Monday, November 28, 2011

"Wichita Lineman"

One of the questionable benefits of 24-hour mass media (of all kinds) is that we are never more than a keystroke or away from our heroes. We can watch them, *consume* them if you like, whenever the spirit moves us. Want to know where Rihanna left her clothes last night? Look! Here's a picture of her dressing room floor. Was that one of Dire Straits I walked past on Dulwich High Street last night? Oh here, yes it was, here he is on Facebook (some details have been changed to protect the innocent).

As this new age of connectivity spreads far and wide, it will absorb ever more details, it will log more "appearances" and "sightings", and it will store ever more photographic evidence. Hurried phone camera pictures, fragments of German supermarket tabloid reports, gossip website entries.

Face it, we're going to grow up right next to our heroes, online. We'll be able to check ourselves out in the mirror every morning as we grow up and older, and then check *them* out to compare. We'll be able to pick up anti-ageing tips, fashion ideas, all perfectly appropriate for our age group. We already follow blogs, tweets and Facebook updates: we're living their lives too! At some point we'll have to draw the line. Somewhere around Tommy Lee, I hope.

One of the sadder parts of being so well-connected is that we learn many things that we wish we hadn't. I read a feature about Glen Campbell not long ago, in which he talked about the onset of Alzheimer's Disease and how he has made one more album as his farewell to the business.

It made me think of Brian Wilson and Johnny Cash: the first because he's been a wounded songbird for so very long; the latter because he decided not to "go gently into that good night." These are, were, old men, old in precisely the way Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger aren't, or at least, don't appear to be. Does that make sense? We're not conditioned to think of Paul McCartney as "old". He still *looks* young, dammit. Mick Jagger may have a couple hundred more lines on his face now, but we still think of him as the prancing, preening live-wire.

The difference is, I think, that we haven't been treated to the sort of performances from Jagger and McCartney that suggest their age. We've seen Brian Wilson looking vaguely vacant at the keyboard while performing the "Smile" album, and we've squirmed in our seat, maybe. We've seen the video for Johnny Cash's electric version of "Hurt" and it's as plain as day that he was an old, ill man when he made that last clip.

Cash excepted, who grows old gracefully in musical terms? Bluesmen, maybe. B.B. King may be ancient, but he still looks as merry and full of life at 86 as he did thirty years ago. He may not move much, but he can still wring that guitar's neck. Jazz musicians can grow old gracefully too; look at Herbie Hancock.

But these artists choose to continue performing - they feel they can still hack it and often, they can. But does an artist really ever "retire"? Usually they're "retired" and when I say "retired" I mean Joplin/Hendrix/Morrison "retired". Or Buddy Holly/Stevie Ray Vaughan/Duane Allman "retired".

Maybe retirement from the music business is reserved for those that could walk away, for whom it wasn't enough, for whom it was too much, or who found it wasn't worth it any more. For every artist who's been performing in their 60s and later, there must be several hundred who left in their 30s.

None of this has anything to do with why "Wichita Lineman" is in my list of SongsWithoutWhich. It's here because of the ineffable romance of long straight roads that go nowhere for ever. It's here for the casual, absurdly conversational line "I know I need a small vacation/But it don't look like rain", and for the shattering, pained, utterly gorgeous line "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time."

But most of all, it's for the almost unnoticeable vocal trill that can just about be heard when Campbell sings "is still on the line" in the chorus. It's little things like that which make a sing perfect.

"I'm In Love With a German Film Star"

I make no apologies for repeating some of the songs that were first featured, oh, a lifetime ago. When I started out doing SongsWithoutWhich, I was more interested in creating lists, in just getting through my collection of songs as fast as possible, adding only the briefest of comments. In the intervening seven years (sevenfuckingyears? holycow) as you might observe, the style has loosened up a little, and the content wanders all over the place, which is, of course, just fine. But many of the first hundred or so songs I blogged are deserving of more... consideration. Or at least a longer ramble.

