It begins churchlike, funereal almost, a lone organ blowing the dust off its keys as a skittering snare rattles the conscience awake and synthetic beats provide the heartbeat for what follows. It’s slow and stately, the ideal bed upon which Thom Yorke can waft his wonky-eyed falsetto. A guitar line snakes in, unusual of time signature, creatively arpeggiated and clean, an excellent woody tone, you think, and a glimmering shimmer of strings (possibly an arcane instrument I am ignorant of – Jonny likes an unusual instrument for creating his soundscapes, as you well know) – sees the melody take a gorgeous and unexpected turn.
Devastation has come, sings Thom. Left in a station with a note of poems. Now there’s never anywhere to put my feet back down.
I don’t pretend to know what particular heartbreaking ruin he’s singing about, but the whole melody that follows is amazing. In slo-mo, and right in front of your eyes, it untwines and unravels, unspools itself free and starts to wander. As your ears follow its sinuous path, you’re aware that the drums have picked up in emphasis, freeform and jazz-like, and they are also wandering independently, fluttering rapidly like Kingfishers’ feathers by the softly flowing Afton.
Then… the brass section! It gently blows its way in, stately and creeping, just like that advert for Castrol GTX that you’ll remember from the 1980s, the thick golden yellow substance easing and oozing its way into the head of the mechanic’s misplaced spanner. Speech Bubbles, for that is the name of the track, would make a great soundtrack were they ever to reboot the original and cast aside Mahler’s imperial Nachtmusic.
The Smile – Speech Bubbles
I am in no way a tastemaker or some barometer of hip opinion – the tagline at the top of the blog there would suggest that – but for what it’s worth, The Smile‘s A Light For Attracting Attention is, by some way, my album of the year. Speech Bubbles may not even be the best track on it, but it most definitely is this week.
Whereas Jonny and Thom’s day job takes months, years, to evolve to the point a record is made, The Smile seems spontaneous, almost guerilla-like by comparison. Constant touring for the past few months has seen them regularly drop brand new songs into their set, much to the frenzy of the fan community for whom even a Thom Yorke recorded sneeze might find itself overanalysed and quite possibly remixed before he’s made it back to the hotel from the show.
Radiohead may be on permanent sabbatical, they may even have already dissolved, but The Smile more than makes up for their absence. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with next.
New York grooves to two soundtracks. The first one, everybody hears. It’s the sirens, low and wailing and ever-present. It’s the angry and restless horn honk from a gridlocked car, the thudda-thudda-thudda as a low-flying chopper arcs overhead, the filling-loosening sub-bass from a low-riding Subaru (‘Mercury and Subaru!‘) as it jumps the midnight lights on 42nd Street, the in-your-face hustle of the street vendors intent only in hoovering the dollars from your pockets. Even in the more tranquil areas like Central Park and Greenwich, you can’t quite escape the perma-noise.
The second soundtrack is internal. New York is a music fan’s mecca, and from the moment you arrive, you are reminded of the city’s rich musical heritage. It wasn’t quite a ‘cold and wet December’s day as we touched the ground at JFK‘, but a sign for Rockaway has me stupidly and excitedly chewin’ out the rhythm on an imaginary bubble gum. On the way into Manhattan from the airport, we must’ve passed half a dozen Rockaway signs and every one of them triggered the same response. ‘Rack-rack, Rackaway Beach!…..we can hitch a ride to Rackaway Beach!‘ I was still singing it on the road back to the airport last Thursday. The cab might have been idling along in rush hour sludge at less than 5 miles an hour, buckled bumper to buckled bumper with the traffic around it, but having just hitched my own ride (at a flat $70) my brain was speeding away like The Ramones themselves in ’77.
Over from Queens and into Manhattan and a sign next to one for the Lincoln Tunnel jumps out. ‘Lower East Side’ it informs, and Debbie Harry’s girl-group swoon has shifted Joey Ramone momentarily to the margins. ‘Went walkin’ one day on the Lower East Side, met you with a girlfriend, you were so divine…‘ There’s also one for the Manhattan Bridge at 59th Street and, uh-oh, stone me if Simon & Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy doesn’t float into the ether all on its ownsome too! Music, music everywhere.
All the neon lights are bright on Broadway.
Some folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighbourhood…I’m in a New York state a’ mind.
The Only Living Boy In New York.
Noo York City cops ain’t that smart.
I sang them all as I pounded the sidewalks of Manhattan, their tunes worming their way into the ear whenever the relevant stimulus triggered the line.
We are staying on 3rd Avenue and every day we pass the ‘Lexington Avenue’ sign on our way to wherever, so of course, unknown to the others, a pounding piano soundtracks my walk for the next couple of blocks. We’re nowhere near Harlem’s 125th Street, but it doesn’t stop me singing. ‘Down to Lexington one-two-five, feel sick and dirty more dead than al-ive. Ahm waitin’ for ma man.’ Even the boy was doing it by the Tuesday, oblivious to where it came from or what he was singing about.
