Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"Boy Crazy"

Everyone has their guilty secret, their embarassing baggage. Mine is that I was -- and to some extent still am -- a huge fan of the Tubes. They never really scaled the heights of chart success, they never had the critics swooning in the aisles, but they were sharp as hell, great musicians, and when it came to live shows, there are few bands that have ever come close to them for sheer spectacle. They trawled the bottom of the barrel of human experience for a good few years, with songs like "Mondo Bondage", "White Punks on Dope", "Smoke" and this sniggering dose of teenage libido: "Wasn't Jimmy's fault/On your first date/Promised Mom you wouldn't be home late/At the drive-in you climbed in the back/Skipped the movies and forgot the snack/Petting heavy didn't bother you/Your eighth grade teacher showed you what to do/Failed your English and biology/But you learned the facts of life from A to Z".


To me, Aerosmith fall somewhere between the cock-rock of Led Zep and the eternally nudge-nudge double-entendres of ZZTop. They can turn on the metal when the mood takes them, but I get the impression they sometimes prefer to be hoary old bluesmen with a nifty line in crotch-grabbing rhythms. I have an image of Steven Tyler as a properly randy old goat, all furry haunches, hooves and a nifty pair of horns, lasciviously licking his lips and smoothing his hair as he prepares to debauch yet another unsuspecting shepherdess. This is one of those good old-fashioned sex songs, crammed to the gills with groans, pre-orgasmic intakes of breath and a healthy dose of hip-pumping rhythm. If words and intonation get you hot, then this song is for you.

Friday, March 25, 2005

"Let's Work Together"

Canned Heat were yet another band who pleased the critics but who just didn't translate that into pan-galactic success. They should have been massive, the biggest blues band ever. Certainly, Bob Hite was one of the biggest blues singers ever, all umpty-seven stone of him, but from that enormous frame came a voice that could do just about anything: his reedy falsetto on "Going Up the Country" and "On the Road Again" is quite unreal. But on this track, he lets it all hang out - a deep throaty growl that just says "blues". Happily, the rest of the band sounds as individual, unique as Hite does. The fuzzed guitar makes you think of Formula One engines; the spare, driving bass is like an enormous elastic band drawn taut. Do not be fooled by Roxy Music's inferior, renamed take on this ancient classic: despite Bryan Ferry's howls and yips, they just don't understand what is needed here. Canned Heat, blues fanatics and record collectors, did.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

"Classical Gas"

This was a one-off hit that came out of nowhere and disappeared the same way, yet it lives on in the theme music from pretty much every sports show I've watched, half-time shows by marching bands at US colleges, and any number of friends who've learned to play the guitar. The main theme is utterly fantastic and I only wish the song lasted longer.

"Welcome to the Pleasure Dome"

Along similar lines as the previous song, was ever a band formed around a single, simple sex? No matter how hard I try, I fail to see much more to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That's not to say their stuff was bad: far from it. But their whole work seemed to be shot through with a salacious, tongue-in-cheek, knowing wink and sly tweak of our collective arse. I get the feeling that all they really wanted to do was fuck themselves silly. Sure, there are no end of artists who spent an inordinate amount of time pondering sex, but to be so one-dimensional, so obsessed about it was something I found totally new and somewhat limiting. This is an immense re-mix of the title track from their debut album, thirteen and a half minutes of it, but it's a fabulous cross-dressing, genre-bending epic. At one point Holly Johnson intones the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", replacing the word "decree" with a lascivious, tongue-rolling "erect!", and you realise that even when the're trying to be serious, they're sending the whole game up. There are hot, sweaty jungle sounds in the background, a hip-entrancing beat, the whole experience is meant to set you up for what follows on the album: it's the Frankie Manifesto. Free your ass and your mind will follow.

"Love The One You're With"

Now, I'm an admirer of Crosby, Still, Nash (and Young). Some of their harmonies are heartbreakingly beautiful, many of their songs are lifelong favourites of mine, and Neil Young is a veritable God. As far as CSN are concerned, though, the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, with virtually the sole exception of this song, by Stephen Stills. And even with this one song, despite its bustling optimism and washes of organ, I have an issue. Stills exhorts us to "love the one we're with", even if we can't "be with the one we love": "Turn your heartache/Right into joy/Cos she's a girl/And you're a boy". Now there are a hundred and one songs about being betrayed by the one you love, but there aren't that many songs that encourage the screwing around that inevitably leads to the heartbreak. And here it's presented so innocently, like some hippy utopian ideal that will make the world a better place. But as events proved, stripping away the old-fashioned mores of our parents' society didn't turn us all into happy, contented commune-dwellers who were happy to share out possessions and our partners. All of which goes to date this song horrendously and turn it into some sort of sociology exhibit.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

"The Fletcher Memorial Home"

