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.

"Beat Surrender"

What a way to go! With the benefit of hindsight, this was a perfect hint of what was to come from Paul Weller. The Jam were always about vignettes of London, snatches of life at the wrong end of the Tory food chain, serious, earnest and biting. But as The Jam's career wound to a close, there were signs of what was uppermost in Weller's mind. And in this final song he came closest to that crossover point. The urgency of the Jam, coloured and textured with the brassy soul that was to be the trademark of the Style Council.
This song is a farewell, a valedictory. It's triumphant, secure, refusing to look back and keen to continue its journey. It's a clarion call, a rally to the flag of youth and energy, an invitation to lose yourself in the moment. It's hard not to be sucked into the seductive simplicity of the lyric: "All the things that I shout about (but never act upon)/All the courage and the dreams that I have (but seem to wait so long)/My doubt is cast aside, watch phonies run to hide/The dignified don't even enter in the game." It's about the feeling of power, the potential, and knowing that whatever you do, you will remain strong.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"The Needle and the Damage Done"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged May 1 2004

There's a thread running through Neil Young's career - no matter how many incredible songs he has written, and Lord he has written more than a few - often you'll find someone else has done his songs better justice than he has. I'm not saying he can't sing or play, because he clearly can: his "Rocking in the Free World" is as savage and angry as anything that came out of punk, and "Cortez the Killer" can't be matched by anyone.
But songs like "Wrecking Ball" or this one seem to have gained something in their interpretation by others. This version, by The Icicle Works and Pete Wylie, is suffused with soul in a way Neil just couldn't do. The harmonies are sensational, the atmospheric production, the echo, the touch of slide guitar, all are perfect for the bare bones of a song that pays tribute to the boneyard that is drug addiction. The voices, though, are what make this; searching, mourning, wasted: "I've seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie's like a setting sun." The final chorus raises the hair on the back of your neck as Pete Wylie reaches for the high notes in the background before the aching harmony closes the book.


From the burst of enthusiasm and joy of confirmation to the edges of obsession and mania, the snail trail of dysfunctional love can be taken at a run or at a crawl. From "this bed is on fire with passionate love/The neighbors complain about the noises above/But she only comes when she's on top" to "My therapist said not to see you no more/She said you're like a disease without any cure/She said I'm so obsessed that I'm becoming a bore" seems to happen in no time at all. Does this progression, the potential for it, live at the heart of any relationship, or do some people not get affected to this extent? Do we fall to experimenting with each other as a way to keep from going stale, or is it an honest attempt to learn more about each other?
For a band, James were particularly aware of our collective and individual frailty, in some cases drawing on that as the root of our strength ("Sit Down"), but more often than not seeing through our attempts at bravery and resilience as a paper-thin wall that separates us from our darker impulses. If we weren't being so noble about it, we'd be running amok, they suggest: "Caught your fingers in the till/Slammed your fingers in the door/Caught your hand inside the till/Fought with kitchen knives and skewers /Dressed me up in womens clothes/Messed around with gender roles/Dye my eyes and call me pretty." So which is more honest?

Friday, July 15, 2005


*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged April 24 2004.

The death of a man can hardly have been reported on with such dignity, yet with such a sense of indictment and outrage as here. Steven Biko was an activist and lawyer in South Africa during the apartheid era, who was killed in police custody. His death sparked much of the anger and outrage that swept the rest of the world. Peter Gabriel was among the first to react to Biko's death, and there can be few more thrilling, yet dignified tributes to a man's life and death than this.
The segue from "Nkosi Sikelele Africa" into the intro is totally compelling. The threat of the fuzzed guitar, the inevitability of the funeral drumbeat, the gentle, hoarse reminder where this happened. And the lyrics: so simple, so effective: "September 77/Port Elizabeth, weather fine/It was business as usual/In police room 619." It's fascinating to listen to the various ways in which politically-active artists demonstrate their anger or commitment: listen to this, and then play Little Steven's "Sun City". Peter Gabriel doesn't need to sloganise; he lets the song's images do the talking, while Little Steven has to keep reminding us that he "ain't gonna play Sun City". Which works better?