We go to Chelsea Market and although the famous hotel isn’t too far away, we’ve walked 30,000 steps already by then and I can’t be dragging a disinterested family to the site of a place steeped in rock history just so I can snap a quick ‘I was there’ photo. Instead, Dylan’s line about writing Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands in the Chelsea Hotel repeats for a bit as we browse the delights of the food stalls in the former meatpacking warehouse. Leonard Cohen’s reference to Janice Joplin and an unmade bed also makes an uninvited but welcome appearance as we stop by a Japanese noodle bar.
“10th Avenue Freeze Out!” I shout in my best gravelly Broooce voice when we cross 33rd street on the west side of Manhattan for a cross-borough walk home. I think Springsteen’s particular 10th Avenue is actually across the Hudson there in Jersey, but it doesn’t stop me singing it on at least a further two occasions when our wanderings unexpectedly find us over that way again. I even hear the jangling barroom piano and Clarence Clemons’ sax whenever I see the street sign.
Grand Central Station has signs for the A Train and so Duke Ellington’s rousing jazz standard, full of promise and anticipation of what Manhattan has to offer the upwardly-mobile urbanite, wafts into the internal iPod…before being rudely shunted aside by the New York Dolls rattlin’ and frantic Subway Train. Ever since I been ridin’, ride on the subway train… Songs, man! They just barge their way into your head without even asking. How very New York.
New York! Concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nuthin’ you can’t do.
You mo-ove it to the right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, do the Harlem Shuffle.
Oh-oh-oh! You’re a Native New Yorker!
They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold. When the wind blows right through you it’s no place for the old…
New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down. James Murphy, are you serious?! Really?!
The internet tells me that Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ In The Wind in Greenwich Village’s Fat Black Pussycat, a nightclub long closed down but still visible if you know where to look, so off we trot.
There are numerous Dylan-related spots to find throughout Greenwich. My wonky internal Bob radar tells me that the iconic shot for Dylan’s Freewheelin‘ album was taken in Macdougal Street, so off we trot again. I was a bit ticked off when I realised all too late that the spot where we had tried to replicate Bob ‘n Suze’s trudge in the snow was in fact one parallel street away from the actual spot in Jones Street, although I also found out that we inadvertently stood right outside what was Bob’s house at the end of the ’60s, so not all was lost.
In TV world, the facade that was used for the outside shots of the ‘Friends‘ house is just up the road and round the corner – just about the fanciest neighbourhood in all of Manhattan as it goes, and hardly the place you’d expect to find half a dozen twenty-somethings with barely a career between them, let alone the $3000 a month required for rent, but there y’go. That’s the magic of telly for you.
Had we made it further east, we’d have – or I’d have – looked for the site of CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City and the tenement on St Marks Place that featured on the sleeve of Physical Graffiti. I’ve always loved the look of that sleeve and had fancy ideas of sticking my own photo in the space right below this paragraph. Next time…
Physical Graffiti is a sprawling, eclectic and at times treacle-heavy record. A double album that encapsulates Led Zeppelin’s entire ouvre over four sides of vinyl, it cemented the band’s reputation as a stadium-filling hot ticket in the mid ’70s, and as it did so, unwittingly provided the necessary catalyst for those punks in the Bowery and lower east side to explode in retribution; until then, hair was growing longer in direct proportion to the solos played, trousers were as wide and outlandish as the tales of excess that filtered from the backstage to the front page and music was all about ‘look at us!’ rather than ‘be like us!’ Richard Hell chopping his hair to bits changed all that. You knew that already though.
Back to the Zep for now.
Physical Graffiti kicks off with Custard Pie, essentially a facsimile of Led Zeppelin’s recorded output in miniature. It’s got a rockin’ great guitar riff, blues in style if not in sticky-fingered origin – although that is surely up for debate. It’s got Bonham’s piledriving drums; a shuffling, juddering raising the dead racket that creates unexpected jolts in all the right places. It’s got John Paul Jones multitasking on a highly funky, Wonder-ish clav line and a stoic bassline that follows the lead guitar, sometimes. And it’s got one of Robert Plant’s finest vocals, a guttural, primal moan that begins at the soles of his moccasin’d feet, travels like quicksilver through his Greek God torso and comes out of his mouth like the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding on Valkyrie themselves. With a shake of the golden curls and a wink of the twinkling blue eye, Plant has you under his spell.
Led Zeppelin – Custard Pie
Jimmy’s Les Paul is all over the track, a low-slung, panther-prowling masterclass in rock guitar playing. Throughout, he stirs up a hard blues crunch that takes in lip-curling riffage, lightning-fingered Wah-enhanced soloing in the middle and rounds off with the groove tightly locked-in, Page and Bonham in simpatico as Plant blows a metaphorical hoolie on the mouth organ. Or harp, as he’d no doubt prefer you say.