Anyone who's ever despaired of tyrants, politicians and self-important nobodies peering into the recesses of our lives and making decisions for us will probably feel some empathy with this song. Towards the end of their lifespan, Pink Floyd Mark 2 were really just a vehicle for Roger Waters' grandiose concepts, none more so that the "Final Cut" album from which this comes. It comes over as a mini-opera, with Roger-As-Narrator butting in on this track to express the fervent wish that all World Leaders should be locked up. It's a fine sentiment, eloquently expressed, but for me the clincher is Roger introducing various characters as if they were arriving at a grand occasion: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome/Reagan and Haig/Mr Begin and friend/Mrs Thatcher, the Paisley/Mr Brezhnev and party/The ghost of MacCarthy/And the memories of Nixon/And now, and in colour/A group of anonymous Latin American meat-packing glitterati". I may be a ghoul, but I think the reference to Latin American dictators as "meat-packing glitterati" is pretty humorous.

"I Wish"

When the bassline just ups and starts walking all over your head, you know you're in for a good time. This song takes absolutely no time at all go straight to your hips. Stevie Wonder has scaled the heights of magic and he's produced some unutterable dross, and here he is at his finest. I can't decide, between this and "Superstition", which is the finer track. And who cares? The joy, the funk, the sense of freedom and fun just blasts from the speakers, and that's about as good as music gets.

"She Still Loves Him"

No, not one of those remembrance-of-times-past nostalgia songs, but a bittersweet, no-nonsense song about falling out of love and domestic violence. This comes from Jellyfish, who've given us "All Is Forgiven" and "He's My Best Friend", so this wasn't what I expected them to produce. The gentle piano intro is rudely interrupted by a jarring guitar riff, and the story takes over: "He writes her a letter, tells her he won't be home soon/She still loves him/He lost his temper and belted his love 'cross the room/She still loves him/Drinks when he's sad gets happy then mad at the world/She still loves him/Never remembers that day in September when wed/She still loves him". I like to think I can see the look on someone's face that tells of a life that's gone this way: pear-shaped, but that tiny spark is still busy shining away at the bottom of the pain: "I know some day this will all work out/She'll never face this alone/The light in her eyes may be flickering dim/But she still loves him". Tragedy, optimism, love: all human life is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

"One Of The Boys"

Growing up in the era of punk and the new Romantics, I was only dimly aware of the whole Glitter Rock thing. But isn't TV grand? I got to see and listen to all those romper-stomper bands: Slade, Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter and eventually I got round to Mott the Hoople. I reckon Mott were the crossover point between glitter and rock; they had the crazy outfits - roll upon roll of aluminium foil and stack-heel Doc Martins, customised guitars, big hair, big attitudes. But they also had a fair amount of rock and roll working for them: it wasn't all shoutalong bovver-boy choruses with Noddy Holder's eldritch scream. Instead, they had the nous to write from a wider perspective, songs like "All the Way From Memphis", "The Golden Age of Rock n Roll", "The Ballad of Mott" for example. More literate, more far-seeing than "Mama We're all Crazy Now". But "One of the Boys" is probably their best nod to the glitter rock craze: "I'm one of the boys/I don't say much but I make a big noise." It trundles along at about 5 mph, there's plenty of heavy, fuzzed-up guitar, it's the sort of song that the bovver boys could stomp along to without breaking too much of a sweat. But the Glitter Rock wasn't about subtlety....

"Overnight Sensation"

Right up there with Badfinger as the Band That Almost Made It Hugest, The Raspberries had everything: irresistible tunes, perfect harmonies, all the requisite Beatles-meet-Beach-Boys talent and inspiration. This is probably the best way to meet them; five and a minutes of just about everything the band could think of in hooks, flyaway choruses, clever production tricks. It's power pop, it's chart-friendly in a 1970s way, and it's the sort of song that should never be unearthed by some ambitious Pop Idol band that wants to showcase its talent, because they'd never come even close to the original.

"Blinded By The Light"

Sometimes you don't hear a song, but instead you hear a torrent of words that whirls around your head like bathwater and refuses to go down the drain until you sort out exactly what it's all about. "Madman drummer bummers/Indians in the summer/With a teenage diplomat/In the dumps with the mumps/As the adolescent pumps/His way into his hat/With a boulder on my shoulder/Feeling kinda older/I tripped a merry-go-round/With this very unpleasing/Sneezing and wheezing/The calliope crashed to the ground." It's been well over twenty years, but this song is still up there in my head looking fr a way out. You would hardly credit these words came from Bruce Springsteen. But after a while listening to this, you can sort of see where he was going, on his way to "Born to Run".

