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ALBUMS & DECADES

‘Criticism is the sincerest form of autobiography,’ astutely observed Oscar. Our judgements reveal far more about the judge than the judged. And such is this peculiar perspective on me and my life via a tiny slice of its soundtrack.

Note – This is very probably the last decade, and we possibly the last generation who will attempt such an era-spanning exercise as this based on this particular cultural icon. The album and single were born out of the once excitingly hi-tech gramophone technology’s originally competing vinyl formats - the 33rpm 12” and the 45rpm 7”. Now we click and download. Or, even if you and I don’t, the kids in their billions are. Thereby the individually chosen ‘track’ is fast replacing the old ten to fifteen song album collection. I predict the album format will be as dead in the twenties (doesn’t that decade-title sound weird put in the future) as vinyl is today. Personally that’s fine by me. I like change. I like the future arriving. I like new forms, new mediums, new artistic structures, and the unexpected creativity and art they generate. Forty years from now some middle-aged duffer will be nostalgically bemoaning the tragic loss of some musical form of whose existence today we are blissfully unaware. Plus ca change.

THE FIFTIES

I was born in October 1958 and though I undoubtedly spent my mere fourteen-month encounter with the fifties hollering and a bawling, it wasn’t to Elvis and his rock’n’roll mates. In fact I grew up in a household with extraordinarily little music. I can’t remember my mum or dad ever listening to records, the radio was never playing, we didn’t listen to radio 1 or any pop stations ever. But my mum made sure the telly was nearly always on, or at least for the small amount of the day that programmes were broadcast in that innocently pre-media-drenched world. However, there were two ‘popular’ music albums in an empty old wooden record rack in our suburban, semi-detached front-room, along with a couple of scuffed classical albums and a disastrously old record-player. I have no memory whatsoever of which classical albums they were, but the two pop albums, which I presume belonged to my mother who cared for such things far more than my dad, were coincidentally both film musical soundtracks, both named after their female lead character, both with the initials CJ, and both created in the early-50s: Calamity Jane and Carmen Jones.

Other than the above similarities, I couldn’t imagine two more different musicals. One a light-hearted, cowboy rom-com starring whiter-than-white Doris Day & Howard Keel. The other a tragic, doomed love story with an all black cast - Dorothy Dandridge as an astonishingly sexy femme fatale seducing and then casually discarding Harry Belafonte, to fatal consequence. All sung to the torridly stirring tunes of Bizet.

Our front room was very rarely used for its supposed formal purpose of entertaining guests, though it was kept slightly tidier than our mess of a living-room for this reason. So my younger brother and I pretty much took it over, and spent a great deal of our youth there, initially playing monopoly and other games, building with building-blocks, Lego and Meccano, fighting a lot, and later occasionally listening to records, though that only became the room’s dominant activity in our teenage years.

I must have played both the above albums reasonably often in my sixties childhood, as I came to know them well. I eventually got to see the films on the TV, both of which I loved, and still do - I presume, as I haven’t watched either for decades.

So, straight away I’m going to break the rules of this exercise and treat the two as a pairing, that I’m going to re-experience together.

CARMEN JONES – THE FILM SOUNDTRACK

The thing that hits me first is the tunes. The original opera’s intensely powerful themes are known to us all by some form of social osmosis, or maybe it’s just me and it’s this early exposure to this that makes the melodies seem ubiquitous. They deserve their popularity, I relish them. They’re sexy, passionate, exotic, emotive, elegant, at times epic, at times touching, sophisticated yet simple.

It’s basically the same plot as the Bizet original but set in America in the 40s, with the soldier character’s love-rival toreador replaced by a boxer. I love it. If you haven’t seen the film, do, you’ll enjoy it. My favourite song is the stirring anthem, ‘Stand Up And Fight’. Most of the tunes you could hum along to. So do so.

It’s possible that the above cursory comments signify that though I undoubtedly admire it, somehow it no longer really stirs me. But then at the beginning of this exercise I’m a bit worried that none of these albums will get my blood up. I like to analyse too much. I like to intellectualise even about my emotional reactions. It’s a way of control, I think. Emotions are too turbulent, too anarchic, too scary. I feel that I’m keeping this exercise at arm’s length – happy to try to be clever, maybe drop in a few amusing anecdotes, but reluctant to dig deep into my heart and deal with what I might discover there.

On we go.

CALAMITY JANE – THE FILM SOUNDTRACK.

Strangely, soon as ‘The Deadwood Stage’ starts up, my previous paragraph seems like nonsense – a big grin appears on my face as Doris Day’s crystal voice and corny but undeniably cheery character weaves its usual magic. Whoever put this show together knew what they were doing. It’s designed to make you happy, to make the world seem fun, cheery and lacking in any serious troubles. It’s witty, it’s silly, it’s nonsense. It bears little connection with reality and is all the more wonderful for that. It’s supposedly about the tom-boyish Calamity clashing with and eventually falling for Wild Bill Hickock, played by the stereotypically manly Howard Keel. Who I like a lot. (By the way, he’s especially great in the film Kiss Me Kate as well.)

What is it about Doris’s voice that has such power? Is it her undoubted vocal talents, or is it her character, or, more likely, a felicitous combination of both. Listening to this you don’t doubt that she deserves her iconic status in twentieth-century culture. There’s no overt sex in her persona, but there is a helluva lot of an old-fashioned notion of some kind of semi-virginal feminity, which presumably was more than enough back then to foster the sexual fantasies of many millions of western men.

