Friday, May 27, 2005

"Hello It's Me"

The first song I blogged here was Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light", and this is probably the right moment to write about his other sure-fire, slam-dunk contender for the Ultimate Three-Minute Pop Song. This is Carole King, Neil Sedaka, The La's, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Lord knows who else, wrapped up into one shining lump of perfection. The best songs are the simplest, and they don't get much simpler than this, you'd think. But if you listen a few times, there is so damn much going on in here... the melody is straight out of the Brill Building circa 1965, the harmonies are so good it hurts - listen to the voices singing "Think of me" at the start of the third verse, and I swear you'll not find a better harmony moment. This is a fallen-out-of-love-song, but one that can't quite let go: "Think of me/You know that I'd be with you if I could/I'll come around to see you once in a while/Or if I ever need a reason to smile/And spend the night if you think I should." And, being the anorak I am, I enjoy the fact that this song was recorded live and both before and after the song, you can hear the musicians laughing, joking, fluffing the beginning. One of the backing singers confesses at the end: "I think I'm falling in love with the singer." What better song to fall back into love to?


Now here's a topic which can't have been used all that often for a song. Somewhere I still have the old Thompson Twins album "Quick Step and Side Kick", which is one of those fifty-fifty albums where you quite like the memories attached to the songs, even one or two of the songs themselves, but it's not something that's going to be right up there at the top of your Desert Island list. But this track just seems to slide sideways out of the discard pile and into the "pretty damn good" box. It's totally out of character, in the same way that "Being Boiled" wasn't representative of the Human League's later output. A dark, almost brooding lament, played at a stately, funereal pace. Oh it's pop all right, plenty of stacked chorus and fab production, but it is still.....dark. At one or two points there's a deep, throbbing synth bass line that almost sounds like an old piston-engine, carrying someone off to their rendezvous with Valhalla. Sadly, the lyric is almost, almost spoiled by the last line: "Feeling alone/Flying above you/I'm not coming home/Now I know, now I know that I love you." But you can't have it all.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"

It's quite possible there has never been a love song quite this perfect. Proper, pure, almost metaphysical in its plainly-expressed, heartrendingly-sung beauty. There's not a single thing out of place here. Led by a wispy bass, with reflective taps on a hi-hat to punctuate the solemn, early-hours-of-the-morning feel, and then Roberta Flack's voice that grows from a gentle murmur to a soaring call, and then drops back to a gentle valediction. You could listen to this anywhere: on a beach at sunrise, in your bed at three in the morning while your love sighs in their sleep next to you, in a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere or in the depths of despair. It works every time.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Das Boot"

Here's a change: a film theme. You know how film soundtracks tend to be completely nonsensical when they're taken out of context? While the track may have sounded sensational while the film was going on, you try to listen to it at home and it's utterly pointless. There are some exceptions, mostly by Ry Cooder I find, but this is terrific. "Das Boot" is probably one of the finest war films ever made, a claustrophobic epic set on a German submarine, a warts-and-all, honest-to-goodness account of what it was like 600 feet down. A good movie theme will take you right into the story, deposit you among the characters and leave you feeling as if you have been part of the story. This track works in spades; you hear the thrashing of propellers, the ping of the ASDIC, the dense of depth and closeness and the slow, deathly inevitability of everything that happens. And when the track winds up to its conclusion, you feel the relief of breaching the surface, of having cheated the deep once more. Atmosphere (or lack of it), tension, fear, frailty and death, all wrapped up in one brief piece of instrumental music.


One of the frustrating things about being a devotee of Jean-Michel Jarre is coming up against a generic prejudice against instrumental or electronic music. Too much of it sounds like widdly, droning techno-boffin crap, you might say, and hell, there's enough out there to suggest you are probably right some of the time. But this kind of stuff has been going on since the 60s, even with bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd, who started playing around with primitive synthesizers and sequencers and tape loops well before the advent of transistors and computers. So it's not exactly new, even if "new age" is what people often call this music. Jarre at least has the merit of having a classical musical background, and so more often than not he's composed something that has structure and texture. Anyway, to "Calypso": this is a steel band wig-out. Steel bands might not be to your taste, but Jarre's upped the ante here and got them to play at 100 mph. The band swaps the lead back and forth with the synthesizers until before you know it, you're dancing. This is holiday music, pure and simple, it's like letting a Caribbean carnival into your sitting room for nine minutes.