I love how Robert makes his voice fade in on that first moan, standing away from the mic and gradually getting closer until the singing gets underway. The singing is great; loud and soulful and packed full of all those trademark Plant high notes and adlibs – it’s not hard to picture him holding the stand-free mic across his bare chest, his head tilted back, his demi-wave trailing down his back – as you listen. It’s just a pity that, given the era and circumstances around its writing, Custard Pie‘s lyric is pretty dubious. Even if it was the seventies! There’s no excuse, Plant. There’s no excuse at all.
To have been even a peripheral cog in that late ’60s/early ’70s Laurel Canyon songwriting wheel would have been quite something, I’d imagine. In houses tucked deep into the lush Californian flora and fauna, bands shared players and partners – of both the writin’ and romantic kind – and created a stoned immaculate co-operative of epoch-defining music.
The beautiful and not so (hi, David Crosby) plucked all manner of floaty harmonies straight out of the west coast ether and entangled them in gently strummed 12 strings and carefully picked alternatively-tuned Martin guitars and, with the help of a passing drummer or two – Buffalo Springfield’s Dewey Martin perhaps, or maybe crack sessioner Eddie Hoh, or, if he was looking for a quick gig in-between sessions, Hal Blaine (the drummers’ drummer) – commited to vinyl tracks that still ring and resonate half a century and more later.
Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name album – check it out! – reads like a Wikipedia who’s who of the era’s Californian singer/songwriter scene. Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and assorted Grateful Deads and Jefferson Airplanes show up to add their lightly toasted harmonies and frazzled, sloppy guitar playing to the record. The result is something of a one-off, recorded spontaneously (mostly) and sent to the pressing plant before anyone had the bright idea of tinkering with it. As rough ‘n ready albums go, it’s hard to beat.
I’m a sucker for the meandering and hippy Laughing, a track written in memory of the time Crosby met George Harrison at the height of Beatlemania and they bonded over Eastern philosophy and Ravi Shankar. It’s a tapestry of highly strung guitars, weeping pedal steel and overlapping, multi-stacked harmonies and it just might soothe your troubled post-millenial soul.
David Crosby – Laughing
Recorded while Crosby was in the heavy depths of grief following his girlfriend’s death in a car crash, those in attendance would often find the singer curled up on the studio floor, overcome to the point of uselessness. Yet, when he made it to the mic, you’d never have known.
With a voice coated thick in heavy drugs and alcohol, he sang his melody-rich songs; some entirely wordless, their meaning conveyed by multi-stacked Eastern-tinged vocal-less harmonies, others thinly disguised accounts of life as a free lovin’, easy ridin’ Laurel Canyon troubadour.
Cowboy Movie, for example, is the sprawling musical story of the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with Young himself riffing on a loose ‘n funky guitar duel with Jerry Garcia. It’s Down By The River by way of Cowgirl In The Sand, while Crosby outlines (via lyrical aliases) how Rita Coolidge came between he and Graham Nash, to the detriment of their band. You should seek it out.
Just out of the eye of the storm, and slightly more peripheral to the machinations of the scene were The Monkees. Desperate to be seen as credible and serious, they employed the best writers, the best sessioneers and called in the best favours to ensure their records sparkled and soared like the best of ’em. Dig beneath the hits – and there are plenty – and you’ll discover a catalogue rich in introspective melancholy and sef-deprecating balladeering.
Written by Carole King and sung by Micky Dolenz, As We Go Along first appeared in the film Head and then crept out on the b-side of the movie’s lead single, the trippy and non-hit Porpoise Song – a track that probably requires a blog all of its own at some point.
The Monkees – As We Go Along
As We Go Along is so un-Monkees. There’s no obvious poppy hook. It’s downbeat, languid and loosely strummed, a raggle-taggle Rod and The Faces soundalike played on gently scrubbed acoustic guitars and thunking, woody bass. Carole King’s embeded melody eventually finds its way to the fore between the skirling acoustic strings and flutes, electric guitars riffing off into the Laurel Canyon sunset. You’ll want to play it again and again. It’s a beauty.
It was very easy to dislike Damon Albarn back in the day. The gurning, mock-cockernee affectations and bow-legged, Fila-sporting lad about town look of the ’90s were more than enough to ensure he’d be pinned to the bullseye of many a pub dartboard the length and breadth of northern Britain for many a month. And yet, and yet… He was the creator of some of his era’s most wistful and melancholic moments; the creeping paranoia of The Universal, the shoegaze blues of No Distance Left To Run, the stadium swoon of This Is A Low (have you ever stood in a field and experienced that in the moment?) the double-hitting lo-fi sighs of Sad Song and Sweet Song… strip back the bravado and bluster of Blur and at the heart you’ll find a wee bit of soul, with Albarn the master of his band’s mass-market melancholia.