Dorothy Dandridge & Doris Day (another coincidence of initials) couldn’t be more different. One seduces and destroys, the other can’t even manage a seduction, but sure can cheer you up. What disturbing effect might these early models of sexuality had on my vulnerably unformed libido? What conservative values were slyly and efficiently indoctrinating me? And what implicit racial stereotyping?! This is certainly a blatant example of the traditionally problematic Christian paradigm of the Madonna and the whore? Poor little me - cultural imprinting coming at me from every angle.

Just to add Oedipus to this psychic quagmire - my mum’s name was Dorothy, but everyone, including my dad, called her by her nickname, ‘Judy’, which arose in her youth from something to do with Judy Garland – maybe Oz’s Dorothy – it was never made clear to me. But let’s not even get started on the roles Miss Garland played in the darker regions of our western psyches.

I still enjoy singing along to The Black Hills of Dakota & Just Blew In From The Windy City, but the big hit is Secret Love. Academy Award winner for best original song, US & UK No.1, its power cannot be doubted. Though syrupy and sentimental, I remember well that it touched me strongly even in my pre-adolescent, pre-interest-in-girls days. Now it feels like swimming in warm treacle on a summer’s night underneath the stars – if you like that kind of thing, which I suppose I do. I’ll forever be a sucker for this song, and its moment in the film when she discovers she actually loves the guy (Howard Keel) she thought she hated, and they get it on –awwwwwww!

Hey, I was a kid.

THE SIXTIES.

Well the sixties is tricky – there’s just too much choice, but it was all in retrospect for me. As a young boy during that swinging decade I was far more into football, playing in the street with my mates, and going down to the woods at the bottom of our road to build dens, climb trees, etc. It wasn’t until 1971 that music suddenly became the most important thing in me and my mates’ lives. The sixties pop-rock greats were by then over but, of course, the gods were still the Fab Four.

Somehow my brother (younger by two years) acquired an album ahead of me, ‘Oldies But Goldies’, a compilation of the biggest Beatles singles from the early days (before the ‘Red’ & ‘Blue’ albums did this). This joined the two aforementioned soundtracks and Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (acquired because we did it at school) to make a grand total of four pop albums in our house. Oldies... became our musical bible, and for years, if not forever, the standard against which for me all other pop music is held.

It’s slightly annoying that almost everyone in the world seems to love the Beatles just as dearly. Their wondrousness is so over-documented and the fans’ personal anecdotes of devotion so ubiquitous as to become depressingly banal, so I’m going to avoid adding to that immense pile, and just try to react to these songs.

THE BEATLES - ‘A COLLECTION OF BEATLES OLDIES (BUT GOLDIES)’ – it’s official title.

Side One

"She Loves You"

"From Me to You"

"We Can Work It Out"

"Help!"

"Michelle"

"Yesterday"

"I Feel Fine"

"Yellow Submarine"

Side Two

"Can't Buy Me Love"

"Bad Boy" (the only cover version and previously unreleased in the UK song)

"Day Tripper"

"A Hard Day's Night"

"Ticket to Ride"

"Paperback Writer"

"Eleanor Rigby"

"I Want to Hold Your Hand"

Kurt Vonnegut, another of my personal heroes, once beautifully remarked, “I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'The Beatles did'.”

I feel embarrassed to gush about the mop-tops. They’re so universally acclaimed that the elitist contrarian in me desperately wants to find fault. When I’ve been away from them for a while I can still remember the mundane fact that I love them dearly but I nevertheless get the feeling that they must actually be a bit blander than I remember, a bit old-fashioned and unexciting, a bit over-rated. Then, every single time I’ve come back to them over the decades, I’m always surprised by how much they don’t disappoint, how much I am moved, how intense is the hold they have on my heart. I’m again exhilarated by the sheer joy, energy and optimism in their music. Especially the singles from this period, the brightly shining first half of their sixties greatness, before a shadow entered their soul somewhere between Pepper and the White Album.

It’s one of the first bright days of spring out there, and I’ve listened to all the above listed tracks as videos on YouTube, often with old sixties TV performances. It’s been one massive big guilty pleasure of a morning. Joy is the word that dominates my reaction. The music is so upbeat, tuneful and fresh sounding even after fifty years, their harmonies so intoxicating. Was that purely the spirit of the times, would the sixties still have been so ‘groovy’ without the Beatles, or did the spirit of the sixties grow out of the delirium they initiated?

Look at that track-listing above – each one of those tracks would be great enough alone to preserve a lesser band’s place in pop’s history books. How did those four scousers manage to get it so right? What combination of circumstances, talents, personalities and values came together so perfectly? What coincidence of melodies, harmonies, rhythm and lyrical sentiments? I and multitudes like me have been desperately trying to emulate their magic for years since, and failing dismally.

And for those who say otherwise, I say the Beatles rocked! Not just later on but right from the start. These songs are overflowing with energy. The guitars and drums combined with the awesome strength of their vocals explode with visceral power. Just listen to Hard Day’s Night for one, it’s incredible. Help! Can’t Buy Me Love!! And the riff in Paperback Writer!!!

And let’s not forget the godlike genius of George Martin’s production.

‘Yesterday’, corny old standard though it’s become, still sounds like a perfect song, affecting and elegant.

When listening as a kid I thought Eleanor Rigby must be the saddest song in the world. On wet, dark, cold nights, I’d look out my bedroom window, peering between the curtains. Toastily warm from the radiator next to my bed, I’d revel in the delicious melancholia of imagining all the lonely people out there without anywhere to belong, and, while pretending to be worried about others, rejoice in my own deliciously comfortable middle-class good luck.

