In an era of artificial style over actual content, of press, publicists and pushy people foisting all manner of rubbish into yer blogs and onto yer airwaves, we should appreciate Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The New York three piece have more fire in their collective rake-thin bellies than most. A riot of shiny shiny bobbed hair, caustic barbed wire guitars and neanderthal tub thumping, they’re a welcome and necessary interruption to yer Slaves and Sleafords and whoever else is flavour of the month. They rarely appear on any ‘Best Of…’ and ‘Essential’ lists, they hardly ever pop up in the 6 Music playlists and I can’t remember the last time they toured anywhere near here, but it’s perhaps for those very reasons that when I listen to them they suddenly sound more vital and necessary than any other band around.
Their Is Is EP from 2007 (11 years ago already. Jeez!) is the one to go to. Five tracks long, it’s a snotty, arty and pretentious distillation of all that is great about the band. Vocalist Karen O drawls like the hipper, more street-smart sister of Chrissie Hynde with eye-bothering fringe to match. Brian Chase’s drums are loud and mighty in a John Bonham kinda way and perhaps the most vital ingredient in the band’s art attack.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Rockers To Swallow
On opener Rockers To Swallow he manages to sound like Adam & The Ants playing When The Levee Breaks. Elsewhere, his cymbal splashes and gut-punching floor toms provide a suitably tribal back beat upon which Nick Zinner’s guitar(s) shine. A genuine original, he wrings seven shades of hell from his machine, with a cheesegrater-thin ear-splitting riff here, a feedback-soaked squeal there and a filling-loosening slab of Sabbath in-between.
Yer actual Johnny Marr rates him as one of the current greats, having heard the band blasting noisily from his son Nile’s stereo. A couple of years ago I tried to swap a beautiful Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tour book, signed by Zinner himself, for one of Nile’s dad’s guitars. He relented of course, but still left with the book. What did I expect?
In football parlance, a passenger is someone who, for one reason or other, isn’t giving their all for the team. “See that Jones? Nothing but a passenger the day. He’d be better aff oan the bench so he would.” The way a bus carries its passengers to their destination, so a passenger’s 10 team mates will carry him through the game’s 90 minutes. A passenger is a shirker, half-arsed and unprepared to put in the hard graft to help the others shine. No one likes a passenger.
In the early 90s, U2 were spearheading a post-modern zeitgeist. Their most recent albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa had been toured globally featuring all manner of interactive stuff – TV channels flickering through the static behind the drums, phone calls to world leaders live on stage, stage sets featuring eastern European cars, giant lemons and papier mache versions of the band that were even better than the real thing…. the sort of stuff that in more recent times acts such as Coldplay and Arcade Fire have developed for their own means and which is now the standard in arena-sized rock shows. The Glasgow Zoo TV confession box was a particular highlight, with one devious wee guy announcing to 50,000 of us that there was a party following the show at his pal’s flat in Shawlands. He gave out the address too. Anyway…
Those two albums. Eno worked his magic on them, weaving an underbelly of atmosphere, ambience, and abstract artiness that allowed the tunes to shine with just the right level of weirdy wonkiness. Effectively, he rescued U2 from disappearing up their own cowboy-hatted backsides, dragging them back from mass-market mid America to rebrand them as cool European soundscapers. While Achtung Baby is undoubtedly the better of the two albums, Zooropa has its merits. Not so much the ‘follow up’, the never-quite admitted to third in the trilogy, Passengers Volume 1 album.
Just like those half-arsed footballers, the Passengers album was let down by tunes bereft of ideas and suffered from being an exercise in indulgent steps too far. Following a shelved plan to record music for a low-key film by director Peter Greenaway, the concept was for U2 to write the themes for a dozen or so imaginary films – United Colours Of Plutonium, Ghost In The Shell, Always Forever Now, and so on – and to use the exercise as a way of expanding the work they’d been doing with Brian Eno. Nowt wrong with that of course, but the results proved to be less than essential listening. Indeed, such was Island Records bewilderment with the finished result, they suggested U2 released it under an assumed name. If the record company didn’t ‘get it’, it stood to reason the record-buying public, those same millions who’d bought the band’s last 2 albums, would also struggle with the music therein. The album was released with muted fanfare to general indifference and has since found its rightful place on the margins of the U2 catalogue.