"Waterloo Sunset"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged October 27 2004.

If you wanted to create an image in your head of what London was like at a certain point in time, say, around 1970 give or take a couple of years, you could do worse than close your eyes and listen to this. "Waterloo Sunset" is like being on the London Eye, looking around from a great height at 360 degrees of this fantastic city, yet being able to peer through the curtains, close-up, at the life of everyone that makes up the whole story. While bands like The Who told the story of disaffected youth, the ones who set themselves apart and dared to try to resist The System, The Kinks tell this story about those who conformed, who bent to the task of carving out a living in what was a fairly monochrome place back then: "Every day I look at the world from my window/Chilly chilly is the evening time/Waterloo sunset." It's like watching a film of London taken from a very great distance, and then drawing closer, closer, until you're focusing on Terry and Julie, meeting near Waterloo Bridge on a Friday after work. There's such love in this song, such solidarity and empathy for the lives of the millions of us who go largely unnoticed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"No Matter What"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged December 3 2004

If you were looking for some sort of guide, a textbook on how to write the perfect pop song, you'd have to have a chapter on Badfinger. This is alarmingly simple stuff: the production is as flat as you can get, no washes of sound, no echo, no nothing, just guitar, bass, drums and voice. But the song itself is what comes steaming through, the casual brilliance of the tune, the open-goal opportunities for soaring harmonies, and then, half way through, the oh-so-clever trick of making a guitar sound like a Hammond organ and the descending staircase of background harmony that hangs like a sumptuous velvet curtain behind the chorus. It's low-rent simple, but high-life perfect.

"Whole Wide World"

*REWRITE ALERT* This SongWithoutWhich was first blogged April 19 2004.

I love this. Wreckless Eric's a big star in France, which sinks the notion that the French have no sense of humour for a start. He's got a voice that suggests pub karaoke after just a couple of pints too many, but underneath, if you care to pay some attention, is a terrific song: "When I was a young boy/My mother said to me/There's only one girl in the world for you/She probably lives in Tahiti." Humour, pathos and a typically punk-era no-frills production that suits the voice and the story. It's tunefully tuneless, a love song for closing time.

"Ray of Light"

I've had a little trouble with Madonna. No, nothing for her to be ashamed or worried about. I have to make a conscious effort to divorce myself from everything else that comes associated with her music: she's been so well-packaged that it's nearly impossible to listen to her music without a host of images and stories crowding the moment. Happily, much of what I listen to is uncomplicated by spin and filters, but this pleasure is coming under threat from what we shall call the New Business of Music - that multimedia assault on our senses from artists who have worked out they stand a greater chance of achieving lasting fame and fortune if they give us more ways to consume them. At least, I can't find any other way to explain J-Lo.
Luckily, there is some talent at work where Madonna is concerned, if only the ability to pick better songwriters than the rest. This is relentless hardcore dance music, but hardcore only in the sense that it really drags you in. This isn't a song that needs serious bass or a pounding beat that will sterilise small animals, it's just busy, bustling, whirling and so much fun. An innocent pleasure, a moment of harmless abandon.

Monday, July 11, 2005

"Italian Plastic"

Love can make you goofy, can magnify the smallest things and confer upon them huge importance. The manner in which a gift is received, the way in which we represent our relationship to the outside world, the smallest detail of a letter or a phone call. Here's a song for the clown in all of us: "I bring you plates from Rome/You say they look fantastic/I say we're having fun/Nothing like that Italian plastic/I bring you rocks and flowers/You say they look pathetic/You pick me up at night/I don't feel pathetic." You have to be able to look at yourself and laugh, the songs seems to be saying, despite the importance, the depth, the bigness of being with someone. And insecurity can make that very, very difficult to do. "When you wake up with me/I'll be your glass of water/When you stick up for me/Then I'll be your bella bambino, your man on the moon/I'll be your little boy running with that egg on his spoon/I'll be your soul survivor, your worst wicked friend/I'll be your piggy-in-the-middle, stick with you to the end." Every line is puffing itself up and then pricking the balloon.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