I will not succeed in capturing in words the depth, width and intensity of my feelings for this group. Musically they’re unsurpassable in my heart. I’d started off this writing thinking they were on a par with Bowie in my personal pantheon, but they’re way out ahead, and will be there till my dying day. And if I ever again come to doubt it, as I no doubt will (cos I keep doing so), this is the album that will remind me that they are my first love, my deepest and my truest.

Imagine a world where those singles had never been recorded – would the sixties have happened anyway? Would all that colour have come to the world nevertheless? I can’t help but feel that it wouldn’t, and the world would be a significantly less pleasant place.

Kurt got it right.

 

THE SEVENTIES

This is the decade when I opened the floodgates to the world of rock/pop. This is when my tastes were formed in that plastic, open adolescent mind. The molten lava that erupts out of the volcanic juvenile soul hardens in the shape of the territory it first runs over, and so I will forever have something ‘glam’ (as well as ‘Fab’) about me.

At that point we had only ancient - a decade was then a lifetime - recordings of the Beatles, but T.Rex & Slade and other startlingly shiny beings were glittering on the Top of the Pops every week, and I was entranced. I soon had a big Jackie magazine poster of Marc Bolan up in my bedroom, resulting in many acerbic comments from my brother questioning my sexuality. Was it indeed homoeroticism? From the secure perspective of a man in his fifties I’m prepared to reply affirmatively. It undoubtedly was a form of sex of some kind, which needn’t be reduced by a pedantic need for precise terminology.

I can remember the very moment when football’s dominance was superseded totally and cosmically by contemporary pop. I was on a coach full of schoolboys, a geography trip probably, and some tougher, cooler lads had some kind of magazine about which they were making admiring noises. Not, as I initially suspected, about some scantily-clad babe, but about some guy I’d never heard of, ‘Noddy Holder’. Noddy was, it seems, extremely cool. I leaned over the seats to see the photograph they were examining. I gazed in muted awe at a scowling bunch of n’er-do-wells, and felt something deep within me shift. This must be investigated further.

I can only approximately date when this momentous event in my personal history must have occurred, using my trusty 2002 Guinness Book of Hit Singles. It was definitely after Slade’s Coz I Luv You – Oct ’71, but before their Take Me Bak ‘Ome - June ’72; after TRex’s Get It On - July ’71, but before Telegram Sam - Jan ‘72. So, I reckon we’re talking the very end of ’71, which means I’d just turned thirteen, quite late to come to pop music by modern standards, but seemed about right then. I assume the appropriate hormonal surge was playing its culturally required role.

(I have a tangential theory about this – Over the last ten years or so I’ve really got back my passion for football. And over that very same period I’ve noticed that that my hormonally-supercharged obsession with sex of the past few decades has definitely, and thankfully, declined. As you might expect for a man of my age. Should I read into this that football has an inverse relationship with one’s level of testosterone? And that it is the opposite for pop/rock music? Many millions of football supporters might consider themselves profoundly insulted.)

Anyway, watching Top of the Pops with my family, which was the norm in those days, sometime in May/June of ’72, a particular performance instigated one of my father’s most memorable ever quotes – “Who’s that hermaphrodite?” I didn’t respond, not having a clue what he meant. A dictionary consult after the show was needed before I’d know whether it was intended as an insult or not. It was. That transcendent performance was by David Bowie of his then hit single, Starman. The following weekend I used my meagre savings to purchase The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (bought also so I could show off to my mates at school that I’d bought an album with that extraordinarily technicolor title). David Bowie quickly became the dominant poster boy on my bedroom wall.

There was a real feeling back in the seventies that all music fans could be divided between the artistically adventurous who liked Bowie, and the boring yobs who didn’t. We were a cognoscenti. He remained the one consistently popular figure across all my many brief but intense seventies adolescent stylistic explorations – pop, heavy metal, prog-rock, disco, punk, and beyond. Solely for that revered ten-year period of his artistic glory, from Hunky Dory to Let’s Dance, he remains at the top of my personal pantheon, second only to the Fabs - though in terms of art, style and a certain type of modernity, I suspect he has been far more conceptually inspirational over the years.

So, despite considering writing about: T.Rex’s Electric Warrior (the first album I ever bought), Kraftwerk’s Man Machine (when I first deliriously realised electronica was the future of pop), the Clash’s first album, and many others, I decided I had to choose a Bowie album, and it had to be either Ziggy – or maybe Aladdin Sane (after which I saw the best gig of my life, Bowie at the Liverpool Empire) – or maybe the much loved Hunky Dory – or the evocative Young Americans – or Heroes – or Station To Station – or...

LOW – DAVID BOWIE

Low has become a musical template for me and many of my generation, on a par with the Velvet’s ‘Banana’ album, that remains as influential today as then. I calculate I was eighteen when I bought this on its week of release.

It kicks off with SPEED OF LIFE – I remember how radical it seemed back then to begin an album with an instrumental track. Still is, I suppose, for a major international artist, as he undoubtedly was then. It’s a wonderful track full of extraordinary sounds, presumably from the sonic genius of Brian Eno. It sounds weird, exotic, sexy, like music from a different planet, where arty weirdoes do arty weird things all day long, and all night. That was the arty sophisticated land where I wanted to go and live when I was eighteen - in Bowie world. I never got to live there, though maybe I did visit for a few hours here and there over the subsequent five or six years of being a slightly successful musician.

