Monday, September 25, 2006

Brian Eno

The sum of all human knowledge can be reduced to 2 unshakeable facts. Rod Stewart likes blondes and the first 2 Roxy Music albums are miles better than anything else they've done since. Scientists and divorce lawyers may have been researching the Rod question for years but I think the Roxy conundrum is simply due to the presence (and then absence) of Brian Eno.

The first Roxy Music lp is a very strange affair, with a song about Casablanca (2HB as in To Humperty Bograt) and Chance Meeting, which has the guitar sound from hell, which was always used on sitcom Butterflies to announce the fact that a teenage bedroom door had opened. Here was a band that thought (quite correctly, but also uniquely) that the oboe was an instrument of RAWK. The band looked the part too, part Glam Rock, part crooner, part futuristic Teddy Boy, not to mention Phil Manzanera's star shaped spangle specs and then this straggly haired, egg headed man-lizard Brain Eno making wibbly noises with keyboards and oscillators the size of a telephone exchange.

The second lp For Your Pleasure doesn't cross as many musical styles as the first one, but it does have Do The Strand (and you cannot beat songs about dance crazes…especially if they're imaginary dance crazes) and In Every Dream Home A Heartache. You also can't beat a song about isolation, luxury ("Bungalow Ranch Style") and a blow up doll. "I blew up your body, but you blew my mind."

After leaving Roxy Music, Eno made 4 bonkers pop albums. Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Another Green World and Before And After Science.

Here Come The Warm Jets has got song titles like The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and Needle In The Camels Eye to confuse and confound the pop pickers. It's also got Baby's On Fire, which Eno sings in an exaggerated, vowel torturing style, supposedly in bitter tribute to Bryan Ferry's vocal attributes. When Mark Riley acrimoniously left The Fall he used to cover Baby's On Fire with possibly similar snidey motives. Mark E Smith used to repay the favour though with a Bo Diddley style song called Hey Mark Riley (which went something along the lines of "Saw Mark Riley by the window sill, listen to your words it's A New Face In Hell"). I once saw Mark Riley and The Creepers try to play this as their own impromptu encore. I still treasure the look of horror on the bass player's face as he tried to play a Bo Diddley beat, obviously for the first time and obviously without having even heard it before in his life.

My favourite Eno album is Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. It's the impeccably played but ramshackle quality of the arrangements that I really like. The song titles are fantastic cut-up nonsense. My evidence for the prosecution includes Burning Airlines Give You So Much More, Mother Whale Eyeless and Put a Straw Under Baby. The vocal style is sly camp. The songs break all the rules. of Pop, but still sound warm and involving and indeed you do want to get involved. You want to hear the stories from this other world, even though you're only catching snippets that maybe you'll never understand. Back In Judy's Jungle has treated guitars, rattley drums and a one-note bass with lots of space. It sounds like an Oompah band about to fall over.

The guitar playing throughout is fantastic with scratchy, rattley rhythm playing. I've a horrible feeling the excellent drumming (It's not just loose, it's positively floppy) may be down to Phil Collins. If it is YOU'RE STILL NOT FORGIVEN.

I love the bass playing on Third Uncle. It starts with 1 bass note that gradually gets echoed as the manic scratch rhythm and clattering percussion take over. There's an 8 note bass run that seems to come out of nowhere and goes straight back there. He only does it twice but to my (bass player's) ears it just seems to crank up the song far more than seems possible. And then there's the one note again …but dropped down lower and flatter. And the only vocal line that stands out is "I thought it was you."….And then Bauhaus went and covered it.

Put A Straw Under Baby has an impossibly woozy feel, with scraped, discordant string arrangements (Vic Chestnutt or even Junco Pardner from Sandinista). In many ways it's like a nursery rhyme or one very scary lullaby.

The Before And After Science album has Kings Lead Hat (yes it's an anagram of Talking Heads and yes he produced More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light). He was involved with Bowies three Berlin era albums Low Heroes and Lodger. The instrumentals on the second side of Low in particular show Eno's stamp.