Friday, March 11, 2005


I have a sneaking regard for Steely Dan. They write such well-constructed, restrained, literate songs, mature in an I-don't-go-out-clubbing-anymore-but-I-can-still-let-it-all-hang-out sort of way. And there's the major jazz influence as well, so the general vibe you always get is a relaxed, late-night drinks, chill-out lounge thing. Steely Dan's music reeks of money, warm weather, privilege, insider knowledge and an utter lack of trendiness. It transcends trends, it's a pleasure you can revisit at age 28, 38, 68, whenever. As long as you've a full wallet and the top down on your Mercedes.

"Teenage Dirtbag"

More bubblegum with amplification, but very tasty this is, too. Wheatus sort of came and went in a hurry, but they left behind this fantastic song, filled to the brim with hummable, danceable hooks and one of those everlasting boy-fancies-girl-from-a-distance storylines that appeal to the kid in everyone. "But she doesn't know who I am/And she doesn't give a damn about me".

"Authority Song"

I forget the name of the film, but someone asks James Dean what he's rebelling against, and he replies: "What you got?". There are no end of songs that deal with teenage rebellion, but this one sort of sums them all up. John Cougar Mellencamp has been labouring for most of his career in the shadow of the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bob Seger as sort of heartlands troubadours, glorifying the simplicity and honesty of the midwest US. I don't buy that myself, but I do buy Mellencamp's honesty and ethic. This is almost a cartoon song, trying to encompass as many perceived teenage injustices as possible, but it's neatly wrapped up in the chorus: "I fight authority/Authority always wins", and lines like: "I call up my preacher, I say "give me the strength for Round Five"/He says "You don't need no strength/You need to grow up, son"/I said "Growing up leads to growing old/And then to dying/And dying to me don't sound like all that much fun". It's all strung over a vaguely rock/country/billy beat that chunters along in a gunslinger sort of way, and you get the feeling that Mellencamp wrote this one in front of the mirror in his bedroom.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


As if by magic, a clever counterpoint to "Every Picture Tells A Story" . Where Rod Stewart's song followed the middle classes off on their travels around the world, The Who's "5:15" sits on the commuter train with those unlucky enough to be forced into work at an early age, where recreation is restricted to cinema dates, weekend trips to the coast or the country, or hanging around on street corners. After Roger Daltrey asks "Why should I care?" in the intro, the song dives straight into a blast of brass, a driving rhythm that suggests the hectic, dedicated pursuit of pleasure in those few free moments stolen from a prospect of drudgery: "Magically bored on a quiet street corner/Free frustration in our minds and our toes/Quiet storm water m-m-my generation/Uppers and downers, either way blood flows". And the plaintive, angry chorus: "Inside outside, leave me alone/Inside outside, nowhere is home/Inside outside, where have I been/Out of my brain on the five-fifteen". Along with Ray Davies, Pete Townshend seems to have captured the essential drudgery and frustration of homebound youth and found it a wellspring for fantastic, life-affirming music. It's one of those contradictions that you can spend a long time trying to come to terms with.

"Every Picture Tells a Story"

I guess the days are past now when a kid could leave home and travel the world with a guitar and a backpack, hang out in exotic places that hadn't been discovered by the masses, become an adult the hard way and come home with a treasure chest of stories and experiences to sustain his or her old age. Must have been a 60s thing. Anyway, Rod Stewart seems to have written a load of songs on the back of this kind of experience - Maggie May, Stay With Me, for example - and this, which is a true classic and serves to remind us that he was, once, a serious songwriter with huge talent. I don't suppose we should begrudge him his comfortable dotage, so that he can reflect on his well-spent youth. This song fairly gallops along with the occasional pause for sober reflection, underpinned by a beautiful-sounding acoustic guitar and Rod's younger, less-ravaged soul howl. There's sadness, nostalgia, joy, the ebullience of youth and wisdom all wrapped up in six minutes. What more can you ask for?

"Voices Carry"

Love songs are twenty a penny. Everyone writes them, everyone sings them, and we all have our favourites. But this love song, by Til Tuesday, comes with a twist, the kind that brings you up short and makes you think just a little. It's an affair song, a bit-on-the-side song, sung from the bit-on-the-side's perspective. "In the dark I like to read his mind/But I'm frightened of the things I might find/Well, there must be something he's thinking of to tear him away/When I tell him that I'm falling in love, why does he say/Hush, hush/Keep it down now, voices carry." And later, "He wants me/But only part of the time/He wants me/If he can keep me in line". Confused, sad, bereft, an innocent cast into the shark-infested waters of dating.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"American Idiot"

Yeah yeah, so sue me. At least Green Day remember how to write a great three-minute pop song. You're never too old to pogo round your kitchen!

"Will We Be Lovers"

There's a point in a relationship when danger is uppermost: when things could go either way, when you're not sure if you're going to make it, when there are still so many choices facing both of you. And then you agree to a second date.......
I like this track's nervous energy, the hesitant menace, the vaguely feline chorus. Deacon Blue aren't most people's idea of fashionable, but this is a real treat. Ricky Ross has the edge of the blues in his voice, the tired, raw edge that gives the song extra punch, while the girls in the chorus mock him gently: "Will we be lovers/Or will we still be......?"