Since this blog started we've had Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Blogger vs Wordpress debate, several wars, a few hundred natural disasters and two (or is it three?) recessions. Since this blog started, we've had some good music created. And some really, really bad music. I suppose it's customary for every generation to discuss the Infinite Monkeys Theory and try to establish whether we have, in fact, experienced all the good tunes. Of course, that's a preposterous suggestion. I mean, there are notes out there that nobody (with the possible exception of Hendrix) has even tried to play yet. So we're good for another fifty-odd years, right?

Most of the songs I've put up here are in my list because they're great tunes, wonderful lyrical confections, or because they just make me Feel Something. They're outside time, if you like. But others are here, in part, because they are intimately connected with a particular place, a particular time. I can't listen to "Electricity" by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark without being transported back to a dark, chrome-and-plastic emporium near Leicester Square where, with a couple of friends from school, I would spend hours Trying To Be Cool. Failed dismally, of course, but that song seems to chronicle the depths of adolescent insecurity for me.

*This* song is another such. The moment the opening chords gently loom out of the speakers, I'm taken to a damp apartment in Paris, where I spent a year studying and pretending to be a writer. I remember this song being in heavy rotation on a local station (95.2 FM, it was) and I liked it so much I recorded it off the radio onto a flaky mix tape. I seem to remember this track segued into "Rock & Roll Girls" by John Fogerty. Hey, that's just the way it fell.

There are a whole slew of songs that I still enjoy from that year, most of them French: "Dans la Rue" by Polnareff, "Tombe Pour La France" by Etienne Daho, and in particular, "No Sell Out" by Malcolm X and Keith LeBlanc, and the French version which had old clips of Charles de Gaulle speeches over some fairly anonymous techno stuff. Les Patriotes, I think the group was.

But they all fade into relative obscurity next to this song. This is so studied, so rehearsed, so....artificial. And for all that it's perfect. The idea of feckless teenagers, or even disaffected 20-somethings, copping poses and attitudes is not new, but it's never been better expressed in a musical medium than this. The vocal is just this side of bored (check), the lyric admires a suitably exotic and foreign artist (check), the song is spare and laid-back (check), with plenty of moody echo (check). If you ever wanted a song that encompassed the whole concept of the teenage search for identity and peer group acceptance, then this is it.

The best part for me is that this song first came out in 1981, while I heard it repeatedly in Paris four years later. Which suggests that the French were not really all *that* when it comes to catching on to something good. Nor was I, for that matter.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Quark, Strangeness and Charm"

There are more than a few bands who have been fated to occupy the margins for their entire careers. The ones that persevere on the pub and club circuit for years on end, that perhaps accumulate what the music press are pleased to call "a devoted following", but which never quite translate their particular charm and quality into a record contract, widespread acclaim or fame.

Then there are bands who, either by chance, by design or by sheer bloody-mindedness, manage to carve out a successful career without ever troubling the sharp end of the music charts. Maybe they're not mainstream but in fact are very well-regarded in their particular niche, whatever that be. They make records without the aid of a major label, they work their socks off to distribute and promote their work, and they sell enough to make the whole business worthwhile.

i can't work out whether it's easier or more difficult to exist on the fringes of the "mainstream" music business these days. Back in the 1960s and 70s music was a simpler and dare I say it, cheaper business to be in. Bands formed, practiced, recorded a demo and booked themselves gigs in gradually larger and larger venues, until the "business" couldn't ignore them any more.

Nowadays all the work goes on even before a band's sung a note or made an appearance. (Notice I didn't say "played a gig" - nobody in the mainstream seems to "play gigs" any more, just as so few artists seem to be able to play instruments any more. But then I'm old, and I've earned the right to be grumpy.) The stylists are brought in, the publicists and songwriters are hired, the website's set up (or at the very least the URL is reserved), and all before anything like "music" has happened.

And when we *do* get to the music, it's clear 99% of the time that the song and the performer have only the tiniest relationship. It's hard to shake the impression that performers these days (those that don't write their own material, but occasionally even those that do) are merely viewing songs as a means to an end. There's nothing in the song that really needs to be *communicated*: no great idea, no intelligent information, no message.