"Nothing Ever Happens"

There's a desperate ordinariness about everyday life, when the things you do fall readily into the pattern that has evolved over weeks and months of your life. The French have a saying for it: "Metro, boulot, dodo", or in English, "Subway, work, sleep", a relentless drumbeat of sameness and habitude that deadens the faces of the people whose eyes you meet on the way to work or home. Here's a song that puts that ordinariness, that quotidian routine on a large poster and hangs it on the wall for us all to look at, see ourselves reflected in its patterns, the tiny dots that, as you move backwards, resolve themselves into a photograph of our lives.
"And by five o’clock everything’s dead/And every third car is a cab/And ignorant people sleep in their beds/Like the doped white mice in the college lab", sing Del Amitri. "Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all/The needle returns to the start of the song/And we all sing along like before/Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all".
Today, of all days, I just wish this were the case.

London, England.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"Motorcycle Emptiness"

Another song that probably deserves the title "epic", and one that I often bandy about when talking about the Manic Street Preachers. But I can't think of any other way to describe the canvas they seem desperately to want to paint on. For me, this is a case where the song absolutely works, even if the lyrics mean less to me than they should. I read somewhere that the group were trying to out-do Guns 'n Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" with this, and it's easy to see what they were going for. But "Sweet Child" is all about honking great signposts and instructions: "Feel sad here" or "Feel all choked up here", it seems to point you to what it thinks you should be feeling. "Motorycle Emptiness" is far more subtle... it doesn't reach for the highest highs, it's content simply to play itself out and let you sip from it, drink from it, gulp it down as you please. Where "Sweet Child" is "connect-the-dots", this song is "do it yourself".

"Man of the World"

Some songs are robust; strong, well-built, made to endure plenty of abuse and repetition. Then there are those that stick around for a while, do what they're supposed to for a while, until the software is corrupted or the microchip inside melts, and they're gone. And lastly, there are those songs made from materials so fine, so well-wrought that they have to stay under glass, temperature-controlled, or they'll simply collapse under their own weight. Thinking about that, I realise you could also say the same thing about the writers of such songs. In this case, Peter Green, whose health just seemed to buckle under the strain of, well, being Peter Green? Or was it writing songs such as this? Either way, this is a fragile web of a song, spun out of air and gossamer, conjured out of nothing. You can almost hear the walls creaking, the foundations eroding, as this song of loneliness unravels its tale. This is almost too painful to listen to; one man's mind gently casting adrift.

"Lust For Life"

Definitely a song for joggers, this. It lopes along the pavement at a cracking pace, cymbals splashing in all the puddles, stealing glimpses into the shop windows along the way. It's one of those moments when you don't care that you're out of breath, that you're on the ragged edge, because that's the feeling you're looking for, that semi-abandon, the endorphin rush that's better than any drug. And you know that when you stop, when you're panting, bent over trying to relieve the ache in your chest and the stinging in your legs, you'll be laughing out loud with the sheer life of it all. A lot like Iggy Pop, really.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

"Dream a Little Dream of Me"

Think of the greatest harmony singers and the Mamas and the Papas will turn up at some point. They're sadly forgotten these days except for perhaps the luminous "California Dreaming", though this lazy, gentle moment is the equal in every way. A soft, caressing rhythm, Mama Cass' extraordinary voice and a song from another time. There's honky-tonk piano, some marvelous drumming and a lyric that wouldn't be out of place next to Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World": "Say nighty-night and kiss me/Just hold me tight and tell me you'll miss me/While I'm alone and blue as can be/Dream a little dream of me." This is a song for those bucolic afternoons when you and your love can lie side by side, carelessly tangled as you look up at the sky and wonder where you're headed.