In the days since, he’s released about 32 gazillion albums. Some, like Everyday Robots, are solo affairs. Others – The Good, The Bad And The Queen – are magpie-gathering collaborative efforts featuring the cream of musicians across the genres. Others still – his Gorillaz project – brought him to a whole new audience for whom Blur meant absolutely nothing. Then there are the Chinese State operas, the Michael Nyman soundtracks, the Africa Express foundation… By the time you’ve read this paragraph he’s probably laid down a brand new track stuffed full of phat beats and analogue synths and sent it off to Idles or Loyle Carner or maybe even Taylor Swift to add a vocal line that he can twist and manipulate into a Novello-garnering hit. Say what you like about his music, but unlike the punchable cheese-making fop that played bass in his old band, Albarn has a work ethic that’s second to none.
His most recent album, The Nearer The Mountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, may sound like it took its title from a badly translated haiku, but it was recorded in his now-native Iceland, with Albarn using the view from his Reykjavik studio window (above) as insipiration.
Originally planned as a grand orchestral album, the 2020 lockdown instead forced Albarn’s hand, and the album came out last year in a much more stripped back, lo-fi form. Elements of jazz raise their nodding heads, with autumnal clarinets or maybe oboes – I’m no woodwind expert – meandering for as long as that questionable mullet of his between tinkling Fender Rhodes and wheezy melodica on many tracks. It’s a good late night/early morning album, the close-miked vocals and processed beats of Royal Morning Blue fighting for earspace with its wooden thunk of bass and woozy synth, the Bowie-esque Polaris leaving you momentarily disorientated before unravelling in a flood of Blackstar-ish sax and counter melodies. Worth investigating.
Damon Albarn –Darkness To Light
I’m a sucker for a street-corner lament though, and the waltzing, lilting doo-wop of Darkness To Light is the track I like to hit repeat on the most. Recorded, I’m only speculating, quietly and during one of Iceland’s never-ending daylight, darkness-free nights, it’s the whole album in miniature; vintage synth, brooding instrumentation and free-flowing, tumbling melodies where Albarn manages to sound both sad and relieved within the same 3 minutes.
If y’like the Trashcan Sinatras’ quieter moments, or Andrew Wasylyk’s way with an analogue synth, or indeed David Bowie’s more introspective moments, Darkness To Light might just be for you. Add it to a playlist including half of the latest record plus some of those Blur tracks mentioned above and you’ve got yourself Now That’s What I Call Melancholy Vol. 1.
Cosmic acid-fried avant gardeists Flaming Lips will always be known for the glitter cannoned, unicorn-topped ode to joy that is Do You Realize?? I don’t know anyone who isn’t continually affected by its crashing, sweeping uplifticisms and a happy/sad lyric delivered somewhere between ’73 Neil Young and a sandpaper-scoured frog. It’s long-been an accepted classic and quite rightly too.
Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??
It hasn’t yet happened in twenty years of teaching, but I have this continued idea that, in my role as a primary teacher, I’ll be asked one time – just one time – to prepare the school choir for an event where the parents are present and eager to be entertained. This could be an in-house school event or maybe even a slightly grander multi-school ‘n local councillors affair, perhaps in a public building that most pupils pass by without ever knowing what’s inside its sandstone and stained glass exterior, but either way, we’ll be doing Do You Realize?? and by the end of the song We. Will. Own. It.
It’ll start with the kids lined up in three slightly curved tiers; tallest to the back, the most ragamuffin and coos-licked at the front. Taking two steps beyond middle front will be the sweetest wee girl, lopsided bunches in her hair, pulling perhaps at her pinafore in awkward acknowledgement of her main starring role in the proceedings. I’ll count in – ‘1, 2, 3, 4‘ – and a couple of hipster kids on guitars will begin to strum. I’ll be keeping them in time from the side on my own 6 strings, but the eleven year-olds will get all the plaudits. The assembled choir will begin to sway gently and self-consciously, and maybe even in unison, as our ragged guitar music washes across the room. A handful of kneeling pitched percussion players in the front row will join in after a couple of bars and tinkle the song’s root notes and descending scales on a collection of glockenspiels and xylophones.
There might be a switched on parent or two in the audience who thinks they recognise the frayed beginnings of the song but they’ll catch themselves with a ‘no! surely not!‘ and then break out in a grin of giddy realisation when their initial thoughts are confirmed. Do You Realize?? indeed. Before a word is even sung, we will have the audience in our collective hand.
Then the singing starts.
Do you realize?? goes everyone, loud and confident, parochial and pitchless. The wee girl at the front takes the second line alone, high and sweet and wavering in and out of tune. That you have the most beautiful face.
Hearts melt. Parents sigh. Signs are raised.
The signs. I never mentioned those. D’you know the Gabba Gabba Hey one that Joey Ramone held aloft at Ramones gigs? Or the Hang The DJ one that Morrissey battered around during those riotous Smiths shows in 1986? That. Only our signs have pictures rather than words.
On the ‘most beautiful face‘ line, half the back row – every second person – holds up a sign which features a self-portrait painted by that child. The image remains aloft until the end of the next line.
Do you realize?? the massed choir sings again. The wee girl comes back in, stronger this time, beginning to find her feet. We’re floating in space.
