Sunday, March 28, 2010

American (TV) Without Tears

And so to the latest challenge...

"Moving away from music based challenges and into the world of television …. Your all time top 10 US TV series imports. 

They must be a proper series over a number of years (ie Band of Brothers, as good as it was, wouldn’t count as it is a one off mini-series).  They must have been shown on a British channel (even an obscure Sky channel would count!) so cult box-sets bought via the internet also are out.  You also must have seen all of the relevant available series.  Just having seen a couple of series and raving about it doesn’t count. 

Apart from that anything else goes …. comedy, soaps, sci-fi, drama… the choice is yours!"

Oooh - tough one!

After negotiating a bit of leeway in the above rules, I give you the following.  I can't hand on heart, say I've seen every episode of every series, and it's slightly skewed to more recent stuff, but there are some gems in here.  You should go out and buy them all on DVD...


Or, to give it its proper title, 'The Phil Silvers Show'. The series against which all comedy series should be measured.  Running from 1955 to 1959 (and no, I didn't get to see any of the episodes when they were first broadcast.  How very dare you) the show records the antics of Sgt Ernie Bilko, ostensibly in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter in Kansas.  Bilko is, of course, far more interested in running scams and get rich quick schemes to the despair of his long suffering Colonel.  Phil Silvers steals the show as Bilko, but is ably supported by his squad, including cuddly Duane Doberman.  Still funny today, fifty years after its release.

(Oh, and an honourable mention to Top Cat as well, which is essentially Bilko in cartoon form.  Nearly made onto this list in its own right).


For years, this show kept me in on a Friday night and out of the pub.  Which is quite ironic, in an Alanis Morrissette kind of way.  A great cast with a wonderful range of characters - Cliff, Norm (Norm!), Frasier, Woody, Carla - a place where everyone knows your name, indeed.  Running for so long, with quite a stable cast, meant that you really got to know the characters and pick up on their back stories...which were essentially rather sad - you felt that outside of the bar, people like Cliff and Norm had quite empty lives.  But when they were in Cheers bar, they found the companionship and friendship they could get nowhere else.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks just about qualifies as it did run to two series, but deserves its place on the list anyway for completely subverting the conventions of the television drama series.  As with his filmwork, especially Blue Velvet, David Lynch created a series that peeled back the thin veneer of small town respectability to reveal the evil and horror lurking beneath.  On the face of it, a simple murder mystery - Who Killed Laura Palmer? - but it became so much more.  The joy was in the detail, the little twists and unexplained mysteries.  Where was the Red Room?  Why the dwarves and giants?  What was it with the owls?  A shame the second series lost its way slightly after pressure from the producers to provide some 'explanations' - the joy was in the unexplained and the wierd.

The Simpsons

I doubt very much I've seen every episode of The Simpsons, but I've seen more than enough to convince me this is television material of the highest quality.  Initially derided by politicians (who should have known better) for its supposed portrayal of a 'dysfunctional' family - when in fact the Simpsons are the most functional family ever portrayed on screen. The hero is of course Homer - not Bart, who seemed to attract all the original attention.  There is a little bit of Homer in all of us - and so there should be.

Again, the joy is in the detail - repeated watching reveals all sorts of wonderful details in the background you'll have missed first time round.

Honourable mention also for Futurama - more great grown-up cartoon fun from the same team.

Prison Break

Just finished watching this one on DVD, so it's fresh in my mind.  Not the most cerebral of shows, but hugely enjoyable all the same.  The tale of two brothers, Lincoln and Michael.  Lincoln has been wrongly convicted of murder and is on death row.  Michael gets himself deliberately incarcerated in order to break Lincoln out.  From there, the four series alternate between freedom and incarceration as the brothers try to uncover the evil corporation that framed Lincoln in the first place.

Yes, it's absolute tosh, but hugely entertaining tosh for all that.


Stretching the rules a wee bit here, as we've only seen the first two of the four series that have been produced.  In my defence, it's only the first two series that have been released on DVD, and the third series is on order with Amazon.  So it's in.

A very clever twist on the serial killer motif here - in that it is Dexter, our hero, who is the psychopath in this case.  His day job is as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami police, but after hours Dexter is out there fulfilling his urges by offing the bad men who the police are unable to catch.

