Friday, December 30, 2005

"Pretty in Pink"

When the film "Pretty in Pink" came out I thought it was just about the coolest thing going - to see kids my age or so having the confidence to follow their own muse, listen to their own music and not follow the fashions. Having endured the fairly rapid succession of fashion fads that swept through the country in the 70s and 80s, I took from the film a sense of validation that it was OK to be somewhat off-beat and have one's own personal style... which has stood me in pretty good stead ever since, right down to the motley collection of songs on this here blog.
For some reason I tend to think of this song as a pair to "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" which appears elsewhere here -- and which, by the way, is probably the most-searched song that leads to SongsWithoutWhich. There's the same sense of vague ennui, aching hipness and worldly unconcern: "All of her lovers all talk of her notes/And the flowers that they never sent/And wasn't she easy/And isn't she pretty in pink/The one who insists he was first in the line/Is the last to remember her name."
It's about posing, about fastening onto an image that you want to project and working towards it, just like the line in "German Film Star" - "sitting in a corner in a perfect pose/Trying not to pose". I like the idea that we all, as kids, had to work so hard to achieve the appearance of what we all come to have naturally much later. I'm not for a moment suggesting we're cooler now than we were back then - most of us probably were cool at some point... but that air of ennui, of world-weariness that we wanted so much back then, comes so easily to us now. And with that, Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"The Green Manalishi"

Before the days of "Rumours" and Stevie Nicks' witchy-woman fetish, Fleetwood Mac was a sharp, sharp blues group with just the faintest trace of psychedelia going on, Peter Green was a thinking fan's guitar hero on a par with Syd Barrett, and songs like "Albatross" were a million miles away from "Don't Stop" or "Go Your Own Way".
I love the barely-contained menace and unsettling paranoid feel of this song. The riff is crunchy, steady, plodding even, like an unstoppable force stalking you up the blind alley of a waking nightmare, there's a cackling echo to add to the Halloween vibe, and an otherworldly howling ever so far down in the mix to make you feel just that little bit more unsettled.
It's a song for obsessives, for depressives, for repressives - chock-full of dysfunction: "Cause you're the Green Manalishi with the two-pronged crown/All my trying is up - all your bringing is down/Just taking my love then slipping away/Leaving me here just trying to keep from following you."
And it's a song that isn't afraid to take on those devils - the extended, spooked instrumental at the end just eats itself up in a frenzy of slow-burning mania, revels in its evils, if you like. You say you've had a bad day? You don't need Daniel Powter, you need this.

"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End"

There's not nearly enough Beatles in this blog.

If you have a spare afternoon, write a list down of those artists that have substantially, irrevocably and completely changed the nature of popular music. I can come up with about five: Robert Johnson - the touchstone and the source, Elvis - the first taste of the social impact of music and its performers, Hendrix - for bringing the counter-culture into the fold, Eminem - for making music that cut across all manner of social divides, and the Beatles - the ultimate marriage of songwriting and musicianship.
I'm sure that most of us of a certain age can name more Beatles songs than we can songs by any other artist. Most of us can hum or sing along to each one of those songs as well. And for the generation that grew up in the 60s and 70s I don't think you really need to say much more than that. The Beatles redefined songwriting, stretched the boundaries of what was possible more than anyone else. If you think Pink Floyd's tape loops were something new, listen to Revolution No 9. If you think heavy metal was Hendrix's love-child, listen to Helter Skelter. Etc etc.
I'm blogging this suite of songs off the Abbey Road album because it has just about everything in five short minutes. Golden Slumbers is as gorgeous a melody as you could hope to find, a lullaby to moisten the eye and bring a lump to the throat. Carry That Weight is a curious two-part invention that starts off as a football chant, morphs back into Golden Slumbers for a moment and then -- I think -- rocks out before it turns into The End. I say "I think" because I've never owned the CD and so can't tell when one track ends and the other starts...
I'm constantly amazed by the inventiveness, the sheer other-worldiness of the talent involved here. To be able to turn from heart-melting sweetness into downright funk and then, as if it were a throwaway moment, to write one of the greatest lyrics ever: "And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love/You make," just takes the breath away.
I know it's not an obvious choice for a Beatles blog, but it's the one that always sits at the back of my mind. Comforting, really.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"I Believe in Father Christmas"

With the music channels all showing variants on the theme of "The Best Christmas Album....Ever!" I've had a good opportunity to review the evidence - from David Bowie and Bing Crosby's "Little Drummer Boy" right through to The Darkness' bit of seasonal Queen-U-Like. And I was right - there is such a tidal wave of tosh released each year. Which means my other top Christmas tune is still this wonderful piece of overblown hymnery by Greg Lake.
I've blogged Emerson, Lake and Palmer already. And this isn't a whole lot different, except that this time the music doesn't drown the vocals. The lyric is what really grabs me.... "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the virgin's birth." As the song progresses, the pomposity gets ratcheted up until there are two or three full choirs, a phalanx of percussionists, a few orchestras. But at the start, it's a delicate, very seasonal tune.
I like the idea of a song that questions our motives, our cultural habits and our ability to gloss over the unpleasantness that pervades life. I don't always mind being reminded that things aren't wonderful, especially at a time like Christmas, when we're all suddenly bathed in a family-values golden glow. "They said there'll be snow at Christmas/They said there'll be peace on earth/Hallelujah, Noel be it heaven or hell/The Christmas you get you deserve."

Monday, December 19, 2005

"A Fairytale of New York"

It's that time of year. The TV advertisements are reaching deep into our pockets, shaking loose our spare change and selling us images of happiness and enjoyment. We're encouraged to overreach ourselves when it comes to hospitality, generosity and credit, we're subtly told that if we don't indulge ourselves and others to the utmost, we're somehow not taking part in this carnival.
Even the music tries to boost our morale. This is the time of year when the record companies traditionally reach to the very bottom of the barrel for that lowest common denominator that's going to connect with teens and grannies alike. Everything is presented as crisp, clean, shiny and somehow new, as if we hadn't come across this or that particular collection of songs before. I mean, just how many times is Island Records going to repackage Bob Marley's greatest hits?
Christmas songs, too, are insufferable in the main. Each year, we're guaranteed to get any combination of: a pink-cheeked choirboy singing something traditional in an impossibly high, pure voice; a hoary old rock group reaching into their back catalogue; a boy-band or five with something vaguely festive; some teenage apprentice diva; and Cliff Richard.
But once every decade comes along a song that subverts the genre, that transcends the immense pile of crap we have to wade through in search of a decent tune. For me, there are two Christmas songs that rise head, shoulders and torso above the rest. Here's the first.
Who would have thought it? Shane McGowan, a shambling hangover of a man, blessed with the ability to write immense, rabble-rousing yet sweet music; Kirsty MacColl, the unheralded first voice of British song; and the only song that McGowan could have written for Christmas. It's a bitter, bitter sweet argument of a song, remembered through the soft-focus of nostalgia. McGowan's sodden, wandering mumbling contrasts with MacColl's sweet, pure folk tones, like peanut butter with mayonnaise, but together they conjure up romance, sadness, fleeting moments of joy. The lyric time-travels through a doomed relationship: from "When you first took my hand on the cold Christmas Eve/You promised me Broadway was waiting for me" through "You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last" to "You took my dreams from me/When I first found you/I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can't make it all alone/I built my dreams around you."
Why does this song lift us? The sweet, sweet music, MacColl's wondrous voice, the rambling, helpless and romantic lyric, they all come together for one eternal moment of sadness that smiles through the pain, the heartbreak, and finds something good to hold onto. And it's the kind of performance that could, in another world, have gone so horribly wrong but here, it simply, beautifully soars.
No bah, no humbug. Just perfect.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Born in the U.S.A."

I've mentioned this song elsewhere as the great example of how misunderstood a song can be. But for anyone who doesn't remember or wasn't there, this song came out in the middle of the Reagan presidency in the US and was immediately co-opted by all sorts of companies, causes and interests. Even a large part of the general public in America took this song to their hearts as some sort of statement that "We're Number One" - you know, the my-country-right-or-wrong crowd, who stick the finger up to the rest of the world and continue to confuse France with Australia on world maps.
This song is as angry as any I can remember hearing. It was the first really sharp look at the downside of life in the Promised Land: "I got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hands/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man." So far, this is a story that's been told many times before, but the next verse goes somewhere totally new: "Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says "Son, if it was up to me"/I go down to see the VA man/He said "Son, don't you understand?" To anyone who remembers how America reacted to Vietnam, there's confusion, pain, heartache, rejection, anger and bewilderment in them there words.
Right there, Springsteen draws a knife along the scar that split America for so many years, and draws a picture of the abandonment of an entire generation. His chorus of "Born in the USA" is ironic, sure, but it's also a cry of pain from the men and women who came home and were rejected by their country: "Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm ten years down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go." We were born here, they're saying, we were just doing our duty. To this day, some Vietnam veterans have never been able to come to terms with being insulted, spat on and abandoned.
And the wicked cynicism of the political class that tried to adopt this song as a statement of pride, as a badge of values, should never be forgotten. Nor, for that matter, should the blind ignorance of those individuals who did the same.