The self portraits are spun 180 degrees on their makeshift handles to reveal some generic planets on the other side – Saturn’s rings etc – shooting stars, the occasional spaceship, all that sort of cosmic stuff. The audible ‘ooh‘ that rises from the audience is just perceptible above the clanging racket of percussion and those barely held-down chords on the nylon-strung guitars.
Do you realize?? they repeat for a third time, almost enjoying it now, as Freckles comes in for her solo once again. That happiness makes you cry.
The other half of the back row holds up a new sign – an acid house smiley that appears on the ‘happiness‘ word and then turns on the appropriate lyric to reveal the same smiley, but with a single teardrop trickling from the left eye, solid black on effervescent yellow.
Do you realize?? they bellow for the last time, far louder now, and much more confident. The soloist psyches herself up for the final line. Bar only the single most competent tinkler, all of the percussion drops out. The kids’ guitars momentarily drop out too, although I keep playing softly to keep the rhythm and pace of it all.
That everyone…you know…someday…will die.
It’s pin-drop quiet. The middle row – too short for the tall stuff at the back, too ham-fisted to be trusted with the percussion instruments – now has their moment. They hold proudly a picture of a loved one no longer with them and then hold it to their heart as the killer line is delivered. Bad choice of word, killer, given the context, but you know what I mean.
At this, there’s another audible ‘ooh‘ from the audience, more of a gasp, perhaps even a slightly shocked one, but it all resonates; the strangled guitars, the tumbling and out of time pitched percussion, the visual cues on the signs, wee freckle face out front, no longer holding on to the hem of her pinafore, but focused on the clock at back of the room, awaiting her cue for her next line. It’s an explosive twenty or so seconds and the room is ours.
Then we get to the refrain? Chorus? I don’t know what it is but that’s merely academic.
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes Let them know you realize that life goes fast It’s hard to make the good things last You realize the sun don’t go down It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
On the last line, the kids in the middle row pick up a hand-painted circular Planet Earth – or an actual globe, if resources allow – and rotate it speedily clockwise. Every child is singing as one by this point. Freckles steps back from the front and merges into the choir. They’re belting it out, this west coast primary school gospel, baked in local accent, stirring and uplifting, surging every parent’s proud-o-meter well into the red. The kids, those not playing instruments or illustrating the world spinning round, clap every other word – realise, life, hard, good, realise, don’t – until the last line when there are none. There’s a tricky F minor for the guitarists to negotiate, but any dull strings and bum notes are quickly drowned out by the stratospheric choir as they up the volume, up the ante and go for it.
Do you realize?? – ah-ah-ah!!!
The kids are swinging, swaying, singing. No one’s noticed the guitar players have stopped due to the key change and trickier chords. E flat?! G# minor?! Just sing louder, Jayden, no-one will notice you’re not playing. The percussionists have downed their beaters too, lost in a heady bridge of adlibs and joyful, unselfconscious singing.
My guitar brings it all back to earth. Heavy strums and accented bass notes give way to lighter flourishes, signifying the song must get back to the message. All the kids sing all the lines – verses, refrain, chorus, the lot. Some of the parents have joined in too, recognising the simplicity in the lyrics, the universal message of hope over fear, that love conquers all. The room vibrates as one.
As the song fizzes to a clanging, banging, wonky and ragged end, the head teacher is overcome with emotion. “Wow!” she’s saying before she’s even reached the stage. “Just wow!” The parents are on their feet, clapping wildly. There’s a two-fingered wolf whistle from somewhere at the back, piercing through applause that sounds like a tropical rainfall. My colleagues – the ones who think nothing of sticking on a backing track and ‘teaching’ the kids to sing to it – think I’m a pretentious wanker. I am brought back to earth wondering where my unicorn has gone. One day this will happen.
Girls At Our Best! – that exclamation mark is important – were the product of a fertile Yorkshire post-punk scene. The Leeds band bore all the hallmarks of the era; individuality, style, self-administered haircuts, socialist tendencies, scratchy guitars and articulate lyrics that when sung teetered on the edge of being in tune. In an ‘anything goes’ era, GAOB! grabbed it and ran, half a pace behind front runners Slits, but easily keeping up with the likes of Au Pairs and Delta 5.
Fiercely independent, their self-financed debut single is arguably their best known. 1980’s Getting Nowhere Fast is a riot of fizzing guitars, shouty refrains and sudden endings.
Girls At Our Best! – Getting Nowhere Fast
Metronome tight, the guitar shoots angry sparks, the bass bounces up and down the octaves – that repeating, descending and divebombing run is a beauty – and the drums punctuate the end of every verse with a window rattling rat-a-tat military precision. I bet this sounded absolutely brilliant in a wee room with a low ceiling and a couple of pints swilling about inside the stomach. Being 10 going on 11 at the time of its release, I can only imagine.
I first discovered Getting Nowhere Fast via fellow Leeds band The Wedding Present. Their Anyone Can Mistake A Mistake single had a version on the b-side and although I’d worked out it was a cover, in a pre-internet era it would be a long time before I would track down the original. By default, The Wedding Present’s version – slightly throwaway but honest – was long-considered the definitive one, even if I’ve come to really like GAOB!’s more disciplined approach.