Look at the top 40 this week. At least 30 songs are about relationships, physical attraction or just overweening egotism. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, even Billy Bragg might as well have never been born. Even so-called alternative artists are merely oddly-dressed - once they open their mouths you can't tell the difference.

So, in the spirit of grumpiness and with a healthy disregard for music-as-commodity, I offer today a song that comes from a band that for a heroic 42 years, has followed its very own individual path, has had moments of both notoriety and popularity, and has survived because it has always had the resources and the will to do things its way. And continues to this day to have a devoted following.

"Einstein was not a handsome fellow/Nobody ever called him Al/He had a long moustache to pull on, it was yellow/I don't believe he ever had a girl."

As soon as you hear this, you already know we've left the main road and we're out among the tumbleweed.

"Copernicus had those Renaissance ladies/Crazy about his telescope/And Galileo had a name that made his/Reputation higher than his hope/Did none of those astronomers discover/While they were staring out into the dark/That what a lady looks for in her lover/Is charm, strangeness and quark."

It's upbeat, clean-sounding, irrepressible. There's a lack of bass in the sound that suggests that these guys were making a conscious effort to tone it down. Maybe they left the bassist at home. There's no feedback, the drums are positively restrained, it's pop! Who'd have thought it?

And because the subject matter is treated with humour, with intelligence and with .... charm, the whole makes for a very satisfying listen. It's hard to say that about everyone you hear these days.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"Cigarettes and Alcohol"

Machinery is simple. People can be too.

A machine is, at its most basic, a fairly binary application of force. Like a lever. Pressure on one side is translated into pressure on the other. Complicated machines are arrays of simple ones: take the internal combustion engine. A force (the explosion that results from combustion in the cylinder) is applied to the piston, which in turn applies force to another machine, and so on.

As we humans became more sophisticated, we found ways to link ever-increasing numbers of machines together, miniaturising them to the point where the internal combustion engine can be as small as a fingernail. Even computers are nothing more than an immense accumulation of binary machines. 10101 etc etc.

Nostalgists like steam-train enthusiasts wax lyrical about the simplicity, and at the same time, the complexity of the object of their affections. They take pleasure in the engineering developments that turned Stephenson's "Rocket" into the Eurostar. And yet, at the root of their passion is still, always, that simple machine.

When we are very small children, we're exposed to machines in a gentle, cartoonish fashion, like Thomas the Tank Engine, or Cars. We don't understand what a machine represents in terms of physics or engineering, but we're taught that they're harmless, helpful, occasionally recalcitrant, and we vaguely understand that we're in charge of them.

There are times, particularly when the world is in an unusually violent state of flux, when we individual humans can feel like machines at the heart of a much bigger, much more complicated one. What with Libya, Syria, Eurodebt, wars, Tea Parties and the like, the world feels like an immense whirling cloud of machines that's spiralling out of control.

And so at times like this we revert to the simple, binary things like finding a quiet spot to drink a tall, cold glass of orange juice, or reading a book that takes us back to a simpler, happier time. When Ronald Reagan talked of the America he knew and understood, he was harking back to a time that his entire generation (and the next three or four) could readily identify with - 5-cent Cokes, Burma Shave advertisement hoardings, casual racism.

So, we come to a simple musical machine: Oasis, who always knew that less/simpler was more.

"Is it my imagination, or have I finally found something worth living for/
I was looking for some action, but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol."

Even the intro: a dull hissing, a careless whistle, and the simplest, the very most basic of guitar riffs, tells you that you're dialling the 21st century right back, stripping away the sheen and the unnecessary treatment that songs today are drowned beneath.

Liam Gallagher's vocal comes across as careless, sloppy even, but it's a statement of intent. No airbrushed American intonations here, no concessions to pop's mainstream, just an honest Mancunian slur. It's simple, it's the machine of communication he uses every day, not the more sophisticated, false one that advisors or PR consultants would have wanted him to use.