"Sit Down"

I've waited long enough to get to this one. "Sit Down" was a baggy anthem when it first came out, in the same welter of guitar-based dance music that brought us the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, but for some reason, James always seemed to stand slightly apart. Maybe because they were more literate, less party-oriented animals, maybe because they seemed to hook into a pop tradition more easily. This has possibly one of the greatest lines written: "Now I've swung back down again/It's worse than it was before/If I hadn't seen such riches/I could live with being poor". This is a solidarity song, one that tells us it's alright to be human, to be weak, because we're in the majority: "Those who feel the breath of sadness/Sit down next to me/Those who find they're touched by madness/Sit down next to me/Those who find themselves ridiculous/Sit down next to me". It's one of those quiet classic songs that will stick around for a long time: a simple message, a seductive melody.

Monday, May 23, 2005

"Snake Oil"

Thinking about Dr Feelgood down there took me on to Steve Earle, who's probably the country version of their straight-ahead blues. "Snake Oil" is just about as good a song as he's ever done: yup, it's political, because Steve is a political animal, but damn, he rocks! This song starts off quietly, just a honky-tonk piano and Steve rambling over the top about nothing in particular. Then, in comes the muted guitar and the first verse and the country influence is already clear. But there's a little something more solid, more rock creeping in as well. By the time he launches into the song proper, all hell breaks loose and things get particularly funky. Fantastic guitar that wouldn't be out of place on an early Elvis track, piano being battered into submission, slide guitars filling in the spaces, this is literally exhausting to listen to. You just *know* they were having an absolute ball making this. And at the end, as the dust settles, Steve calls out: "I knew there was a first-taker on this album somewhere!" Just as well: I don't think they could have done this twice.

"Go Your Own Way"

Some songs get taken completely out of context and find themselves appropriated for totally inappropriate reasons. Think back to Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" being used by Ronald Reagan for his re-election campaign in 1984: the collective glossing over of the song's subject matter is one of the great examples of society turning a blind eye to something so painfully obvious. Anyway, I digress. But "Go Your Own Way" must be right up there in the same list. It's a painful, bitter song about the break-up of a relationship: "Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do/How can I ever change things/That I feel/If I could/Maybe I’d give you my world/How can I when you won't take it from me?" Heck, the whole of the "Rumours" album is about four musicians in relationships falling apart. It's a rare experiment in reality, if you like. Everyone wrote songs about each other, except Mick Fleetwood, who sat at the back behind the drums and kept the whole thing going. Even his drumming on this track is fantastic, solid without being flashy. What constantly amazes me is how so few people tend to listen to this song, this album, and not recognise or at least acknowledge what an immensely painful experience it must have been, and what an incredible achievement it was to even put a record out. Even the optimistic song(s) on the album is/are infused with the same bleakness. And remember Bill Clinton standing up in Little Rock in 1992 while they played "Don't Stop"? Full circle. I thank you.

"Down at the Doctor"

Once in a while it's good to stand up at the cliff's edge and feel the elements in your face, to open yourself to the wind, the bleaching sun and let nature's simple but immense force wash over you. Similarly, after years of over-produced, tweaked, EQ'd and glossed music, one in a while it's good to get back to basics: rock and roll, played loudly without a hint of irony or pretence. Which is where Dr Feelgood come in. Nothing sophisticated here, just good old fashioned straight-ahead blues, sung in a sandpaper voice that's harder than brickwork, guitars that slash like an alleyway switchblade and a thudding, solid rhythm section that isn't going anywhere but straight ahead. This is all about sweaty clubs way after closing time, smoke hanging in the air, wet floors, a crowded stage and blues bouncing off the walls in all directions. You'd be a hard person not to get caught up in the moment here; this is loud, brash, fun music with a rhythm that starts in your guts and spreads through you until your ears hum and you can feel the bass at the bridge of your nose. If you thought the "Blues Brothers" was about the blues, then you need to hear this.