"Walk the Dinosaur"

OK, this is ridiculous. From the very first "Boom, boom, acka-lacka-lacka boom", through the idea of watching cars drive by while on a prehistoric date, right through to the chorus "Open the door/Get on the floor/Everybody walk the dinosaur", this is just plain silly.
But the beat is completely addictive, the song is as tight as a drum, the band are playing their asses off, and it's a total joy to throw yourself around the dancefloor to this song. But I've never managed to reach the same heights of abandon with anything else by Was (Not Was)....
Why is it that you can take two songs with almost identical beats, the same tight musicianship, the same sense of joy and silliness, and one will lift you up to a better place while the other will just leave you cold and flat? Makes no sense.


Back when rock music was still finding itself, when artists were still stretching their arms and not yet touching the walls of limitation, Pete Townshend dreamed up "Tommy", a rock opera that touched on all manner of subjects but seemed most at home when it was dealing with fame, fortune, acclaim and the isolation that comes with it. Call it the original text for Pink Floyd's "The Wall", if you like.
This is an instrumental track from the album, something that sounds so unlike The Who that when you first hear it you spend an age racking your brains to work out who it could be. After a while, though, it becomes very familiar, that Who guitar sound coming to the fore and Keith Moon's loose, circular drumming driving it all along.
The opening minute, the intro, though, is where this track really does it for me - simple chords, with an echo of screeching feedback in the background: as if someone's just opened a door into a parallel universe and you can't quite take in the magnificence of what's laid before you. Anyone who remembers their first discovery of rock and roll will remember the slightly breathless feeling, the churning in the stomach and the instinctive rsponse to a new rhythm.
And that's the joy of rock's huge history - there's always a new discovery around the corner.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Find the Cost of Freedom"

Sometimes it's good to strip away the layers of production that go into the making of a song and see what lies beneath - what the components are. Take away the echo, the EQ, the strings, the various washy keyboards that make sure you're not listening to anything like dead air, and what do you have left?
Voices. Maybe a guitar or two as well, to add some counterpoint. But really, there doesn't have to be a lot more.
Here, for example, we have a two-minute song, the first of which is a delicate, intricate dance between two acoustic guitars, two hands picking their way across a bed of thorny roses, the melodies winding in and out of each other.
The second minute is a quite fantastic piece of harmony singing by three guys who probably define close-harmony singing. David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash bring three separate instruments together, lay them one next to the other and create an other-worldly blanket of comfort and strength such that all that you're left with after their voices fade is an aching, echoing silence.
"Find the cost of freedom/Buried in the ground/Mother Earth will swallow you/Lay your body down."
This is the song to play at the end of along day, your personal valediction to the trials and tribulations of the last 24 hours, your shrugging off of the cloak of care.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I've come to love this song. Not because it says anything, but precisely because it doesn't say anything. Listen to it! It's swarming with frustration, bursting with unfulfilled eloquence. The music is perfect, an open-goal for someone with something serious to say, something that drills right down to the diamond-hard essence, the truth.... of something. But for all the wonderful hard work in setting up the song for a moment of lyrical clarity, the whole construct just falls short - its reach can't match its ambition. Perhaps the best line in the song is: "There are many things that I would like to say to you/But I don't know how." Exactly.
This is a song for the emotionally repressed. Every individual line is great - it's just that they don't make up a whole that's larger than the sum of their parts. Every line is leading somewhere, but the journey suddenly stops, cut off in its prime. It's as if we know what we feel but we can't find a way to express it. As if emotion and communication have become completely disconnected. The song, the melody speak of something intense, personal - right up there with "Unfinished Sympathy" - and just like The Verve, the lyric can't keep up. It promises so much more that it can deliver.
And perhaps that's why I like this song so much. It's forever reaching, striving for something that we have just lost the habit of accessing.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Held Up Without a Gun"

Once in a while Bruce Springsteen goes a little crazy. If you've ever seen him live, you'll know what I mean. He'll take one of his faster-paced songs and, to put it politely, he'll tear the living crap out of it.
But what happens when the default take of a song is already nuts-crazy-bastard out of control? Then you have this song. Originally recorded as part of the sessions for "The River", this song has been one of his live favorites and after one listen you're easily persuaded why. It starts at 100 miles an hour and never lets up for one second. You're thrown headlong into cacophony, the drums splashing joyfully alongside the guitars and brass, galloping breathlessly in every direction while Bruce shouts over the top in his best hog-caller's hoot. There's even a micro-instrumental break that must have taken about ten seconds to organise.
The whole thing sounds like a frat party, a night out on the town: "Now it's a sin and it oughta be a crime/You know it happens buddy all of the time/Try to make a living try to have a little fun/You get held up without a gun." At the end you're left exhausted, shaking, feeling the sweat prickle through your pores; and you've just been sitting down.

"Ebben, andro lontano"

I had the very great fortune to live in Paris for a year in 1984-5, when the second new wave of French cinema was going on. I spent a fair amount of time in darkened rooms watching "Subway", "Betty Blue", re-runs of "Diva", just drinking in the visual style and the matchless "cool".
I remember the first time I watched "Diva", and the first time I heard this aria. Now, when it comes to emotion and despair, I have always tended to believe that blues is the appropriate medium in which to express one's feelings. But watching and hearing Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez perform this not once, not twice, but at least five times throughout the film, I came away with renewed respect for opera, and indeed classical music.
I don't suppose I can discuss this aria in the same way I blog about popular songs, but, hell, it's all there in the voice. The sense of oblivion, emptiness, fear, and sheer pain. There's no out-of-control wailing; no raw, hoarse, rasping whisper of an utterly drained spirit. Instead, there's a pure, soaring voice that climbs further and further, as if making the desperate climb to the top of the mountain before hurling ones self off the edge of the precipice. The pain gathers momentum, the sadness encompasses all until with a final, incredible, defiant note, all turns to darkness. I defy you to hear this and not have to comb down the hairs on the back of your neck afterwards.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Hanging Around"

There was punk, and there was menace. On the one hand you had a bunch of snotty kids who'd flashed on an attitude, a wardrobe and three chords; and on the other, you had musicians who were already there, already making music with an edge and who really were punk. While the Sex Pistols threw out streams of word-association calculated to outrage (think "Holidays in the Sun"), the Stranglers were already knee-deep in the filth ("Down in the Sewer", "London Lady"), producing tales of real life, delivered without hyperbole or facial tics. Four guys who'd seen it all, thought it all and who really didn't have to make it up.
The gulf between snotty-kid punk and grown-up punk was never wider than when Dave Greenfield cranked up his keyboards and started throwing warp-speed arpeggios in our faces ("Grip"), or when Hugh Cornwell uncurled his lip and showed John Lydon, Joe Strummer et al what a real sneer sounded like.
The intro to this song must be one of the most thrilling ones in rock - a jittery scrape along the strings of a guitar, a nervous, speed-fuelled slash across the face of all the pretenders who were only throwing shapes. The Stranglers were the real street-fighting men.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"Ca Plane Pour Moi"

Most of us probably first met punk rock when the Sex Pistols and the Bromley Contingent were slouched all over a talk-show, casually outraging the bourgeoisie and causing high blood pressure in suburbia. Then we were aurally assaulted with "God Save the Queen" during the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and everything just grew from there.
For me, the fascination of punk stopped when this song came out. Oh yes, I was still a fan, bought countless records and rejoiced in the new freedom of expression and studied amateurism that punk ushered in. But when this song hit the charts I figured the party was over.
It's not that this is a bad song, but it's so clearly a cartoon, a Left Bank intellectual's attempt at being outrageous, that it fails to be "punk" by a margin as wide as the Channel. It's funny, for all that, to hear French street slang chanted over the top of a completely banal wall of guitars. And what self-respecting punk would ever have done that "oooo-weeeee-oooo" in the chorus?
The best part is that Plastic Bertrand isn't even French: like all the best things Francophone - Tintin, Maigret, Eddy Merckx, Front 242 - he's Belgian.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This is another blog about a moment, a precious instant when a song rises out of the category of "very special" and into something akin to "immortal". "Creep" is already a fantastic song; the jagged shards of guitar that lead into the chorus are just...perfect, while the lyrics are a painful trip back to the days of youth and awkwardness and self-loathing.
But when Thom Yorke's voice rises away from his falsetto "She's running out again" and grows, stretches and reaches into a gaping, howling scream of pain, the song has suddenly burst the banks of earthbound majesty and headed into the ethereal. That moment, that fraction of all the pain we're ever going to feel, is so perfectly-expressed that we're left open-mouthed, willing the moment to repeat itself.
I know it's a sin to try to boil down a band's entire work into one song, or even one moment of one song, but if Radiohead are ever remembered, then they'll surely be remembered for the moment Thom Yorke unzipped his innermost agony and scattered it over this song like solar dust.