Equal parts amusing, exciting and genuinely shocking on occasion, this is one series where you really will be rooting for the bad guy.


More gloriously far-fetched, entertaining tosh here, and although it has lost its way a touch in recent series, it is still a magnificent show.  The central conceit is, of course, that all the action takes place in real time - so the '24' hourly episodes represent just one day's activity on the part of the protagonists.  Completely unrealistic and impossible, but who cares?  This is Bourne, Die Hard, Bond and any other action film you care to mention stretched out over 24 hours and, if occasionally casually racist and violent, is the perfect way to suspend disbelief and see the goodies triumph over the baddies.  Cowboys and Indians for the modern age, Johhn Wayne replaced by Jack Bauer.

The Shield

Cops and robbers - except the line between the two is blurred here to the point of invisibility.  The Shield records the day to day existence of a crack police squad who are, for the most part, as corrupt and venal as the criminals they are trying to bring to justice.  There is not a single sympathetic character in the whole series, yet you still find yourself rooting for the bad guys (again - bit of a theme developing here).

Michael Chiklis excels as the 'star' of the show, Vic Mackey, but the supporting cast is uniformly strong and has attracted some big names like Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker for important roles in certain series.  Harrowing and gritty, but hugely entertaining.

The Sopranos

I've not placed these series in any particular order - apart from these last two, which I think represent some of the finest television drama ever produced.  Firstly The Sopranos, the long-running saga of the New Jersey-based mafia family.  Yet again, we are rooting for the bad guys, but we know this - and also know that some bad guys are badder than others.  Tony's battle to keep his business together whilst dealing with family issues (ageing parent and uncle, growing kids) and his own mental issues is fascinating - and just when you feel you are getting to understand him as a human being, some incident will happen to remind you - graphically - that we are dealing with some very nasty and disturbed individuals.

Powerful drama that pulls few punches - and ended in memorable fashion.

The Wire

As good as The Sopranos is, it's not a patch on The Wire, which I honestly believe represents the best, sustained television drama ever made.  Set in Baltimore over five series, the underlying theme is the battle between the police and the drug cartels in the city.  Where the series succeeds so well is by covering the stories from all viewpoints - the police force, the corner boys, the politicians, the drug barons - and by judging all protagonists equally.

The show makes no concessions to the viewer - many people have watched the early series with the subtitles on to catch all the nuances of the language of the corners - and it can be difficult to get into - but once you are in, you are hooked.

The series gives no answers, and cleverly depicts the 'circularity' of the streets - as characters die or move on, new individuals come along to fulfil the roles left vacant - but it has some strong and powerful messages about how best to control the drug epidemic in the inner cities, about education, politics and journalism.

A work of true genius.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spam as poetry

I found this in my inbox this morning.  No links, nothing to click on to order some Viagra, no money waiting for me in a Nigerian bank account.

Yet I find it strangely compelling, in a Joycean kind of way.

So I want to share it with you.

Who is he?  Perhaps you don't care for the brand.
And what can we do?  That is why we have the fire.
She must have been a clipper. See what I can do with it.
Habet foenum in cornu*. Oysters will do.

Is not that worse than poverty? It's only a name.
We do not need a candle. He seems very fond of her.
And all of it ugly. The woman of Pablo was watching too.

Never have we seen planes like this. That all our enemies should learn.
But I am not stupid. We are not talking more.

Courtesy of my good friend Seth Keith.  Or is that Keith Seth?

*Latin for 'he has hay in his horns'.  A quotation from Horace, referring to an angry bull, but applied to anyone feeling angry.  I'm here to inform as well as entertain.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bludgeon Riffola!

And so the challenges continue.  This time, my challenge to Simon was to name his ten favourite riffs.  I put it to him this way...

"Right, after a lot of indecision and prevarication, the next challenge is out there.
And it's the Riff.  The guitar line (and it has to be the guitar line) that turns a good song into a classic.
I want your top ten riffs.
No more than two or three bars.  Played to death by young boys in guitar shops.  Long of hair, behatted and beaded, no doubt.
I'm not talking solos here, I'm talking riffs.  Ba-danga-danga-da-dang dang.  Ba-danga-danga-da-dang dang.
You know what I mean."