"Love Me Two Times"

This is, by the Doors' standards, a really taut song. I can't help but compare anything the Doors performed with some of their more rambling, unfocused epics like "The End", which is just about as self-indulgent as any band could ever get and never fulfils the aching promise of the opening minute. This however is just fantastic, a dark, brooding blues - could a song about sex ever be as dark as this? Drummer John Densmore does some of his best work here, driving the song with tight little rolls and some excellent fills, and Ray Manzarek's keyboards are honky-tonk in just the right way. But of course it's Morrison we all focus on. His raw, hoarse voice is losing its power and this gives the song just a hint of despair (as perhaps the Lizard King was losing his mojo in real life?), and you can sense what a struggle it was for him to reach the final codas. There's a lack of confidence in that voice, a lack of the strutting, preening peacock who set the tone for the late 1960s. He's human now, and it scares him. There's a real irony for you: as Morrison starts to come apart at the seams, the rest of the band comes together to pick up the slack and carry him just a little further.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

"The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys"

This is about as close to jazz as I am ever likely to get. Which probably qualifies me for at least a seat right by the band in hell, but hey, we don't make our own choices in these things. Traffic was Stevie Winwood's big sixties supergroup thing, the grown-up, experimental band he had after the Spencer Davis Group and well before his 90s resurrection with "Higher Love", "Valerie" etc. Incidentally, that Eric Prydz song that's been annoying the top of the charts of late is nothing more than the "Valerie" chorus beefed up, isn't it? Long live creativity.
Back to Traffic. This is epic stuff. No, "epic" here doesn't mean loud, passionate, bombastic or even huge. It's a low-key, winding, twisting, beautifully-performed track, with one of the best choruses I have ever heard, and some seriously sixties lyrics: "The percentage you're paying is too high a price/When you're living beyond all your means/And the man in the suit has just bought a new car/From the profit he's made from your dreams/But today we just read that the man was shot dead/By a gun that didn't make any noise/But it wasn't the bullet that laid him to rest, it was/The low spark of high-heeled boys." The song is long enough for plenty of solos, for recapitulation, for all the stuff that music and composition teachers teach us is important. It's something to play when you have time and space to really live "in" the song, to try to delve into it, understand it.

"Casey Jones"

I'm not a Deadhead, never have been, but for many years I lived among folks that were pretty obsessive about the Grateful Dead and got to see something of the subculture that surrounded the band. I guess you could say they were precursors of the "slacker" generation, just living till the next time the band rolled through town (and you could be sure they would) or packing up and driving however many hundred miles to see a show. There used to be a pizza restaurant in my hometown that had literally thousands of bootlegs of Dead shows in cabinets behind the counter; you could walk in, name a gig you'd been to seven years earlier, and they'd have that show on tape. We're talking SERIOUS obsession.
But when you listen to the studio albums, the one thing that strikes you is how laid-back they all were. The songs meander, they tend to shift in and out of focus (probably not surprising given the heroic drug intake). But they're great songs! Which is why I've tended to go for cover versions rather than the original. One of the best to my mind is this Warren Zevon/David Lindley version of one of their most famous songs. It's got a proper driving rhythm, it's focused, the musicianship is sharp and clear. "Trouble with you is the trouble with me/Got two good eyes but we still don't see/Come round the bend, you know it's the end/The fireman screams and the engine just gleams." A good song for driving.

"Follow You Follow Me"

I get confused by Genesis. On the one hand, there was this large, unwieldy eighteen-wheeler of a band that created songs that started off when you were leaving for work in the morning and were just about winding up when you got home from the pub at around midnight: songs like "Supper's Ready" with a cast of thousands, usually all played by Peter Gabriel. Though he might well have left the band by then. See? You needed one of Pete Frame's Rock Family trees to keep up with the personnel. Then there was the second Genesis, the spare, stripped down commercial outfit that was basically Phil Collins and two anonymous bandmates that produced "Abacab", "I Can't Dance" and other chart hits. Between these two versions of the band, there was a bright, brief moment when they managed to combine the eccentricity of the former with the commercial nous of the latter: the "And Then There Were Three" album, from which this song comes. Now, everyone has probably heard this, and more than a few have failed to connect it to Genesis, I'll bet. This is just great: the intro is probably one of the most recognisable moments in rock, the synth washes over the chorus like a cleansing shower, and the whole song is so underwritten that it passes beneath your radar until you're caught up in the emotion and you realise it's probably Genesis' first proper love song: "Stay with me/My love I hope you’ll always be/Right here by my side if ever I need you/Oh my love." And the chorus, which is one of the best written for a long time: "I will follow you will you follow me/All the days and nights that we know will be/I will stay with you will you stay with me/Just one single tear in each passing year."