Cigarettes and alcohol, too, represent the most basic machine of leisure that we often have in the 21st century. No time to sit back and reflect, no time for contemplation. We have to cram our relaxation into the precious few hours we have between quitting time and bed time - a snatched takeaway and the last tube home.

Honesty demands simplicity and you don't get more honest than this.

I might go as far as to suggest this is the sort of song that Thomas the Tank Engine would have listened to in his rebellious teenage years.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Marshall MacLuhan was supposed to have said "the medium is the message". Well, I'm not so sure. In this era of spin and presentation, of focus groups and of carefully-crafted diplo-statements that say precisely nothing, or precisely everything depending on the placement of a comma, it's become the norm not to believe what you read, or hear, until someone has helped you work it out.
Back in the day, we took the words of the great and the good at face value. When Churchill said "we shall fight them on the beaches", you knew he had precisely that in mind. When Marie-Antoinette said "Let them eat cake", it was so preposterous that you know she really meant it.
And when the great and the good invoked the name of their, our our, particular deity, our first instinct was to believe that they believed.
These days, the media and an almighty assortment of consultants, spin-doctors, Special Advisors, backroom manipulators and bloggers are on hand to interpret, peel away the chaff and tell us what Churchill *really* meant. Every newscaster finishes his to-camera piece and then turns to the suit at his side with a "So, Bradley, what exactly did Herr Hitler mean?" And Bradley will tell us.
So, on to Nirvana.
All those years ago when I first heard this song, I took it at face value. I thought: "OK, a rather weary, rootless, cynical view of religion and its presentation of itself as a cure-all for the downtrodden." I could imagine a shiftless, bored youth reacting like this after being canvassed by members of his local congregation. They'd say "Come down to church, man. We're not out to sell you anything, just help you get some peace of mind." And he'd mumble an excuse and wander off, thinking "yeah, right".
And that's what this song is. It's a "yeah, right" to religion, a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive middle finger.
Or at least, that's what I thought it was, in Nirvana's hands.
But to hear the Polyphonic Spree sing it, takes us further, much further into the dark heart, into the Marxian opiate-addled trance.
Where Kurt Cobain mumbles and whines, where his screams of "yeah yeah yeah" in the chorus sound so bored and dismissive, the Spree sound positively diabolical. Where Nirvana's rhythm lumbers from bone-shaking thud to bone-shaking thud, the Spree give the song a lightness that is so such more seductive, and yet so much more menacing.
Maybe it's because they understand that religion, or cults, are at their most dangerous when they're not trying overtly to recruit, but when they're focusing inward on their own membership. It's the take-it-or-leave it nature, the idea that if you're so blind you can't see a good thing by yourself, then we're not interested in you joining our club. *That's* what the Spree does. It has a damn good time performing this song, and if you can't tell what fun it is, then it's clearly not for you.
Both versions of the song say the same things, but whereas Nirvana need an interpreter, a spin-doctor, to convey the full sense of what they're saying, the Polyphonic Spree give you the full Coles Notes with added context for good measure. Maybe there's room for both.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

"Etude, Opus 10 No 1"


— n , pl -sos , -si
1. a consummate master of musical technique and artistry
2. a person who has a masterly or dazzling skill or technique in any field of activity
3. ( modifier ) showing masterly skill or brilliance: a virtuoso performance

It's an important word in music. To be the master or mistress of your instrument to such an extent that you leave your audience dumbfounded, open-mouthed at your skill.

In popular music, for a long time, there's been a subculture within virtuosity (if I can put it that way) which suggests that if you look like you're working hard, then you're not really that great. So for every rock god that screws his eyes shut, pulls faces, adopts the legs-apart stance and wields his axe like it was a broadsword, there's a "proper" muso hunched over his fretboard, poker-faced like Robert Fripp, just getting on with the business of being really, really good.

Ah, some of you might say, but the whole posing, facial expressions and whatnot are just a manifestation of an Artistic Temperament. It's the Artist Getting Into His Work.

And that may be. I mean, Joe Cocker wasn't doing all that... that... *stuff* he did for adulation. I hope.

