Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whisper words of wisdom

49 The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’

And so the journey comes to an end, because all things must pass.

The slight dilemma about where to end this list of 49 songs (49 reasons) was settled in my mind as I wrote about the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones a few entries ago.

My love of music begins and ends with the fab four, and in terms of bookending opposites - John Lennon and Paul McCartney fit the bill.

I began in entry number one with a celebration of John Lennon’s superb ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, which was written and performed during the ill-fated Let It Be sessions. What could be more appropriate for this last entry, than a celebration of his partner – Paul, and HIS finest moment as a Beatle, also written and performed for the Get Back project that became Let It Be.

They were chalk and cheese weren’t they? Not so freakishly, they were fated to meet and work together. They were both young guys living in Liverpool who were interested in music - not hard to imagine them eventually getting together is it? All it took was a couple of mutual friends, a love of playing guitars and creating songs. This happens all over the world every second of every day – somewhere on the planet right now - two people are sitting down trying to figure out guitar chords or trying to match some poetry to an original tune.

What is freaky is that two giant talents should get together in Liverpool and by their actions totally change my world.

What often gets me is that they grew so far apart having started out like ying yang twins. Paul and John - two halves of a whole that couldn’t sustain their working arrangements. Even though they could later patch up their friendship, they couldn’t (and didn’t) ever get together in the studio, or on the stage again. No mind. They left such a fantastic body of work behind, both as a group and as solo artists. Rejoice in that.

Let It Be is, for me, the perfect end of the Beatles. The message is a good one – let it be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make

47 New Radicals, 'You Get What You Give' ; 48 Embrace, 'Ashes'

I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I would much rather be positive than not and so I naturally gravitate towards positive message songs. You know the type - Electric Light Orchestra's Hold On Tight (to your dreams), Bob Marley's Trenchtown Rock, The Lighthouse Family's Lifted - that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Maybe these lines from Lifted sum it up best - 'I wouldn't say I'm mad about the rain, but we'll get through it anyway'.

Generally the message is all about rising up, making something of yourself, following and holding on tight to those dreams - and we ALL need to be reminded of these things from time to time.

To represent these feel good/good message songs I've chosen two songs I first heard on television, being used to sell cars (I think) and football. Isn't it great when you eventually track down a song you've loved on TV and it turns out even better than the advertisement!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

wild horses

45 The Velvet Underground,
'I'm Waiting For The Man';
46 The Rolling Stones, ‘Wild Horses’

With only five songs to go I now have to consider what I’ll be leaving out and what five to include. I haven’t really followed any cohesive plan along the way. I’ve only had a few songs peculating at any one time and certainly not five. My modus operandi has been to wait till inspiration hits and then the entry pretty much writes itself.

For the final five, I'm pretty sure there won't be any rap, hip hop or funk, or classical, or opera, or House, or Techno, or 'world' music. I just don't like those forms/genres. There are only a couple of rap songs that I can bear to hear twice -Nelly's Ride Wit Me definitely, and maybe Eric B and Rakim...maybe. But that's it. Funk is a genre that is something of a mystery to me. At the risk of sounding like my parents complaints about Led Zeppelin, it's the mindless repetition within the funk form, as with Techno and House, that fails to move me. As far as I'm concerned Opera and Cradle Of Filth style death metal are one and the same - unlistenable, and I enjoy the baroque style of classical music but more for appeasing Jacky when she's sick of hearing Dwight Yokam.

So, the final five will in all likelihood be quality pop music. That's that settled.

For some time I've been thinking about another conundrum. I have been wondering what to end my list with.

An early thought was that the 49th song needed to bookend my first one (The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down) by contrasting with it. The Velvet Underground and Stones were contenders for some time because, to me, they are the polar opposite of the fabs. But in the end I've chosen a more appropriate way to finish. Instead you get VU and the Stones now.

An early post on this blog dealt with my feelings about The Velvet Underground, and my belief that everyone’s musical taste can be ultimately tracked back to either The Beatles or The Velvet Underground, who I contend are at the opposite ends of the pop spectrum.

In terms of opposites they fit the bill all over the place – different continents, very different musical processes, different artistic sensibilities. I mean, could you EVER imagine a Beatle song titled 'The Black Angel's Death Song' , and George Martin couldn’t be further removed from Andy Warhol really, could he?

I know The Velvet Underground & Nico is often on people's best ever classic album lists but it doesn't do a lot for me. Mainly because Lou Reed hasn't established his dominance yet, the quality of Sweet Jane and Pale Blue Eyes were some way off, and there was way too much of Nico for my taste. I'm Waiting For The Man though is an excellent slab of dirty guitar and Lou's whiney voice is perfect for this little tale of Lou waiting for his drug connection who's dressed in black with a big straw hat.