Simon's response to the challenge is here -and mighty impressive it is, too, avoiding the obvious and embracing the concept in equal measure.  Including a number of riffs that I should have thought of as well.

As it is, there was only one riff on Simon's list that was in my provisional ten - Seven Nation Army - so I have adjusted my list accordingly.  I similarly decided that Smoke on the Water (and one or two others) were a little too obvious to include.

So - ten riffs to send you running to the air guitar shop.  In no particular order, of course...

Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin

And here's me saying I was going to avoid the obvious.  But how could you not include this?  What swung it was the moment in the recent documentary, "It Might Be Loud", where Jimmy Page plays this riff to an audience of The Edge and Jack White, both of whom know a good riff when they hear one.  The look of joy on their faces as the power chords rang out was probably the highlight of the film.

Back in Black - AC/DC

I very nearly went for 'Whole Lotta Rosie' but of course could have gone for just about any AccaDacca tune. In the end though, it had to be 'Back in Black', if only for its punchiness and attack.  The quintessential AC/DC riff.

Enter Sandman - Metallica

When I was editing down the individual tracks on this list to the essence of their riffs, most could be distilled into ten or twenty seconds, max.  Enter Sandman - I just kept the edit playing and playing, as the riff develops and grows.  Over a minute of pure riffage before I pressed 'cut'.

The Jean Genie - David Bowie

Generally, Glam Rock gave good riff - and this is David Bowie right in the middle of his Glam phase.  Probably the only riff to be in the charts at the same time in two different forms - exactly the same riff graces Sweet's 'Blockbuster'.  But this is the definitive Glam riff, courtesy of Mick Ronson, of course.

She Does It Right - Dr Feelgood

Wilko Johnson, with some spectacular pub rock riffage, mastering the art of playing rhythm and lead at the same time, in the same riff.  I've seen footage of him playing this riff live, and I still can't work out how he does it.  A simple riff on the face of it, but deceptively complex to master.

Safe European Home - The Clash

This is what you get when punk meets heavy metal - The Clash produced by Sandy Pearlman.  It irked the purists at the time, but Pearlman added weight and depth to the band's natural intensity, to produce this master opening to the album.  It was even better live.

American Idiot - Green Day

Playing this riff immediately after The Clash, and the similarities are obvious.  Not just in the choice of notes (there are only so many to choose from, after all) but in the depth and intensity.  Often unfairly lumped in with the mass of lumpen Tattoo'd American Punk bands that came through in their wake, this riff kicks off an album of intelligence and variety that transcends its genre.

Song 2 - Blur

Another great riff from a band not really known for their riffage.  It also has the classic riff 'trick' that gets me every time - playing the riff once with little tone, then hitting the 'gain' pedal (turned up to eleven) to really hammer the point home.  It's got 'woo hoo's' as well.  Set the crowd alight at Glastonbury last year.  Not that I would know, I was in the Acoustic Tent listening to Georgie Fame.

Walk This Way - Aerosmith

I love this riff - deceptively simple, just four notes played pretty much in sequence four times - but it's perfect in its simplicity and when combined with the opening drum pattern and hint of turntable scratching, sets up the mash of rap and metal perfectly.

Sweet Jane - Lou Reed

This is the lodestone - essence of riff.  Three chords - D/A/G - with perhaps a Bm in there as well - it doesn't get any simpler.  Can be played gently (as in the VU original) or as an out and out rocker.  This version - from Lou's 'Take No Prisoners' live album - is at the rocky end of the spectrum and none the worse for that.

(Oh - and bonus points to anyone who knows where the title of this post comes Googling now, you'd just be cheating yourself...)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What *were* you thinking?

This is Simon's latest challenge to me - the "top ten albums that you can't believe you bought, and just have you thinking 'why?' even now".  The example he gave me from his own collection was Mick Jagger's solo album 'She's The Boss', and I can quite understand why.

Now this has proven to be a tricky one.  Firstly, I'm not in the habit of buying albums I'm not likely to enjoy.  And secondly, I'm pretty accommodating - I'll generally find something to enjoy in most types of music.

