Saturday, February 26, 2005

"Foreplay/Long Time"

Hell, everyone hates Boston these days. Overblown, indulgent guitar frenetics, they call it. Pompous orchestral self-gratification, they sneer. Bugger that. For one album, one moment in time, Boston was everything you needed to know about AOR/MOR/FM rock. This is a meaty, sweaty air-guitar must-have. Yeah, most people go for "More Than a Feeling" and its soaraway chorus, but this is far, far better. "Foreplay" is like listening to the Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with amplification and extra cannons, pure classical filtered through Marshall amps, and "Long Time" is just that bit more. You can almost see Tom Scholz hard at work at his kitchen table, plotting every last second of this epic, grandiose song, down to the last drum fill, the last hi-hat. More often than not, a song is "epic" because of the sentiment, the passion of the performance, but this is a "planned" epic, a carefully-crafted piece of virtuosity. The guitar sound is the by-now standard Boston squall, complemented by heavy work on the cymbals, and Brad Delp's contained vocal resting easy on top of the wall of noise. But it WORKS! For some reason, this is the ultimate driving song, the perfect tennis-raquet-and-bedroom-mirror workout, with two or three great guitar solos for that special wig-out.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Ah, U2. Spiritual uncles to the Manic Street Preachers. Another band that can't walk past a rabble-rousing riff the size of Texas, another group that fell in love with the Big Idea, the Grand Gesture. And however many millions of us loved them for it. This song is probably best remembered in the context of U2's messianic effort at Live Aid, when Bono-As-Jesus wrapped us all up in his loving eyes-screwed-shut-with-the-intensity-of-it embrace. Hell, I can't even be nasty about them. They have The Knack, the same joyous ability to lift whatever they perform into the realm of the ethereal. This one is driven by a soft but insistent patter of drums and The Edge's patented clear-as-a-bell guitar, while Bono just riffs over the top. The words don't really matter here, though they're well-chosen for that stadium anthem touch. It's a Big Song with a Big Heart.

"Total Control"

One of those rainy-night obsessive songs that steals up on you so stealthily, grabs you in a velvet headlock, and just doesn't let go. Martha Davis' voice just settles gently over an achingly slow, stately beat, persuading you ever so quietly that love is one of those deals where you do have to have all or nothing, and that if it's the last thing she does, she's going to have it all from you. It could almost be a love song from a stalker but it's saved by the break in her voice, the almost pleading note she sometimes hits.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

"Journey of the Sorcerer"

You'll probably know this one as the theme to the BBC Radio version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. One thing that it never fails to do for me, is put me in mind of "Love Reign O'er Me" by The Who, particularly the intro. Now, the Eagles aren't to everyone's taste; some folk think they were a little too country in their early days (from which this comes), while others reckon they ended up as nothing but a bunch of drugged-out dinosaurs. But that's neither here nor there: we're talking about their musicianship and songwriting ability here. Bernie Leadon didn't hang around to see in those Hotel California years, but he did create this masterpiece which, if all things were equal, would stand right up there alongside "Hotel California", "The Last Resort" or "Wasted Time" as songs the Eagkles are best remembered for. But as justice and record sales would have it, Don Henley's agenda won out (bless him anyway, you'll be hearing from me about him later) and so The Eagles played soft rock with a conscience. But, if you strip all that away, you're still left with a bunch of guys who knew how to play.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

"Video Killed the Radio Star"

Now, I'm not adding this song because I feel my life would be immeasurably poorer without it. But I did hear it recently, and was paying attention to it for once; maybe the lyric doesn't particularly make sense, but there is a feel about the song that I tapped into, a sort of grumpy-old-man vibe.
We music fans don't really have an awful lot of influence when it comes to what we get to hear. I mean, how often is it these days that a band gets together in someone's basement, practices hard, gets some gigs and builds a following to the point where the Record Industry can't ignore them any more? And, more relevantly, how often does a band get signed up on the basis of its talent rather than its looks? Let's assume the present-day values of the industry were relevant thirty or forty years ago: would we have got to see Janis Joplin? Richie Havens? Mama Cass? Canned Heat? Carole King? Would the business sign up four older guys who can really play their instruments and write their songs? Well, the Stranglers got signed, and they're no oil paintings.....
I'm aware this is probably stretching things a bit far, but when the industry wants you to see a musician before you hear them perform, then things aren't right.
Thank you. I'll be in the corner, crushing Will Young CDs....

