Q. Which defining track began life as a sawn-off take on Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill as played by Booker T and the MGs, its lyrics a distillation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire?
A. You might be surprised to find out that Life’s What You Make It by Talk Talk started out as this very thing.
Talk Talk was the name taken by singer Mark Hollis. Eventually a studio project, over nine years the band would go on to produce five masterful albums, promoted by a handful of richly-produced singles; Talk Talk, It’s My Life, Today, Dum Dum Girl, Living In Another World and the synonymous Life’s What You Make It amongst them. If some of those titles seem unfamiliar to you, I guarantee you’d recognise each and every track from 2 seconds in. So entwined with the era that they come from, they’re like audio time machines, capable of whizzing you back to a decade that seems far better musically from 30-odd years in the future than it did back in the day.
Talk Talk have a sound. It’s the sound of the times cleverly sculpted to appear timeless. The chart-bothering pop acts of the day were day-glo and cartoonish, with a shelf life shorter than yesterday’s milk. By comparison, Talk Talk were monochrome, insular and forever ploughing their own furrow, defying time and space. Howard Jones and the likes were using the same sort of studio equipment, but while their records nowadays sound almost quaint by comparison, Talk Talk records still sound box-fresh. Someone hearing Today for the first time could be forgiven for assuming it was recorded actually today and not in fact 36 years ago.
It’s the enduring appeal of Life’s What You Make It that’s kept Talk Talk’s name alongside the likes of the Blue Nile at the forefront of lushly-produced 80s sophisto-pop.
Much of the credit for this goes to Tim Friese-Greene. Friese-Greene joined Mark Hollis for Talk Talk’s second album It’s My Life and by the time of their 3rd, The Colour Of Spring, was an integral part of the band who had by now basically eschewed the life of a touring band for that of studio hermits. Friese-Greene learned his trade by spending time at the desk creating the likes of the forward-looking She Blinded Me With Science for Thomas Dolby. By the time he joined Talk Talk, he was an accomplished producer.
Written at the record company’s behest to ‘make a single’, a slightly irked Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene picked up the gauntlet and set about making a timeless classic.
“I had a drum pattern loosely inspired by Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’,” explains Friese-Greene. “And Mark was playing Green Onions over the top of it.”
An inspired jam gave birth to a commercial career high, rolling thunder bass piano wrestling with the slow burning vapour trails of David Rhodes’ guitar riff. Moonlighting from Peter Gabriel’s band, Rhodes turned in a brilliantly-executed riff, trimmed of all excess fat and wrapped in stinging chorus and analogue delay. It’s the hook upon which Hollis hung his entire track, reedy, languid vocal, Erik Satie-inflected jazz piano breakdowns ‘n all, and it’s never been bettered.
Talk Talk – Life’s What You Make It
As unlikely as it seems, Tim Friese-Greene was responsible for the success of Tight Fit’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight. You can snigger, but I bet it helped pay for a state of the art studio and a second home in the Cotswolds.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
Richard Jobson is best-known as the vocalist and focal point of Skids. Between 1977 and 1982, Skids’ flame burned briefly but brightly over 4 abums – including two in one year (beat that, young pretenders!) and a handful of well-loved singles that are as instantly recognisable as Jobson’s lantern jaw and idiosyncratic stage moves. Working For The Yankee Dollar, Masquerade and Into The Valley put the band firmly in the anthemic post-punk bracket, paving the way for yer U2s and Alarms and Manic Street Preachers and the likes.
“We never really got the credit we fully deserved,” remarks Richard. “With each release we evolved, changed and stuck our heads above the parapet. We weren’t cartoonish like the Damned or overly political like The Clash. Our peers over in the west of Scotland were Velvet Underground copyists, art-school cool, but we did our own thing. We never thought of what it was we should be doing. We just did. Skids were never cool, really. I wrote abstract lyrics. Our records came in abstract sleeves. (Debut album) ‘Scared To Dance’ was considered subversive, which is nonsense. ‘Days In Europa’, released in the same year (1979) was actually remixed and reissued with a new sleeve a few months later – years before your Deluxe Versions and remastered reissues were even thought of. We were incredibly hard-working and incredibly self-assured.”
