Bob Dylan, Tell Me That It Isn’t True (1969)

Bob-Dylan-Nashville-Skyline

Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Tell Me That It Isn’t True
Description: album track, Nashville Skyline
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1995

We’re playing with the big boys now. Any 143 best songs limited to one entry per artist might include the Beatles, the Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. And some of these giants may yet turn up (don’t want to ruin it for you). I don’t have an intimate relationship with Dylan. I am patently not a disciple of his music. But neither do I have a problem with him, as some do. I like his honking voice. He’s self-evidently a keystone artist of the 60s and his influence is unfathomable. Without him, folk may never have turned into rock music. And, like Bowie, who wrote a song about him, his staying power and ability to change hats is not in doubt.

But I don’t have a snap answer to the question, “What’s the greatest Bob Dylan album?” or its woollier twin, “What’s your favourite Bob Dylan album?” (I have stock answers to the same question with the Beatles and the Stones substituted, but not Dylan.) When I worked at Q magazine between 1993 and 1997 and passed the big three-oh, I acted accordingly, and opened myself up to all sorts of “classic” music.

Our office was almost on top of the flagship HMV on London’s busy Oxford Street, and – in full-time employment, with pension and shares scheme, remember – I would often avail myself of the 3-for-2 offers on non-chart CDs. My intention was to fill the gaps in my record collection with important LPs with which I was not acquainted. I remember snapping up a couple of Dylan standards during that consumer flurry – Freewheelin’, Blood On The Tracks, Desire – and gave them a few spins. But if I’m honest, I never really truly got beyond the hits.

The permanent office CD collection at Q was motley. We had a battered CD single of Showgirl by the Auteurs (that went on a lot when the lagers came in), an album by Jackie Leven, something by Strangelove, and Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. I found myself putting this on more than once during the working day, but it was not a single that grabbed me – the more familiar, singalong likes of Lay Lady Lay or the Johnny Cash duet on Girl From The North Country – but track three, side two, Tell Me That It Isn’t True.

Due to a rare lapse in journalistic instinct, I know for a fact that I took my touchstone track Tell Me That It Isn’t True to be Nashville Skyline Rag, which is track two, side one. Not 100% sure why. But when I’d left Q – and left full-time employment; the shares were worth shit – and invested in my own copy, I jumped ahead to Skyline Rag and was deeply disappointed. Not a Proustian peep. However, as soon as I heard the first line, “I have heard rumours …” followed by that resonant Dobro (I’ve looked this up; don’t finger-wag me if I’m wrong, guitar freaks, it could be Pete Drake’s pedal steel …), I was back in love.

Historically, the 1969 album – a number one hit in the UK – was an evolution from the acoustic-leaning John Wesley Harding, also recorded in Nashville, and showcased a new, smoother “crooning” style of vocal from Dylan. As I’ve picked up on his albums in the wrong order, I don’t hear them chronologically, but I shared an office with a man who not only did, he did so religiously. He was John Bauldie, one of the UK’s foremost Dylanologists and Q’s part-time production guru. (As editor, I once took John out for a lunchtime pint to encourage him to apply for the full-time post, but he was happier with the freedom to pursue his Dylanology when he wasn’t at his post. You had to respect that.)

The dedicated publisher, editor and chief scribe of Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, John – or “the Great Bauldini” as Danny Kelly playfully christened him – was our font of all Dylan knowledge. A lovably grumpy soul, capable of long-running feuds where Dylan was concerned, we all admired him, which is why we so affectionately but constantly took the rise out of him, stuck in his ways and reliably mistaking a techno record for the noise of the fax machine for comic effect.

So, this song reminds me of working at Q, and working with the legendary John Bauldie, who was cruelly killed in a helicopter crash in 1996, which was a bad day at the office for all of us. It’s only right that a Dylan tune should help us remember, and remember fondly.

It’s a lovely, lilting lament from a spurned lover to another (“They say that you’re planning to put me down … they say that you’ve been seen with some other man”), less than three minutes long but lifted by an enthusiastic drum part from Kenneth Buttrey, twinkling with all those guitars, enhanced with a bit of honky tonk piano and made airborne by Dylan’s almost cheekily accessible vocal. He doesn’t know it, but he’s prefiguring the life’s work of David Gedge, with his imagination running paranoid riot (“I know that some other man is holding you tight/It hurts me all over/It doesn’t seem right”).