"Rollin' Over"

This is about as funky as rock gets.... snaking around your nether regions like a polecat on heat, and a gloriously out-of-control vocal from Steve Marriott. I defy you to crank this up and not think about doing the horizontal tango. Everything's been turned up to 11 on this, the cymbals splashing over the whole thing like testosterone on tap, and the requisite brass section hooting provides the final kick up the backside. It's one of the great tragedies of rock that the Small Faces were managed by Don Arden, who probably pissed off more people than was strictly required, hence never realy giving the band their full chance. But so many bands down the years have cited the Small Faces as a major influence that maybe they've been given their due...

Thursday, February 17, 2005

"Well, Did You Evah?"

Oh what fun it must have been to make this. Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop romp joyfully through this Cole Porter standard. It's like being at a rock n roll cocktail party in some swish district of New York. It's hard to work out whether they're improvising some of the time, which makes it all the more fresh and fun. Debbie's vaguely bored voice and Iggy's throaty chuckles, combined with a bog-standard backing track make this a little delight.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I have no idea who Shawn Mullins is, and I forget when I first heard this: probably driving across Texas on a hot spring day. It's a hard luck story of a song, with a gritty vocal and a chorus that rises above the mundane. I just like it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

"Anarchy in the UK"

I suppose you were wondering when I'd get around to punk. And yes, it's one of those safe, middle of the road choices. But hey, growing up in London and not being totally hip to what was going on in the clubs, this was pretty much my introduction to the new wave. The crashing intro, Johnny Rotten's satanic cackle, and the sudden realisation that you didn't have to sing in tune to convey an idea, that was quite a moment. I bought the album as soon as it appeared and to this day, I still get a thrill from the wall of rancid, squalling guitar, the vitriolic, knowing, cynical tone of voice, and the carefree smattering of acronyms - MPLA, UDA, IRA - which place the song firmly in time.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"

As any proper folk music fan knows, the first ingredient of a good song is a good story. Usually you need star-crossed lovers, insurmountable obstacles, death and sacrifice. And a highwayman or two comes in useful too. But in the absence of those, a plain old shipwreck will do just fine. "When suppertime came the old cook came on deck, saying "Fellahs, it's too rough to feed ya/At seven p.m. a main hatchway gave in, he said "Fellahs, it's been good to know ya." But, as someone who's always loved the sea, the line that gets to me is "Does anyone know where the love of God goes/When the waves turn the minutes to hours?"

"What a Waste!"

For a few years, Ian Dury was the closest thing we had to a musical Poet Laureate. He wrote terrific lyrics, and fronted one of the tightest bands around, The Blockheads. His two albums from the period - New Boots & Panties and Do It Yourself - were stuffed to the gills with catchy, funny and clever songs that you could dance to. He's probably best-remembered for "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll", but I prefer this one. "I could be a writer with a growing reputation/I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway station", he sings. "I could be the catalyst that sparks the revolution/I could be an inmate in a long-term institution". Good old fashioned eccentric English songwriting. Shame we've forgotten it.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

"International Velvet"

I'm amused by the fuss and hype that's surrounding Joss Stone at the moment. She's got an absolutely terrific voice, granted, but the poor kid's barely old enough to have had her first kiss, and people are calling her a soul or blues singer? She needs to be let go for a while, allowed to grow up, experience life's bumps and burns. It's like when Whitney Houston first appeared: lovely instrument, girl, now go learn to use it properly. Which brings us neatly round to Catatonia. Cerys Matthews has the same voice, but by the time this song came out, she'd done the living as well, and you could hear it. If you wanted to know what Janis Joplin would sound like updated into the 90s, then look for Cerys, not Joss. Part of the joy of good blues singing is hearing the singer "let go", confident that the voice will feel its way through. I love this song: for a start, it's almost all in Welsh, which is fine by me even if I don't understand a word of it. Secondly, the chorus is magnificent; it illustrates perfectly what so many folks lack by not having a visceral attachment to their nation. This should be the Welsh National Anthem.