One track on the album stood out as a stone-cold classic.
Passengers – Miss Sarajevo
Miss Sarajevo fades in on a bed of crackling vinyl and lush Edge guitar, all shimmering reverb and gentle delay. Its stoned beatbox groove allows a close-miked Bono to croon all manner of throw-away lines; Is there a time for keeping a distance? A time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for kohl and lipstick? A time for cutting hair? Is there a time for first communion? A time for East 17? Here she comes…
It’s beautiful. Stupid and meaningless, but in the middle of an album hell-bent on self-indulgence and abstract expression, it hits you between the eyes like The Ramones gatecrashing the 70s. And just when it can’t be any better, the Edge greases his guitar upwards, Craig Armstrong’s string arrangement swells fit to burst and none other than Pavarotti pops up, bathed in pathos and regret and sounding like gentle thunder. Ah, you think, Bono’s voice was deliberately quiet so that when Luciano arrived on the scene you’d sit up and take notice. Clever that, both the production and the surprise of hearing Pavarotti blow Bono’s voice into the abyss with little more than a gentle sneeze. Incredible stuff.
If Miss Sarajevo were to soundtrack a film, it’d be for the slo-mo shoot-out scene in a Scorcese restaurant, where most of the main protagonists and a couple of unfortunate waiters meet their untimely and very bloody end as Pavarotti’s tremulous tenor washes over them. Think of this as you listen. It makes perfect sense.
Not surprisingly, U2 aren’t blind to the beauty of Miss Sarajevo, featuring it at least twice on subsequent Best Ofs, proving I suppose that a good track is a good track, no matter how it first makes itself known. “There’s a thin line between interesting music and self-indulgence,” pointed out an insightful Larry Mullen a decade on from Passengers’ uneasy release. So said the drummer who didn’t get to play on the one stand-out track.
The duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel have been making music as Air since 1995. Like Brian Wilson, but with access to all manner of analogue synths and samplers rather then the Wrecking Crew and the cream of the L.A. studio set, they’ve created a unique and focused sound, part space-pop, part ambient electronica, that is instantly recognisable.
The ubiquitous Moon Safari album might’ve brought them to the mainstream – you can find discussions on its merits in places as disparate as MumsNet and the Steve Hoffman music forum – but before it and since you’ll find some of their best work. Top of the pile is Playground Love, the track they recorded for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.
Air – Playground Love
Built around a beautiful chord progression, it starts off with four clicks of the drumsticks before slowly morphing into a stoned and luscious groove. A sleepwalking Fender bass pads softly down the frets. Real drums lollop with all the energy of a fat-tongued dog in front of a Christmas fire. Vibraphones tip toe around the edge of your consciousness, flowing hypnotically like the oil in that old Castrol GTX ad from the 70s. The vocals (provided by Phoenix’s Thomas Mars) are breathy, close-miked and forever on the edge of asleep. Out of the blue, with an extreme burst of lethargy a lazy saxophone meanders in and out of the words and music, sprinkling the track with the same sort of magic dust that was first found on Pink Floyd’s Us And Them.
Playground Love wouldn’t at all sound out of place on Dark Side Of The Moon. Its slow-motioned timelessness is just right for these Autumnal days and dark nights we’ve suddenly found ourselves in, an aural blanket for lost souls and late-night listening sessions. Listen carefully and you can just about see the blue curl of Gauloises snake around the melody of those understated cooing backing vocals like the crumpled ghost of Serge Gainsbourg on heat. It’s terrific stuff.