In 1982, founding member William Simpson left Skids, shortly followed by Stuart Adamson, who’d take Skids’ blueprint and use it to great success with Big Country. And that, by and large was seemingly the end of Skids.
Jobson then joined forces with guitar great John McGeoch in the short-lived super group of sorts Armoury Show (half Skids, half Magazine, one album then over and out) before leaving music behind to focus on, amongst other things, modelling, poetry, television presenting and film making. You might’ve seen his 16 Years Of Alcohol, a terrifically intense film with a killer soundtrack. You might even have seen the video for Arab Strap’s Speed-Date. Richard produced that too.
“I see my art as everything I do. Whether it’s music or film or writing, it’s all me. I don’t like being pigeonholed.”
A decade or so ago Skids reunited to play in tribute to Stuart Adamson. Sporadic shows followed; a T In The Park appearance here, a hometown gig there, before, “following a proper dust-down” at the tail end of last year, Skids returned with a brand new album. Burning Cities briefly outsold Noel Gallagher before settling comfortably inside the Top 30. On the back of the album, a rejuvenated Jobson and co hit the road and played dozens of shows the length and breadth of the UK. Reviews were generally ecstatic, focusing on the youthfulness of Jobson and his band’s ability to turn the clock back to those heady days when Skids first meant something to people. As the band found out, they clearly still hold a special place in the hearts of people for whom music is everything.
Somewhere along the way, Jobson found the time to write. Echoing the productivity of those early Skids’ days, he’s recently published not one but two books; his autobiography Into The Valley and The Speed Of Life, a story told through the eyes of two aliens who travel to Earth and discover the songs of David Bowie.
“I wanted to write a book about what it’s like to be a fan. What does fandom mean? Essentially, it’s a love affair with the music and the people who make it. You end up having this life-long, long-distance friendship with the person who inspires you. It’s a holistic thing being a fan. The fashion, the music, the lifestyle are all wrapped up in the one package. We all have our own heroes.
All the artists I admire, Lou and Iggy for example, were my poets. Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith! They wrote lyrics like mini movies. Their songs were metallic, urban, real. David Bowie inspired me to be better, more creative, to read literature, to watch particular movies. He told me not to be afraid of failure. Never be a coward! He taught me never to rest on my laurels, to keep trying to evolve. You’ll see that in my music, my films.
David Bowie instilled in me a work ethic that, sadly, is missing in most bands today. This instantaneous Instagram generation who seek fame over everything else, it’s idiotic. The real work gets in the way of becoming famous. We don’t have any more Bowies coming through. It’s all fake. All of it.”
Which seems as good a time as any to ask Richard to consider his 6 favourite Bowie tracks.
It’s better to be asked cold about these kinda things and not have the time to think about it. This way you’ll get the real answer and not the one I think people will want me to say. Although I dare say if you asked me tomorrow I might pick a totally different six. For now, straight off of my head I’ll say Sound & Vision.
David Bowie – Sound & Vision
It reminds me of where I live. It’s the sound of Bowie reinventing himself, from near-suicidal drug addiction in L.A. to a man reborn in Berlin. It’s such an inspiring song. Who doesn’t love it?!?
David Bowie – Where Are We Now
There’s some really great stuff in Bowie’s later New York period. The albums from this time really need to be given more attention. They’re almost lost in this vast back catalogue of greatness, but they’re all great in their own right. The Next Day might well be one of his very best. From it, Where Are We Now makes me cry every time I hear it. Until then I hadn’t cried that much since I first listened to Leonard Cohen.
David Bowie – Station To Station
Station To Station was the first Bowie album that really made me sit up and listen. There’s a whole new depth of richness on this album that Bowie hadn’t gone for before. The songwriting is fantastic. The opening track, with its train noises and slow, steady, mechanical plod is a brilliant opener.