"The Load-Out/Stay"

There's no end of songs about touring: any band worth its salt has written about the hard-luck days living out of the back of a van, humping amps and eating at greasy-spoon roadside shacks.
But when a band or artist makes it, they get to relax, travel in a little more style, and have people to do things for them. Personal managers, cooks, you name it, they're on the road these days. But one group has always been there, the backbone of any touring act: the roadies. "Now the seats are all empty/Let the roadies take the stage/Pack it up and tear it down/They're the first to come and the last to leave/Working for that minimum wage/They'll set it up in another town."
There's something about live, solo performance that is more compelling than any amount of studio production. Call it courage, call it chops, but that's when you really find out if an artist can hack it. This song is an ancient Jackson Browne track, a tribute to the road crew, to the audience, to the whole romance of being on the road. He strips away the bravado, the whoremongering, the attitude and the dirt of touring, leaving just the essentials: performance, hard work and travel. And it's proof positive that he has one of the great, pure voices. He doesn't need to hide.

Monday, March 07, 2005

"Hold On, I'm Coming"

One of the things I like best about the blues is the ramshackle, pickup way in which songs can start. One person's just noodling along, riffing quietly to himself, and then someone else steps in and offers a counterpoint, perhaps a syncopation, there's a hesitation, a moment's juddering halt, and finally the drums and bass step up to bring structure to the whole thing.
Another thing I like about the blues is the sound B.B. King's guitar makes: I can only call it limpid, pure, like droplets of water falling into a pool of mercury. No wailing, flying divebombers of feedback like Hendrix, but simple straightforward playing. Watching King, a big bear of a man, wring the neck of his guitar to produce these clear notes is a great great pleasure: he's perhaps the last of the great original bluesmen.
This track is from an album he made with Eric Clapton, and in listening to the whole CD you get a sense of the reverence Clapton has for King, and the cameraderie that exists among bluesmen. They know the language, the shorthand, the riffs, and they can talk to each other with just a little flick of the wrist along the neck and strings. They're proud of their traditions, but not too proud to let the blues grow.

"Neon Lights"

If you read the liner notes on Queen's album "Night at the Opera", there's a proud statement at the end: "No Synths!". Today that statement sounds a bit like Canute trying to hold back the sea. Queen's album was made back in the late 70s when electronics were only just beginning to sweep across the music business, and there were a few sturdy artists pioneering the use of synthesizers. Probably the greatest of these was Kraftwerk, four Germans with a complete concept for the coming electronic age: down with the histrionics and mass-adulation gymnastics of the guitar heroes, away with the screwed-up faces and emotions of the misunderstood lead singer, and who needs a circus animal for a drummer anyway? Kraftwerk were precise, controlled, they knew what they wanted to say and they knew how they wanted to look while they were saying it. Throughout the mid-1970s they created a host of absolutely seminal sounds that showed the way for the New Romantics and after. "Neon Lights" comes from what is probably their finest, and most remote album, "The Man Machine": it's a gentle, hypnotic, dangerously emotive song, coming as a total surprise when set against the ice-cold lust of "The Model". And that's where they genius of Kraftwerk may well lie: the medium is not the message, it's just the medium.

"Asleep In The Desert"

One thing that annoys me from time to time is the careless dismissal of rock musicians for being merchants of sheer volume. You know the sort of thing - headbangers can't be artists because they can't play their instruments... well, whenever I do come across something that refutes that argument, I rejoice loudly (sic). And here's one that does just that. ZZTop are more or less caricatures these days, two bearded guys and a clean-shaven dude (called Beard), who like to boogie, who aren't always the epitome of political correctness, and who do have a penchant for outlandish silliness. But, every once in a while, they sit down, get serious, and remind us just how damn proficient they are. This track is a lullaby, an instrumental lament, a quiet night by the campfire; glorious, delicate guitar, soft textures and lots of space in which to ruminate.

Friday, March 04, 2005

"White Rabbit"

There's a fantastic, dark feel to this, a vague, unsettling menace. I'm not at all sure where the danger comes from here. Perhaps it's the first looping rush into an acid trip, perhaps it's the martial snare drum, like the approach of the army of playing cards in "Alice in Wonderland". Maybe it's the lyrics, which are clearly from the depths of someone's addled reading of Lewis Carroll. Magic mushrooms, white mice and above it all, Grace Slick's foghorn voice soaring like some modern-day Valkyrie. It's short, perfectly-formed and builds into a terrific climax with Grace shouting "Feed Your Head!" It's almost as if this song, rather than Altamont, was the moment the 60s died. This was when innocence tipped over into overindulgence.