I'm a fan of lists. You know, the kind of lists you read in music magazines, or watch on Channel 4: the Top Twenty Greatest whatevers... I enjoy the discussions these lists invariably provoke and the passionate advocacy they generate. And after all, this whole blog is my ultimate list.
I've already mentioned a couple of songs that I think have the greatest intros - Hendrix's "Ezy Ryder" and the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" - but I've so far steered clear of mentioning what I think are some of the great guitar solos. You could suggest Joe Walsh's epic solo on "Hotel California", Billy Gibbons' tear-stained wailing on "Rough Boy", Stevie Ray Vaughan's stupendous "Scuttlebuttin'" and probably any number of others, but I'm going to go for this one as a first entry.
Tears for Fears don't exactly say "guitar solo", do they? But if you happen across one of the many different remixes of this song, you'll come across one of the simplest, most elegant, yet powerful guitar solos it has been my pleasure to hear. It arrives out of nowhere, like the crack of a whip, and forces everything else to one side, insistent, very plain in sound, yet commanding your attention. It's vaguely martial, a stately-paced moment, like catching glimpse of a funeral procession from the window of a passing car, and then it's gone, overtaken by the chorus that marches back into view, a solid, angry block of stone.
You have to want to listen to this song, to feed from it, derive your strength to carry on. There's no bright-eyed impenetrable optimism here, yet it's a song of solidarity, of shared experience and understanding; a song that holds us all together for a moment.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

"City of New Orleans"

Believe it or not, America was once a place of romance, an endless horizon of hope, anticipation, dreams and fulfilment. Ronald Reagan understood this better than most people and his homely, down-to-earth charisma, his harking back to a simpler, happier age managed to lull the people of the US into a semi-coma of nostalgia while all around the wars, the corruption and lies tore the heart out of the 1980s and set the stage for all that has come since.
This song might as well have been used by Reagan as a sort of soundtrack to the kind of America he longed for and made people long for as well. A simple, rusty, rhythmic ode to the age of Kerouac, drifters and hobos: "All along the southbound odyssey/The train pulls out at Kankakee/Rolls along past houses, farms and fields/Passin' trains that have no names/Freight yards full of old black men/And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles."
The images come to life slowly, easily, powerfully and you feel the seductive pull of the simplicity of a life spent riding the rails, an age when the railway was the height of ambition, the most exciting thing to small-town American, with its long list of waypoints, destinations and simple pleasures: "And the sons of pullman porters/And the sons of engineers/Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel/
Mothers with their babes asleep/Are rockin' to the gentle beat/And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel."
Yet even then, the typhoon of progress was being felt even in the heart of the heartland: "And all the towns and people seem/To fade into a bad dream/And the steel rails still ain't heard the news/The conductor sings his song again/The passengers will please refrain/This train's got the disappearing railroad blues."
It's a simple celebration, this song; a modest elegy, tender and very rose-tinted. And sometimes those pleasures need to taste just a little bitter among the sweetness.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


I spent a week once at Little Bighorn, the site of Custer's Last Stand - the final flourish of the Indian nations before they bent to the white man's yoke and were shuttled out of existence. The battle was never properly documented and not one American soldier survived, and so the only accounts of it are pieced together from rumor, Indian pictograms and more recent forensic research.
When you walk the battlefield, waving your hands among the tall grasses that wash past you like waves, rising and falling with the breeze, you feel the ghosts, the souls who were never properly laid to rest in the fury of the battle. Stone markers denote the passage of battle, anonymous gravestones, single ones at first, then in ones and twos until finally, at the end of the bluff, you face a black iron fence that surrounds a cluster of forty or so markers, the soldiers who made it to the last stand. And in the middle, inlaid with black, is Custer's grave, the last great American "martyr" to their unjust cause.
So passed the American Indian - or should we say "Native American": that is, the ones who were there first, who got railroaded, cheated, force-marched, swindled, lied to, subverted, massacred and finally reservationed, stripped of dignity by the greedy, hungry, lustful, covetous, blind sons and daughters of Europe. "Let's put our heads together/And start a new country up/Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like," sings Michael Stipe. "This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang/Take a picture here, take a souvenir."
As an indictment of the devastation, the genocide the American people wrought, this is not an angry song; it's a gentle, left-field lament for the innocent and a long, sad look at the savage ignorance that followed in the wake of the continental "clearance" - a reference to the pollution that caused the Cuyahoga river to literally burn in the late 1960s - but most of all, it's a timely reminder of the ignorant wickedness that was committed. "Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith/Bury, burn the waste behind you."


If you're any sort of music anorak, you'll probably know about the musical "argument" that Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd had in the 70s on the subject of the Southern states of the US. Neil Young wrote "Southern Man", in which he sang: "I saw cotton and I saw black/Tall white mansions and little shacks/Southern man when will you pay them back?/I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking/How long? How long?" Pretty passionate stuff.
Skynyrd decided they'd reply to this blast in their own idiom, so they created "Sweet Home Alabama": "Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well, I heard ole Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don't need him around anyhow." To his eternal credit, Neil Young enjoyed the response and said it was a better song than his.
Now that was a polite exchange of views. But how is anyone supposed to respond to this? "We got no-necked oilmen from Texas/And good ol' boys from Tennessee/And college men from LSU/Went in dumb, come out dumb too/Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in their alligator shoes/Gettin' drunk every weekend at the barbecues." Randy Newman really doesn't leave a lot of room for a snappy retort in whatever he writes. He ups the agenda to the point where the soft-skinned liberal politically-correct folk get so aerated they can't even formulate a decent reply: "We're rednecks, we're rednecks/We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/We're rednecks, we're rednecks/We're keeping the niggers down." The southern folks just go a deeper shade of red and put another couple of Dixie flags on the front porch. Meanwhile the rest of the world gets a belly laugh out of the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"They Don't Know"

Let's go back to our teenage years, to the time when everything that happened to us as happening for the first time. Each experience was a huge step forward: bigger, wider and more important then the one before, each lesson learned had its impact immediately, and our first steps along the winding path called love was a wide-eyed, breathless, heady experiment in being grown-up. Remember how important it all seemed? How much each kiss, each promise mattered?
Along with Nick Lowe's "Tonight", Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know" must rank as one of the simplest, purest expressions of teenage love: so clear, fresh and pure that it could never be sullied by the kind of relationship dysfunction we all develop or uncover as we grow. The relentless carefree optimism, the certainty, the commitment, all those things that we've cast aside later in our lives as the demands of adulthood start playing with our priorities, shine so brightly through Kirsty's pure, ringing voice, her almost melancholy tone: "You've been around for such a long time now/Or maybe I could leave you but I don't know how/And why should I be lonely every night/When I can be with you, oh yes you make it right."
As with the Nick Lowe song, the songwriting is as simple and as elegant as it could ever get, but the honesty, the brilliance means you could never laugh, only smile with the nostalgia, the remembrance of a better time. "No I don't listen to their wasted lines/Got my eyes wide open and I see the signs/But they don't know about us/And they've never heard of love." It's a Sixties song, a bubble-gum song from an age of innocence, something to warm our hearts in this cold world.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"Mohammed's Radio"

It's not just religion that's the opiate of the masses these days. In fact religion's long gone as a manipulator and a muscle relaxant of any influence. What do we have instead? It depends on the culture, I suspect, but in the developed world, it's going to be popular culture, be it radio, television, newspapers, you name it. From New York to Tokyo the kids will be tuning in to MTV and getting all their references, their wardrobes, their slang updated. But what about those places where religion places more restrictions on what people are allowed to see?
Go anywhere in the Middle East or northern Africa and all you hear is radios. Hanging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi, leaning against the mirror in the barbershop, propped up against the open doorway. Cranked up till their tiny speakers overload, they broadcast a mix of keening music, frothing diatribes against the Great Satan, the call to prayer. They're the mouthpieces of the state, the cracking whip of the clerics and the closest thing most people in that part of the world get to MTV or anything nearly as exciting.
Not only is radio the placebo, but it's the virus: American learned early on in its engagement with the rest of the world that media was a great way to get its message across. Hence this song: "Everybody's restless and they've got no place to go/
Someone's always trying to tell them/Something they already know/So their anger and resentment flow." But then comes the warm rush of calm, of insidious guilty pleasure: "But don't it make you want to rock and roll/All night long/Mohammed's Radio/I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful/On the radio, Mohammed's Radio."
One can only wonder at how the warm flow of sweet music and soft, caressing reassurances can calm the restless spirit, the yearning soul. And how simple it is, has been, to sneak in a message of hope and revolution among the crowded airwaves.