The Wedding Present – Getting Nowhere Fast
Eschewing the original’s solid and steady mid-paced chug for something altogether more immediate and frantic, Wedding Present attack the track with everything they have “Quick lads!” shouts the tape op. “We’ve got two minutes of tape left…see what you can do.” And off they fly, shaving a full 20 seconds off the original’s already brief running time.
All Wedding Present markers are in place; rattling, chattering electric guitars that by the middle eight are being played by knackered wrists and bleeding, raw knuckles, a bassline as solid and gnarly as an old tree, drums that sound like they might be falling down three flights of tenement stairs, the meat ‘n potatoes delivery…If you didn’t know it was a cover you’d swear it was one of David Gedge’s very best, although he really missed a trick by not renaming this version Getting Nowhere Faster.
Tonight’s The Night is Neil Young‘s 6th studio album. Counting the live Time Fades Away album it’s the 7th in his discography, recorded in 1973 but shelved until 1975, by which time he’d recorded and released a whole other album in the form of On The Beach. Who says stoners ain’t productive?
The period around this time in Young’s career is well-documented: His fourth album Harvest becomes an international smash, its down-home, pastoral acoustic sketches, good time bar band boogie and occasional orchestral flourishes striking a chord with millions of people, and whiny ol’ Neil suddenly finds himself the custodian of a hit album. A record company with at least one eye on the balance sheet is understandably keen for more, but Young, in an act of bold self-sabotage steers his musical output from the mainstream to the margins, from the middle of the road to the ditch.
So began his Ditch Trilogy, a series of three albums – Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night – that displayed a single bloody-mindedness to do as he pleased at whatever cost. Time Fades Away, for example, is a live document of a tour where he played wholly new material to sold out theatres and arenas keen to hear the whole of Harvest in the live setting. ‘Here’s one you’ve heard before,’ he’d announce to a jeering then cheering audience in the encores…and he’d play ‘Don’t Be Denied‘ for the second time that night.
If y’want the true essence of the artist in microcosm, look no further than these three albums. Every facet of his personality; the peacemaker, the confrontationalist, the political commentator, the grief-stricken musician, and every facet of his musical output; the acoustic troubadour with the asthmatic Marine Band harmonica, the wind blown one note soloist, the country pickin’, banjo bashin’ hippy and ham-fisted piano botherer is amongst those grooves. You knew all that already though.
I’ve spent a few nights recently in the company of Tonight’s The Night, to the point where it’s beginning to surpass On The Beach as my favourite Neil album. It’s very much a night time album, sleepwalking from the speakers in a fug of narcotic narcolepsy, vocals whispered and cracking, the band inhaling deeply before easing their way into the chords.
Right from the off you know you’re in for the long run. The title track (reprised, not for the first time in Young’s ouvre, at the end of side 2) is a slow blues, its pulsing bass and off-kilter (and mainly off-key) backing vocals dragging it to its conclusion.
Nils Lofgren’s bluesy, spidery guitar lines tip-toe and creep their way through the heavy air, non-flash yet essential to the record’s feel, providing the ambient atmospherics that slow the whole thing down.
The theme of the record; death from heroin, mainly, is reflected in the slow-moving, treacle-thick tracks and woozy, woolly, atmospherics. Side 2’s Albuquerque is the best of Neil Young in one song.
Neil Young – Albuquerque
It begins with that idiosyncratic slow chugging Neil Young groove, lazy pulls-offs and hammer ons played in Young’s unique clawhammer style, valve amps cranked up to the max but the volume low on the guitar. You can feel the power in those six strings. A subtle turn of the volume knob on Neil’s Les Paul could unleash howling fury at any point, yet he keeps it restrained and under control.
Chord changes take an age to come, Young slowing the band to a pedestrian pace. When he hits the titular phrase in the chorus, its usual four syllables is stretched and eee-long-gated to an impressive ten. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-al-bu-quer-que‘.
A chrome-coated weeping pedal steel, the ghost of the Flying Burrito Brothers vamps its way across the verses as Neil sings of Santa Fe and fried eggs and country ham and getting away from it all. Fame, fame, fatal fame, as someone else would sing a decade later. Neil wants away from it so much that he allows the pedal steel to take the lead at the appropriate point in the song, its eerie sliding glissandos emerging from between wheezing harmonica squeals to flood the tune with harmonious countryfied colour and life until the end. It’s a beauty.
Non-Compulsory Follow-Up Homework
Go and listen to REM‘s Country Feedback; the mood, the feel, the slow-burning gothic country blues of it all, and compare it to Albuquerque. Uh-huh.
If you’re a regular tuner-inner to night-time BBC 6 Music, you’ll be no stranger to the music of Los Bitchos. Their largely instrumental pot pourri of surf guitar, fuzz bass and Columbian cumbia rhythms is pretty unique and well worth further investigation if the likes of Khruangbin or Cats Eyes or the Allah-Las are on your radar.