Why have I illustrated above with the back sleeve of the CD of Nashville Skyline? Because I’m pretty sure the inner booklet had been lost in the ravages of office life and the CD sat in a coverless jewel case. I recognise the back more than the front as a result. It’s such quirks that make our lifelong relationship with music more vivid.

There will be another song I associate with Dylan and John Bauldie in The 143, recorded by another artist. Wait and see what it is.

Wu-Tang Clan, Let My N****s Live (2000)

TheW

Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Title: Let My N****s Live
Description: album track, The W
Label: Loud/Columbia
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

OK, let’s get this done. While I recognise and laud the pioneering importance of Public Enemy and could listen to them any day of the week, and appreciate the ways in which Dr Dre, Kanye West and Jay-Z progressed the narrative of hip-hop, if forced to choose, I would have to name the Wu-Tang Clan as my all-time favourite rap group. Sometimes I think they are my favourite group, full stop. I have time for all five of their first five albums, and can let them off the next three, which I realise makes me way too forgiving, but the self-proclaimed “Beatles of hip-hop” never fail to ignite my imagination and worry my feet. Like all the best white rap fans, I shamefully forgive them indiscretions I would not forgive a non-black artist. Sometimes great art comes from difficult places. Sometimes the struggle manifests itself in ways that are not totally palatable.

I wholeheartedly salute Danny Kelly for turning me onto the Wu-Tang Clan in the mid-90s when he was my boss at Q magazine. So enamoured was he by their martial-arts stylings and cinematic sample beds, I checked them out in turn and found treasures untold in their three-million-selling 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – a number 83 smash in the UK – which seemed to have no peers. (It’s since been stamped as a “landmark”, its influence felt everywhere.)

Sampling soul, funk, jazz and dubbed dialogue from Kung Fu movies, the Wu-Tang sound remains fairly constant across their recorded output (and of course spills into the innumerable solo spin-offs, some great, some not so great), but this magnificent track, from Millennial third album The W, continues to sum up what makes, or made, them masters of the universe. I’d been drawn into the fold by Bring Da Ruckus, C.R.E.A.M., Protect Ya Neck and – from the too-sprawling double Wu-Tang ForeverBells Of War, but I still unfashionably hold The W from “the year Two-G” above both predecessors, as there’s not a duff track on it. From such august company as Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)/Chamber Music, Careful (Click, Click) and their only Top 40 hit in the UK, Gravel Pit, rises Let My Niggas Live, featuring Nas.

I enjoy unearthing the obscure samples in hip-hop and dance records, and cursory research tells me that the arresting opening dialogue comes from the 1977 prison movie Short Eyes (“Someday I’m gon’ be walking down the street, minding my own business, and BANG!, I’m gon’ be shot by some pig who’s gon’ swear it was a mistake”), and that the track itself is constructed around a riff from Roy Budd’s soundtrack to Diamonds, a 1975 heist thriller with Richard Roundtree. Little wonder, then, that it has a grimy 70s New York state-of-mind feel. If you seek out the two-minute, jazzy Budd cue (The Thief) you’ll find that it’s been slowed right down, hence the low-riding boom of the bass, like a ship’s horn.

Over a typically blunt-languid, RZA-laid, tambourine-rattling beat, the Chef Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and guest star Nas respond in verse to a repeated chorus that’s so simple you can actually learn it (as I have done, for singing along to when I’m in the car alone) and an insistent chant of “Let my niggas live”. You will want to let them live by the end of it. Strange that a track of theirs that does not feature Method Man on vocals should lodge itself in my pantheon, as his drooling baritone is my favourite among the tag-team rapping, followed by Ghostface Killah’s. But I think it’s the vocal rhythm that grabs me.