David Bowie – Quicksand
That run of albums, from Ziggy through Aladdin Sane to Diamond Dogs is brilliant. And growing up with each of them was a very fortuitous thing. How lucky I was to be of the age to appreciate Bowie first-hand! Hunky Dory though is a perfect album. And Quicksand is a perfect track.
David Bowie – The Jean Genie
I like the pop Bowie. Let’s not forget that as well as being a ‘serious’ artist, he wrote these incredible pop songs. The Jean Genie just reminds me so much of having fun as a wee guy, dancing around the living room as it played.
David Bowie – Speed Of Life
I love this track to bits. I enjoy listening to ambient music while I read. Brian Eno, of course, All the German bands. The whole of the second side of Low as you know is ambient, instrumental music. The opener is inspired. It’s the new sound of Bowie, a glimpse into what the other side of the record holds in store, yet it still captures the essence of pop. These cowards today, afraid of trying anything new really should take a leaf from Bowie’s book.
Richard Jobson will play a couple of special east coast/west coast shows in Edinburgh and Irvine to promote The Speed Of Life. He’ll be accompanied by former Goodbye Mr MacKenzie frontman Martin Metcalfe who’ll play “natural sounds and drones……cool, dramatic music” whilst Richard reads extracts from his book. Unbelievably, there are still a handful of tickets left for both shows. You should probably go to at least one of them.
You get to a point in life when you don’t need any more new friends. I have enough old friends I can barely find the time for that to make the time for new friends is nigh on impossible. I’m not an unfriendly person. Far from it. But the circle of friends I have is rich and varied and more than enough to enhance my life for the rest of it. And it’s like this with music. I don’t have the energy or the inkling (or the cash) to invest in new music when there’s so much brilliant stuff from the past I’m happy to revisit and replay and re-evaluate, and occasionally re-buy if I fall for the remastered/repackaged/enriched audio blah blah blah that the record companies know folk like me can’t resist.
Now and again though, a new record comes along that demands my attention. The current Arctic Monkeys’ album is one such thing, even if the band didn’t quite reach out with an advance copy and ask for it to be featured Plain Or Pan. I’m regularly sent music, mainly from new bands looking for a bit of exposure. Once in a blue moon, an mp3 will arrive that stops me in my stubborn tracks. A couple of months ago it was The Saxophones that hooked me, awful name ‘n all. This time around, it’s The Beths.
If you’re of a certain age – and as you’re reading a blog with a tagline that reads Outdated Music For Outdated People, I’d suggest you may well be, you’ll be quick to point out that The Beths sound like nothing new. Which is good, isn’t it? I suspect that, like me, many of you also don’t have the time to invest in getting into new music. Familiarity, like an old Marks & Spencer v-neck or Songs From Northern Britain is just fine.
The Beths take all the best parts of that window in time post-grunge and pre-Britpop when American guitars ruled the alternative airwaves. A quick listen to them and you’ll spot obvious nods to The Breeders and Belly and suchlike. There’s a studied looseness and seemingly sloppy approach to how it all hangs together, but of course, there’s nothing sloppy about it at all.
All four Beths met in Auckland New Zealand as jazz students, and they can really play. They could’ve chosen to take a Steely Dan/Ben Folds route to showcase their talents. Instead, they’ve gone for an update on slacker rock. Fancy-pants chords chime on top of counter melodies. Mercurial, quicksilver guitar riffs are tight and taut, wrapped around the melodies as snug as a straightjacket, the only sloppiness on show being intended rather than unavoidable.
On current single Happy Unhappy, there’s a fantastically furious mangled guitar solo that sounds like J Mascis being spun at 200rpm in a KitchenAid food blender. The vocals, a saccharine-sweet rush that embraces singer Elizabeth Stokes’ Auckland twang and wraps it around sunkissed harmonies in the chorus bring to mind fellow Southern Hemispherian Courtney Barnett, one of the few new acts I like, even if despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to find the time to properly invest in her. It’s very 6 Music and “ones to watch out for” and, suddenly, when it was the last thing I was looking for, I have a new friend. I suggest you invite The Beths in for a cuppa and a chat about your favourite records. I reckon you’ll have a lot in common.
