attar of sixties rose. See – synaesthesia. Proust’s madeleines have nothing on those halting violas. From this period, ‘It’s raining today’ is the one that gives me that Bartok effect (you know, the itchy arms and legs). Listen to the strings – a gauze of sleet – and you hear Walker’s unique muse gradually unfurling, off and away far from the cabaret circuit and the TV special. Soon he’ll follow her out of the window, but for now he’ll watch from the inside, tracing the trails of damp down the glass with his fingers.

The seventies weren’t so kind. He’d attempted too much and his label got cold feet. Nite Flights, the Walker Brothers’ 1978 offering, was the next advance, and completely unexpected. Both influenced by and influential on Berlin-period Bowie, the title track (later covered by the Thin White Duke himself) can only be described as Scott-does-art-rock-disco-with-synths, and it’s a triumph. To this day, when I feel the pinch of winter approaching, I always let out an ‘it’s so COLD’ in tribute to Walker’s dramatic octave leap. It gets the blood flowing. But what really warms me up is ‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’. It’s the fourth track on Scott’s sole 1980s offering, Climate of Hunter, an album of dizzy mystery and unclassifiable meditations on who knows what, where only the sinuous wobble of fretless bass and the occasional wash of synth betray the time of writing. ‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’ doesn’t really exist in time. It’s a space; a vista. Beatless, bassless, (baseless), it floats through the speakers into the room: a ghost, a visitation.

When I first heard the song, I wondered who on earth this somnambulist could be. Is the song recounting her unconscious tread, or is she emerging from her stupor? ‘For the first time unwoken, I am returned’, sings Scott, like a melancholy widow in a folksong; it seems we’re on the brink of a reveille, as she’s called back to reality. While the music around the voice is still and slow, it courses with potential energy. The orchestra holds its breath, pushing air round the sorts of tone clusters you’re more likely to find in Penderecki or Ligeti; augmented intervals stretch the chords, reveal overtones usually hidden. There is tension everywhere, as if in readiness for what lies over on the other side of consciousness; perhaps waking is glorious, but it could equally be no match for this state, poised on the threshold between oblivion and knowledge. If I’m in the right mood, and I listen to it on headphones, I find myself un-bodied, weightless, space-walking. This music sucks you through the wires. You’re a snaggletooth, a saw, a sine-wave.

It would all be highly unsettling, were it not for Walker’s heartstopping vocal. At times he’s almost like a priest enraptured by his own sermon (hear how he relishes the sound of the word ‘confessions’), at others an oracle giving sage advice from some glimmering rock in the desert. He plots a strange course between the plush and the ascetic, bathed in siesta heat only to cool into a dusky coo. But all the while, that voice wraps its tendrils around you, keeping you safe. It has many  wonders to show you, some awe-inspiring, some petrifying, but one thing is certain: it will never leave your side. Even as the chords refuse to settle, gliding through enharmonics, false relations and near-dissonances, the command of Walker’s baritone, which could so easily be intimidating, just about keeps this otherworldly lament in the realm of the human.

‘Sleepwalkers’ Woman’ is a splinter of sunshine on the wing mirror; a break in the cloud on a desolate moor; a hunch, an inkling, a déjà vu. The first time I heard it somehow didn’t seem so;  I felt as if I knew it, and it knew me. Instant shivers. Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Scott Walker sees past, present and future all together in the one moment: he’s already been here, and he always will be. As the lyrics stress, it’s not that he will return, or that he has returned: he is returned. He is eternal return. As my sentences begin to tilt towards the drift, I shall return too, to the song itself. Writing is a poor substitute for synaesthesia. In its most ideal forms, music is the only true confluence of the senses, the elusive gesamtkunstwerk; and Scott Walker is perhaps the only man in popular music who makes that ideal real. 


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29 – Dusty Springfield: I just don’t know what to do with myself


Henley on Thames is a funny old place. It’s just about the most kempt town in England. Spick pavements advertise their immaculate surfaces; Pedigree Chum advert dogs keep obediently on the leash. The river beckons you to pootle, to call up the spirit of Ratty and mess around in boats, though the scene is so perfect it’s even impossible to imagine a disruptive Toad toot-tooting his way up the High Street. Gosh, no; these are roads designed for four-by-four weekend Sloanery and open-top sports-car displays of headscarf and diamonds. Henley. Antonym: Middlesbrough. An easy-living, Bolly-swallowing, Spectator-subscribing, pastel-shirt and chino-togged embodiment of much that is piss-awful about this country.

Well, on some levels, yes. I’ve had to bite my lip sometimes in this simulacrum of aristo privilege, and break on through my class hang-ups to the other side (not least because the rambling country round the Hambleden Valley and the nearby Chiltern woods is so life-affirming and glorious). Henley has also been the site of some unlikely musical experiences. Perhaps the most bizarre was the 80s Rewind Festival in 2009. It was lovely to see and hear so many second-rate stars of yesteryear (erm, Howard Jones, Go West, Carol Decker) as well as some genuine pop legends (Bananarama, ABC, Gloria Gaynor), but my overriding memory of the festival is the mind-boggling descent of deely-boppered fortysomethings onto unflappable Henley, hysteria rubbing up against hauteur. The weekend was one long nightmarish stag and hen party; the air reeked of sunburnt flesh and spilt Carlsberg. And it was sort of gleeful. I found myself contemplating what the millionaires over the river must be thinking, and also what the popstars on stage were going through. I imagined the lead singer of China Crisis surveying the hillside mansions, thinking “this could have been mine. I could have been George Harrison!” Never has a music festival caused me to reflect so much on the haves and have nots. How very eighties indeed.