That said, there have been one or two things that have slipped through the net...

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica

There are people who will tell you that this is a classic album - one of the best ever released.  Do not listen to these people.  This is, in fact, a sprawling mess of discordant, arrhythmic nonsense that should be shunned  by any right thinking individual.  This is The Emperor's New Clothes in album form.  Do not be swayed by the opinion of critics who mistake drug-addled ramblings and noodlings for mystical insight.  Captain Beefheart is undoubtedly an artist - but with a paintbrush, not a recording studio.

Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water

This is a horrible album.  A really, really, horrible album.  For a time, this collision of rock and rap looked like it was the coming thing, lots of bands short on trouser and long on tattoo infecting the airwaves.  This lot, led by the risible Fred Durst (backwards baseball cap hiding a major follicular problem) were probably the most hyped and bought - this album sold shedloads.  Unfortunately it has no redeeming features whatsoever - awash with whiny self-pity and lumpen beats.  (At this point I should also admit to some Linkin Park and Papa Roach lurking hidden in the depths of my record collection.  Awful, but positively wonderful when compared to the Bizkit).

Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

I really, really want to like the Flaming Lips - I really do.  I love the idea of the band - the intelligence, the humour, the willingness to try different things...but I just can't get past the awfulness of Wayne Coyne's voice.  The problem here is I knew all this before I bought this album - I'd already bought (and hated) The Soft Bulletin.  I was swayed by a whole batch of gushing reviews for Yoshimi and my - need, almost - to get into the group.  I know lots of people love the album with a passion.  But you know what?  It's all very...meh, really.  And for all the hype and supposed intelligence, "Do You Realize?" must have the tritest lyric since Imagine.  "Do you realise - that everyone you know someday will die?"   Errr...actually yes, Wayne - I'd kind of figured that out a while ago.  "You realise the sun don't go down - it's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round."  Oh please.

Various Artists - Cream Ibiza Arrivals

Firstly, a few facts.  I am fifty years old.  I have never taken Ecstacy.  I have never been to, or wanted to go to, a rave.  I shun the Dance Village at Glastonbury.  So what on earth possessed me to buy this double album of Balearic Beats?  Well I suppose a degree of curiosity...which was soon sated.  About two tracks in. I didn't stop there though.  I also have a Pete Tong triple (triple!) CD of dance traxx(!) and yet another Ibiza double collection.  What on earth possessed me?

Lou Reed - Metal Machine Music

Now to be fair, I bought this knowing full well what I was getting into.  It was a fiver in Fopp and curiosity got the better of me.  This is Lou's contractual obligation album - originally four sides of atonal feedback, each side around fifteen minutes long.  As you would expect, it is totally unlistenable.  Unfortunately, my copy of iTunes seems to like it, and throws it up on shuffle suspiciously often.  Bizarrely, Lou is actually touring Metal Machine Music this year.  My advice is stay away - or invest in earplugs.

Razorlight - Razorlight

Now this one is completely unforgiveable, I know.  You should be aware that this is Razorlight's second album.  I'd already bought their first, when it looked like they might be quite an interesting band.  And that first album is ok, but not great by any stretch of the imagination.  Now if self-pity is an unattractive trait in a band, self-love is even worse, and in between the first and second album, head Razorlight, Johnny Borrell, seemed to start believing he was the Messiah.  Well he's not the Messiah, he's just a very annoying boy, rivalling the sainted Bono for twattishness - and this comes through in every groove (pit?) of this album.  A truly horrible listening experience.  So why did I buy it?  Who knows.  Bloody sure I don't.

Roni Size/Reprazent - New Forms

In my defence, this won the Mercury Prize in 1997.  The critics loved it.  " essential as your bread, milk and tv remote control" said Blues and Soul magazine.  "...a rhythmically ingenious and spectacularly well-crafted record" said The Times(!).  " won't have heard anything quite like it before" said Musik.  And do you know what, one of those three quotes was right on the nail.  And not in a good way.  I'll leave you to work out which one.  This 'New Form' of music is Drum & Bass, extremely fast beats with a preponderance of, you guessed it, drums and bass guitar/synth in the mix.  And do you know what?  It is completely unlistenable.