BREAKING GLASS – It has this dull monotone of a vocal, a weird beat and twisted guitar, strangely mixing up rock, funk, and more weird sonics from Eno’s synth. And it ends just as it’s getting going, at less than two mins. Wonderful.

WHAT IN THE WORLD – Big artificial snare sound ringing out, gloopy synths ricocheting around. The vocal sounds casual, like he can’t be arsed, but that’s why it’s great. Monstrous drums, strange beats, rocks away powerfully. Sounds brilliant.

SOUND AND VISION – This was the album’s opening single and big, top 5 hit. Again that genre-transcending funky beat, then daringly revolutionary to be used by a rock-star. I love the breathy girlish backing vocals by Bowie, and the obviously synthetic psssssssst sound where the snare drum falls (that I copied many times in studios for the following few years, never with anywhere near the same success). It’s emotionally moving, like much of the album, his vocals have a tired loneliness to them. Fantastic production from the boy Visconti.

ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR – One of my favourite songs, and definitely my favourite title on the album. I just love the strange atmospheres of treated guitar sounds combined with the moody alien synths and the always artificially clattering drums. There’s a sloppiness to the playing on the whole album that goes with the alienated casualness of the voice. (Having read a book on the making of this and the other Berlin albums, I know they were often used the very first recordings, as the band initially ran through the songs, jamming their way into it.)  I don’t know what more to say, I’ve already pathetically trotted out the customary hyperbolic adjectives: brilliant, wonderful, fantastic, glorious. I haven’t used genius yet, so I’ll throw that in. Genius! (From now on I’ll just use the unpronounceable acronym BWFGG to stand for all the above.)

BE MY WIFE – possibly my favourite track. BWFGG!!!! “Sometimes you get so lonely!” Everything’s great – the piano with a hint of rock’n’roll and honky-tonk comes in for the occasional few notes and sounds BWFGG. This track has always felt like the most personally emotional lyric-wise for Bowie and I’ve always found it extremely moving. And it rocks deliriously. BWFGG squared!

A NEW CAREER IN A NEW TOWN – Another evocative title, and another instrumental to end what was then the album’s first side. Like Speed of Life it sounds like a song originally written to have vocals added. BWFGG. Strange, mournful, like a bar-band in some sci-fi movie alien town. Eno’s synths are haunting. This, and all the other tracks on the album, sound far better than I expected.

Second side – where it all goes very weird –

WARSZAWA – This track and side to the album was what blew our minds - as we would say then. When I first discovered that not only two tracks on side 1 were instrumental, but also the whole of side 2, I felt I had been ripped off. Now they’re possibly my favourite part of it, but back then they seemed impenetrably weird and just not songs!!! And it’s over six minutes long!!! But after a few listens I eventually got into it big time.

This is dark, moody and distinctly east-european. Lost, lonely, sad, but still deliciously alien, and like many of Bowie’s stylistic references in the preceding years, sexily & stylishly oriental. Then, after about four minutes, Bowie does start singing, but not words that make any sense. Weird, invented language, but very emotionally evocative. Gorgeous.

ART DECADE – Another oriental meets east-european meets sci-fi-alien mood-piece. This is slightly more formally structured, slightly more organised, with a gently smooth groove to it. Very cinematically evocative, like all these tracks. Elegant and entrancing. Luverly.

WEEPING WALL – Kicks straight in with a strangely insistent, slightly oriental flavoured rhythm, with a juicy fuzz guitar lead instrument coming in and out over the top. Bells plink and plonk around. Then Bowie comes in with epic, mock-heroic ‘oh’s. What can I say – it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard before or since (except possibly from later Bowie copyists like Japan). To me at eighteen, this all seemed deliriously extravagantly, extraordinarily sophisticated, decadently beautiful and transgressive. And it still weaves its spell powerfully upon me.

SUBTERRANEANS – Back to a similarly dark mood as Warszawa.

The big question for me in listening to this music from the above three decades is how much of its affect is from the music itself, or from the memory of what it once meant to me, or from the sheer nostalgia for the delicious re-experiencing vicariously of the fresh open-minded innocence of youth? Answer - Undoubtedly all of the above.

What Bowie and this album also encapsulates for me, which has evolved into a crucial principle of my aesthetic sensibility, is a privileging of artificiality over (so-called) authenticity. Many music fans admire what they call ‘real’ voices, and ‘real’ instruments, as most commonly epitomised by the traditional folky singer-songwriter. The conventional ideal is that it is important to be ‘genuine’, not false or pretending, ‘keeping it real’, to be accurately reflecting the true human experience. I think this is bollocks. We all pretend, all the time. We don’t know how to exist in any other way. Ninety percent of us would be completely different if we’d grown up in a different culture or different era – our clothes, tastes, habits, movements, haircuts, art, values, impulses - our whole personal culture is a creation, a chameleon-like adoption, a mask, even if done unconsciously. We create far more about ourselves than we realise, or care to admit.

Art that celebrates artificiality and unrealness, overt theatricalism and imaginative escapism, both admits and celebrates this truth, and plays with it, and transcends mundane conformism. Art that purports to be real is actually artificial, but pretends it isn’t. It is therefore dishonest, foolish, and simplistic. When sixties folky authenticity became seventies glam, it wasn’t, as is commonly regarded, an artistic decline to a tacky showbiz plasticness. Rather it was a joyful and sophisticated admission of what rock’n’roll (and all art) really is. Bob Dylan created as much a false character in his folk-singer persona (based largely on Woody Guthrie) as the many supposedly ‘authentic’ cowboy-glorifying American rockers that followed him in the late sixties and early seventies. At least Bowie was overt that he was adopting personas. Fuck bullshit authenticity, give me overt artificiality every time.