He created space around U2 after Steve Lillywhite's big messy rock sounding second lp (and I do like to leave a lot of space around U2.) and he rescued James who were floundering after the power and seat of the pants feel of their live shows failed to make it onto vinyl. They turned into something different though….but that different thing was still interesting because of Eno. The ambient albums like Music for Airports and Music For Films shone a light on the work of people like Harold Budd and the collaboration with David Byrne on 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is arguably the first album where the vocals are completely based on samples.

Much is made of Eno's legendary non-musician status and call me sceptical but I bet he's picked up a few tricks over the years. Fortunately he just keeps cropping up, a kind of Zelig figure who makes the people around him more interesting

Friday, September 15, 2006

Songs about shoplifting

Despite shopliftings popularity (but it's not legal yet Kids) I can only think of 3 songs about it…..and one of them is not The Smiths Shoplifters Of The World Unite. The Slits, Jane's Addiction and Madness definitely deliver the stolen goods though.
Shoplifting by The Slits has the great opening line.

"Put the cheddar in the pocket
Put the rest under the jacket
Talk to the cashier, he won't suspect
And if he does...
Do a runner!"

Punk Rock and cheese theft. The Slits were a fantastic group, who just sound even better when you write it all down. Ari Up is the patois speaking German stepdaughter of John Lydon and started The Slits aged fourteen with Viv Alberteen and Spanish drummer Palmolive. They were one of the first all girl bands who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs without a behind the scenes Svengali. They toured with The Clash, recorded 2 classic John Peel sessions despite the fact that they couldn't tune their own guitars and learnt to play well enough to make the staggeringly good album Cut in 1979 (and you do know the sleeve. They're topless, loin clothed and covered in mud). Budgie, later to be in Siouxsie and the Banshees became the new drummer and they recorded I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Their version of is arguably (but not by me, I'm definite about it) the best cover version ever. And that was released as a B side. That's the way to do it. The second lp The Return of The Giant Slits was a bewildering and difficult mix of styles and was a precursor to more widespread interest in World Music. They also covered John Holt's Man Next Door which Massive Attack would do 20 years later.

Cut still sounds great today. By the time they recorded it they'd kept the whooping, screeching call and response vocals but thanks to Punk's adoption of Reggae they'd learnt new tricks and approaches to the sound. The drums are mixed high and sound skippy and rattley with a lovely light touch to his playing. I think he made up for that though in the Banshees though with Timpani drums and Gongs. They're still obviously the same songs from those early Peel sessions but now the guitars scratch rather than buzz, leaving great big spaces. It's a clever, original sound. On Shoplifting there is contradiction of Ari moving from English sweary phrasing to adopted Rastafarian.

"Ten quid for the lot
We pay fuck all
Babylonian won't lose much
And we'll have dinner tonight"

Then it's into the utter girly joyousness of them all belting out the chorus. And what a chorus. In a song about shoplifting, you can't beat "Do a Runner Do a runner". As the song careers out of control you can hear a stoned, giggled "I've pissed in my knickers"

I do have a couple of pop theories. One of which has Madness as the musical version of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. Underneath the jolly videos there is a real sense of melancholy, nostalgia and loss. Suggs vocals are clipped but precise, emotional but economical and his speaking voice is a source of wonder to me (although with all his commercials it's more of a source of wonga)

Deceives The Eye is a really good song about moderately successful shoplifting that was hidden on the Work, Rest and Play ep in 1980.

"In the earliest days of my shoplifting career
You could safely say I was filled with fear
It was nail biting work from the very start
But several quick successes soon gave me heart
After a while I could pick or nick or steal
Some shirts some trousers and a few lps"

There's nothing subtle about Jane's Addiction approach in Been Caught Stealing. It's a bullet hard rock record where the power comes from the bass and drums rather than the guitar. Their approach to shoplifting isn't subtle either.

"When I want something
I don't want to pay for it
I walk right through the door
Walk right through the door"

It's also got barking dogs revving motorcycles and vocals that sing along to the guitar solo. Nothing over the top then. You can almost hear the pride in Perry Farrell's high, slightly whiney voice as he sings.

"My girl, she's one too
She'll go and get her a shirt
Stick it under her skirt
She grabbed a razor for me
And she did it just like that"

It's love then. I think I first heard it at a wedding, sadly not as the bride and grooms first dance.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Young Knives - XTC meet the Gang of Four

You can’t go wrong with a band that dress like Vic Reeves and sound like both Gang of Four and XTC. Doubly good. The Young Knives are the undisputed champions in this (admittedly not hotly contested) field. Another good reason to love them is that their bassist calls himself The House of Lords.