Friday, February 11, 2005

"A New England"

God bless Billy Bragg. He's become a bit of an institution, a "have guitar, will travel" kind of Queen Mum to the UK music scene. Never less than 110% committed to the cause, never less than 110% excellent, one man and his guitar. This song is perhaps where it all best came together, when instead of polemics, he simply let the song tell the story. But rather than Billy's version, I much prefer the late Kirsty MacColl's. I could write a whole chapter about her voice: it didn't soar, it held a close conversation with you. It was an understated, husky instrument, almost anonymous (which probably explains why she could do harmony overdubs so well), with a vulnerable quality that shines so brightly on this song; "I saw two shooting stars last night/I wished on them, but they were only satellites/It's wrong to wish on space hardware/I wish I wish I wish you cared."

"Slap and Tickle"

For a while in the 80s, Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford were regarded as the new Lennon and McCartney, and listening to this, you can almost see why. A rattling, urgent beat and rapid-fire lyrics tell the story of everyone's teenage dramas: "He put his hand on her leg/You should have heard what she said/He tried again much later/It seemed to aggravate her/He drove home in silence/Avoiding more violence". Kitchen-sink operas like this and "Up The Junction" or "Pulling Mussels from a Shell" are what made Squeeze so special, in the same tradition as the Kinks. Sadly, Difford and Tillbrook mellowed out with age and couldn't quite seem to find the spark again, though they did create some beautiful music.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

"Uneasy Rider"

It's a crying shame that Charlie Daniels has been co-opted by the good ol' boys of the American right as some sort of cheerleader for all that is conservative and Dubya about the USA. At one point he was a fantastic musician and a nifty songwriter. Yes, he worked in a country vein, he had fiddles and yee-haws, but he had an enormous sense of humour. This is a five-minute piece of joyous doggerel skewering the redneck culture, filled to the brim with laughs. It's sort of the redneck version of "Alice's Restaurant": "Just when I thought I'd get out there with my skin/ These five big dudes come strolling in/With this one old drunk chick and some fellow with green teeth/I was almost at the door when the biggest one/Said 'You tip your hat to this lady, son'/And when I did, all that hair fell out from underneath." It's ridiculous, hilarious and Charlie Daniels should be ashamed of what he's done since.

"Virginia Plain"

When music and art school came together..... you got bands like Roxy Music. What I like about this song is the lack of pretension about the pretension, if you see what I mean. They're not afraid to do eccentric, arty things like stick an oboe in there, make references to up-market holiday destinations (populated no doubt by exotic models drinking unpronouncable cocktails) and you just know that these guys are not short of a buck. I like the vaguely drug-fuelled paranoia about the song: it's skittish, unsure, a bit delicate and eager to get on with it. And the classic, abrupt ending, as if they were distracted by someone cutting monster lines of coke on the designer glass table in the studio. It's classical, it's pop, it's rock, it's "Vogue" magazine, it's completely Jerry Hall. And it's fun to sit for a while and wonder what exactly a "Harzog mane" is.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


A snapshot from the imaginary life of a Supergrass fan:

"Dad, can I borrow the car?"
"Gary, the last time you borrowed the car, you stuffed it into a hedge. The repairs cost over a thousand pounds. You said you'd pay half the bill, you'd get a weekend job, but have you done anything? No, of course you haven't."
"Aww Dad, I don't need to hear this crap again."
"Fine. Then live up to your responsibilities and pay for the damage. Then you can borrow the car. Hand me the newspaper, please."
"But I need to get up to the city on Saturday. Supergrass are playing and I promised I'd drive the boys up."
"Well, you'd better take the train: after all, you're the one who's always banging on about saving the planet and reducing greenhouse gases. Aren't those jeans toxic as well?"
"Come on Dad, the train's not cool."
"And a Ford Mondeo is, I suppose?"

Monday, February 07, 2005

"Let Me Entertain You"

In which Robbie Williams borrows "Pinball Wizard" in its entirety and assumes the mantle of entertainer par excellence. Whatever else you may think of the guy, he does know how to put on a good show. OK, so there isn't an original thought in here, the lyrics are thrown together without any thought, but it Part of it comes from his own energy, part of it is the colour-by-numbers rock that also doesn't break any new ground, but that's not the point! It's a crowd-pleasing singalong that doesn't let you down. OK, all together now with those lighters and scarves........