The album , Future Me Hates Me is out on 10th August. Visit the band’s Bandcamp page to stream, order and what not.
The Beastie Boys might have portrayed themselves as three street-smart, sharp-witted goofballs with expensive tastes in trainers and sports-casual wear, but anyone with half an inkling knows they were much more than that. Behind the facade was a ruthless business empire including a record label, a magazine and their own clothing line, all of which were as undeniably hip as their Brooklyn-based beats. Working alongside the trio (but forever just out of shot) was a handful of trusted associates, pulling the strings, wheeling and dealing, making sure the well-oiled Beastie machine crept forever forwards. Alongside the film makers who captured their good sides on celluloid and the payrolled sneaker pimps who forever kept them in box-fresh trainers were a core of musicians and producers who could be relied upon to enhance the Beastie’s sound in the studio and on the stage. One such entrusted friend was Money Mark.
Money Mark was born Mark Ramos Nishita in Detroit to a Japanese-Hawaiian father and Chicano mother. The sounds he continues to coax from his assorted vintage keyboards are as exotic and interesting as his background suggests. He came to the Beastie Boys via producer Mario Caldato Jnr. when the producer asked him if he was able to fix the fence at the studio where the Beastie Boys were recording Paul’s Boutique. Mark was quick to point out that not only could he build fences, he could build recording studios too and, after duly building the Beastie Boys their dream studio, he began helping out with the recordings that followed.
Between 1992 and 2011, Money Mark collaborated on every Beasties’ release. Considered wisdom suggests that Paul’s Boutique is the highest of high points in a flawless discography, but when pushed, I’ll always choose Check Your Head. In no small way that’s due to Money Mark’s Fender Rhodes being allowed to roam all over its 20 tracks without a leash. It’s Mark that drives Sure Shot on Ill Communication, his rudimentary beat box vying for space with the understated keys, trying to reign it all in while the Beasties’ signature Panzer attack vocals spit and snarl from start to finish. It’s Mark who triggers the siren assault on mega-hit Intergalactic, and that’s him again, holding the groove behind the multitude of samples on Triple Trouble from the post 9/11 To The 5 Boroughs. You might not realise it, but Money Mark probably plays on at least 4 out of your top 5 Beastie Boys tracks.
As well as being the Ian Stewart of the Beastie Boys, responsible for much of the general funkiness but stuck stage right, half-hidden behind a bank of speakers, Money Mark makes music in his own name. Push The Button, his second album is a melting pot of stoner grooves, clattering hip hop and gorgeous Fender Rhodes piano. Released in 1998 (shit – that’s 20 years ago!) it’s worth discovering if you’ve never heard it. And if you have, it’s worth a revisit. I bet it’s been a while.
The lead single Hand In Your Head is a mid-paced shuffler that takes its lead from Sly Stone circa There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
Money Mark – Hand In Your Head
Bass on this track is played by Sean Lennon, himself signed to Grand Royal, the Beasties’ label and drums are provide by Russell Simins, another who’s no stranger to a Beastie Boys record. In short, this has all the ingredients of a prime-era Beasties’ track without the gobby, snotty icing on the cake. And while you might enjoy that gobby, snotty icing, you can’t deny the simple mellowness of it all.
The b-side, if CD singles have b-sides, is just as good. Old track Cry is given a Dust Brothers remake, keeping the original’s downbeat groove and descending bassline – sampled from Quincy Jones’ version of Summer In The City, I think.
Money Mark – Cry (Dust Brothers remix)
The scratching and stu-stu-stuttering horn samples are very of their time, but the vocals! Man, it’s Sly all over again. Actually, it’s probably more Shuggie Otis. By the time the keyboard solo meanders in, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d regressed to some Hispanic neighborhood in uptown New York in the summer of 1973, fire hydrants gushing their escaping load out and across the stoops of the brownstones as kids play in slo-mo inside it.