"Love Rears Its Ugly Head"

This is miraculous: a seething, boiling cauldron of about five different styles with a stinging lyric that just shoves you back into your seat and demands to be heard. What can we call this? Funk/rock/metal/soul? It's got the lot. Living Colour seem perfectly at ease straddling the genres, easing from one style to the other, throwing down a fearsome backbeat and constructing a wall of thudding guitar, while the lyric just punctures one balloon after another: "I always thought our relationship was cool/You played the role of having sense/I always played the fool/Now something’s different/I don’t know the reason why/Whenever we separate/I almost want to cry." And the reason? "Oh no, please not that again/Love rears up its ugly head." Another slice of everyday life, framed and hung at exactly the right spot on our wall, accusing, knowing, ironic. Vernon Reid's voice hangs above the song like a foghorn, a hog-caller, a nervous, funky swain, half-chuckling at his own perceived weakness, while the band weaves back and forth from funk to metal flame-out. This is clever, clever stuff.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

"Stay (Faraway, So Close!)"

This is a 4 a.m. song, perhaps one for when you're walking alone in the city long after the loving is over and the regrets have started. A song which you pull tight to your chest and try to bruise your skin with. It's an intimate moment, this song, one that lets you into its secret before it steps back and shouts that secret to the world. "Faraway, so close up with the static and the radio/With satellite television you can go anywhere/Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast, and Berlin." It's everywhere and right by your side at the same time, a song that lifts you out of place and deposits you at the limits of your imagination. "Three o'clock in the morning/It's quiet and there's no one around/Just the bang and the clatter as an angel runs to ground/Just the bang and the clatter as an angel hits the ground." U2 have learned over the years that a quiet conversation is just as effective as a heaven-bound anthem.

"Gimme Shelter"

For me, this song is all about the intro, a slow-burning brushfire that gets slowly whipped up by the wind and breaks into a roaring, rushing wall of destruction. The backing voices sound a warning siren as the dried wood of the old world crackles and consumes itself before the songs kicks in, a lazy, threatening, apocalyptic slashing noise. "Oh, a storm is threat’ning/My very life today/If I don’t get some shelter/Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away." The Stones were pretty apocalyptic in their pomp, Their Satanic Majesties indeed. This is how music can be used as a force of nature, a frightening glimpse into the heart of the monster.

"Everybody Hurts"

As many others are doing this day, I'm watching the Live8 concert, watching bands struggle to turn their work into an appropriate statement about the way the world is run today. It's clear that the stream of awareness that was turned on in the 1960s has dwindled to a trickle when famous performers are unable to express a thought, an emotion that hasn't got something to do with self-gratification, no matter how well they dress it up. It takes an extraordinary person to strip away the layers upon layers of therapy that society throws at us in one shape or another and remember the basics. And it's not something facile like "I love you" or "I'm hurt" or "Aren't we great", either. Michael Stipe probably thinks more about what he says than just about any other performer I can think of, and to have written a simple, elegant, heartfelt celebration such as this - because it IS a celebration, this song - is an achievement that dwarfs so much of what has been created over the years.
"When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone/When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on/Don’t let yourself go, everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes." And it's not just the words; it's the plaintive, wailing chorus, the plangent, wavering keening overdubs and the sheer simplicity of the melody. This is the world's healing prayer, the ultimate statement of solidarity and empathy. The Who once sang: "The simple things you say are all complicated". Not in this case.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Finding myself in the midst of a period of advanced workaholism and not being able to drag myself away from my job for long hours, has made me appreciate the time I can give myself even more. The precious hours when I can sleep without my subconscious keeping a weather eye on the alarm clock, when I don't have to stumble to the shower and wriggle myself onto the public transport system at an indecent hour, are the ones I spend with the most care. Yes, it's about self-preservation, but it's also about mental administration, the time when I can tie up loose ends, sweep away the cobwebs from the less-used parts of my life and think about those people that I find myself drifting away from in this squall of activity. Or, as the Byrds would have said, "A time to build up, a time to break down/A time to dance, a time to mourn/A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together." Pete Seeger wrote this, well, adapted this, but the Byrds with their soaring harmonies and ice-clean guitars are the definitive take. It takes a song like this to bring us back to earth and to realise that in some ways, the Bible is the greatest self-help manual ever written.