Case in point (though it is fictional) is the guitar duel at the climax of the otherwise awful film "Crossroads", which starred Ralph Macchio and, in the critical scene, Steve Vai as Jack Butler, the Devil's own lead guitarist:

Jack Butler's all over the place, dancing round the stage, pulling faces, sticking out his tongue, doing the whole cod-Hendrix showmanship schtick. Meanwhile, The Kid (Macchio) just lets it happen, lets his talent do the talking. And when the duel reaches its end-game, The Kid..... pulls out the classical joker. Game over.

And that's where I'm headed here.

For some reason, at some level, the classical repertoire still, to this day, trumps modern music as a test of virtuosity, of the physical mastery of one's instrument. Stretching a point, a guitarist would go as far as flamenco as a true test of ability.

I realise it's not all a matter of how many notes per second one can play, that it's also about tone, colour and the rest, but that's precisely why the classical repertoire is still a standard. Not only does a classical pianist need to be able to play this:

...but they also need to be able to play this:

Nobody gets as excited about a rock guitarist playing a love song as they do about an uptempo number. Compare Eric Clapton playing "Layla" and then "Wonderful Tonight" - which one gets more fanmail?

Having got *all* of that off my chest, the SongWithoutWhich I wanted to blog today is this:

As long as I can remember I have wanted to be able to play this. To me this piece, all two minutes of it, is a glorious, complete whole, a combination of bombast and delicacy. It explores the range of expression you can achieve on the piano, and it represents one hell of a manifesto for anyone who reckons themselves a bit of a keyboardist. Get one note wrong, the whole thing falls apart. You can't hide behind a wall of sound from the rest of the band: it's solo.

It's also properly virtuoso. You can't Autotune your way through this, you can't "hide it in the mix": if you're good enough to play this, then you're good enough.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shameless fun

Starting tonight, we're going to put each and every SongWithoutWhich up on Twitter, linking to a video (original wherever possible, best quality live as a second choice, and whatever we can find as a final option) and to the blog entry as well. Fire up your Twitter clients and look for @SongsWoutWhich, tweet-fiends! Though I suspect "trending"is the last thing this collection will do...

Monday, January 24, 2011

"Don't Believe a Word"

One of the institutions that we in the UK are spoiled by is the BBC: a public service broadcaster whose reach and whose repertoire extends beyond the dreams of even the most megalomaniac of media moguls. A true multimedia behemoth. What we in this country tend to forget is just how trusted the BBC is around the world as a paragon of accuracy and of impartiality. Its motto is "Nation shall speak peace unto nation", but it might as well be "Truth is the only safe ground to stand on." Whether you're in Kinshasa or Kentucky, it's reliable, regular as clockwork and impartial.
For so many years it was the only "live" record of the UK's history, in documentaries, in light entertainment, even in vox pops on the evening news. Only now, through the internet and through painstaking efforts by curators, archivists and historians, is the BBC's real importance really becoming evident, through a never-ending stream of archive recordings that shine a light not on the world-changing events of years ago, but on the everyday components of life.
I'm not here to start an argument about the value of taxpayer-funded broadcasting; all I can say is that for my part I think I've got out much, much more than I've put in. Thanks, Auntie. Oh and thanks also for that Thin Lizzy retrospective the other week.
One of the things you tend to do with the BBC is use it, but forget it's there. You switch on the radio, you turn on the television and chances are you're tuning into the Beeb. Chances are the program that draws you in, piques your interest, or entertains you is on the BBC. But you'd be hard pressed the next day to remember what channel you were watching or listening to.
Sadly (or not), the same was the case with Thin Lizzy. Too often, if you're a rock fan you can be seduced by the sheer technical wizardry of a guitar virtuoso like Jimmy Page or Richie Blackmore, or the vocal calisthenics of an Ian Gillan, or the polyrhythmic genius of a Ginger Baker. Too often, bands rely on one individual's skill or talent to push them out of the ordinary. You remember their songs for a solo, for an outstanding vocal.
With Lizzy, that wasn't the case: you remember their songs because they're irresistable, unstoppable. Two great guitarists, a superb drummer and a sublimely talented bassist/singer/songwriter meant that the band was always perfectly balanced. And though Phil Lynott was the undoubted star of the band, he didn't outshine the rest of the band in the same manner that other stars have. They were all just as good as each other.
The reason I was comparing Thin Lizzy to the BBC was because, for many years they were as reliable and solid as the Beeb. Albums got better and better - the five albums from "Fighting" to "Live & Dangerous" are as steep a quality curve as you'll find anywhere in rock - they refined their sound until the twin-guitar harmony attack was absolutely perfect, and they managed to walk the narrow path of hard rock without it becoming heavy metal pastiche. In this they were undoubtedly saved by the Irish heritage and Lynott's mournful voice. He's not your typical hard rock singer, nor are his lyrics archetypal rock - his songs seem to come from Springsteen territory rather than the edges of self-indulgent oblivion. "The Boys Are Back in Town" comes across like a statement of criminal intent, but it's really just about any Saturday night.
*This* particular song is probably the best example of the band's ability to marry the sound and attitude of rock with surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful lyrics. Lynott's voice is at its most mournful, the lyric is as open and honest as anything a wannabe bad boy ever wrote, self-aware and full of the sort of rogue-ish charm that Lynott was known for.
It's short, sweet and as good a way to remember this much-missed man.