Though I have to admit, I do very often enjoy lots of Bob’s and others’ bullshit authenticity as well.

You like what you like, for all kinds of reasons.

 

THE EIGHTIES

If the seventies was the era I became a music fan, by the time the eighties came along I’d become a professional musician, producer and music-businessman. As part of a band I had hits, gold records and toured the world. I then managed to cobble together a decent living for the rest of the decade hustling all kinds of angles within the ‘biz’. I was by no means rich, but I got by comfortably enough.

For this decade’s choice I almost plumped for my own band’s 1981 first album (The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro), but that just has too much to write about and too many intense emotions and relationships to unpick, for this already too long piece of writing. So, for a change, I’ve picked an album that is relatively obscure, that just happens to be one of my favourite albums from that dubious decade.

A WALK ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS – THE BLUE NILE.

I think a girlfriend introduced me to this album somewhere in the early eighties and I quickly fell in love with its unique and daring combination of musical elements. It is minimalist and sparse in both its instrumentation and lyrics, but somehow all the more emotional and evocative for that. I think just two songs have what could be called a groove, the rest amble calmly along dominated by strange sounds and textures. I’ve never heard a band like it before or since. As a production it is also extremely impressive, with wonderfully atmospheric use of echoes and reverbs such that it often feels like watching a film in some synaesthetic way (Which, incidentally, is how I feel about another contender for my sixties slot - Scott Walker - and his greatest pieces).

I’m not going to attempt a song-by-song breakdown on this one, more a string of observations:

I’ve spent years trying to work out why Paul’s Buchanan’s gravelly voice slowly and clearly singing obvious romantic phrases, almost love-song clichés, can be so affecting – ‘I am in love, I am in love with you, I am in love, I am in love with you.’ As with this and other phrases, ‘Do I love you? Yes, I love you. Will we always be happy go lucky?’ I admire his lack of concern for being thought simplistic or emotionally naive, and this daring bluntness often ends up being far more powerful than some crafty poetic cleverness.

I’ve always thought that Tinseltown In The Rain should have been a worldwide No.1. The chorus is almost unbearably moving, and it’s got this great restraint to its groove. Lovely yearning strings, and again Buchanan’s voice is rough, plaintive, lonely, heartbroken and full of epic romanticism.

Each song is like a miniature art film. Especially Automobile Noise and Easter Parade.

The instrumentation and arrangements are far from conventional. Guitar or piano are only very occasionally deployed, the rest of the time it seems to be dominated by bell and wood-block sounding synths (I presume they’re synths), interspersed occasionally and dramatically by strings and trumpets. The drums never have a conventional drum-kit pounding away. They sometimes use a traditional bass-drum and snare at the heart of the rhythm, but even then they sound skillfully stylised, strange deconstructed sketches of their normal sounds. Still the rhythms work by creating some kind of multi-instrument pointillist flow.

There’s a lovely tension throughout, between sparseness and richness, austerity and luxuriousness, simplicity and complexity, in the sounds, the arrangements, the lyrics.

There are definitely hints of Eno and echoes of Low, at least in its aesthetics if not in specifics.

The bass-player is great at those simple but effective rhythmic riffs.

As I’m finding so often in writing this, I feel painfully the inability of words to convey the wonderful effects of music. And, maybe more importantly, I can’t convey why it is I like it so much. Who knows why we like anything, and why even close friends can sometimes detest something we love. The whole process of writing about music feels like clumsily shoving experience from one part of your brain to a very different part. Some writer, maybe Paul Morley, once came up with the entertaining metaphor that writing about music makes as much sense as ‘dancing about architecture’. But not only is such writing inadequate in its expression, I’m concerned that the process distorts and demeans the music-listening experience itself. Like many over-educated, middle-class, intellectually-egotistical bastards, I spend far too much of my time analysing, conceptualising and attempting to be eloquent about all kinds of things. So the initial music experience becomes, from its very first second, a wrestling match, a grinding of the cerebral gears between the right and left hand sides of the brain (as we’re told are the supposed locations for the holistic, intuitive part – the right – and the more rational, verbal part – the left). How much of the loss of my youthful musical experiences of wonder and intensity may be due to this? Can I even hear music at all these days, or do just trifling shadows of its real power reach my perceptions. On the increasingly rare occasions I partake of any mind-altering substances (including alcohol) I often wonder whether the consequent increased richness and/or intensity of music and other entertainments is what less-left-brained-dominated people are experiencing all the time. Or, alternatively, does my education and concept-stuffed brain vastly increase the richness of the experience. I suspect the answer is, as so annoyingly often, a bit of both.

But anyway, I can thoroughly recommend this album. Or at least, to paraphrase Abe Lincoln when he was asked for a recommendation for a friend’s book – ‘Those who like this kind of thing are sure to find this the kind of thing they like.’