"Easy On My Soul"

It's a Sunday morning, the excesses of the previous night are still echoing a little in your ears, so while you're waiting for the water to boil you need a little something to calm the stomach, soothe the spirit and slowly open your senses. Something that just sits in the air, wafts a gentle breeze over your heart and starts your day slowly. So I'm recommending a song by Free, best known for "All Right Now" and other 70s rock standards. You don't understand? Listen to this! Paul Rodgers' voice is reined in to a gorgeous blues whisper, almost, the song is driven by a repeated piano arpeggio that lifts, lifts your heart, the guitars are muted -- we're thinking of your hangover, you see -- and if you close your eyes, you're seeing a vast beach at low tide, a sunrise, smooth white sand and seagulls wheeling at the water's edge. This is a song for contemplation, for a quite moment on the sofa, perhaps with your love at your side, for saying nothing. "Some say love is/Some say what is love/Some say in love is love/When you're around me/I really want to know." It's not a song to make you think, but a song to make you feel, a song to make you stretch out and revel in your freedom for just a few moments.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Time for an intelligent love song. You know, one that eschews the "oh baby, I love you *that* much, now let's get intimate" and goes for something a little more robust. Extreme seem to flip between two pretty different noods; on the one hand they can be as funky and rock as you like (viz. "Get the Funk Out"), but then they can create a mood of utter tranquility that draws you in and sets your soul at rest (viz. "More Than Words"). But this one for some reason straddles the two poles. The beat reminds me a little of the Proclaimers, a steady marching that won't take no for an answer, acoustic guitars duel on top and then the lyric comes in to set you to thinking: "Life's ambition occupies my time/Priorities confuse the mind/Happiness one step behind/This inner peace I've yet to find/Rivers flow into the sea/Yet even the sea is not so full of me/If I'm not blind why can't I see/That a circle can't fit/Where a square should be." This isn't a love song, per se, but rather a song that's about waking up and realising how life can be that much better when you can express everything that's in your heart and mind: "There's a hole in my heart/That can only be filled by you/And this hole in my heart/Can't be filled with the things I do."

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Relationship advisors talk about "chemistry" without really offering much of a definition: is it sexual chemistry, the kind that reduces the two of you to drooling, humping canines for twelve hours of each Saturday and most weeknights as well? Or is there something more mental, emotional at work? Nobody seems to know, particularly the Pointer Sisters on this version of Bruce Springsteen's original. It's all sidelong glances, half-moves towards each other, playing coy and reserved, "but when we" Maybe the chemistry here is of two fairly inexperienced lovers, who still play the games of youth. "Late at night you're taking me home/You say you want to stay/I say I want to be alone/I say I don't love you/But I can't hide my desire/Cos when we kiss/Fire." Delicious, pent-up, and such great voices to drive it all home.

"Nick of Time"

Rock and roll has always been a young person's thing. Popular music is designed to go against the grain of the older generation, to cause outrage and huffing and puffing from the Establishment. But somehow, things have begun to stick in recent years. Perhaps it's the influence of the media, making megastars of people who haven't had a hit record in years, and keeping them in the public eye. Or is there another reason the Rolling Stones keep touring? Nostalgia has become big business, when twenty years ago you'd hardly remember the names of the stars of your youth. What is this about? Perhaps it's the generation of the 60s and 70s, who are probably thinking "when I was a kid, songs had proper tunes and all", voting with their feet and wallets. In any case, the theme of time passing is one that's taking a front seat in the minds of a lot of Baby Boomers these days.
Which brings me to this song by Bonnie Raitt: "I see my folks, they’re getting old, I watch their bodies change/I know they see the same in me, and it makes us both feel strange/No matter how you tell yourself, it’s what we all go through/Those eyes are pretty hard to take when they’re staring back at you." There are all kinds of ways to measure the passing of the years, but this is perhaps the most personal, the most visceral sign of age. It's a soft, gentle, reflective song that touches on those sensitive spots, backs away, and leaves you warm and somehow reassured.