Of course it's hard to think of Phil Lynott without a smile and a chuckle for his immortal line: "Is there anyone here with any Irish in them? Are there any girls here who'd like a little more Irish in them?"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Lido Shuffle"

I've been toying around with an entry here for about six months. I started out planning to pick my favourite blue-eyed soul performance (not *singer*, just *performance*), but that spiralled completely out of control; before I knew it I was juggling Lowell George, Todd Rundgren, Boz Scaggs, Tom Johnstone and Michael MacDonald, Robert Palmer, Paul Rodgers, Rod Stewart, Jack Bruce, Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos and about a hundred others.

See, if this blog teaches me anything, it's that there is no science to this music appreciation business. I can't be one of those pipe-smoking critics who talks about the technical aspects of singing, traditions and the like. I either like a song or I don't. If I like it, watch out! I start reading up, doing my research on Wikipedia, AllMusic etc until I know just about everything there is to know about a song.

Somewhere I remember reading a quotation on trying to analyse humour: "It's like dissecting a frog," the quote goes; "It can be done, but the frog tends to die in the process." And sometimes I feel like that about my occasionally obsessive approach to the simple, harmless act of appreciating a work of music.

Why analyse, why obsess?

Having said all this, what I seem to be describing is an extended teenage phase. I mean, we all lay on our beds with the headphones on and the lyrics sheet in our hand when we were teenagers, right?

So this is normal. It's dragged on a bit, but it's normal.

So, as part of the intense research I described at the start, I have spent a lot of time listening to Messrs Marriott, George, Palmer, Rundgren et al over the past few months, in an effort to try and pick what I think is the best blue-eyed soul performance of all.

Any great soul voice has something unusual about it: Rod Stewart had his sandpaper, Lowell George had the beautiful southern inflection (just listen to the way he sings the word "southern"), Michael MacDonald has his falsetto, Steve Marriott had his passion. They all *work*.

That's the reason they're all SongsWithoutWhich. Because they travel with me all the time, they come around on random shuffle at the strangest moments and they make me smile, sway, tap my feet. I just have to stop being anal about it.

And for that reason I wimped out. I can't pick a favourite: I'd choose a different one every time. But what I *can* do is share a performance that I treasure. I remember loving this when it was first released, enjoying the idiosyncratic vocal (it sounds vaguely gargled, doesn't it?), and the unstoppable rhythm.

Boz Scaggs hasn't been a prominent mainstream name, unless you're into Steve Miller or Donald Fagen, but by God he has a voice.

The first video shows how much fun you can have making music, even if it isn't the best performance of the song.

The second is an older, wiser Boz and a slower, much more menacing version. I cna't imagine how many years separate the two performances - a lifetime, it seems, but they're both fantastic.