Voices of Animals and Men (and I think that’s an Adam and the Ants song but we’ll gloss over that) is the follow up to 2002’s The Young Knives Are Dead.
The band look like they wear a lot of moleskin and corduroy. They probably relax at home in smoking jackets and cravats whilst cradling a vintage tawny port and a fine cigar. On stage though, it’s all New Wave gurning, twin vocals and cleverly meshing bass guitar and drums. They’ve got a really good stripped down sound but it still feels like they’re hitting their instruments really hard. And that’s good.

Andy Gill from Gang of Four produced the lp and one of the things that the two bands share is one speaking voice behind another vocal. Gang of Four did it on Anthrax while The Young Knives Half Timer follows the Trainspotting’s anti consumer rant of “choose leisure wear, matching luggage…” theme with the deadly, bitter humour of
”A Salary…smash the system from within
Get yourself a promotion and then take your children to the zoo
For the weekend, with the extra cash”

The lyrics are really good and just need to be sung in slightly mannered and pompous (but still punk rock) style. The Decision has
“I wore the blue and the green
I mixed the matt and the sheen
That’s not the way to be seen…..
I am the Prince of Wales. I am the Prince of Wales”.

This is clever, literate stuff and like British Sea Power they seem to be a band with some ambition. The Manic Street Preachers had a similar approach to the first line of their songs. Manics lyrics such as “Libraries gave us power” (from A Design For Life) and “I am an Architect” (from Faster) simultaneously amuse and enrage but also demand that you listen. Public Enemy did it by having jaw droppingly great song titles like Night Of The Living Baseheads.

She’s Attracted To has a Park Life feel to it with it’s “I’ve met some bone idols in my time” lyrics and sung/spoken lines. The meet the parents and walk dogshit into their house scenario spills out into the street as singer Henry Dartnell bellows “You were screaming at your mum while I was punching your dad.” Exactly how a single should sound.

Loughborough Suicide’s “I want to do it on the Tennis Court
I want to do it where they’re playing sport” is a fine companion lyric (maybe a young friend?) for Belle and Sebastienne’s “Now he’s throwing discus for Liverpool and Widnes” (from The Stars of Track and Field, a paean to athletics and rumpy pumpy, from their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Gang of Four were musically adventurous and ahead of their time. 27 years later it seems strange to remember that there were bands that were determined to make difficult and absolutely political music and could have a backstage argument about the class struggle and flavours of crisp. Now we’re all too busy watching big tellys and hoovering up consumer goods. The Gang of Four mixed disgust, rage and bewilderment at what was going on around them with Art School theory and Marxism but they also sung about the process. So if you’re going to sing a love song then there’ll be another voice putting another view, or stripping away the meaning. Actually if you were going to sing a love song then you wouldn’t do what the Gang of Four did and call it Love like Anthrax

At Home He’s A Tourist is capitalism and nightclubs, and condom commodification.
“Out on the disco floor
That’s where they make their profit
With the things they sell
To help you cop off.”

It’s odd to remember the Packetgate argument with the BBC when they were due to appear on TOTP. The BBC objected to the line “the rubbers you hide in your top left pocket”. The John Peel session version has “Durex “ rather than “Rubbers” so there had already been some self censorship. The band offered to replace the line with “Packet” but the BBC insisted that the only word acceptable to a family audience, pre watershed and pre safe sex would be “Rubbish”. The band didn’t agree and were dropped from the show.

The first 4 XTC albums are consistently high in quality and imagination, mannered vocals and top notch playing….a bit like the Young Knives then. If there was to be an XTC song that linked the two groups it would have to be Respectable Street with it’s great lyric

“Avon lady fills the creases
When she manages to squeeze
In past the caravans
That never move from their front gardens”

Obviously and irrefutably, Buzzcocks were the ultimate Punk singles artists, but I don’t think XTC were far behind. I don’t need to argue the point really. Just look at their first five singles: Science Friction, This Is Pop, Are You Receiving Me? Life Begins At The Hop, Making Plans For Nigel.

I was right wasn’t I?