Rufus Wainwright - Want One/Two

I bought both these albums (Want One and Want Two, released as separate albums but intended as a pair) on the same day.  I really don't know why, I suppose Rufus was getting a lot of press at the time and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  So really, I should have known what to expect.  Now I appreciate that Rufus is a talented guy, and that there is a certain 'flamboyance' about his work - but really, this is all way, way too much for me.  Some may enjoy Rufus's somewhat 'operatic' approach to singing, but it makes my ears hurt.  Badly.

Uriah Heep - You Can't Keep a Good Band Down

Nowt wrong with a bit of Heep, I hear you say, and you'd be right.  When I was in my early teens, I loved the Heep as much as I did the Purps, the Sabs and any number of other early 'metal' bands.  But then I grew up.  Over the years, I had sold all my early metal vinyl, but was browsing in Fopp (again) one day, and they had this box set of seven (count 'em!) Heep albums for, I think, three quid.  So I thought I'd re-live my lost youth a tad.  And isn't it funny how - sometimes - things aren't quite the way we remember them?  Now of course the odd track still gives me a Proustian rush...but seven albums' worth?

Belle & Sebastian - The Boy With The Arab Strap

Headlining Latitude this year (somehow!) and therefore quite topical at the moment.  Now I'm as fond of a bit of fey Northern/Scottish indie as the next man, and I love the likes of Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout - even pre-electro Everything but the Girl - but even I have to draw the line at Belle & Sebastian.  I have tried - really tried - to get into this album, but whenever I play it, I get to the end of the album with the realisation - again - that not a single note of the album has managed to imprint itself on my brain.  I've owned this album for the best part of ten years, I think, and even now I couldn't name a single track or hum a single tune.  I know people love them to death, but they are as insubstantial as a fine mist.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Rather Hip Art Scene

The Rather Hip Art Scene is a new website, set up by The Boy and a couple of his mates in Huddersfield, covering music and events in the Leeds-Sheffield-Manchester triangle.

I suggest you have a look - it is really rather good.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

5 - 1: Music doesn't get better than this!

5:  I Want You Back - Jackson 5

Another deeply troubled individual who had everything, but ultimately succumbed to his demons.

I have a theory about Michael Jackson.  For all his talent, all his success through the '70s and '80s, all the millions of copies of Thriller and Bad sold, all the groundbreaking videos...this was a man who knew, deep down, that he'd recorded his best song when he was eleven years old.  And that everything since failed to measure up.

Now all that, of course, may be nonsense.  Apart from the incontrovertible fact that 'I Want You Back' is the best thing that Michael Jackson ever recorded.  Which is nothing to be ashamed of - it is a perfect slice of pure pop music.  Everything fits perfectly - even the fact that Michael is wincingly out of tune in places adds to the charm of the song.

4:  Teenage Kicks - The Undertones

Another perfect slice of pure pop music.  Derry rather than Detroit - The Sound Of Young Ireland.  Proof - if proof was ever needed - that the simplest music can be the best.  Jeez, even I can play the bass part all the way through!  This is music stripped down to its essence - the most obvious of chord sequences paired with the tritest of boy-meets-girl lyrics.  But that's what is perfect about it - everything about the song is just right.  The group seem to play the song with an air of wonder as well - like 'how the hell did we do this'?  John Peel's favourite song?  Maybe - certainly one of mine.

3:  Dark End of the Street - James Carr

I have so many different versions of this song it is untrue - sixteen different artists including Elvis Costello, Aretha, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ry Cooder and Percy Sledge - as well as the writer of the song, Dan Penn.  On a live recording I have, Dan says he is often asked which is his favourite version of the song - "As if there were any other version than James's".

James is of course James Carr - probably the most obscure of all the artists in my top twenty (all right, twenty-five) list and, yet again, another deeply troubled man who suffered from bipolar disorder all his life.  But a great soul singer who - with just a few exceptions - was badly served by his choice of material over the years and was often overshadowed by the established soul greats - Otis, Wilson, Solomon etc.

But he recorded the definitive version of this wonderful song.  A classic tale of two lovers, cheating on their partners, meeting clandestinely and guiltily.  Knowing that what they are doing is wrong, and they will eventually get caught, but doing it anyway - because they have to.  And it resonates with me - I've been to the dark end of that street myself.