If you’re a garage rock aficionado whose tastes extend far beyond the mother lodes of Nuggets and Pebbles, you may well be familiar with Danny Lee Blackwell, authentic mid-’60s sound seeker and prime mover in a scene of wonderfully-named bands; his The Old Explosives and White Light Fever sound exactly as you’d expect. I’ve yet to dive into the back catalogues of Night Beats and Medicine God Box, but I can imagine what awaits.
You can, then, make a good guess at what might happens when an ex-Los Bitchos – Carolina Faruolo – collaborates with Danny Lee Blackwell under the name Abraxas.
Great, isn’t it!
A minor key reggae ‘n garage-fried head nodder, it has shades of Jonathan Richman’s Egyptian Reggae and Byron Lee’s Rocksteady, a vapour-trailed late summer groover that would sound perfect played out in a melting heat haze or wherever your sun may set. It’s the perfect sound of offset Fenders, hip swinging and hair.
That Los Bitchos cumbia beat is still there, shuffling along on a bed of Os Mutantes tropicalia and the sort of lazily shaken maraca shimmy that might well stir Lee Mavers’ inner yet dormant Bo Diddleyisms. The surf guitars are still there too, aimed skywards, set to maximum whacked-out reverb and twang and happily chattering away like a couple of auld clucking biddies at the Beachcomber Bingo.
It’s the vocal though that elevates it all; Blackwell channelling Lee Perry, half-singing the effect-heavy verses, elongating the words and phrases for extra frazzled effect, echoes of key words morse-coding their way into the ether before hitting the high notes with the double tracked ear-wormy refrain. Dry my tears, ah-ye-aye. It’s a beauty!
Midway through, the guitar breaks out in a rash of heavily-delayed psychedelia, some nicely pitched wah-wah going toe to toe with a delay pedal, but it’s short lived. Before you know it, we’re back to that hip swaying desert blues shuffle, Tinariwen by way of Texas (the state, not the band), as Faruolo freeforms her way up the higher reaches of the frets and Blackwell mutters his way to a lightly toasted conclusion.
What’s amazing – but not surprising these days – is that the track was recorded not in some suitably lo-fi, low rent studio, but across the internet between Blackwell in Dallas and Faruolo in Manchester. That such great music can be created when its principal players are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and a couple of time zones is pretty impressive.
A word too about the band name. Abraxas, as you well-know already, is the title of the second album by jazz rock Latin guitar strangler Santana. It’s no coincidence that this new collaboration has named itself after an album that is packed full of interesting rhythms, experimental percussion and endless, inventive, meandering guitar playing.
‘Planet Abraxas is a world filled with jungles, mist-covered rivers, panthers lurking in the night, desolate shopping malls, Neolithic citadels and sand-worn walls,’ they say. Well, of course it is. You know that just by listening to the track above. It bodes well for the album – Monte Carlo – released at the end of October on Suicide Squeeze.
You can find Abraxas at Bandcamp and in all the usual corners of the internet. I’ll see you there.
How do you pronouce certain band names? Hingmy Malmsteen? Sun O))) or just Sun? (It’s Sun, believe it or not, despite the ‘O’ and the trio of parenthesese – that’s the sun, innit?) What about !!!? And what of Lynyrd Skynyrd? Is it Suede to rhyme with Fred or Suede to rhyme with frayed? (It’s Fred, obviously, if you’re Scottish.)
What about Fatherson? Is the emphasis on the ‘Father‘ prefix or the ‘son‘ suffix?
It’s not, as you might think (or say) Fatherson, with the heavy emphasis on the end of the word, turning one word into two. It’s run together as one word – Fatherson – the way you might say Andy Robertson, or perhaps if you’re of a certain vintage, B.A. Robertson.
“Liverpool lining up tonight with an unusual back four of Robertson, Richarlison, Gerry Cinnamon and Fatherson. It’ll be interesting to see how they get on against the pacey Kilmarnock wing backs….”
To my shame, I’d pegged Fatherson as Biffy-lite without knowingly listening to so much as a note by them; hairy muscle power pop in Scottish accents, I’d presumed. I’ve eaten at least one slice of humble pie in recent weeks as a result. Firstly, I was involved in the running of a brand new festival, Making Waves, and Fatherson had been booked as late afternoon performers.
Being responsible for the press and what not, and with band interviews being lined up, I dipped a hesitant toe in their back catalogue and was immediately taken by a sound distinguished by loud, anthemic, ringing guitars and proudly parochial vocals sung brilliantly. Where had they been all my ignorant life?! I lost track of time into the wee small hours one night while I found myself falling for the song that coincidentally gave our festival its name.