Seeing as how I've reached 200 songs on this blog, I thought it might be time to provoke controversy and outrage by suggesting some favourites in various categories. Not that I believe in these lists or anything, but just in case anyone's being anorak-ish about it..... Now, the categories are hotlinks to the actual entry, so try and guess in advance what it's going to be. Amuse your neighbours! Horrify your kids!

Best Torch Song.
The Best Song to Play When You're Bouncing off Walls.
The Best Guitar Intro, Ever.
Best Lullaby for Grown-Ups.
Best Pop Song, Ever.
Greatest Weepie.
The Best Closing-Time Mumbled Anthem.
Greatest Kitchen-Sink Opera.
The So Damn Infectious You'll Need a Hip-Replacement Special.
The Greatest Song Never to Make it Absolutely Huge.
The Song That Taught Me To Love the Rave.
The Song That Proved Punk's Not Dead.
The Best Prelude to Sex.
The Greatest Moment of Self-Indulgence Ever Written.
The Song that Proves The Future's Not as Bleak as We Oldies Think.
The Song That Proves R&B's Gone Terribly Wrong.
Possibly The Most Intelligent Songwriting of the Last 20 Years.
How To Be Unpleasant to an Ex.
And the Greatest Love Song

Sunday, May 15, 2005

"Bela Lugosi's Dead"

You want mood? You want atmosphere? Right this way, sir and ma'am.... meet Pete Murphy and Bauhaus. If you ever wanted a song to perfectly convey a mood, a time, a place, even a person, this song does it all. Nine minutes plus of scraping, looping, chiming guitars, monotone vocals that rise to a howl, a gentle insistent beat; and a million and one images of shadows flitting across castle walls, candles flickering, everything those late-night Hammer Horror films strive to perfected here. "White on white translucent black capes/Back on the rack/Bela Lugosi's dead/The bats have left the bell tower/The victims have been bled/Red velvet lines the black box/Bela Lugosi's dead/Undead undead undead." This is sensational. It always was, and always will be the ultimate Goth song.

"Stainsby Girls"

This is a love song to bygone youth, to the memory of things that were so vital, so all-encompassing and important at one time, but which have mellowed with time and bring a wry smile to the lips instead of a grimace of pain or balled fists of ecstasy. For forty-somethings who've taken a more relaxed attitude to life but who remember their fast-paced days, this is a gentle, bittersweet reminder. I love Chris Rea's laid-back, blues-inflected style, his hoarse, tired voice and squealing slide guitar - so rarely heard these days. This song starts so gently, so quietly, as if it were a gentle reflection that begins to solidify, to take shape in front of your eyes. The guitar kicks in, the drums shortly afterwards and before it, you're rocking along: "Now some had games that you had to play/Making rules along the way/Strange attractions newly found/Pride and passion kicked around/Some girls stole your heart/Like most girls do/But a Stainsby girl could break it in two." There's no shame here, no furtiveness, no embarassment at remembering. The time has come to grow up, this song is saying, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

"Detox Mansion"

Once upon a time, rock stars were larger-than-life characters, living expensive yet grubby lives at 100 mph, partying all night, doing industrial quantities of drugs, drinking till their livers imploded and, for a few years at least, living to tell the tale. Sadly now, more and more of those titans from the edge are being gathered as their youth catches up with them. They're being replaced by clean, polished, PR'd, corporate kids, who are more concerned with the long-term yield on the investments they made off their first album, whose sound, image and look is carefully focus-grouped until it meets the very widest possible demographic. Compare and contrast Led Zeppelin defenestrating televisions from the Edgewater Inn in Seattle with Robbie Williams' tours being underwritten by corporate America. Hmmmm.
And when these new, young stars do go off the rails, as in the case of the Libertines' Pete Doherty for example, their descent into the time-honoured tradition of excess is documented in salivating detail by the media. I don't recall any headlines reading: "My Drug Hell, by Jimmy Page", for example. And when Doherty got packed off to the Priory, or whatever detox centre it was, we all travelled with him.
"Detox Mansion" is Warren Zevon making more or less the same journey as Pete Doherty, but a tad more anonymously: "Left my home in Music City/In the back of a limousine/Now I'm doin' my own laundry/And I'm gettin' those clothes clean/Growin' fond of Detox Mansion/And this quiet life I lead/But I'm just dying to tell my story/For all my friends to read." There's a howling sense of irony all through this song, an amused outsider's perspective, as if it were being told to a journalist: "Well, it's tough to be somebody/And it's hard not to fall apart/Up here on Rehab Mountain/We gotta learn these things by heart."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"The Distance from Her to There"