"Government Cheese"

Protest songs aren't often properly angry. And when I say angry, I mean properly spitting with rage. I can think of plenty of songs that "raise concerns" or "express disapproval", but it's not often that you run into a sing like "War", one that's sung with as much wrath as conviction.
I've blogged the Rainmakers before, and noted that they're considerably more literate and eloquent than your average band, and this song just rams that point home: "Give a man a free ticket on a dead end ride/And he'll climb in the back even though nobody's driving/Too Goddamned lazy to crawl out of the wreck/And he'll rot there while he waits for the welfare check/Going to hell in a handbag, can't you see/I ain't gonna eat no Government Cheese."
You'd be forgiven for thinking this is a neo-conservative rant and, to be honest, I'm not 100% sure it isn't. But for those who take an interest in these things, it seems just a little too easy to pigeon-hole this. Bob Walkenhorst writes too cleverly, sings too passionately to take this at face value. "Give a man a free lunch and he'll figure out a way/To steal more than he can eat 'cause he doesn't have to pay/Give a woman free kids and you'll find them in the dirt/Learning how to carry on the family line of work."
It's an unpleasant, in-your-face song; Walkenhort virtually screeches some of the lyrics while the beat just keeps coming like a particularly ponderous hammer-drill. Yet I'm left thinking by this song, trying to work out just where he stands, what he really believes, despite the heavy-handed message. Is it just a hoax? Are they messing with our heads?
Knowing something of the Rainmakers' background, the only lines that ring true, that seem to come from the heart, are: "It's the man in the White House, the man under the steeple/Passing out drugs to the American people." Funny how Marx made it all the way to Kansas.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Running On Empty"

I feel a little awkward about posting this song. It's one of those songs that I first heard as a teenager, something that seemed to encapsulate just about everything I felt at the time - alienated, confused, in search of something - and it has stayed with me to this day. "Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels/I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels/I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through/Looking into their eyes I see them running too."
It wasn't appropriate for that time and age, and I've slowly realised it's more appropriate now, a song about hitting a wall of realisation on all sorts of levels. "Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive/Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive/In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own/I don't know when that road turned onto the road I'm on."
Jackson Browne seems to have led that sort of life - the sort of life where you get caught up in the here and now to such an extent that you don't get a chance to step back and regain a sense of perspective; and if you do, it's not always a pretty sight. It can feel a bit desperate at times: "I'd love to stick around but I'm running behind/You know I don't even know what i'm hoping to find/Running into the sun but I'm running behind."
This is another one of those "testify" songs that we all hide somewhere in our life or home, and when we're alone we bring it out and let ourselves feel vulnerable. Like the old Latin saying, "Quis Custodiet Custodes Ipsos? (Who Will Watch the Watcher?), we all need a moment of safety when we don't have to be grown-up, but we don't often find that person who'll play the role of grown-up while we're goofing off.

"Harvest for the World"

It's not often in my limited experience that soul music has tried to deal with "issues". For every "What's Goin On" there must be ten thousand "Summer Breezes". And both songs are truly excellent. But when I think of soul music, I'm not thinking about social commentary or protest songs. Which is probably why the aforementioned Marvin Gaye song and this particular track always stick in my mind.
Maybe the message is made more seductive by the fabulous dance track beneath. Maybe it's the Isley Brothers' voices - right up there with Stevie Wonder's - that make it an insistent pleasure, a song that you can't help but move to. And the lyric - so simple, so clear, so powerful: "All babies together/Everyone a seed/Half of us are satisfied/Half of us in need/Love’s bountiful in us/Tarnished by our greed/Oh, when will there be/A harvest for the world."
Whatever the reason, this song works: it's one of the great almost-protest songs, a heartfelt plea sung so wonderfully that it's always been a SongWithoutWhich.

"Shake Some Action"

Before I started to write this blog, I googled the song and found a version by Cracker that, while being good, doesn't really add anything to the original. And that sort of derailed my train of thought and led me into what might become dangerously like a rant.
I appreciate the curiosity and dedication that leads bands to find these old treasures, and I also agree with them that some songs are so good that you have to revive them, bring them to a whole new audience.
But having said that, I'm left with a question: have all the best songs already been written? Will we ever see another Beatles, another Kraftwerk, another Hendrix, people who shake up the preconcieved notions of what can constitute a good song?
These people were true revolutionaries who just about started afresh. Anyone who's heard "Dear Prudence" or "Third Stone from the Sun" or "Autobahn" must surely see the fault line, the literal point of departure for a whole new interpretation of popular song.
And the grumpy old man in me looks at the charts today, sees the preponderance of cover versions, the relative lack of songwriting talent that's being given a chance to flower, and just gets depressed. Every freshly-airbrushed pop moppet that's had a hit, has had that hit on the back of someone else's work thirty years ago.
Sure, the music industry has had to embrace efficiency and cost-cutting like every other industry, but to this extent? Warming over great music and presenting it as new?
So I did rant. And I really didn't want use the Flamin' Groovies' finest moment to rant. They deserve so much better. This song came out in the early 70s, a sort of throwback to melodic pop-rock during the afterglow of the late 60s that threw up glitter rock, etc. There are nods to the Beatles, the Stones, it's pure pop. I came across it around the same time as Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were leading the pub-rock explosion, and it fits in there just right: this is a song for a raucous, jumping back-room gig. It's an original.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

"Lawyers, Guns & Money"

Some things we do are bad ideas, from the very moment we think of them, through the initial burst of enthusiasm, and the hungover, dry-mouthed aftermath..... "I went home with a waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the Russians too?"
There are people out there who make a career out of these gut-wrenchingly, catastrophically wrong choices. The guy who agrees to carry the package through customs; the teenager who can't pass an open window; the hipster in his Porsche who thinks he can fit through that tiny gap between the truck and the school bus. "I'm the innocent bystander/But somehow I got caught/Between a rock and a hard place/And I'm down on my luck."
There's the white-collar criminal whose dream of one big score has just gone up in flames, or the would-be strongman who plans a coup: "And I'm hiding in Honduras/I'm a desperate man/Send lawyers guns and money/The shit has hit the fan."
And then there's the smug idiot who knows all the time he's doing the wrong thing, making the wrong choice, and when it's all played out and he's flat out busted: "Send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this!"
Once in a while, it's worth remembering that there but for the grace of God.....

Monday, October 10, 2005

"Tunnel of Love"

A versatile man, Bruce Springsteen. He's written great big wide-screen soap operas, Everyman anthems for youth, scared and lonely vignettes from the dusty edges of the American Dream. Now he's growing up, feeling the invulnerability of youth give way to a crazed mirror of doubt as he struggles with the same feelings that he was so sure of just a few years earlier.
It starts so easily, as it always has done....."Fat man sitting on a little stool/Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you/Hands me the ticket, smiles and whispers "Good luck"/Well now cuddle up angel, cuddle up my little dove/And we'll ride down into this tunnel of love."
But it's not long before the cracks appear: "I can feel the soft silk of your blouse/And them soft thrills in our little fun house/Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us/You me and all that stuff we're so scared of." And anyone who's been there, who's taken the journey from laughter and simplicity to bewilderment and anxiety, knows just what he means. It takes some sort of genius to boil it all down to that feeling we all experience, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, with our fears and lack of answers yawning wide before us: "There's a room of shadows that gets so dark brother/It's easy for two people to lose each other/In this tunnel of love."
And Bruce isn't above a little complaint either. "It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough/Man meets woman and they fall in love/But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough/And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above/If you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love." So true, so open, so raw. If loves starts out so well, so optimistic and confident, he seems to be asking, what happens to take us from there to here?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Open Your Heart"

Opinions are sharply divided about the 80s and the music that decade brought us. For some, it began with a sartorial car-crash and only got worse - think Steve Strange, for example. Musically, it was the apogee of the transistor, the era when electronics made it possible for anyone to make music as long as they had enough time to learn how to program a drum machine.
For others, it was liberation, fun, freedom of expression, the works. Men wore makeup, women found new and more exciting ways in which to back-comb their hair and the ozone layer staggered under the weight of all the extra CFCs we sprayed on our heads.
To me, the Human League were the 80s. Maybe because they seemed to do it better than anyone else, marrying the image with the music so well. When the first few New Romantic singles began to make an impact ("Are "Friends" Electric?", for example), the whole scene seemed to be cold, distant, slow and ponderous. But then the Human League brought it all down to a more human (sic) level, their songs imbued with real emotions, real soap-opera dramas.
This is my favourite song of theirs; the sympathy, the solidarity, the killer chorus, the sheer force of emotion overcoming the cold, robotic, computer-perfect music. It doesn't hurt that the drum machines drive the song along at a clattering pace, that Phil Oakey's voice just about holds onto the song, and that the lyric was just made for lifting spirits: "And if you can pass the test/You know your worst is better than their best." A little bit of stardust among all the calculation.

Monday, October 03, 2005

"Sympathy for the Devil"

A while ago I blogged the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and likened it to a force of nature, a fire that consumed the old order and ushered in something new and dangerous. This could well be part of the same process.
There's no subtlety here: Jagger-as-Satan assumes responsibility for the critical moments in human history, from the crucifixion right through to the assassination of John F Kennedy, with a long-suppressed sense of pride, as if the time has come for him to be acclaimed, accepted and even thanked.
The music is suitably diabolical too: what seems to start as a call from the depths of the jungle, a witch-doctor's lunatic chant gives way to an irresistible tribal dance, as if all civilisation has broken down and mankind is forced back to his basest instincts, bodies leaping around a fire built of old bones and old rules: "I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change/Killed the Tzar and his ministers, Anastasia screamed in vain/I rode a tank, held a general's rank when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank/I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for 10 decades for the gods they made/I shouted out "Who killed the Kennedys?" when after all it was you and me."
If I had to pick another song that came close to the feeling, the emotion that this song extracts, it would be Primal Scream's "Moving on Up". Liberation, anarchy, fear, power, it's all here. Possibly Jagger and Richards' finest moment.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

"Our House"

Don't think I've written about Madness before. If there ever was a musical Poet Laureate of Eastenders, then these guys would collectively have the job for life. I can't normally pick any single song of theirs that stands above the rest; each one is so perfectly-observed, with the joy coming from the detail and the emotion that shines out from both the lyric and the relentlessly optimistic, jaunty music. This particular song wins for me for just a couple of things: the harmony bursts of "aaah" that come right after the lines "Sister's sighing in her sleep" and "Sees them off with a small kiss", and the jerky, bass-led instrumental break half-way through, not to mention the sheer violence of the opening bass slap. And of course the subject matter is something that eases beneath our skin and brings the kind of warm nostalgia that is like a drug sometimes.
Madness were cheeky but cuddly; Squeeze were cheeky and knowing. Grannies could love Madness, but they'd always be made uncomfortable by the dark underbelly of Squeeze's stories, even though the musicianship was equally catchy in both bands. There's been a great tradition of taut, danceable music since the new wave spread across the land: the Blockheads, Pigbag, Squeeze, then Madness.