Fatherson – Making Waves
It starts as many Fatherson songs do, with bookish and bearded guitar-playing vocalist Ross Leighton strumming out a kind of audible preface to what follows, just Ross with his plugged-in electric and soft Scottish burr setting the scene. As the intro plays out, there’s a wee brief pause where you just know the band is going to come crashing in, all flailing limbs and howling instruments, and Making Waves doesn’t disappoint. In they lurch, all divebombing, disorientating Valentine wooze and wobble, a wave of silver and mercury effect-heavy instrumentation filling the room then dropping out just as quickly to allow the vocals back in.
The wee brief, chiming guitar riff that introduces the chorus is totally ripe for soundtracking the goals of the week on a particularly hip football highlights show, maybe even Sky if they had suitably ‘on it’ researchers. I say ‘on it’, but Making Waves is four years old, so what do I know – it may well have soundtracked the entire 2018-19 season on Soccer AM for all I know.
Making Waves is Fatherson in miniature. Riff heavy, melody-rich and hooky, played out with a we mean it, man sturm und drang. There are some great call and response vocals in the chorus, all keening heartache and sincerity, a sign that despite the ability to turn everything up to 10, there’s a compassionate soul beating at the heart of the band.
Cut to the Making Waves festival. Live, Fatherson are terrific. Like, really terrific. They’ve got the band look sorted – orange and grey boiler suits, turned up to ankle dusting levels like some hipster, fashion-conscious, guitar totin’ Beastie Boys collective – and boy, they can talk it like they walk it. They run on stage and they’re straight into it, a downhill without the brakes on riot of hair and frets and space-age chrome ‘n steel pedal boards. Those brief wee pauses the band so-loves are well-timed and slick. Flyaway hair freezes in midair then continues its trajectory as the trio slam back into it. Drums clatter like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The bass guitar sounds like a speeding Paul Simonon in some places, my neighbour’s non-stop nail gun in others. Ross’s enviable collection of vintage guitars take a good heavy-plectrumed scrubbing.
I hang back sidestage and experience the show from a new perspective, watching their loyal audience mouth the words back to the band, watching as the band is spurred further on by the frenzy in the crowd. It’s all thrilling stuff.
Just when you’re thinking that Fatherson don’t, or can’t, do acoustic-based music, along comes the loveliest version of Making Waves, floated in from the furthest corners of the internet, intent on worming its way into your primed and ready for it ears. Wonderful stuff all in, it’s the unexpected call-and-response female vocal in the chorus that pushes this version towards greatness. A gently restrained take of one of the band’s best tracks. You just can’t argue with musicality, melody and properly great singing.
Fatherson – Making Waves (acoustic)
Fatherson, man, where have you been all my stupidly ignorant musical life?
In a game of two halves, Trompe le Monde would prove to be Pixies ‘final’ album before their resurrection in more recent times. Frank Black has said that the record was made in fractuous times, the band splintering, Kim being marginalised, with all of Black’s songs making the cut at the expense of everyone else’s. Although credited to ‘Pixies’, the album foreshadowed the singer’s solo career and should probably be classed as his first such record.
It’s a patchy set of songs. It lurches from the punkish rush of Alec Eiffel via a hundred mile an hour cover of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Head On to the ultra sweary U-Mass and half a dozen other weird and wonky rockers that would benefit from a dusting down and reappraisal at some point.
Lead single Planet Of Sound came housed in a sleeve featuring an eyeball dipped in salt, a metaphor, surely, for Pixies’ uncompromising and at times uncomfortable sound. It’s sci-fi AC/DC, a proper screaming throat loosener with blowtorch guitars, chugga-chugga bassline and a neat line in counter vocals buried under the chorus.
Pixies – Planet Of Sound
When Kurt Cobain openly admitted stealing Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet blueprint, there’s a good chance he had this track as his point of reference. It’s all there; the semi-spoken vocal atop the bassline, the hint of Marshall-stacked guitars straining at the leash, Black singing his way to a chorus where fuzz boxes are stomped on and guitars snap free and twang their giddy way to the outer reaches of space like a hopped-up Duane Eddy auditioning for Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. Go and listen to the filth and the furore of Nevermind‘s Lithium or In Bloom or even Teen Spirit if you don’t believe me. Total Pixies, man!
By the second verse, the guitars are back under control, just, itching to break free once more against a backdrop of rolling bass and space-referencing lyrics: I got to somewhere unknown, with its canals and colour of red. Joey coaxes wee angry squeals from the six strings under his fingers and lets them loose again on the chorus. Somewhere along the line, the sound of a bottle can be heard dropping, shaken loose from a studio shelf by Pixies’ electric blast of rampant energy. This time the chorus is twice as long, twice as loud, the guitars pushing the vocals to the very limit of Frank Black’s larynx-ripping abilities, the vocals spurring the guitars on to even angrier retorts. I wonder if that flying ‘P’ in Pixies’ logo is a reference to the way the band flies off the grooves of this record…
A fat-free solo pops up, no frills, simple and economic, with just enough requisite bend and strangulation to sate the appetite of any indie guitar hero-loving listeners. No sooner has it flown in than it’s flown off again, and a red-templed Frank is back again to scream his head off through another verse and a chorus that stops just as suddenly as this post.