Can you sing country without being "country"?. I'm not sure Lambchop are really country, anyway. Their record company website describes them as "Nashville's most fucked-up country band". I have a hard time explaining why I love this song. Maybe it's the gentle, wafted intro, borne ashore on waves of a brushed drum, or it might be Kurt Wagner's warm, deep half-spoken lyric: "so shy tonight I'm told you were/I'm in the thick of it/I've been a dick with it you're just not used to it", before he breaks into a fragile falsetto chorus. It might be the various noises and whistles that murmur gently in the background, filling the spaces in what is a fairly laid-back, sparse tune. Or it may just be the attitude of the song, which is "I'm me and you're you, so maybe we will get it together or maybe we won't". Oh, and thanks CJ for reminding me about this!

"That's Entertainment!"

I've already blogged "English Rose" by The Jam, and to my mind, this one is right up there alongside as one of the best songs to come out of Britain in the 1980s. If you wanted one song to tell you about what living in Britain was like in the 80s, you could do no beter than this. If I recall rightly, Cocaine Jesus blogged this a while back, and it's that good a song that it deserves all the exposure it can have:
"A smash of glass and the rumble of boots/An electric train and a ripped up 'phone booth/Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat/Lights going out and a kick in the balls".
There's no hidden meaning, no grand metaphor, just the facts, ma'am. It's real, it's harsh yet tender: "Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight/Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude" and it's brilliant.

"Once in a Lifetime"

Probably one of the more thought-provoking songs I've blogged, this is one of those moments when you can't decide whether to dance or to sit and ponder life's eternal verities. Talking Heads do this to me. Every song of theirs I've heard and enjoyed has been a tussle between my hips and my head. What is this about, anyway? Is it the realisation that time passes and you'd better not let a day go by without grabbing life by the short and curlies? A sort of midlife crisis? Are Talking Heads poking fun at the archetypal American "perfect life" of the 50s and 60s? Or are they talking about nuclear power? The melting ice-caps? Deforestation in the Amazon basin? Does it matter? There are probably as many interpretations to this as there are copies of the album knocking around. And that's just fine.

Monday, May 09, 2005

"Sunset Grill"

This is a very definite song about a very definite time and place. You're sitting in the front window of a bar, probably in Seattle, and very likely the Victoria Inn near the Pike's Place market. You're having the last latte of the day or the first beer of the evening, and you can't think of anywhere else to go, or anything else to do. Life is happening all around you, people passing in blurs of fast forward and stopping, freezing just for a second in front of the window to let you in on the secret of their lives, before they pass and the moment, the insight is lost. You came from somewhere depressing to this point, and you're waiting for the next current, the next eddy, to carry you on your way. in the meantime however: "Let's go down to the Sunset Grill/And watching the working girls go by/Watch the basket people walk around and mumble/Gaze out at the auburn sky/Maybe we'll leave come springtime/In the meantime. have another beer/What would we do without all these jerks anyway/And besides, all our friends are here." One of Don Henley's better days at the office.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

"Sign o' the Times"

Let's go back and re-examine the theory that Less Is More. This is so spare, bare and simple that it feels, and almost sounds, like nothing at all. Yet it's probably Prince's best song: trembling with suppressed rage, anger and frustration. He doesn't let it show in his voice, which is a gentle and fairly laid-back drawl. The beat doesn't betray anything either - it's a slow, evil, snaking thing. It's in the lyric, which just lays it all out in front of us:

"In France, a skinny man died of a big disease/With a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle/And soon she did the same/At home there are 17-year-old boys/And their idea of fun/Is being in a gang called The Disciples/High on crack and totin' a machine gun/Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church/And killed everyone inside/U turn on the telly and every other story/Is tellin' U somebody died/A sister killed her baby cuz she couldn't afford 2 feed it/And yet we're sending people 2 the moon/In September, my cousin tried reefer 4 the very first time/Now he's doing horse - it's June."