"Looking For the Next Best Thing"

Envy seems to rule our lives these days. We don't celebrate losers in our twenty-first century go-faster, 24-hour culture. Our admiration is reserved for the one that crosses the line first, that scores that number one hit, that marries the supermodel. Only in our more enlightened moments do we glance outside that narrow band to look for the ones who make do with their mortal best and who manage to derive fulfilment and happiness with less than the absolute maximum.
Think of someone famous, popular, rich, successful. We covet only the parts of his or her life that we can see, the surface flash, the red carpet, the limo, the fancy clothes. Do we envy the arguments with their partners, their insecurities, their high-rolling risks? Hell, no, but we conveniently forget all those.
I'm put in mind of this false idolatry because there's a song I listen to that makes me confused: "I worked hard, but not for the money/I did my best to please/I used to think it was funny/Till I realised it was all a tease." Which is fine in itself: a lack of ambition, a desire to do good by others or just a lack of direction? We all suffer this from time to time, or longer in some cases.
"Don Quixote had his windmills/Ponce de Leon took his cruise/It took Sinbad seven voyages/To see that it was all a ruse." Now we're getting more complicated - someone's gone through that whole adulation and gratification business (as a recipient or idolater, it doesn't matter which), only to come out the other end and see if as being hollow and cheap.
"That's why I'm looking for the next best thing/I appreciate the best but I'm settling for less." And here it all comes undone, to my mind. Why is accepting your human, limited best a defeat in some way? If we can come back from the jagged cliffs of envy and dissatisfaction, like some contestant on Pop Idol who realises, at long last, that they really cannot sing, then we can close that particular book and move on.
There's a tiredness about this song, a hoarse fatigue that speaks of long journeys taken in fruitless pursuit of false gods, and it's that timbre, that quiet acceptance that puts the hook in here. It's time to move on.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Lose Yourself"

I don't buy rap. Not generally. I'm not comfortable with the casual misogyny, the glorification of violence and the apparent lack of connection to the inner self. Perhaps it's just rap-lite that I prefer; the more familiar, less dangerous world of Run-DMC or De La Soul for example.
But for one reason or another, I sat myself down and listened to this song, looked up the lyrics (because ironically, rap is chiefly about the lyric) and was properly stunned. I've never quite understood why so many people, musicians included, have expressed such respect for Eminem's work, but now I do.
What amazes me first and foremost is how complicated and yet how simple the rhythm of the words is. It slinks, weaves and pole-dances around the beat, sometimes falling half a beat behind, but gathering itself in time for the payoff.
What grabs me second is the sheer power of the vocabulary. Like a lot of middle-class white guys, I have looked down on rap in general as a genre that struggles to express itself. Perhaps it does....on my terms. But on its own terms, it says a shedload.
The lines come one after the other, falling over each other in their rush to get out. And if you try to understand the lyric through just reading it, you won't get it. You have to hear this, to wonder at the rhythm, the cadence, the sheer weight of the emotion, the way the words mould themselves to Eminem's accent and rhyme in a way you can't see on the page.
A revelation.

"Don't Let Us Get Sick"

Once in a while, while we're busy occupying ourselves with our own needs and concerns, eyes cast down, ears closed to the world around us, we'll be caught unawares by an event, by some news, by a word that gets through the filters and barbed-wire that we erect around ourselves.
Perhaps our rational, selfish self is irritated by this piece of news, because it proves to us that all is not always well, and tears down our desperate need to block out the unpleasant. Perhaps the news is so painful or sad that we can't face up to it or perhaps we simply cannot work out how to react.
Here's a simple prayer to help us all get through those moments. It's a frail, weak, faltering request from the bottom of the deep, dark well: "Don't let us get sick/Don't let us get old/Don't let us get stupid, all right?/Just make us be brave/And make us play nice/And let us be together tonight." It might be too late, or it might not; this song ain't saying. But it's offering us that chance, the cracking open of a door and the knife's-edge-narrow shaft of light which we can stand in if we choose: "The sky was on fire/When I walked to the mill/To take up the slack in the line/I thought of my friends/And the troubles they've had/To keep me from thinking of mine."

"Fergus Sings the Blues"

Sometimes music is all a song needs to be about. Sometimes you don't need any more reason to listen and live a song than its joy, its circling, swooping rhythm and its irresistible draw. This song does that for me. Deacon Blue celebrate the beauty, the power and the sheer life-force of soul music, the longing most of us have to open our mouths and make that beautiful noise: "Cause I look
in the mirror/And it throws back the question/And I whisper in words/That beg an answer/Tell me/Can this white man sing the blues?"
At one point, the backing singers swoop down behind Ricky Ross' voice, singing "Sweet soul music" with such purity, as if to underline, underscore and emphasise the beauty that voices alone can produce, just by doing it. The song longs, reaches out and tries to capture the excitement, the infectious attraction and all-embracing nature of a great, great moment.

"Ain't So Easy"

Relationship songs are never easy listening. They're usually written from the distant perspective of loss, abandonment, frustration or despair. You know the sort of thing: standing in the rain, howling at the moon or staring at the bottom of a glass of whisky. Think of Bridget Jones singing "All By Myself" in her bedroom after a bottle of wine and you get the general idea.
This is a far harder kind of song to listen to. This is trying to forestall that ending, to make things right just as they're going wrong. This is pleading, promising to get it right, acknowledging the errors: "I'll find a way to make amends/It's only that sometimes I've got to break before I bend." There's a tacit admission of past wrongs, a hint at darkness, but also a brief picture of the best possible future: "I'll kiss your face/Attend to your aches/I swear that I can make you happy/And you'll rub my back/Forget the past/And baby I know that that ain't so easy."
David & David only ever produced one album as far as I know - "Welcome to the Boomtown" - but it's a dark masterpiece of observation and human vulnerability. Not your everyday listening, granted, but for those moments when you're re-evaluating, starting over, brimming with good intentions, it's a handy reminder of where you're coming from and where you're trying to go.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Try a Little Tenderness"

Let's celebrate! Let's testify! Hold your lighters in the air, sway to the quiet, contemplative intro. Hear the beat gently walk round the corner and watch it come up to stand in front of you, hips twitching, a knowing smile on its face as it watches you slowly, inevitably, become helplessly hooked by this supreme moment of soul.
This is one of those songs that are utterly impossible to ignore, to skate over. It demands your attention, it co-opts your heart and drafts your hips until you're singing along at maximum volume, waving, not drowning. As with so many other great soul songs it's about redemption, affirmation, acknowledgement of a higher power. It's a moment for diving head-first into the mystery of love and maybe, just maybe if you're lucky, understanding a few things. It says "yes, men and women are different but really, we're the same." It's one of those impossible conundrums, like, how did Otis Redding get the beat to be so insistent yet so modest? How did he know when to let that utter cacophony loose half-way through the song and push the whole thing to another plane? How did he know that the second half of the song could be one long chorus, repeated over and over but more powerfully each time? And that we'd love it?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Fearless Boogie"

I'm not the world's greatest fan of country music. Which probably explains why this song hasn't actually got a lot to do with Nashville. But Hank Williams III is pure country royalty, so maybe this counts for something.
This is a rapid-fire blues/country workout, a steam train at full speed. The beat's underpinned by the wheels clacking on the lines and a drum that rolls and pumps like nothing else, blues harp assaulting your ears like a really bitter slice of lemon in your drink, and guitar adding some home-cooked grit. It's totally unstoppable, the band's as tight as you like, with a deft, daft lyric to match: "They call me a Pontiac/The red in my neck/They call me a Cadillac/They call me a wreck/Now Im not afraid/And I'm not scared/Now I ain't gonna lose it/No, I'm not afeared/To do the fearless boogie." Another kitchen-hour classic.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

"Bohemian Like You"

For an old 70s relic like me to keep up with "the kids" these days is an increasingly forlorn task. One of the perks of growing up is that you're less worried about your peer group - you have your own row to hoe. Believe me, it's a perk. But once in a while, a song bubbles up from the increasingly foreign-sounding soup on the radio, captures the imagination and updates your cultural references. Like this one. It's a complete caricature of a subculture, a snapshot of a moment in time, perfect, crystal-clear and recognisable: "You got a great car/Yeah what's wrong with it today/I used to have one too/Maybe I'll come and have a look/I really love your hairdo yeah/I'm glad you like mine too/See where looking pretty cool/Will get ya."
Doesn't hurt that the song itself is terrific, too. Incredibly catchy, a chorus you can sink your teeth into and a rumble of guitars that, if you play this loud enough, will loosen your fillings.