2:  Another Girl, Another Planet - The Only Ones

I blogged a long time ago about The Libertines, and came to the conclusion that, essentially, they were The Only Ones de nos jours.  Except The Libertines never produced a note that could touch anything written by Peter Perrett and his group.  Especially not this, their finest moment, with the greatest opening guitar figure - ever.

A strange group even by the standards of the late '70s, The Only Ones had served their time in various prog and blues outfits before coalescing behind professional junkie Perrett.  They had the musical chops, he had the tunes and the lyrics, and they never came together more exhuberantly than in this three minute blast, although they are by no means one-hit wonders, as a tour round their first three albums would clearly demonstrate.

I saw them live once, at Sheffield Poly in 1978.  Ragged and tetchy, they eventually launched into a full-blooded scrap on stage, leaving Perrett to finish the set solo.  The self-destruct button was well and truly pressed that night, and I would guess on many other occasions.

1:  Superstition - Stevie Wonder

Today, this is the greatest record ever made.  On most days, it's still going to be there or thereabouts.  I defy anyone not to start moving something when the opening clavichord stabs start playing.  What's so great about Superstition?  Primarily, it's the groove, I think.  It's also a hugely complex song - deceptively so, until you start to analyse it (search on YouTube for a short film explaining the sixteen or so different clavichord parts making up the opening riff).  Lyrically, it's all over the place ("If you believe in things you don't understand then you suffer - Superstition ain't the way") but that doesn't matter.

I find it so difficult to explain what is so great about this song that I'm not going to try any more - just watch this.  I've posted it before but any excuse.  Anyone wondering whether it will be worth seeing Stevie at Glastonbury this year - just watch and learn...

10 - 6: God and Mammon

10:  Try a Little Tenderness - Otis Redding

As we get into the top ten, soul music (and primarily Southern soul) is making up more and more of my favourites. After explaining why there is so much home-grown stuff amongst my favourites in the last post, why then does all this music recorded by black people thousands of miles away from Liverpool mean so much to me? Quite simply, this is music that transcends all barriers - racial, cultural, geographical - by talking directly to us through our emotions. They called it 'soul' music for a reason. And few people do soul better than Otis. Starting slowly, but building to a powerful crescendo, this is Southern soul in a nutshell.

I recall seeing a rather strange play on TV back in the '80s. Called 'Road', it was set in some sort of dystopian 'alternative' present day, in a deserted council estate left unpopulated and decaying.  The one thing I remember about the play was one particular, striking scene, where the cast members congregated in one of the deserted houses. One of the cast (dressed, along with his colleagues, in Reservoir Dogs-esque black suits, white shirts and black ties) produces a ghetto blaster that he places on a nearby table. The cast stand around in a circle, heads bowed, as 'Try a Little Tenderness' plays on the ghetto blaster. The cast then are, individually and collectively, transported to ecstasy by the song.  Even in that environment, about as far away from Tennessee as you can get, the song worked perfectly.

9:  Belle - Al Green

Another of Southern soul's giants, this captures Al entering his religious phase.  The song is addressed to his girl - Belle - who is being gently let down as Al devotes his life to his God ("It's you I want, but it's Him that I need").  Belle is, of course, a metaphor for the wider secular pleasures that Al was turning his back on - not with regret, but with joy and anticipation.  As the song fades, Al can no longer find the words to express his feelings, using instead a series of screams and yelps to declare his love for his God.  The tune and the arrangement are, of course, smooth as silk and Al sings as if nothing ever meant as much to him as this.  In truth, nothing probably ever did.

8:  Waterloo Sunset - The Kinks

First - a confession.  I don't really like The Kinks very much.  I always found them a bit too fey, too frilly-shirted and rooted too deeply in a type of Englishness that I don't really recognise and have trouble empathising with.  All that notwithstanding, Waterloo Sunset is one of the greatest songs ever written by an Englishman.  I love the melody, the sentiment and the imagery as Terry meets Julie one evening just south of the river, happy and in love despite the 'millions of people swarming like flies' around them.  Even the detached air of the song's narrator, looking out at all this from his window gives a cinematic feel to the song that works perfectly.