Mark wasn’t always kept in the Beastie Boys’ shadows. At a memorable Barrowlands show during the Ill Communication tour, he waited until the encore – So Whatcha Want if I remember correctly, before launching himself over his bank of keyboards and out into the first couple of rows. He reapeared a minute or so later, trainerless but smiling, helped back onto the stage by MCA and a wee baldy G4 security guy who never even noticed him flying over his head in the first place.
I like my soul to come in both varieties; a Stax-flavoured southern soul tear-jerker, aching with pangs of guilt and regret can fairly set me up for the weekend. You might not need to look too far to find problems of your own, but they ain’t nuthin’ compared to what James Carr is going through on The Dark End Of The Street or Laura Lee on the fantastic Dirty Man.
In contrast, a talc-dusted northern soul belter fairly blows away the cobwebs of a long week at work. Where better to get on the good foot than with this wee cracker:
Joy Lovejoy – In Orbit
In Orbit is that most trainspottery of things – a rare-ish northern soul single that very little is known about. A while spent on Google reveals next to nothing, save a whole load of northern fans speculating and second-guessing the whys and wherefores and identity of the mysterious Miss Lovejoy – cos that’s not her real name, after all.
Originally recorded as a demo at Chess Records, all and any information about the singer and the musicians seems to have been long-lost in the spinning grooves of time. Which, in that terribly elitist northern way, makes the record all the more appealing.
It‘s a terrific record, over and out in less than the magical two and a half minutes. My 7″ copy has more run-off groove than actual groove. Which is really quite something, given that it grooves like a good ‘un. It’s fairly standard northern soul really; a quick parping blast of brass on the intro, a clipped guitar holding the groove on the off-beat, a metronomic pistol-crack snare as regular and reliable as a Swiss watch and a helium-enhanced female vocal, giddy with being in love. Just when you’re getting into it, it’s over and done with. Short and sweet. Just like this post.
When Neil Armstrong and his pals landed on the Moon in the summer of ’69, their landing spot became known as the Tranquility Base. I’d assume this is because it was close to the Moon’s Sea Of Tranquility, although I’m happy to be corrected on that one. Anyway, being the first to experience an out-of-this-world environment of stilled calm and slo-mo movement, I’d imagine it was the very essence of tranquility.
Alex Turner and his Arctic Monkeys pals have just taken one giant leap forward with their new album, in part (I’m assuming again, and happy to be corrected) named after that landing spot on the moon. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino landed last week and it’s a real departure from previous Arctic Monkeys’ records. I’ve lived with it on the commute to work the past few days and it’s fairly wormed its way into my head.
“I just wanted to be one of The Strokes,” laments Alex on opener Star Treatment.“Now look at the mess you’ve made me make, hitch hiking with a monogramed suitcase, miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”
Arctic Monkeys – Star Treatment
He half speaks, half croons in his Yorkshire accent, unaffected (in voice at least) by his current choice to live in California. The sunshine’s clearly doing good for his music. He’s eased the band into ridiculous new trousers – the mark of true popstars, of course, and the mid 70s with liberal sprinklings of Carol Kaye-ish stop/start basslines, Fleetwood Mac-esque falsetto backing vocals and coke-addled Station To Station era Bowie piano. It’s as far removed from I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor‘s rattlin’ knee tremble as possible and it’s great.
OK, you’re thinking. That’s the curveball out the way. The band’ll get down to their usual business from now on in, But no! There’s more of the same on the next track. And the next. And the one after that. Fragments of half-known lyrics pop up now and again; the title track mildly pilfers ‘Mother’s got her hair-do to be done‘, from Pet Shop Boys’ Suburbia. Start Treatment‘s drawled, laconic ‘Who you gonna call?‘ is begging for a fuggy ‘Ghostbusters!‘ in response. “Take it easy for a little while,” he suggests, on Four Out Of Five. It’s bugged me all week where he borrowed that particular line from, but it’ll come to me no doubt as soon as this piece is published. Despite the sticky fingered approach here and there, Turner’s lyrics are pretty great.
“So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” he intones on American Sports.