"Ain't No Sunshine"

The emotion of missing someone covers such a lot of territory; from the simple, open, warm missing a good friend who's moved away; through the deep, abiding, unchanging loss of a favourite grandparent (or parent); to the dark, forbidding and vaguely obsessive missing a lost love. To say "I miss you" is such an open-ended statement, as we each carry a portfolio of loss as wide as the horizon through our lives.
I guess a lot of songs cover the last of those emotions: the loss of someone you love dearly, the emptiness of a place or a heart without them. But this song treats the loss in a gentle, contemplative way: "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone/It's not warm when she's away/Ain't no sunshine when she's gone/And she's always gone too long anytime/ She goes away." It acknowledges the basic truth and stands there, arms apart, accepting the weight of loss and promising to bear it: "Hey I'll leave the young thing alone/But ain't no sunshine when she's gone." How many of us would have the grace and the equanimity to do that?

"I Will Not Go Quietly"

I love this. This is a tall, tense, shuddering nightmare of a song, a wake-up-at-3 a.m.-with-the-cold-sweats song. It's defiance, vulnerability, determination and despair wrapped into a jarring, stop-start, wailing scream at the world. What was Don Henley thinking about when he wrote this? "Woke up with a heavy head/And I thought about leavin’ town/I could have died if I wanted to/Slipped over the edge and drowned/But, oh no baby, I won’t give up so easy/Too many tire tracks in the sands of time/Too many love affairs that stop on a dime/I think it’s time to make some changes round here." This is a song for those moments when you raise your fist at the world, at your own weakness and faults, at the injustices committed and opportunities missed.
What pushes this song over the edge for me is Axl Rose's wailing screech in the chorus, a mad-eyed, thousand-yard stare of a vocal, floating just beyond the boundaries of sanity: "I will not go quietly/I will not lie down." In fact, if you go away and read Dylan Thomas' immortal poem: "Do not go gentle into that good night.../Rage, rage against the dying of the light", you'll see exactly where this song comes from.

"Going Down to Liverpool"

I've always had a sweet tooth. It comes and goes, this craving for confection. I'll be trundling along doing whatever occupies my time and I'll pull myself up short, thinking "I could really use some sugar around now." And I'm off to the candy store. A quick burst of chemical sunshine, a fizzing mix of natural and unnatural substances and my blood sugar is up, I'll look out at the world with a renewed smile. Hey presto.
This is the aural equivalent. Such a simple little tune, something the harmony groups of the 60s might have whistled up in during their mid-aftenoon snack. This smells of California, eucalyptus trees, a warm evening and a gentle breeze whispering through the garden.
What's a little disconcerting is how this is a song about having no hope, about being unemployed: "Hey now/Where you going with that load of nothing in your hand/I said, hey now/All through this green and pleasant land?" The contrast is complete, a harmless little bear-trap that grabs your ankle quite gently and suggests how easy it is to dress up the uncomfortable realities in a lattice-work of spun sugar, like cotton candy. After the sugar is gone, you're left with the stick.

"More Than Words"

Actions speak louder than words, they say. Which is slightly ironic, given the heavy bias towards lyrics in this blog. But there are moments when words just won't do the heavy lifting. Is this because so many of us struggle to find the right words to fit the moment? Or is this because, as the cliche goes, "talk is cheap"? In any case, here's a case study, if you like: "More than words to show you feel/That your love for me is real/What would you say if I took those words away/Then you couldn't make things new/Just by saying I love you." So Extreme are saying maybe we shouldn't sweat over the problem of saying the right things, but instead focus on doing the right things. It's not a lesson that's always easy to learn: I mean, think of Shakespeare's Hamlet, who talked and thought himself into circles until the moment to act had long passed, and compare him with Macbeth, who acted without thinking too much. I know, they both bit the bullet in the final scene, but you get my point? At least Macbeth had his day in the sun.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

"Fine Line"

What a little gem this is, and thank you Natalie for bringing it to my attention! For a split-second you think you've fallen into an Abba retrospective, when the keyboards tumble into view, but before long, Paul McCartney's voice, that comfortable, friendly instrument we've all grow up with, kicks in and takes over. But what really, really makes this song fly is the incredible piano riff that runs through the chorus and lifts the final coda onto another plane. The Beatles, when his songs were at the forefront, were always pleasant, fairly easy-listening exercises in perfection. This, likewise, is a perfectly-formed pop diamond. The closing coda echoes Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra, which is only fair really, because ELO was nothing if not a Beatles tribute band. But that piano just takes everything somewhere slightly different, that minor chord is just so unexpected, so ..... right, that nothing else matters. Sometimes, songs are made by a single note, a single chord, and this is one of them.

"Walking in Memphis"

Once in a while a song comes along that burns, literally, with soul, love and a respect so deep for tradition that it takes you back in time to that nameless era when everything was just.... right. When you could access that soul and express it in such a way that you radiated love for your fellow man, when legends walked the earth and when you felt so powerful that you could stretch your arms out and cradle the moon.
At the right time, this is that song. Marc Cohn tapped into something so basic, so fundamental here that he raised music up into something primeval. A force that cures, that revives, that strengthens. "Saw the ghost of Elvis/On Union Avenue/Followed him up to the gates of Graceland/Then I watched him walk right through/Now security they did not see him/They just hovered 'round his tomb/But there's a pretty little thing/Waiting for the King/Down in the Jungle Room." He invokes the healing power of music, he celebrates it, he lives it in this song, and for just a few minutes you eat from the table of the immortals - Elvis, Al Green, gospel, the Delta Blues legends - until you too feel that nothing is impossible, that all is right with the world. Cohn's deep soul voice fits the song in a way that Cher's can't, resonating with the power and the inner strength that music, good music, can bring. This is like going to church every day of the week.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

Crosby, Stills and Nash were arguably the first-ever "supergroup", formed by musicians who were already stars in their own right. David Crosby came out of the Byrds, Graham Nash from the Hollies and both Stephen Stills and Neil Young (who was an occasional fourth member) from Buffalo Springfield. While these groups were all highly-regarded, they were modest compared to what CSN were to become.
Forming in 1968, they captivated the masses with this gorgeous, rambling piece of harmony and guitar. If ever a song epitomised the whimsy and idealism of the hippy culture, this is it: "Remember what we've said and done and felt about each other/Oh babe, have mercy/Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now/I am not dreaming/I am yours, you are mine/You are what you are/And you make it hard." The harmony singing is as good as any there has ever been, the acoustic guitar strong enough to hold its own against the weight of the voices. The thrilling closing coda, with the close harmonies racing towards the end as Stephen Still sings in Spanish, is one of the most recognisable moments of the '60s catalogue.

Friday, September 09, 2005

"Good Times, Bad Times"

From time to time I get caught up in debates about the true origins of heavy metal. Where did the first headbang take place and how long was the hair? What was the riff that planted the seed? Some folk maintain it was Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" that started it all off, others mention Jimi Hendrix and his very heavy blues, while the British maintain the Kinks, the Who and Cream were the source. Some even point to the Beatles' "Helter Skelter". It's probably impossible to pick one name, much like it would be impossible to point to the particular fish that leapt out of the ocean and started walking on its flippers as being the origin of man.
Notwithstanding the debate though, I'm pretty convinced myself that the first band that could be properly called heavy metal was Led Zeppelin - of course they didn't plant the seed themselves. But by taking the blues and amplifying it to the limit, by bringing the rhythm section to the forefront, by using sound as a blunt instrument at times, Zeppelin took out the patent on what was to come.
We're a million miles away from those early steps now, but once in a while it's properly refreshing to revisit songs like this. Compare it with pretty much anything that's been issued since 1990 and be struck by how clean and lightweight it sounds. Jimmy Page's only slightly distorted guitar, the clean, spare bass, Robert Plant's restrained voice and John Bonham's immense, heavy yet agile drumming.
The musicianship is right there too, front and centre. The beautifully syncopated drumming, the hard-as-nails riffs interspersed with the delicate fills, the aching harmonies, it's clear from the start this is no ordinary band.
To put it another way, this song is Track One, Side One of Led Zeppelin's career, and of heavy metal. It starts here.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Sometimes the most revolutionary ideas come in the smallest packages.
Way, way back in the mists of time, rock was a simple thing; a limited number of chords, a simple drums-bass-guitar-voice set-up and a single microphone hanging from the ceiling.
After a while folk got ambitious and started stacking other things on top: a second and even third guitar, a keyboard or two, some brass, some harmony, while the guys behind the recording studio console struggled to keep up. So we went from Bill Haley to Emerson, Lake and Palmer in a staggeringly short period of time.
1976 has a lot to answer for - not just the blast of phlegm from the punks and their desire to outrage and confront, but also the stripping away of all those layers of sophistication and pretention. And if any one song best exemplified the move back to basics, it's this.
Jonathan Richman is revered as a combination of faux-naif, idiot-savant, fey flower child and rocker. His songs are...eccentric, off-the-wall and totally individual. For this, he took just two chords and strung them together with a driving biff-bang-pow drumbeat and a stream of consciousness about driving around Boston and hey presto, an instant classic. This song doesn't seduce, threaten or cajole. It just gets on with it and if you're happy to ride along, so much the better.
Oh, and there is a third chord. Right at the end of the song.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

"With a Little Help From My Friends"