THE NINETIES

I had a list of albums I might choose for the nineties: If, as for Kilimanjaro, I was braver and prepared to put in a lot more time, emotional energy and hard work, I’d tackle Blur’s Parklife. An album that has been a turning point in my life in more ways than I’d care to go into (due to my business involvement with the band – for the great majority of you who are blissfully unaware of my career details). But I won’t. I also had on my list a few of my favourite albums from that period: Automatic for the People – REM, Dummy – Portishead, Moon Safari – Air, Coming Up – Suede. But I felt that it would be too similar an exercise to the preceding decades – a clumsy search for suitable, but uninspired, adjectives. So I’ve decided to pick an album that I haven’t heard at all, but is an album I’ve been meaning to listen to for many years. An album that represents an area of music I’ve mostly avoided for all kinds of reasons, but I’ve been getting more into of late.

(Note re previous para – See how I feel the urge to list albums that I admire. What’s that all about? Is it a clumsy attempt to express some kind of hipness? To have you admire my taste? Or just a kind of urge to self-expression? But we all do it – just look at Facebook. We all seem to want to declare to the world what songs, bands, singers, movies, TV, filmstars, etc we love. What’s that all about, eh???)

THE CHRONIC – DR. DRE

Even I know that Dre is a Hip-Hop god. Now known more for being the superstar producer of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and other legendary hip-hop artists, but he was once an artist, first coming to fame as a member of NWA, then kicking off his solo career with this massively successful, era-defining album.

There’s lots I like about this. Like most hip-hop this seems to me stylistically forward-looking (for its time, of course) not re-working the past like so much rock music that is too much in thrall to its history. I like the minimalism of the beats and arrangements, the funky rhythms – skillfully presented and controlled, and the moody heaviness of the vibe.

Like most woolly middle-class liberals, I’m troubled (and uncomfortably excited) by the glorification of violence and misogyny in much of rap, including this. Though I must admit I like the way it is so unapologetic. It uses unrestrained language to directly, unashamedly and forcefully express its likes and dislikes. Us English middle-class are far less direct and more often hamstrung by a cowed politeness and reticence.

I love the lack of structure – things just pile in and out, without the stifling predictability of the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus etc. Though I’m sure they’ve got their own structure, just one that doesn’t seem obvious to me.

Why have I avoided this music for so long, despite liking the occasional track I hear? Apart from the usual fear/dislike of its violence, overt celebration of materialism and aggressive approach to sexuality, I also thought it just wasn’t like my life at all. I don’t get the social or geographic references or experiences. I don’t instinctively get most of the musical references. Its dominant emotion seems to be, probably quite justifiably, violently angry. Which just isn’t me – I’m an arty wimp. I don’t share the experience, the mentality, or the emotions. And I’ve always had mild contempt for nice middle-class white boys that act as though they’re from the mean streets of Compton or Brooklyn.

Consequently, I have little to say about Hip-Hop. I have little meaningful thoughts about it. As Hip-Hop goes this sounds enjoyable and, as much as my unqualified ear can tell, excellent. What else can I say. I like it. I don’t love it. This is undoubtedly unfair, and possibly racist, though I’ve loved many other black artists enormously over the years – most enthusiastically Prince and Michael Jackson for much of the Eighties. It makes plain to me that we get involved in a certain branch of the musical tree and like to stay there, where we get all the references and where we know where the musicians are ‘coming from’.

Like much of this writing exercise, it’s made me more aware of the almost random way I’ve got involved in particular types of music throughout my life, and then often caustically dismissed the music I don’t listen to. But even someone who attempted to spend their every waking hour listening to every type of music releases wouldn’t be able to hear even one percent of it all. We have to get involved in genres, in styles, in personalities, partly by crude internal unstated impulses, blind instinct, and partly (mainly?) by accident.

The part our social lives plays in deciding which music we get interested in must not be discounted. The music I listen to has mainly been the music my peer group have been listening to since I was a teenager. What’s music if you can’t share it in bedrooms and over drinks/drugs, dance to it at clubs and parties, talk about it, love it together, hate it together, argue about it together, ignore it together, sometimes even create it together. I’ve never hung out with a hip-hop crowd. I probably never will.

I’ve written the above while having the album on in the background. It’s only about three-quarter through. The more I hear, the more they’re sounding the same. But that’s the problem with most albums you haven’t got into yet. I should have done Missy Elliott, I really dig her. What was the name of her album I listened to again on a drive a few weeks ago, it sounded great? Let me look it up – It’s 2002’s Under Construction – great album. Check it out. I find her more colourful, wacky and wild - as exciting as most hip-hop but more madly inventive and unconventional. Love most of her stuff with Timbaland producing.

 

THE NOUGHTIES

I’ve no idea if this is a cool or naff record, or whether those words mean anything at all, but one of my albums of the last decade was...

FUTURE SEX / LOVE SOUNDS – JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

This is pure electro-dance pop at its best. Up there with Michael Jackson and Prince, as far as I’m concerned. I think the theme is fairly explicitly laid out in the title, which should be the theme for most great dance music.

Justin moves great in his videos, in fact I can’t think of any white pop-star who’s been such a good dancer. (Let me know if you can, readers?) There’s a lot of Jackson in his style, but still.

I imagine it is extremely enjoyable to be Justin Timberlake, and I have no doubt that his lyrics accurately reflect his no-doubt delightfully over-sexed lifestyle. But he manages to balance his often explicit lyrics with just the right blend of charm, wit and light-heartedness. And, no, I don’t fancy him. I no longer have pop-posters up on my wall.

The music’s daring minimalism somehow focuses it tightly in on its sexy funkiness. With cutting-edge beats and juicy sounding synths, it’s the antithesis of nice singer-songwriter deep and meaningful sensitivity, which is fine by me.