A dozen or so years ago, a concert celebrating the life and work of Robert Burns took place at Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland, not far from where I’m typing. I’m quite into Burns, in an enthusiastic amateur kinda way. I get involved when it’s that time of year in the schools and organise the school Burns Supper. I’ll put together wee groups of kids who’ll eagerly sing Green Grow The Rashes (the Michael Marra arrangement) while I get to rock out gently with some well-rehearsed finger picking on my guitar. At home, we’ve done Burns Suppers celebrating the bawdier side o’ Rabbie that they don’t teach at school, helped along by the sort of food and drink you’d be hard-pushed to find in a school dinner hall. There are tons of Burns scholars out there who take it far more seriously and who could bore the breeks off most of us with their ability to recite his most obscure work which is why, when the concert was announced at Culzean – with headliners Lou Reed and Patti Smith – I thought I’d give it a miss. “I don’t really fancy hearing Lou ‘n Patti pretend they know the inner workings of Burns’ songbook when they could be doing their own stuff instead,” I reasoned. Big mistake as it turned out, as Lou and Patti by and large did their own stuff, regardless or not of what the promoters had signed them up for. Patti even made the Scottish news on TV the next night for gobbing on the side of the stage, offending those stuffy, ancient scholars I’ve just mentioned. Old punks, eh. What’re they like?
Oor ain Eddi Reader, herself a mad Burns fanatic, was on the bill and in the encore she sang the famous ‘doot-di-doo’ backing vocals for Walk On The Wild Side alongside Patti Smith. I know people who’ll be reading this that have wide-eyed stage-side footage of the moment. Why did I not go? Why?
I’ve grown into Patti Smith in a big way. She was always there, a trailblazer for the strong, bloody-minded women from Chrissie Hynde to PJ Harvey who have a place in my record collection, but in recent years I’ve really come to acknowledge her as one of the greats. Morrissey, Michael Stipe and any Maconie-voiced BBC4 documentary will all tell you this of course, but unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time, I’m not sure her importance shines through for generations of mine and since.
Horses is her biggie, of course. A raucous brew of poetry set to music, it’s the sound of flared nostrils and itchy, twitchy jangling nerves riffing on French existentialists, Jesus and the futility of existence – the big stuff, in other words. Wrapped in monochrome with bird’s nest hair, it’s a challenging listen, certainly more difficult to get into than, say, Patti’s contemporaries The Ramones and Blondie who were street suss enough to add some pop to their schlock. The centrepiece of the album is, wonkily, mid way through side 2.
Patti Smith – Land
Land is a free-flowing example of all that Patti does best, over 9 carefully metered minutes of what musicologists might call a triptyche, with 3 parts of music played under the one theme. Every word is enunciated precisely and clearly, given equal gravitas. She howls, she whispers, she duets with herself. She’ll rap on something deeply esoteric one moment and then she’ll be singing about the watusi and Bonie Moronie the next. The words come in floods; pretentious, populist and pure. I can’t pretend to know exactly what she’s on about and I’m not certain that the young Patti in 1975 could’ve told you either. It sounds fantastic though.
Patti has a crack band behind her, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing in time to her carefully-written prose, yet for the entire track they keep it simple. At any moment, Richard Sohl on keys could break into the most heart-stopping piano run, but he doesn’t. Lenny Kaye could easily let fly with an electric burst of pop/punk bloooze, but he doesn’t. There’s ample opportunity over 9 minutes for an Animal-esque freak out on the drums, yet Jay Dee Doherty reigns himself in. With Patti Smith, it’s all about the vocal. The words are everything.
Here’s Piss Factory, her early b-side documenting her time working a crappy job for crappier money.
Patti Smith – Piss Factory
Just Kids, Patti’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe continues this theme. It’s a literary ride on the A Train, taking the reader right into the centre of a mid 70s New York that most of us can only imagine. Their story is played out against a backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City and Coney Island and features walk-on parts from Andy Warhol, Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Art, music and fashion explode and fuse together and everything and anything is possible, doable and done. Mapplethorpe struggles with a sexual identity that would eventually tear the couple apart but (or perhaps because of this) it’s a beautiful read; a love letter to and for Mapplethorpe and the city that brought them together. There they are up there, an androgynous Keef ‘n Mick for the Blank Generation. Even without the music, Patti’s words are powerful. Read it.
