Sunday, October 30, 2005


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


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

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"They Don't Know"

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

Monday, October 17, 2005

"Mohammed's Radio"

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

"Government Cheese"

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

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Running On Empty"

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

"Harvest for the World"

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

"Shake Some Action"

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

"Lawyers, Guns & Money"

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

"Tunnel of Love"

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Open Your Heart"

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

Monday, October 03, 2005

"Sympathy for the Devil"

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

Sunday, October 02, 2005

"Our House"

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

"Looking For the Next Best Thing"

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