Arctic Monkeys – American Sports
The entire album continues as it starts; mid paced, self assured and self indulgent. Turner’s voice is the real star throughout. He’s the Sheffield crooner, taking his cue from those excellent Last Shadow Puppets records and using it to grease the wheels of a band who’ve worked extremely hard to steer their ship from its expected course.
It’s the sort of collection of tracks that could really tick off the festival audiences in the summer. If Alex and co choose to ignore the terrifically urgent Fake Tales Of San Francisco or the long-haired desert rock outs of Crying Lightning and everything else that followed in its globe-straddling wake, the band are in danger of losing their audience. My teenage daughter is already getting twitchy about their potential choice of set at TRNSMT in a few weeks. Me? At the age of 48 and a half, I’m perilously close to buying my first Arctic Monkeys album. Get with it, kids.
Here Come The Warm Jets by Brian Eno is a cracker. Released at the start of 1974, it plugs the gap between his own short stint as sonic controller in Roxy Music and his future role as Bowie’s sonic architect in Berlin. These days Eno is considered an audio boffin, the adopter of slightly strange and left-of-centre techniques that encourage/demand the musician to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Without Eno there’d be no Remain In Light or Achtung Baby or Shleep; albums that take pop music to new levels via unexpected twists and turns while retaining the undeniable sprinkling of Eno’s magic dust. This is nothing new though – it turns out that Eno has always been an enthusiastic practitioner of unusual production methods.
…Warm Jets continues where Eno left off with Roxy Music. As Ferry and the others pushed for a more chart-friendly, commercial sound, Eno departed to steer his own ship. Calling in a familiar cast of musicians – Robert Fripp, Chris Spedding, Roxy’s Phil Manzanera, John Wetton et al to help him realise the sounds in his head, Eno created an art rock masterpiece.
The musicians were deliberately picked as Eno knew they’d clash, both in personality and style, and it was this clash that would give the album it’s overall feel of unpredictability. Eno happily acknowledged his own musical limitations but found a place for his ‘snake guitar’, ‘simplistic piano’ and ‘electric laryncx’. When he couldn’t achieve the required sounds on his own, he called in the musicians and directed them through body movements and dance.
The song structures on …Warm Jets are still built upon the same nuts and bolts foundations that all guitar-based music is based on; a chord progression, a riff, a complementary bass part etc, but the musicians, Fripp’s guitar on certain tracks in particular, cook up an avant-garde storm. The Frippery on Baby’s On Fire is a few years away but not a million miles from the six string sounds he would coax out of his instrument on Bowie’s Scary Monsters album.
Brian Eno – Baby’s On Fire
Eno once described album opener Needles In The Camel’s Eye as “an instrumental with singing on it.” It fairly glides along, a metallic groove that’s somewhere between the skewed pop of early Velvet Underground and The House Of Love’s Christine.
Brian Eno – Needles In the Camel’s Eye
The title track (and album closer) sounds exactly like My Bloody Valentine; woozy and fuzzy, a fug of drums being played in a room in some far-off corridor, a fade-in of singing that could be one voice or twenty five, it’s impossible to tell. The track also gave birth to the title of the album, with Eno enthusiastically informing the assembled masses, “Here come the warm jets!” ahead of his heavily-treated guitar solo’s appearance. It’s magic, of course.
Brian Eno – Here Come The Warm Jets
Elsewhere, the skewed Phil Spector pop of On Some Faraway Beach rubs shoulders with the more out-there wonky Bo Diddley-isms of Blank Frank. On the timeline of pop, it’s quite extraordinary that songs and albums such as this were being realised and recorded.
To add some perspective, a quick glance at the January 1974 UK singles chart will reveal the big hitters of the day to be Sugar Baby Love by Rubettes, Hey Rock And Roll by Showaddywaddy, Abba’s Waterloo and Remember You’re A Womble. The album charts were no less mainstream, with Elton John, Yes and Perry Como all sharing the top spot in the first few months around Eno’s album release. Some sort of movement was taking shape, with Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us crashing the top ten singles chart, but the pop landscape of the day was generally not ready for Eno’s sonic assault on the senses. Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to spot how much of an influence Here Come The Warm Jets proved to be.