And I'm not talking about the Beatles' original but Joe Cocker's flaming, rambling, incoherent live performance at Woodstock in 1969, which you can still find on the film "Woodstock". If ever a live performance encapsulated a time and a place, this was it. Woodstock was three days of idealistic hedonism, a toga party on an epic scale, a flash-in-the-pan version of the Paris Commune that brought together around forty of the top acts of the time. The event fell into chaos very quickly - the organisers couldn't keep people from sneaking into the venue and a rainstorm turned the fields into a quagmire and the organisers' resources simply melted away in the face of a tide of humanity. But on the other side, the event passed relatively peacefully - unlike the Altamont festival a year later - and there was some great music.
Joe Cocker's performance is one of those moments you watch from behind your hands, half-incredulous, half-admiring. Lurching all over the stage, eyes screwed tight, hands fiddling emptily or playing air guitar, arms flailing, Cocker looks as though he's performing a drawn-out death scene. But then he opens his mouth, and a drunken, spastic, gargling howl emerges, a sound that you know is being dredged from the very bottom of his gut. It's a noise that goes beyond soul, beyond blues and onto some higher, animal plane. He's not worried about getting the lyrics across - at one point he stops singing for a moment and then lets loose a scream that would give Tom Waits nightmares - he's in his own chemically- or alcoholically-assisted universe, where the song becomes a living breathing demon, to be fought to a standstill. In fact the song hardly matters, except as a platform for Cocker's visceral, full-contact vocal; it's not what he's singing, but how he's singing that matters.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Hollywood Nights"

Here's a song that really should be a film. Preferably a silent film, with no sound but this song to accompany it since Bob Seger's words are more than sufficient to tell the whole story. It's a huge, cavernous, monstrous cliche of a story, but one that romantics everywhere would probably appreciate: "She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast/He was a Midwestern boy on his own/She looked at him with those soft eyes so innocent and blue/He knew right then he was too far from home." Perfect! The whole story is right there, as clear and unambiguous as it could be. You know how it's going to progress, how it's going to be a tale of obsessive, all-consuming passion, riddled with stereotypes and cliches, but what the hell, you say, when a story's told this well....
And of course, you know how it's going to end as well: "Night after night and day after day it went on and on/Then came that morning he woke up alone/He spent all night staring down at the lights of LA/Wondering if he could ever go home." It's a song and a story as big and wide as the highways and beaches it populates, and Seger wraps it up in a driving, hammering song that doesn't let up for a moment, that reflects the urgency, the raw need and the eventual despair that plants your foot on the gas pedal to get you as far away as possible from your addiction.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

"Always the Last to Know"

Another can't-let-go song. I have a lot of respect for Del Amitri: it can't be easy being as miserable and lovelorn as they are most of the time. But we've all been to this particular place: we've fallen out with someone because of some stupidity and we live on in the hope that by being generous, by letting them go, they might just come back. It's a hell of a gamble to pin so much hope in one place, but we do it willingly. We live that time in some high sierra of heightened senses, enhanced awareness, where we see everything so clearly, sharply, we collect evidence - the occasional phone call or text message - to fuel those hopes and we are strangely contented. And yet... and yet we're not even close. "I hear you’ve never felt so alive/So much desire beyond control/And as usual I am the last to know/The last to know if you’re happy now/Or if he’s cheating on you like I cheated on you/And you were the last to know." At which point the whole construction come tumbling down, doesn't it? We deny our own transgressions only to be hanged by them. The clever sting in the tail here is what makes this song more than just another torch-type affair, and what probably makes it more honest as well.

"New York Minute"

With the benefit of hindsight, there is something almost preternaturally spooky about this song. The chorus - "In a New York Minute/Everything can change/In a New York Minute/Things can get a little strange" - has been associated with the events of 9/11 almost from the moment it happened, but what's spooky is how so much of the rest of the song is relevant to that day as well. Don Henley sings of the Wall Street banker who disappears one morning, leaving his family forever asking questions: "One day he crossed some line and he was too much in this world." Then there are the sounds: "Lying here in the darkness/Hear the siren's wail/Somebody going to emergency/Somebody's going to jail." The memory of thousands of notes stuck to walls, seeking lost loved ones is conjured up too. It's as if Henley was channeling Nostradamus, and it raises a lump in the throat; not just for the memories we all carry of that terrible day, but because the song itself paints a picture of such desolation, such emptiness that we cling like limpets to the half-hearted promise of hope in the line: "You find somebody to love in this world/You better hang on tooth and nail/The wolf is always at the door."

Sunday, August 28, 2005


As anyone who's ever switched on a stereo knows, music is about all sorts of things, and love and sex are never far from the top of that list. And those categories run the full range of expressions from the simplest "I love/want you" to "I particularly love/want you when you do this" to "Why haven't you done that for me lately?" to "Damn, I wish you were still around to do that again". Sometimes a song even does away with the love part and focuses on the sex. I've dealt with more than a few that go straight to the nether regions but for me, this one is just a little bit more special than the rest.
Firstly, seek out the "Touch Dance" remix album by the Eurythmics, rather than the rather anodyne "Touch" album. Secondly, dispense with any thoughts of love, emotion or whatever cuddly bunny-wunnies you may have hiding in your bedside table. This is a song that brings to mind the more experimental aspect of physical relationships, wrapped up in a subtle, steady yet unstoppable mix of melody and suggestive noises. "I've got a delicate mind/I've got dangerous features/And my fist collides/With your furniture/I'm a highway Mohican/I've got a razor-blade smile/So don't come near me/I've got singular style/Fifteen senses/Are on my plate/All the things/That you love to hate/I'm an electric wire and I'm stuck inside your head."
This song lends itself so easily to a visual interpretation that it's positively indecent, and if you let yourself get carried away just a little you'll find yourself dressing in PVC and carrying a whip, a candle and some chocolate butter. Annie Lennox's singing is utterly salacious, her tongue rolling so lasciviously around the 'l' in "like" that you find yourself wondering if she can tie a knot in a cherry stalk with that same tongue. If you compare this song to, say, Aerosmith's "Pink" - another song that wants to get you in bed - you might find that while "Pink" is full of humour, sly winks and nudges like a "Carry On" film, "Regrets" is a song that takes its sex seriously.


Certain songs occupy a special place in our lives, in our hearts and in our memories, endowed as they are with a master key to our emotions. To some people, it's the song that they shared with their first great love; to others, it's the song that they got married to, or that their first child was born to (my daughter was born to Prince singing "Peach", which is a bit of a double-edged sword if you ask me); to others, it's the song that they played endlessly through the dark, stormy autumn of a broken heart.
Then there are songs that by some chemical happenstance conjure up emotions from nothing; they cook up a fearsome broth of powerful associations, whisking you instantaneously to some far-off place in your past, to some long-forgotten room where all you can do is wallow in the excess, or the complete lack of...... of something. You find yourself short of breath, fighting a heavy lump rising in your throat, bewildered by a kaleidoscope of "something" that you can't quite put your finger on. You find yourself attracted yet repelled by this, perhaps exultant that you can feel such a powerful emotion, yet frustrated and angered that you can't nail it down, classify it, name it, associate it.
So you spend some time revisiting this song, this place, trying for all your worth to put some sense into this blank. Sometimes you get close to a name, a time, a face or a place, but it's never a complete picture and the next time you try, you're back at square one. After a while, the obsession dies away and your life regains a level playing surface; but once in a while, when you hear that song again, all the symptoms reappear and you find yourself short of breath again, eyes glistening, overcome by an intense feeling of..... of what, dammit?
For me this is that song.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

"Every Breath You Take"

Old loves.

We fall in love for a variety of reasons, but they could be summed up thus: "because he/she has something I want", be that beauty, brains, talent, humour, vulnerability or just a nameless chemical that speeds through our receptors and lets off a grenade in our head. Our love poses a question that we can answer, or it answers a question that we've been asking all our lives. But rarely does our love answer ALL those questions or ask precisely ALL the questions we have the answers to.
And when, or if, love fails, some of us fall to measuring each inch of the quantum leaps that brought us together and then pulled us apart. Some of us are analysing, some of us are ignoring; we're either obsessing sweatily over the whys and wherefores or perfectly happy that it's over.
This is a song for those of us who are never satisfied with the conclusions we draw.
It's a dark, angry, peevish, whiny song, even though it deosn't sound it. We're perfectly aware that we're onto a loser here, that our obsessions will never be rewarded, but we need to let that person know we're still there, that we care, that we're retreating, shrinking into a hard nugget of bitterness and that we can't do a damn thing about it. If we had the time, we'd be standing outside their window watching, drawing the strength to go on from the injustice and anger, the sheer unfairness that we feel.
The insistent monotonous beat, the pulsing bass, the utter simplicity of this song speaks of a single-minded pursuit, the discarding of anything but the essentials. This is a dangerous song, a threatening one: "Every move you make/Every vow you break/Every smile you fake/Every claim you stake/I'll be watching you", as if to say, "you betrayed me; but I'll be watching, chronicling all your future betrayals" as if that will somehow lessen the pain.

It's never simple, is it?