"Captain Jack"

Before Billy Joel went mellow and AOR, he had a bit of an edge, even though the presentation may still have been kind of polished. Songs like "Root Beer Rag" and "Roberta" from the "Streetlife Serenader" album are terrific, honest cuts, so I was so happy to listen to "Angry Young Man" many years later, which harked back to the early days of a guy who had things to write about that made sense. He does "slice of life" songs so very well. This is a huge thumping drug-references song, with an eight-mile wide chorus that he drives harder and harder to the end, and wry little observations like: "Your sister's gone out/She's on a date/You just sit at home/And masturbate".

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Why oh why aren't the Rainmakers massive? Another lost treasure here. Bob Walkenhorst has a really unique voice, sharp, biting, and he can wail - well, scream really - when he needs to. They came out of the same middle-America roots-rock wellspring as Jason & The Scorchers, the Long Ryders and Lone Justice, but were always a little more....cerebral. The songs are all clever, thought-provoking and heartfelt, no more so than this wonderful track: "And yes I know my brother well and the company he's keeping/Yes I know my brother well, he sings a different tune/Yes I know my brother well, I've heard it said he's queer as hell/Pray that he's in love as well, higher than the moon".

Saturday, February 05, 2005

"Caroline, No"

If you still think the Beach Boys were all about upbeat, impossibly handsome Californian kids heading off the the beach in their woodies for some surfing, think again, dammit! Music may never have come up with a more beautiful, gentle, heartbroken lost-love song than this: "Could I ever find in you again/Things that made me love you so much then/Could we ever bring them back once they have gone?" Aching harmonies, perfectly-arranged instrumentals, this is the Beach Boys' finest and simplest moment, their "Blackbird" if you like.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

A shambling, rambling, tumbledown log cabin of a song, yet stately and dignified at the same time. There's a certain stubborn pride that pours forth from this and other, similar songs about the North-South divide: check out Neil Young's Powderfinger or Warren Zevon's Renegade, both of which are mentioned elsewhere on this blog. I never really properly understood The Band: they were roots-folk with rock influences, but this song seems to sum them up entirely. It's a bitter-sweet, lyrical ode to times past, delicate yet strong enough to withstand the slightly ramshackle arrangement. I love the stop-start intro, the fluffed beginning, and finally it cranks into gear. You can see why Bob Dylan appreciated them so much.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"Finishing Touches"

Talk about the lost treasure of the Sierra Madre. I'm going to be revisiting Warren Zevon's work frequently. For those of us who are fans of cinema noir, or novels set in the darker half of the human experience, Charles Bukowski for example, Zevon is the essential soundtrack. He doesn't shy away from telling it like it is: "I'm getting tired of you/You're getting tired of me/And it's the final act/In our little tragedy/So don't feign indignation/It's a fait accompli/You can screw everybody I've ever known/But I still won't talk to you on the phone". You can't BUY that kind of bitter, knowing, resigned yet outraged acceptance of humankind's essential beastliness. Yet at the other end of the scale, he'll produce a sweet, sweet paean to the better angels of our nature. Zevon was an optimist at heart, but one who took his umbrella with him. This is straightforward rock, so much the better to showcase his incomparable command of language and his ability to sum up an entire life, a whole relationship, in half a dozen words.

Oh, and can you think of any other song in which the protagonist confesses that his cock is sore?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

"I Want To Take You Higher"

Imagine you're wearing the sharpest clothes in all Creation, made out of all sorts of spacey fabrics and colours, moving like a snake with the serious horn, showing off all your fine booty and emphasizing just what a tip-top lover-man or -girl you are. You're sipping on fine wines, dropping 'bon mots' like confetti and generally feeling just about as good as you can. OK. Got that? Well, you may just be cool enough to hang out with this song. Sly & the Family Stone were a riot of colour, rhythm, noise, space and light. They threw great big house-parties of songs, crowded funk-outs that were always this short of spiralling out of control, rhythms falling over one another... this is for dancing like you just don't care.