As for the Stones - well they're the Antichrist aren't they? Drug deranged child molesters and evil incarnate. Mick is the horned one (and the horny one), while Keef IS the skull ring. Again - can you imagine Macca decked out in one of them?

All very simplistic stuff. The superb neo-country of Wild Horses gives the lie to all that. The image of Keef lying on the floor listening to a playback in the Gimme Shelter movie immediately tells you that the human riff has soul (man). God bless him!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

losing when my mind's astray

44 Syd Barrett, ‘Dominoes’

For entry number 44 (only 5 to go after this one), we move from the bright pop of the Tremeloes to the incandescent aura that surrounded Syd Barrett. It’s like comparing the atmosphere on Mars to the heat generated by the sun.

In 1970 Syd was not yet a burnt out cliched acid casualty. He was still frequently a coherent rapscallion who could play with the language and with the sounds that he heard in his head and, with help from Dave Gilmour, he could still translate those sounds into songs. One thing’s for sure – no one else on the planet could have written Dominoes, certainly not The Tremeloes.

It’s such a tricky song – it’s hard to pin down. It shifts and morphs and won’t sit still. Was it really written 40 years ago? Extraordinary! How is it that the power of a great pop song can survive for all those years? Maybe because the song is both of its time and universal. It’s got a sense of the twee and the cosmic, is dark yet warm. It deals with the mundane (playing dominoes) and questing (don’t you want to know with your pretty hair). It contains (probably not deliberate) references to various senses - (the sound of a lark, the texture of a shell) and the elements (fireworks, tears) but in the end it’s more about time passing than it is anything tangible. The days are like dominoes, one tumbles after the other in a permanent now.

Syd sings with a peculiar melancholic delivery and you can sense the days just drifting by him in a haze. That haze is created in the sound scape by the backwards guitars. After The Beatles Rain, this is the best, most natural use of this technique (David Gilmour’s production or Syd? Who knows? Only David now).

Poor Syd. He flamed out in a blaze of glory. Time goes by…

Robyn Hitchcock does a terrific version in his garden -

In the midnight moonlight hour

43 The Tremeloes, 'Here Comes My Baby'

Infectious pop music from 1967 floats my boat, pretty much every time.

I was ten years old in 1967. I got my first grown up bike, took my first tentative steps away from my mum (she let go of the seat and I was off), and listening to great pop music. The summer of 1967 was "The Summer of Love" in San Francisco. It also became an important year for psychedelic rock, with releases from The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour), Eric Burdon & The Animals (Winds of Change), The Doors (The Doors and Strange Days), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter's), Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), Love (Forever Changes), Cream (Disraeli Gears), The Rolling Stones (Their Satanic Majesties Request), The Who (The Who Sell Out), The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico), and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love).

But I wasn't listening to this stuff (they would all come much later), instead I was aware only of songs. For example: The Small Faces - Itchycoo Park, The Beatles - Yellow Submarine, and The Tremeloes - Here Comes My Baby.

Especially The Tremeloes.

So, what do you notice about this video? It's obvious isn't it. The smiles. You can see the pure joy of singing this fun song about being dumped for another guy. I was 10 - being dumped for another guy wouldn't happen properly for another 9 years - thanks Dallas! All I was reacting to was the cow bell, the whoops of joy around the song, the beat, and the smiles that could be heard in the voices. Watching this video just makes me feel good. And that's important.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

It just might be a one shot deal

42 Zappa, ‘Big Swifty’

Ladies and gentleman – watch Frank! I know what you’ve been thinking, all through this list you’ve been thinking to yourself, “Where’s Frank?”

Frank has been hovering over this list from the beginning. He’s been mentioned a few times already and I like to imagine him reading my entries and reacting to the choices and stories. A wry smile maybe, a raised eyebrow perhaps, a shake of the head at times. He’s a great editor actually. A few times I’ve wondered and reconsidered and, sometimes, hit the delete button.

It’s actually a wonder he ever released anything, given his exacting standards. But maybe that’s just the image I’ve superimposed on him. He could be a merciless critic of others – mainly the bloated rock stars that he saw around him. The Beatles would have enjoyed the parody of Sgt Peppers but Peter Frampton came in for an appropriately scathing attack for ‘I’m in You’. No one was really immune from his caustic wit. Certainly not television evangelists, Tipper Gore, and those without a sense of humour.

His catalogue is so huge and so varied in style and quality. It’s tricky picking one song that represents the joy I feel when listing to him. I’ve written about Bongo Fury, The Mothers Live at the Fillmore and Hot Rats already on the blog. Each of those albums is completely different, as if they were written and performed by three different Frank Zappas and those three barely scratch the surface of his genius.