It was a conversation with Johnny Marr a few years ago that made me go home and re-evaluate Patti Smith until her genius really sank in. I was charged with taking photos of Johnny and his fans after a gig. The waiting line snaked around long enough that half the folk in it ended up missing their last connection home. At the front of the line was a girl who might’ve been 13 and might’ve been 33. Small, disheveled and unkempt, she’d been first to queue outside the venue at lunchtime on the day of the show and as soon as the doors had opened she’d ran for the front of the stage where she stood holding onto the barrier and never letting go until it was time to meet Johnny at the end. Johnny recognised her straight away. “Hello again darlin’!” he greeted with a hug. “How are we today? Listen – hey, listen! – make sure you get a bed tonight, eh? No more sleeping in doorways, eh?”
“Once, I bunked off the school,” he told me afterwards, “and skipped the train to Liverpool to catch Patti Smith. Sneaked in the stage door! That night I slept in Liverpool Bus Station and it was the most terrifying night of my life. That girl at the front comes to all the shows. She comes alone, leaves alone and always turns up the next day. I kinda worry for her, y’know?”
If artists have such a hold on folk that they’re prepared to forfeit a roof over their head for the night so that they can see them in concert, they’re worth listening to.
In the early days of Plain Or Pan I penned under the nom de plume of Phil Spector. I suppose it was a combination of being embarrassed to put my real name to anything that might read like a 3 year old’s best efforts and the fact that I didn’t really want anyone to know I had a sideline in writing about old music that kept me from using my own actual name. Things came to the fore when my daft pseudonym cost me the chance of an interview with Nancy Sinatra. “Why on earth would I want Phil Spector to interview me?” she growled, not quite getting the fact that it wasn’t yer actual Phil Spector who’d been in touch. “He was a strange, strange, man and I want nothing to do with him.” At the time, Nancy had been working with a still-hip Morrissey, and I was hoping to base our interview around the recordings they’d been making. Alas, it never happened.
Shortly afterwards I was contacted by someone who wanted me to interview Sandie Shaw. By coincidence, another iconic singer with connections to Morrissey, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. There and then I dropped the pretence and proudly added my own name to the by-line in every article I’d written here. The subsequent interview and article with Sandie (where she name-dropped Morrissey, Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux within the first 5 minutes) became the first piece of paid writing work I’d ever done.
Anyway, back to Nancy S. I’ve had her Greatest Hits rotating recently, a scratchy, crackly 11-track best of that I picked up for 50p (!) in a wee junk shop just off of Glasgow’s Byres Road. Much of it is kitsch nonsense, the sort of stuff that, had she not been the daughter of an icon, may well never had been afforded the attention it got.
The material she recorded with Lee Hazlewood though is fantastic, a heady combination of female/male, light/shade, sweet/sour on record. Sinatra’s voice is cutesy-cute, all light and airy melodies blown in from Hit Factory central. Hazlewood rumbles in like a gothic cowboy, with a voice deeper than a well and twice as dark. Together, they make the sound of milk chocolate and dark chocolate on vinyl.
Some Velvet Morning is the one for me.
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood – Some Velvet Morning
Druggy, fuggy and full of sexual innuendo, it’s a psychedelic pop masterpiece, miles away from the light and airy country pop that defines many of their duets.
Hazlewood takes the lead, gliding in on a bed of Barry-esque strings with a baritone that could rattle the lids on the coffins of the dead. He gives way to Nancy, fluttering in like a waltz-time muse. “Sing like a 14 year old who fucks truck drivers,” he instructed, with the blessing of ol’ blue eyes himself. Can you imagine anyone getting away with that nowadays?!?
The whole thing see-saws back and forth, a call-and-response danse macabre. Had it popped up soundtracking The Wickerman or a crucial scene in a Tarantino movie you wouldn’t have been surprised. Quentin T. may yet find a use for it in the future, I feel. Musically, the record is very rich. With instrumentation by the famed Wrecking Crew, it’s lush yet louche, wonky and weird and wonderful.
The other high point of their collaborations is Summer Wine, a track that has all the makings of a great lost Bond theme. There’s the innocent female vocal, parping brass and a not-so-subtle nod to all things Bond with the addition of John Barry’s ubiquitous 5 note signature theme midway through.
Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood – Summer Wine
The Lee/Nancy thing was done to great effect by Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell a few years ago. A post in the near future for sure….
As a bonus for now, here’s Lee’s version of Nancy’s signature theme. It’s a cracker.
Lee Hazlewood – These Boots Are Made For Walking
And here’s Let Me Kiss You, Nancy’s take on the Morrissey track that led them to find one another, the song I never got to ask her about. Hey ho. Morrissey has quite rightly come in for a lot of stick in recent times, and whether he still holds a place in your heart or not, you can’t deny that his performance in the background of this record is vintage Stephen.
If it’s scratchy, scuffed at the knees post-punk with a groove yer after, all roads lead to the twin metropoli of Manchester and New York.
A Certain Ratio are something of an enigma. They’ve been around long enough to have witnessed every important youth movement since punk and have steadfastly ploughed their own furrow, grooving somewhere between the hands-in-pockets introspection of Joy Division and the hands-in-the air exhibitionism of the Hacienda and the rave culture it gave birth to, while sometimes dressed like wonky extras in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. They’ve seen off grunge, grime and good old Britpop as well as the entire careers of The Smiths, New Order (the real New Order that is) and just about every influential band these isles have produced.
Revered by all manner of bands whose funk DNA pops up in the least likely of places, from Talking Heads and Happy Mondays to Red Hot Chili Peppers, ACR have the dubious fortune of being incredibly influential yet incredibly unheard of. It’s just the way they like it. They have the freedom to bypass trends, to surf across the wave of whatever zeitgeist is hip that week and get on with the job of making records for themselves.
Du The Du from 1979’s The Graveyard And The Ballroom album is the perfect jumping off/jumping in point.
ACR– Du The Du
It fairly rattles along on a barbed wire bed of steam-powered, clattering industrial funk, with powerhouse drummer Donald Johnson somehow making his kit the lead instrument. Lo-fi guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Josef K record do their chicken-scratch thang, an Asda-priced Nile Rodgers played by cosmopolitan Mancunians. The vocals, all pent-up anxiety could be Ian Curtis on Lemsip. There’s even an elastic band bassline midway through which threatens, but never quite gets to Level 42 on the muso-meter. I defy you not to wiggle at least a finger to it.
Du The Du also happens to be the track by which LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy measures (measured?) his own funkiness. If the New York band’s latest track seems weak by comparison, it’s binned forever until something more in keeping with ACR’s wonky, jerky funk turns up. Du the right thing indeed.
Talking of New York…
Such a melting pot of cultures and styles is always going to be responsible for inspiring exciting new trends and movements.ESGwas formed by the three Scroggins sisters from the Bronx. Given a variety of instruments by a mum keen to keep them on the right side of wrong, the group took equal inspiration from their Motown favourites and the nascent New York hip hop scene. The result, in a way, was neither. As with ACR, much of their stuff is sparse, cold and music for the feet rather than the head.
A show in Manhattan’s Hurrah club brought ESG to the attention of Factory’s Tony Wilson, himself no stranger to an ACR record (he’d go on to release 5 of their albums on Factory). Wilson brought ESG to Manchester where they recorded with Martin Hannett, fresh, believe it or not, from manning the desk as ACR recorded Du The Du. There’s serendipity right there for you. Or plain old musical incest.
ESGwouldn’t go on to sell all that many records, but in the intervening years they’ve been a clear influence on bands such as Luscious Jackson and Warpaint. They’ve also found themselves heavily sampled by acts looking for something beyond the usual James Brown riff; Beastie Boys, Tricky, even TLC have found gold within their basslines and rippling drums, leading to a late-era ESG releasing the telling Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills EP.
1982’s Dance To The Beat Of Moody from their EP of the same name is where you should start though:
ESG – Dance To The Beat Of Moody
As fresh as a hot pretzel on Avenue Of The Americas, it’s great, innit? You wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it were to pop up on BBC 6 Music next week, rotated heavily on the a-list as the hottest new thing. It’s only 36 years young. Original vinyl is almost impossible to track down though and, even of you’re lucky enough to uncover a 1983 press of Come Away With ESG, you’ll need a small bank loan to pay for it. Thankfully, the wonderful Soul Jazzdo a good run in re-presses.