7:  Shot by Both Sides - Magazine

Why are you so edgy, kid?

Ok, time to get a little bit darker, after all this tenderness and love.  This was Magazine's opening blast, based upon a Pete Shelley guitar riff, that started to nudge punk into other, more complex areas.  It did that without losing the edgy, exhilarating rush of punk - but it added depth to the mix - lyrically, musically and atmospherically.  Magazine continued to add texture and atmosphere to their material over the course of four superb albums, and introduced the great, sadly lamented, John McGeoch to the world.  However this initial statement of intent encapsulated all that was great about this band in four minutes flat.  And oh, it was so good to see them back on stage last year.

6:  Man of the World - Fleetwood Mac

That's Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, the early blues-based version of the band, not the AOR cocaine-fuelled behemoth of the '70s.  Based in the blues, but ultimately transcending the form with material like Albatross, The Green Manalishi and Black Magic Woman - and especially with this lament, a truly beautiful song.  Written by a man who - in theory - had everything; good looks, wealth, a sublime musical talent - but who was deeply troubled.  ("I guess I've got everything I need - I wouldn't ask for more.  And there's no-one I'd rather be...but I just wish that I'd never been born").

Ultimately of course, Peter Green did turn his back on everything, surrendering to his demons.  Happily he is now back, still fragile but making music again.  I hope he's now at peace with his demons.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

15 - 11: Mersey Paradise

A distinct North-West flavour to this batch of songs, for which I make no can you not be affected by the sounds you hear on your own doorstep?

15:  Feels Like Growin' Up - Amsterdam

I have written on many occasions about the wonderful Amsterdam (and Pele, their predecessor band, about whom more later) and will no doubt continue to do so - how this band are not massive continues to amaze me.  Still, Ian Prowse continues to do what he has always done - which is to make music from the heart and from the soul.  Feels Like Growin' Up is one of the band's more affecting songs and a huge audience favourite from their early days.  I remember seeing them in Liverpool a while ago, down by the front with The Boy, as usual.  The group's regular photographer was stood next to us, the other side of the barrier in the 'pit'.  This bloke must have seen them hundreds of times - yet when I glanced over to him while the group were playing this song, he was stood there in floods of tears.  It gets you - every time.

14:  Raid The Palace - Pele

Ok, it's the same singer/songwriter, but it's a different band so I'm having it in here.  They are my rules anyway so I can tweak them if I want!  Pele were the band that so nearly made it in the '80s.  Again, led by Ian Prowse and cut from similar cloth to Amsterdam - and just as good.  This was their 'hit record' - number one in South Africa, I'll have you know (and at the time probably the last country Ian would have wanted it to be number one in).  Unlike Feels Like Growin' Up above, this is a song of defiance, almost a manifesto if you like.  Ian was asked the other year if he would like to perform in front of The Queen as part of the 'Capital of Culture' celebrations - this is the song he should have sung if he could have brought himself to do it!

13:  Heart As Big As Liverpool - The Mighty Wah!

Unashamedly sentimental, and unfortunately claimed by the 'other' club, this is another one that gets me every time.  The Mighty Wah! is of course one of the monikers used by Pete Wylie, one of the original 'Crucial Three' (along with Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope) who came out of  the 'Eric's' scene in the early eighties but who, for whatever reason, remained a local cult (that's cult) rather than really breaking through into the big league.  He still produced a good handful of classics though (including Story of the Blues, with its defiant coda and Sinful) but this is the one that encapsulates the image of the sentimental scouser.  Yes, it's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason.  You are not alone...

12:  She Loves You - The Beatles

You didn't honestly think that The Fabs wouldn't be in here somewhere, did you?  Of course not.  She Loves You is probably my first musical memory (yes, I'm that old) and will forever be inextricably linked with home.  Released when The Beatles were still very much 'our' band, and the sense of pride in a group of scousers making it in the outside world was palpable.  And how could I not identify strongly with a left-hander called Paul?  But leaving all that to one side, She Loves You is a fantastic pop song that has probably never been bettered.  From the opening drum role to the final 'Yeahs', it's come and gone inside two and a half minutes, encapsulating everything good about Beatlemania on the way.  Harmonies?  Check.  'Oooooohs'?  Check.  'Yeah, yeah, yeah'?  Oh yeah.