Luckily, the boy-band NSynch passed me by unnoticed, so that association doesn’t blemish him in my consciousness. (NSynch were, I think, as big in America as Take That were/are in England. So he’s kind of the Robbie of America.)

Listening to it in my office on a dull afternoon, it doesn’t shine. I’ve no doubt dancing at a club / party is the environment most suited to its glittering syncopation. When it came out I found myself mostly listening to it while driving, banging the steering wheel in time, so I’m surprised I got to like it so much in such an ill-suited situation.

‘Lovestoned’ is elegantly and potently constructed. And even gets me shaking my thang while sitting down in my pokey little office at 5.27 on a grey afternoon. It reminds me of Prince and Jackson at their height. Timbaland production for most of these tracks, who did a fantastic job with Missy Elliott, as I’ve previously mentioned.

He dips into hip-hop with the likes of Chop Me Up without embarrassing himself – not that I’d know (see nineties comments).

The last three songs do let the album down badly as far as I’m concerned. ‘Set The Mood Prelude / Until the End of Time’ is the kind of soppy ballad all big pop acts seem to feel obliged to include to be sure to press all the requisite multi-platinum, teen-female buttons. The following track, ‘Losing My Way’, is only slightly better. The final track, ‘(Another Song) All Over Again’ is all tortured sincerity and deep and meaningful emotional angst. Yuck!

Keep it unreal, Justin. I like you better under the glitterball whispering dirt into the ear of your latest pick-up while flashing her your most irresistible moves.

(He’s good in The Social Network as well. Bastard.)

 

THE PRESENT DECADE

(HAVE THEY COME UP WITH A NAME FOR THIS YET – THE TEENIES?)

I’m getting sick of this whole bloody exercise. I find the words/phrases I use so unsatisfactory. The whole exercise has left me feeling the truth of all those post-whateverist French philosophers – We swim in a verbal ocean of over-used phrases and clichés, thinking that we think, when actually we just semi-randomly recycle the same old pre-fabricated phrases, pretending they’re original thoughts – they’re not. We think we have individual and richly emotional experiences, but find ourselves unable to precisely delineate what’s so particularly individual and rich about them.

I feel as I so often do when trying to buy clothes these days. You head off to the shops imagining you’ll find some particularly special, unusual, slightly wacky, supremely individual and precisely personal item, but you end up having to choose from hundreds of racks of chain-store-branded bollocks. So you don’t buy, or you do buy and then feel slightly disgusted that this is your only option, and your choice is so mass-produced, unindividual and unsatisfactory. But you still have to wear it and mostly feel slightly demeaned by the whole process – until you eventually get used to it, forget your complaints, and another little part of you dies (Dear me, I am getting maudlin!). Anyway, language is like that. You want to be like some tailoring master-craftsman, but you end up putting together chain-store phrases off the rack. And are our emotional experiences the same? Just second-hand, stereotypical banalities, each commonplace moment already had by millions before us, and billions yet to come. I am not some beautiful, unique snowflake. I am merely a collection of platitudes and emotional clichés. I have as much individuality and originality as a record collection or the average wardrobe.

 

Maybe I have got far richer experiences than I can manage to evoke or express, but I’m far more of the opinion that this is a universal illusion. I remember that when I started having to write essays for a degree I did a few years ago, after nearly thirty years out of education. I felt that I had far more profound thoughts than I had the ability to put into words. But then after frustratedly slaving for many months I painfully acquired the humility to see that my thoughts weren’t more profound than my expression of them - my thoughts were exactly as lacking in originality and meaningfulness as the words I was summoning up. (Essay writing doesn’t just teach you to get your thoughts down on paper, it actually teaches you how to think – but not all that well, as you can see.)

I started out writing this piece (way back in the fifties) wanting it to be stylish, even poetically lyrical at times, and definitely entertaining, but I now feel it’s just become a long, dull, slightly mawkish, self-justifying moan - not even enough energy and passion to be called a rant. So, apologies to any reader who’s got this far. Though I’ve left it the way it is as I feel that it ought to be whatever it is – that’s the point of the exercise (I think?). So my pathetic self-justifying even extends to me apologising for being pathetically self-justifying, which really is pathetic!

Anyway, here I am in another decade, with another fucking album choice to make. Should I pick one of the artily obscurist electronica I’ve been getting into of late - Four Tet, Gold Panda, etc. - or some of the crazy-sounding dance acts I’ve been enjoying, such as Crookers, or some dubstep. Or should I pick someone I hate, just to at least open up a new bag of adjectives and fling them at these pages. Now that does sound appealing.

So who am I likely to hate? The new Liam Gallagher / Beady Eye album? I’m pretty sure I’ll hate them – but an old friend is in the band, so, much as I despise the loutish Liam, I’ll pass on that. So, I’ll very happily go for my pet hate of the last year even though it means having to listen to their whole album –

SIGH NO MORE – MUMFORD & SONS

I’ve met these guys. A year or two ago a band I was working with did a few dates round England on the same bill as them. I chatted to a couple of ‘Sons’ and grunted the usual backstage greetings to the others. They seemed perfectly pleasant. So why have I got it in for them? Well, I’ll lay out my prejudices now to see if they’re transformed by the listening experience – though I have heard a tiny bit of them on the radio etc.