How To Disappear Completely by Radiohead is a sensational track. It creeps up on you like a slow-crawling leak of treacle, oozing sticky melody, slowing down everything in its path. When it gets to you you’ll forget where you were driving to and what you’re going there for, forget what it was you were talking about before it came on. All your attention will be given over to the music; plaintif, shuffling acoustic guitars, a jarring, juddering string section, Barry Bond brass and a bass line that might’ve walked itself straight off the edges of an Astral Weeks session and onto the pages of Radiohead’s most accomplished track to date. That eerie wail that accompanies the end of every few bars makes it come across like a waltzing, minor key How Soon Is Now. It’s that long, that good, that important.
Radiohead – How To Disappear Completely
It must be said – it never hit me just as hard in the first place. Sequenced as the 4th track on 4th album Kid A, I first heard How To Disappear Completely on a play of the pre-release album from behind the counter of Our Price. Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that I heard it then at all. After the first couple of glitchy, twitchy, guitar-free tracks that heralded Radiohead’s brave new world of rhythm over melody, the album was ejected to great fanfare by our most vocal team member – “What the fuck is this shit?” etc etc – and the CD found itself frisbeed to the back of the ‘Now Playing’ pile, never to be played again until I got to take it home on the day of release. From then on it was played, played and played again until the melodies, counter-melodies and subtleties had wormed their way into my head.
It’s a daring album, that’s for sure, Trout Mask Replica for Gen X even. The standout then, as now, was How To Disappear Completely. I suppose that’s because it sounds most like a song in the traditional sense – verse, chorus, refrains, etc – especially following the loud skronking free jazz that compromises most of the preceeding track, The National Anthem. Yet it’s far from traditional. I’d love to know how the song developed from genesis to finished article. I mean, how d’you go about writing a track as rich and complex as this?
That eerie repetitive sound mentioned earlier is played on an ondes Martenot, a primitive electronic instrument that pre-dates the theremin by a couple of decades. Johnny Greenwood turned to it after discovering French composer Olivier Messiaen. The string part was written after Johnny (again) had fallen in love with the music of “Poland’s greatest living composer” Krzysztof Penderecki. It’s a far cry from being influenced by Pixies and Radiohead, that’s for sure. In the hands of a lesser band, How To Disappear Completely would well have become an unlistenable, boring 6 minute dirge. It’s the unlikely influences in the sonic architecture that’s wrapped around the tune that allows the music to expand. It’s flotation tank-paced; mesmeric, woozy and other-worldly. And once Thom Yorke adds his vocals the whole thing soars.
“I’m not here….this isn’t happening….I float down the Liffey….in a little while I’ll be gone…”
You might well look on it as a metaphor for Radiohead’s status at the time of Kid A, with Yorke totally unimpressed by the trappings of stardom, the plethora of Radiohead-lite bands that followed in their wake and suffering from a mental breakdown as a result.
The album sessions were famous for inducing band paranoia. Captain Yorke instructed there’d be no drums on this track, no guitar parts on that one. He’d present completed tracks to the band for their approval where most of the group hadn’t played a note on them. Musicians’ egos are fragile at the best of times, but musicians who’ve just played on two of the defining albums of an era suddenly discovering they won’t feature much on their band’s new record must hurt a wee bit.
Where they did feature, they took their chances. Ed O Brien adds fantastic looped guitar riffs throughout How To Disappear Completely. And Phil Selway on drums makes the whole track sound cavernous. When the band emerge from the depths of that flotation tank, he’s there to carry it off and up into the mountains. Much must be made too of NIgel Godrich’s production. He allows the strings to swell in strange new ways before reigning them in. He gives the go ahead for the brass players to counter the strings in the final flourish. And it’s he who drops them all out at crucial points, giving the whole track the dynamic it deserves.
If you’ve never really listened to How To Disappear Completely, rectify that now. Listen. Really listen! It’ll amaze you.