11.  Only The Lonely - Roy Orbison

Ok, The Big O didn't come from Liverpool, but he was a huge influence on the original Merseybeat artists - in fact, Please Please Me was originally written with Orbison in mind (and was originally played slowly, in an Orbison style).  Roy was an influence on everyone though, Bruce Springsteen (as I mentioned in my earlier album blog), Elvis Costello, Tom Waits to name just three.  But although he influenced loads of people, no-one ever sounded like Roy Orbison...because no-one else could sound like Roy Orbison.  Roy was not the most attractive of gentlemen, and maybe this was reflected in his material - often downbeat, often written from the viewpoint of the loser.  Even when Roy got the girl (Oh Pretty Woman, Running Scared) it was always a surprise to him, counter to his expectations.  Great songs, but Roy was at his best when singing about loss, and never better than here - it's the contrast between his vocal and the 'dum dum dum dummy doo wah' backing that I love.  We all know the way Roy is feeling tonight, because we've all been lonely at some point.

Friday, March 05, 2010

20 - 16: Southern Boogie and Northern Croonin'

20:  Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Basically an 'answer' song, written in response to Neil Young's 'Southern Man'.  In a nutshell - we're Southern and we're proud of it.  So don't be slaggin' us off with your trendy Yankee ways because we're just fine and dandy down here!  And so they are.  But it's not really the sentiment in the song that does it for me - it's the groove and the feel - the opening guitar riff is one of the slinkiest there is - not a note too many, not a note out of place.  Lynyrd Skynyrd could do overblown when they wanted to - Freebird being a case in point - but Sweet Home Alabama is tight as a gnat's chuff.  As, no doubt, they say in Montgomery.

19:  Kashmir - Led Zeppelin

Again, it's all in the riff.  The spiralling, three-note stab that invokes so well the Eastern 'vibe' implicit in the song's title.  A word of warning though - don't listen to the lyrics.  Really.  They make Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge' sound profound.  But none of that matters.  This was a band at the height of its powers, pushing the boundaries in any number of directions, and exploring Eastern rhythms and time signatures that they would return to later in their careers.

Of course, there are many Zeppelin songs I could have chosen.  But for me, Kashmir is pure essence of Zep.

18:  Coles Corner - Richard Hawley

I love this song.  Often - erroneously - described as South Yorkshire's answer to Roy Orbison but more accurately referred to (by himself) as 'that specky twat from Sheffield', Hawley is an absolute superstar.  In the ideal world, he would sell more records than U2.  With his slicked back hair, his twangy guitar style and his rich, baritone crooning, Hawley evokes an earlier age.  And never better than on this song, a slice of pure romance about one of Sheffield's old department stores and a historic meeting spot for the city's youth.

17:  Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience

My, it's a rockin' selection this time round, for some reason.  Jimi needed to be in the top twenty somewhere, and this is the track for me - a track that doesn't outstay its welcome, that rocks like a mother and that demonstrates just what a fine guitar player Hendrix was.  Of course, describing Jimi's guitar playing as 'fine' is like describing Zinedine Zidane as a 'capable' footballer.  He was the best.  Voodoo Chile was one of the final songs recorded with the original Experience, before Jimi moved on to looser, jazzier and funkier work - but this, for me, is the peak.

16:  Angel - Aretha Franklin

And changing the mood completely, it's the Queen of Soul at her most soulful.  By some considerable distance, Aretha is the best female singer the world has ever seen - in any form of music.  This is an uncontestable fact.  Whenever any X-Factor wannabe starts warbling in a Mariahesque way, in the mistaken belief that the amount of soul in a performance is directly proportional to the number of notes you can squeeze into a single line, she should be slapped firmly across the face with a copy of Aretha's Greatest Hits and locked in a darkened room with the CD until she learns the error of her ways.  Angel is just a beautiful song, written by her sister, with a (no doubt contrived) spoken intro that sets the scene perfectly.  In fact why am I writing this?  Rather than get into a long, drawn-out thing, I think the melody on the box will help me explain.  It's there for you. below - just listen.