First thing I’m against, ideologically, is that it seems to be rooted in the past – some kind of folk music revival with a bit of extra gusto. Which is weird, cos I often like folk music (not that I can think of one folk music album I’ve bought – I just like the concept of folk music) but it seems to me so coffee-table, middle-of-the-road. At least Coldplay, for instance, are doing modernish rock music with strong songs, even if it’s with a coffee-table, middle-of- the-road sensibility. But these guys combine it with soppy sentimental nostalgia. Worst of all, they’re a fucking massive success, both here and in the states, and I knew them when they were nothing. You can forgive people a lot, but not that.

Anyway, let’s listen...

Yeah, straight in with the sensitively picked acoustic guitars, then syrupy tight harmonies full of angst and emotional insight – Yuck! (Mind you, you could describe Fleet Foxes exactly the same way, and I love them. Maybe that’s a folk music album I have bought – are the Fleet Foxes folk? I suppose they are. But there’s something less artistically ambitious in this. This has an ordinariness in it where the Foxes are way out there in outer-inner-space, full of strangeness and eccentricity and sonic inventiveness and experimentalism.) These bastards have got energy, plucking banjos, pounding beats once it gets going, but so what. The first song’s over and I’m very unimpressed.

Second song – more of the same ordinariness. What kind of bastard likes this so much?

Third song – I can’t even bring myself to name them – more of the same. They’re sounding a bit Irish shantyish now. A little more Pogues (There’s another band you could describe as similiar, but I like them, though I’ve never bought an album. But the Pogues always had a fucked-up, punky, alcoholic extremism.) Whereas Mumford are nicely reasonable, well-balanced, competently-produced, and completely lacking in originality, oomph or inspiration.

He’s warbling on with his sad, regretful deepnesses. Bollocks.

If you’re a Mumford & Sons fan outraged by my insulting a band you admire, and thereby implicity attacking your own taste and character, then I have two things to you – Firstly, tough. Secondly, go check out Fleet Foxes. Though I doubt my charmless introduction is going to leave you emotionally inclined to fall for the beauty of said band.

God, I’ve just looked at the album title list and I’m not even half way through yet. I’ve run out of the energy to slag them off any more and that was the only thing keeping me going. This is actually worse than I was expecting. It’s boring, grey, dull. The production is so tediously straightforward.

I remember thinking I wasn’t sure I liked the singer when we were on the aforementioned tour together. I’d heard, rightly or wrongly, he was religious, which (along with my mild prejudice again rugby-players) is enough to put me off. But then I thought I was probably being unfair so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I now have decided he must be a cunt.

I recently got told a good story by a friend about him - Mr Mumford (the singer) bumped into some of Blur and my friend at a Soho member’s club several months ago. Everyone was a bit drunk and he got very upset that they didn’t recognise him – I think Mumford & Sons had just gone platinum or something, and he automatically assumed this meant the whole world would recognise the immensity that he had become. He went off on a rant about his forthcoming Australian tour and that Blur were old and past it and he was big now, or words to that effect. The Blur party were a bit astonished and not a little amused at this fit of uncool pique, which it seems just antagonised him further.

See, being forced to listen to this album is just making me petty, rude and gratuitously insulting now, and possibly libellous. So I hasten to say that the above story is only hearsay and possibly poorly remembered.

Such is the poor effect this music has on your character, kids.

Anyway, this act is a perfect illustration of the principle I discuss earlier in the seventies section – artifice vs authenticity. This is a band/singer-songwriter wearing the costume of sincerity – searching deep into his heart to ‘tell it like it is’. Rubbish. It’s all pretend, every word, every note, every strum. It’s an old stylistic strategy revived for the umpteenth time. It is possibly sincere in that he might not know he’s lying, but if so then he hasn’t enough intelligence of imagination to see himself for the natural dissembler we all are. Only with blatant, acknowledged artifice can we be sincere. (And not even then, really!)

I’d like to see Mumford & Sons get out the tacky glitter outfits and big juicy fuzz guitar riffs for their second albums, but somehow I strongly suspect I’m going to be disappointed. This sincere folky bollocks is turning into a very tasty little earner for them.

Aw shit, he’s gone all Leonard Cohen now. This particular crime deserves a title: ‘After The Storm’. Thank God, it’s the last song

 

EPILOGUE.

I’m glad I’ve ended on a negative note. We must remember that genuinely loving music is about hating over 90% of it. That’s a fact from our youth we often forget. It wasn’t just about the acts we were passionately for, it was just as important which we were passionately against. We’d watch TOTP religiously as teenagers as much to enjoyably express our contempt for two-thirds of the show’s performances as to admire the one or two acts a week we considered worthy. (Just as I enjoyed slagging off this last album as much if not more than any of the other praising.) Now we’re all boringly adult, and fair, and reasonable, and giving artists the credit they deserve. Bollocks. If art means anything it can never be about such reasonable fair-mindedness – leave that to the professionals, and I use that word with the appropriate enormous contempt. (And I hold myself in the greatest contempt of all for the many years over the last three decades that I’ve been deeply guilty of the crime of being professional. An original sin of mine which I will never expunge from my corrupt soul.) But listening to the likes of the hackneyed, mundane, pedestrian, stale, tired, trite, unoriginal, vapid Mumford & Sons (I felt the need to get out the thesaurus to increase my arsenal on that one) helps me realise that I’ll never be unambitious or unimaginative enough to spend a year or two working on a band/album like that.

Actually, I have done! Several times!! (Mentioning no names, to protect the guilty.)

What can I say?! I’m no better than those I hold in contempt.

And on that bombshell, I’ll say goodbye to the few readers left who’ve had so little better to do than to reach so far into this poor piece. Goodbye.

David Balfe – April 2011.