I make no apologies for quoting so extensively: this is as powerful a lyric as you're likely to come across, and by playing it absolutely straight, and by using such a minimalist musical approach, Prince makes this bold, heartfelt statement ring loudly. By some curious irony, the song that came up on my jukebox right after this was Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA". Now there's a pair of styles to compare and contrast!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

"Devoted Friends"

At the other end of relationships, now. After everything has gone as wrong as it could, after you've parted ways for whatever can't let go, but you can't hold on either. "If you have to leave after all that we've/Been through, been through/I can't be a friend if your heart has the end/In view, in view/Because lovers never can be/Just devoted friends/How can we meet on a day in the week/And be true, be true/And how can I speak and pretend that I'm happy for you/For you, for you". Wang Chung never floated my boat in general, but this song just leapt out and grabbed me. We've all been here, right folks?

"You and Me Song"

There are almost too many songs that try and glorify love by talking about the first flush of a romance, the passion that kicks off a relationship, the can't-keep-our-hands-off-each-other obsession. What's harder to do is find something trancendent in the mundane, to lift up the every-day currency of being with someone and try to show how special it is: "You tell me I'm a real man, and try to look impressed/Not very convincing, but you know I love it/Then we watch TV, until we fall asleep/Not very exciting/But it's you and me always and we'll always/Be together." The Wannadies hit the nail perfectly on the head with this song: the verse is a gentle, summery whisper, a softly-spoken "I love you" in the perfect silence of a Saturday afternoon in the park, while the chorus is the burst of realization and confirmation, the moment of passion that returns, time and again, to refresh and invigorate. "Always when we fight, I try to make you laugh/Until everything's forgotten, I know you hate that/Always when we fight, I kiss you once or twice/And everything's forgotten, I know you hate that/I love you Sunday sun, the week's not yet begun/And everything is quiet/And it's always you and me always and forever." I'd rather listen to this than to a thousand dance-floor smooching songs.

Monday, May 02, 2005

"Living in the USA"

Another song that has an irresistible grip on the hips, this is all about shuffling backbeat, blues blasts on the harmonica and fantastic soul singing from the Space Cowboy himself, Steve Miller. This is probably the best place to point to when you're discussing the blues-rock crossover. While James Brown may have patented "Living in America" and glorified all that is great about the nation that brought us obesity, mutually assured destruction and corporate fraud, Steve Miller is a little more down to earth here: "I see a yellow man, a brown man/A white man, a red man/Lookin' for Uncle Sam/To give you a helpin' hand/But everybody's kickin' sand/Even politicians/We're living in a plastic land." And frankly, if the dancing's as good as this, you're almost tempted to forgive America its sins if they keep the beat coming. As he sings on the fade-out: "Somebody get me a cheesburger!"

Sunday, May 01, 2005

"Hot Pants Explosion"

There are two different bands called the B 52s. The first is the edgy, parallel-universe group that surfaced in the 1980s and produced spare, stripped-down dance music for frat parties, songs like "Planet Claire", "Private Idaho" and of course "Rock Lobster", low-fi electronically-assisted beats. The second band is the B 52s that resurfaced after the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, a polished, more commercial and highly camp beach-party wig-out band. They'd found funk, they'd found power chords, they'd found slick producers. They still had the alternate universe thing going on, particularly in the way they looked and the subjects for their songs. "Hot Pants Explosion" is probably the best example of the second coming of the B 52s. There's absolutely no shortage of camp: "I'm in shipping, if you're receiving/'Cause what I see I ain't believing/The longest legs in the shortest pants/You got me doing a mating dance/Pant pant/You got me panting like a dog/Pant pant/Ooh I'm a hot pants hot dog." This is unashamed good-time music, something the B 52s always knew how to do, but it's polished, meaty, relishing its own naughtiness like Kenneth Williams rolling his eyes and saying "Oooooh, matron!"