Monday, August 22, 2005

"Love and Affection"

Early morning on the last day of the holidays, I sit on the front porch, look at the sunlight beginning to run thickly down the trunks of the beech trees, pull out my iPod and consider the possibilities for a song to describe that slightly hollow feeling that accompanies the end of something special, the memories freshly-minted that now have to be put away, folded and stored in the last corner of a bulging duffel bag before we head back to our real world.
Bitter-sweet, because we go from one happiness to another, from the head-back, wide-eyed shocked laughter of a child being caught by surprise by a large splashing wave, to the head-back, wide-eyed smile of bliss on seeing a loved one again. And, for a while at least, we'll close our eyes from time to time and remember a moment, an afternoon, a joke, a face that we treasured all too briefly on our travels.
So why have I come to this song? Partly because the love I feel for my old, spiritual home is something that drills so deep inside me that it feels like a living, breathing person who has walked beside me for many years. I can look out towards the hills and say to them: "Thank you/You took me dancing/Cross the floor/Cheek to cheek," remembering the days I have spent clambering to their summits. I can stand at the harbour's edge and silently say goodbye to the fishing fleet as I would to a friend who I'll hope to see again.
And all the while, I will be looking forward to saying hello to a new love that awaits me at home: "Just take my hand and lead me where you will." Fresh, renewed, cleansed, this is a song for new beginnings, old friends, warm memories and the aching chasm of hope.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

"Madame Helga"

There's something unashamedly indulgent about a song that stands four-square in the box marked "testosterone", that wears its colours on its sleeve and doesn't feel the need to apologise for being a serious boys-only song. Think of the Faces' "Stay With Me" or Paul Kelly's "Darling It Hurts" and you get the picture. This is the Stereophonics jumping feet-first into the deep end of the pool and pulling every single axe-hero pose, every fist-pumping chord-change out of the box of tricks. It's a wonderful, swirling, lazy, vaguely menacing slab of sound. Kelly Jones must have applied the extra-coarse sandpaper to his vocal chords for this: his voice is Rod Stewart on steroids, raw, tearing at the edges, reaching for that last scrap of power to push the song over the edge. The song's about a mysterious woman the band met in Sri Lanka; but they've painted a whole slightly acid- or alcohol-fuelled fantasy around her: there's the waking up in an unfamiliar place, the strange faces passing by in a blur of overindulgence, the desperately unsettled feeling of being someplace where you don't feel one hundred percent safe. The song pushes on, gathering momentum as the dream blows hot and cold, the chorus suggests the sort of out-of-body experience we've all had when we find our limits, and by the end you're slightly sweaty, wondering if you'll ever get home to see your local pub again.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Stay With Me"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged 22 March 2004.

There's a moment about thirty seconds into this song as the intro comes to an end, where the band changes time signature and goes from standard rock riffery into a snaky, slinky shuffle that is one of the most perfect moments in rock. The sheer confidence to do that, the chutzpah and the musical chops, speaks of a band that *knows* it's hot. It helps that Rod Stewart sounds about as good as he ever did, and that Ron Wood could play a bit. This is a misogynistic, lewd, lascivious pole-dance of a song, a sort of disreputable uncle to Aerosmith's "Pink". If you have a problem with enjoying good-time party music like this, may I suggest a hip transplant.

"When Will You Make My Phone Ring"

Regrets. No matter how much time passes, how much water curls beneath your own private bridge there is always something, or more pertinently, someone that you can't quite close the book on. If you've walked away, perhaps you feel fewer of those regrets, but when you find yourself catching your breath from the sharpness of that memory, then you realise you aren't clear, you haven't broken free. And those sharp jabs, those laughing careless reminders, they draw you backwards, till you're walking over old ground, peering beneath stones and leaves to see if you missed something, a clue, a hint perhaps that might have changed everything. Ricky Ross has the voice for this job, the raw, slightly damaged rasp of experience, able to express the bewilderment of being caught out: "I want you in everything/In everything/In anything I do/When will you make my phone ring/And tell me I can't give you anything/Anything at all now."


A ghost of a love song, chasing shadows and barely glimpsed flashes of light in the midst of the carnival long after midnight, where the echoes of the carousel's music ebb and flow around you as you creep tentatively through the darkness. This could be an obsessive's song, a whining, scratching lament from the outer edges of abandon, or it could be that ghost song, that memory revisited in the small hours of the night; the one that makes you break into a sweat. Either way, this is not comfortable, no matter how gentle the melody. This is disturbed, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff. Just enough suggestion to take you as far as you dare, but not enough information to let you relax. Tom Petty's voice wavers uncertainly, the song seeks refuge in the simple, creaking refrain but it's lost, afraid, at its wit's end.

Monday, July 25, 2005

"Pump It Up"

Here's a song that grabs you and refuses to let go. You're kept on the balls of your feet, doing little pogo jumps through the verse as you wait for the relief of the slam-dunk chorus. It's edgy, nervous, speed-fuelled, in-your-face stuff, the acceptable face of punk. Elvis Costello always stood slightly apart from the whole new wave thing, always just that bit more thoughtful, his songwriting just that bit more complete. And this song is as good an example of how far beyond his contemporaries he was: "She’s been a bad girl/She’s like a chemical/Though you try to stop it/She’s like a narcotic/You wanna torture her/You wanna talk to her/All the things you bought for her/Putting up your temp’rature." His references were always more erudite than the rest of the new wave, and it's no surprise that his career has morphed from songs like "Watching the Detectives" to covering - beautifully, mind - Charles Aznavour's "She" and working with the Brodsky Quartet among others. But for a while, he was the clever epicenter of the furious squall that was punk and new wave.

"Movin On Up"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged January 23 2004

This is truly special: gospel dance rock by Primal Scream. If Sly Stone got religion, took downers and discovered guitars all in the same afternoon, he might have come up with something like this. It's loose and yet tight as a drum, the choir giving the song real punch while there's a whole lazy, sub-Rolling Stones groove going on. It's a requiem, it's a song for getting high, it's a song that reaffirms life from the middle of the dancefloor, it's a bit of everything. There's a hint of "Sympathy for the Devil" about this one, and those gospel voices and that looping guitar suggest drugs may have been involved.

"Werewolves of London"

Well, this is probably the only Warren Zevon tune that anyone's ever heard of, and normally I wouldn't have blogged it, except that I came across a live version recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon (back in the days when it still WAS the Hammersmith Odeon) that is really, truly excellent. For a start, the intro is an extended piece of semi-classical improvisation on the keyboard from the man himself; a spare, beautiful piece of cascading, climbing, Oriental-tinged wizardry. And just when you think you may have the wrong track, he ever-so-gently leans into the piano intro to "Werewolves" and before you know it, we're off and running into a solid, meaty rendition of his (sadly) signature tune.
Why "Werewolves" came to be a so-called novelty hit is still beyond me. It's not the best song he ever wrote by a long way, it's not even the funniest, but it is clever. Jackson Browne, who produced the album, said this song is all about young well-dressed gigolos preying on old ladies. He said the whole song is wrapped up in the line "Well, I'd like to meet his tailor". It sounds far-fetched, but then far-fetched was pretty normal in Warren's world. And so listen to this now with the benefit of insight and enjoy its dark humour, enjoy the spontaneity of the live recording and raise a glass to a wayward genius.

"Rhythm Nation"

Yes, I'm kind of perplexed by this one too. I don't normally have any time for Janet Jackson or her ilk. And I have no doubt that there are hundreds of songs that could be usefully interchanged with this one. So when it comes to explaining why this is a SongWithoutWhich, I'm sorry, I got no words. Maybe it's the squiggly bass figure, the hurry-up drums, the guitar sample from Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You", the vaguely martial feel to the whole song. More likely than not, it's a tip of the hat to the producer who assembled all the parts and made this puppy fly.
And perhaps that's the point of this song. To show us how music has gone from four boys standing around a single mike in a recording booth in Memphis, to the multi-tracked, EQ'd, computer-massaged, tweaked and primped confection that we consume today. Now I'm not necessarily saying it's bad - I mean, look what George Martin did for the Beatles - I'm just saying it's different. O tempora, o mores, as our forefathers in Rome would have said.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


If ever a single song defined a moment in history, this may well be it. Live Aid, twenty years ago last month; David Bowie introduces a video clip from the stage at Wembley, and the next four minutes pass in a blur of tears, of shocked numbness. According to Bob Geldof's autobiography, he was approached by a Canadian Broadcasting Corp camera team in a hotel in Addis Ababa with a video collage they'd put to a song by The Cars, of an infant waking up and trying to stand on emaciated, hollowed legs. They thought he might be able to use it as part of his fundraising effort.
When the video was broadcast that June afternoon, it went around the world like a single bolt of lightning. Everyone I have ever spoken to about Live Aid remembers the video, remembers the painful tightening of the throat and the involuntary sobs of pain it wrought, and the lasting, shocking memory.
Before Live Aid, this was already a dark song, a song from the edges of someone's reason: "Who's gonna pick you up/When you fall/Who's gonna hang it up/When you call/Who's gonna pay attention/To your dreams/Who's gonna plug their ears/When you scream/You can't go on/Thinking nothing's wrong/Who's gonna drive you home tonight." I remember watching the original video for this, watching Paulina Porizkova flipping from a laughing, happy child to a screaming whirlwind in a moment, and wondering just how far into the eye of the storm this song was meant to take us.
Now, even this long after Live Aid, I find the song is still hijacked, adopted, given a whole new life and meaning. It's not a source of regret, rather an acknowledgement by me - and I hope also by the writer - that something bigger, more important, claimed ownership.