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Is There A Time For East 17?

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.

However…

One track on the album stood out as a stone-cold classic.

PassengersMiss 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.

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Jet Pilot

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 EnoBaby’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 EnoNeedles 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 EnoHere 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.

Cover Versions

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers

 bowie lodger kodachrome 79

That there’s David Bowie, doing the wonky pogo and captured on Kodachrome for what would become the cover of 1979’s Lodger LP. A hit-or-miss LP by Bowie’s standards, it’s notable for being produced and augmented by Eno and for featuring a couple of tracks that used the exact same chord structure, sequence and setting as one another.

The opener, Fantastic Voyage was a mid-paced meandering crooner, exactly the sort of Bowie track that leaves you cold on first listen but after, oooh, 20 years or so reveals itself to be a stone cold Bowie belter. What took me so long?!?

David BowieFantastic Voyage;

Encouraged by Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards to ‘Use Unqualified Musicians‘, Bowie made the assembled band swap to unfamiliar territory (although rumour has it that the bass was overdubbed because bass-playing drummer Dennis Davis was rubbish) , cranked things up to twice the original speed and created a metallic squall of post-punk brilliance. Forever on the edge of unravelling at the seams, Boys Keep Swinging is carried along with a nod and a wink and a raised and plucked eyebrow or two to the more flamboyant side of life.

David Bowie Boys Keep Swinging;

When you’re a boy, other boys check you out,” intones Bowie, all put-on machismo and high camp. That he dressed himself up as a trio of drag-queened tarts in the video only served to hammer the point home – Bowie liked boys who liked boys to be girls who liked girls to be boys….

bowie boys keep swinging

Boys Keep Swinging is right up there amongst my very favourite Bowie tracks. Worth a listen if only for Adrain Belew’s Pere Ubu do the Isley Brothers guitar meltdown at the end, it sits head and shoulders above anything else the mainstream was releasing at the time.

A couple of chancers who liked Bowie’s new single were The Associates. Short of record deal but long on ambition and ideas, they somewhat illegally recorded their own version of Boys Keep Swinging a mere 6 weeks after Bowie’s had been released, and put it out on the tiny Double Hip record label.

associates boys keep swinging 7

Not surprisingly, the record’s existence brought them to the attention of eagle-eared music industry insiders but amazingly, on the back of it, The Associates landed themselves a record deal with Fiction Records. Would that ever happen nowadays? I doubt it.

The AssociatesBoys Keep Swinging;

Billy MacKenzie of the band would a few years later be the titular subject of The Smiths’ William, It Was Really Nothing. Friends with Morrissey, the pair of them spent many an afternoon in the early 80s skirting around one another’s affections. But you knew that already.

*Bonus Track(s)!

Side project of The Cardigan’s Nina Persson, A Camp‘s version is fairly faithful to the original.

A CampBoys Keep Swinging;

Nothing ground shattering, but what a shallow excuse to stick a picture of a beautiful Swedish lassie on these pages.

nina persson a camp

Perhaps more interesting is the story of Blur and ‘their‘ track M.O.R.

Written a la Bowie and Eno with the exact same chord progression as Fantastic Voyage/Boys Keep Swinging, it originally escaped the notice of anyone who deals in these matters. Subsequent releases however credit the track to Blur/Bowie/Eno. Have a listen.

BlurM.O.R.;

You can sing Boys Keep Swinging over the top of it, aye? And Coxon freely embraced the guitar freak out at the end with great gusto. Good, innit?

And any excuse to post Blur’s own tribute to 1979. Blurred Lines, anyone…?

blur blondie