But Henley’s lasting musical connection for me is altogether more profound, spiritual even. I never visit the town without a little pilgrimage to the parish church of St Mary to pay my respects to a certain someone. For here lies a legend. Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife (or at least from the braying county vowels) a little gravestone marks out an unassuming woman with an unmistakeable, unmatched gift.

Dusty Springfield was a very English pop star, which is a funny thing to say about an Irish Catholic soul singer who whiled away a good deal of her life in California. Or perhaps it’s not a funny thing at all; her very unlikeliness was part of the deal. Where Aretha and Etta nursed their instruments in the gospel church, Dusty found hers in the convent school and on the BBC. Those early black and white variety shows for the Beeb are so part of the iconography of the English sixties – cappuccino chrome and beehives – that it’s easy to mistake them for cosy Carnaby-lite. To do so would be a gross oversight. Not only do they contain some of the most spine-tingling musical footage of the era; they also offer a priceless glimpse into the art and life of the singer. Dusty chose the material herself, and often had a hand in inviting particular guests (a quick internet search will yield clips of Woody Allen and Jimi Hendrix on her show, amongst others). She used her influence to introduce the British to the sounds of Stax, Motown and Atlantic, and proffered her own fantastic cover versions into the bargain. Check out her jubilant take on Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to run’: it’s such wondrous release, and epitomises just why the bubbling pop culture of the 1960s was so important to England, offering a way out into America, and a way in to the soul.

Those were Dusty’s horizons – the beckoning Atlantic and the bruised heart. It was this inside-outside duality that made her into a truly singular musician, gifting her a dynamic range far beyond that of many of her contemporaries. Listening to a classic Springfield record is like watching a fragile star in her dressing room talking herself into performance, then emerging from the wings into the glaring light. We’re given the privilege of eavesdropping on her transformation. It’s not something that happens as regularly as you might think in soul music; Aretha could certainly show vulnerability, but the sheer throttle of her voice always underscored it, whereas Dusty worked up to the climax, rather than down from it. ‘I close my eyes and count to ten’ is a perfect example of this. We hear her move from apprehensive understudy to smoky chanteuse to tragic Motown queen; with any other singer, it would seem like donning masks or flitting between roles, but with Dusty every single voice is the real deal, and entirely consistent with the others. And in every song she’s living what it is to be an English soul diva; to conquer an inbuilt reticence or self-consciousness, to discover that there can be strength in holding back before holding forth.

This can be tremulously sensual. As the redoubtable Greil Marcus put it, Dusty in Memphis is ‘a cool, smart, sexually distracted’ album, and it certainly resituates the loins somewhere near the ears. ‘Son of a preacher man’ is quite possibly the sexiest three minutes ever committed to disc by a British female singer. Aretha’s later version is technically perfect but considerably inferior; she keeps her coat on while Dusty’s unbuttoning her blouse. So many of the other tracks are just pinnacles of interpretation: from the overflowing country-soul of ‘So much love’ to the post-coital, mussed-up, lip-smudged ‘Breakfast in bed’ and the pre-coital anticipation of ‘Just a little lovin’’, this is an album that never falls below bed temperature. It’s all even more miraculous when you think that Dusty couldn’t bear to sing a note at the original Memphis sessions and had to be overdubbed in New York afterwards. Ego is utterly absent: it’s almost a cliché to talk of a singer losing themselves in a song, but Dusty really did, and we are all the better for it.

It’s very hard for me to choose a track in this instance. The first line of ‘I’d rather leave while I’m in love’ is one of the greatest five seconds in pop music (though the song suffers from a windy sax solo); Dusty’s live TV version of ‘A house is not a home’ could have made the cut, but this blog’s about the recorded track, not the song. And so I’ve gone back to the first one that ever melted my spine to liquid. ‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’ is one of those fabulous sixties recordings in which all the disparate threads of the era are woven into one seamless strand. The cleverest of songwriters, Burt Bacharach, bumps into Dusty. They take each others’ hands and walk straight up to the Wall of Sound, only to discover that together they can vault clean over it and leap into pop Elysium. The timpani boom, the violins swirl, and Dusty’s soul is all but consumed in the heat of the rising melody.

‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’ makes me deliriously happy, which seems ill-fitting; it’s a song of nail-biting, almost self-harming sadness (and it’s difficult not to factor what we know of Springfield’s own life into this). But whenever Dusty takes on a Bacharach and David song, the listening experience for me is unmatchable; it’s like Janet Baker’s Purcell or Regine Crespin’s Berlioz. There simply is no other way to do it. I can’t listen to Dionne Warwick slinking through ‘The look of love’ or Gene Pitney caterwauling through ‘Twenty four hours from Tulsa’ (or, for that matter, Cilla Black crooning ‘Anyone who had a heart’). These songs are only Dusty songs. There is no such thing as a ‘version’ in her universe. Song and singer are the same.

As the end of ‘I just don’t know’ makes apparent, she simply didn’t know what else to do. It was natural that such a shy girl should make that amazing sound once the orchestra crescendo took flight; it was, perhaps, the only thing that truly made sense in her life. Everything else seems like a dream – her instrumental role in getting Led Zeppelin to sign to Atlantic, her legendary reputation for food fights, her refusal to sing to a segregated audience in apartheid South Africa. Even that little grave in Henley is a phantasmic vision; a trick of the light in a town of smooth veneers. Close your eyes, though, and the reality of musical perfection drowns out the unreality of the cars and pushchairs and pleasure boats. Dig down deep, and there is soul in the soil.


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