I’m being a little disingenuous here. It’s actually not hard to pick one at all. The Waka Jawaka/Hot Rats album is my clear favourite and his album that I’ve played the most often. Every second of it is unique, special and rewarding. It’s remarkable that one guy can create all of this stuff in his head. For me, Frank is even more of a creative genius than Brian Wilson. Brian, while I love his stuff, basically only worked in a straight-forward pop mode. He got crazy around the ‘Smile’ period with drugs and insecurities and then couldn’t finish his work. Frank just kept on going during all those years. A stable marriage to Gail, no drugs, no rehab, no insecurities!

Big Swifty is a superb piece of music. At 17 minutes 22 seconds it is not one second too short, or too long. It sounds perfect to me, as it leaps along from the intro into a steady pulse of ever changing textures and sounds. Horns and pianos and guitars mingle, jostle for position, leave and reenter when it’s appropriate. The separation and space between the instruments is anchored by Erroneous on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. The song is a paradoxical exercise in simplicity (what feels like hundreds of musicians is actually just Frank and five others) and teasing, intricate, complexity. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but very time I hear it I truly hear new things. Big Swifty. Those 17 minutes and 22 seconds just fly by. Thanks for the music Frank. Rest in peace.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Starbuck's sharpening his harpoon.

40 Mountain, 'Nantucket Sleighride', 41 David Crosby, 'The Lee Shore'

I have a fascination with the sea. It doesn't extend to me wanting to muck around on boats but I love the romance of the sea and the idea of old sailing vessels like the Cutty Sark. I stood behind the wheel of that ship in London and I could image what it must have felt like to sail on it. When we lived in Leigh-on-sea we would often wander around the estuary and enjoy all of the sights and sounds and smells of the old fishing boats docked there. It seems like I've usually found myself living close to the sea.

Songs about the sea do it for me time and again whether they be allegorical (Split Enz - Six Months in a Leaky Boat), of disaster ( Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), of the old whaling days (Nantucket Sleighride) or of carefree abandon ( CSN's Southern Cross).

I'm not going to write too much this time - instead I'll let the music do it for me. Two versions of The Lee Shore - the CSNY one with Neil playing some sublime guitar is a favourite version of Crosby's dream/song and you can almost taste the salt in Mountain's song of whaling, harpoons and Starbuck!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I'm seein' your world of people and things, Hear paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

39 Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportees’

Generally music doesn’t do tragedy. I’m not talking about the ‘she done me wrong’ song or the unrequited love and ‘I’m in a mess’ song – I’m talking about the reality of death type of tragedy. Murder ballads don’t count because they are usually a domestic drama. I’m not even talking about the Ohio or Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll type of protest song. I’m talking about a larger scale of tragic death song, like when hundreds or thousands of people are killed.

I don’t think any rock song can do horrific events justice, because merely via the form there is a trivialisation aspect at work. It doesn’t stop people having a go though.

The stupidity of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has been a suitable subject for some big names. Lennon tried with Luck of The Irish and while I like the tune I suspect it’s because I love Lennon. U2 have their own Sunday Bloody Sunday and it rocks, that’s for sure, but the self conscious nature of the song (‘how long must we sing this song’ ) just reminds us that this is a song. The killing fields in Cambodia produced a Mike Oldfield soundtrack of nice music but no songs as such. The Dead Kennedys produced a slab of indignant anger for Holiday In Cambodia that I love but that anger is directed more at the reactions of upper class rich white kids than it is at Pol Pot.

Bruce Springsteen realised all this instinctively when he responded to the 9/11 tragedy with The Rising – he obliquely references the tragedy and it works. Neil Young goes for the specific in ‘Let’s Roll’ and it doesn’t.

I can only think of two songs worthy of inclusion on my list that touch the requisite sensitivity buttons in an artistically superior kind of way while also being damn fine songs. And they are not rock songs.

The folk tradition is about the only form that can it carry off. There is an earthiness and honesty inherent in that form that makes it possible. It is a tightrope walk, though – the chasm of sentimentality on one side and a river of earnest bilge on t’other. The song can’t be too specific but needs a hook. One of the two I'm referring to is Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is a great song. In a kind of straightforward narrative it details the... um...wreckage of the iron ore ship – the Edmund Fitzgerald. The only thing, though, is - it is not spine-tingling, and for the most part it seems to be more about the weather and the actual ship than it is about the tragic deaths.

Woody Guthrie manages to capture lightning in a bottle in Deportees by focusing on the way we deal with a mass tragedy – by dehumanising it. The lyric is a skillful combination of the poetic and reportage - ‘The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, A fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills, Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? The radio says, "They are just deportees".’ The genius hook, of course, is the use of names – Juan, Rosalita, Jesus y Maria. It touches the universal, adds the personal, even a hint of the spiritual, all within a three plus minute pop song.

In Woody’s song we feel for the deportees who die in the airplane crash, and without adding the earnest pomposity of The Doors’ Unknown Soldier, we are able to reflect on the other victims of similar circumstances. I can't think of another example of such brilliant illumination.