Let my niggas live
We show and prove, get paper, catch me in the caper on ’shrooms yo
Let my niggas live
We real niggas that’s God-body, challenge anything, make major moves
Let my niggas live
We giants, live off the land lions, post with iron, no pryin’ rules
Let my niggas live
Let my niggas live
Handle your bid and kill no kids

I love the strict morality of the code: kill no kids. As ever with the densest of rap lyrics, it’s a mining job to glean the full meaning. But what fun to have a crack at it. There’s braggadocio here – of course there is, they’re a clan, they’re a crew, they’re Staten Island, they’re Shaolin, they’re devout Five Percenters, they have something to prove – but it’s backed by philosophy and religion. There’s violence here (Glocks that are “spittin'”, Barettas “poppin'” and “slugs in the wall”), as there is violence in their early lives (“the streets raised us … I obey hood laws”) and in their lives as stars, what with all those rap feuds and everything, but for me, it does not rule their oeuvre. There is sexual aggression too (“pee on bitches that famous”), which I can’t in all honesty condone, other that to say it’s part of their worldview and you either take it or leave it. I take it as part of the semi-fiction that they have built around them: a show. They use words I would never use. They are not me. I am not them. Also, many religions, for all I know including the Islamic-based Nation of Gods and Earths, theirs, enshrine patriarchy. Such problems run deep.

Let My Niggas Live – and I don’t believe I’ve ever typed “that word” so many times in the space of one hour, I certainly wouldn’t say the title out loud – lacks the impish humour for which I also hold the Clan dear, but its “rigorous moves” glower, rumble and stalk to create a soundtrack to a film about a world I do not know, and that, I guess, is the allure.

Oh, and if you were listening on CD, you’ll be familiar with the brief “skit” at the end of it that heralds the next track, the grief-driven I Can’t Go To Sleep. Never could get into the skits, but they come with the territory.

Burial, Archangel (2007)

BurialUntrue

Artist: Burial
Title: Archangel
Description: promo single; album track, Untrue
Label: Hyperdub
Release date: 2007
First heard: 2007

The seven ages of man – and I mean, specifically, man – ought to include the following two ages: the age of self-consciousness about being “cool”, and the age of suddenly realising you don’t give a fuck what other people think of you. In terms of what music you listen to, these two ages are key.

Sometime in the late noughties, I was depping for Gideon Coe in the ten-to-midnight slot on 6 Music. It was not my default “dep”, and way past my bedtime, but I enjoyed the Peel-like freedom from the daytime playlist it offered, and when you’re used to being on-air during office hours, it’s liberating to broadcast after everybody’s gone home. Anyway, I was paired with a young, hip, clued-up, hyperactive ex-Radio 1 producer (in fact, I believe he’d worked with Peel in his last years) whose puppydog energy was infectious. When the records were playing, we had some animated conversations about music. We didn’t know each other very well, so it was a bonding experience. Anyway, at one juncture, off-air, he asked me this:

“Do you like dubstep?”

As it happened, I did like dubstep. Before I’d read Rob Fitzpatrick’s eloquent page-long review of Burial’s eventually Mercury-nominated second album Untrue in Word magazine at the end of 2007, I’d never encountered the word and was a stranger to dance genres. But through Rob’s evangelistically vivid descriptions of this aromatic new music from the clubs of Croydon, and in particular from this anonymous new practitioner called Burial, my inquisitiveness drove me to Amazon and I invested. I had only the vaguest notion of what the music was all about, but I gathered it was a beautiful noise coming up from the streets and that I didn’t really need to go out after dark in Croydon to get into it. Untrue went immediately onto “repeat” and it saw me through an entire urban winter.

I still listen to it today in its gloriously grey entirety, and it screams London to me: spooky, cinematic, littered, threatening, soothing, exciting, dark, threatening, indistinct in places, a parallel world of snatched conversation and distorted voices, it speaks in sounds. As the untitled opening track – my first experience of Burial and my first experience of dubstep – is 46 seconds long and not really a “song”, second track Archangel represents my official door into a new world of possibilities. Its beat rattles like a crushed beer can caught in an eddy behind an industrial bin, or a clattering automated piece of factory hardware punching out some circuit board or other after dark. A voice, sampled, seems to sing something about “holding you” and “could it be alone,” but these bulletins from another dimension are not there to be understood. The voices in this music are not narrative.

The title recalls, for me, the code name used at the end of Apocalypse Now that calls in an airstrike, but you may take from it what you will. The song is all hints and vagaries. You fill in the blanks, and dubstep has many blanks. Strings seem to swell, as if from a movie soundtrack (many samples within are from scores), but it does not uplift, not while that caffeinated beat digs at your ribs. This is sublime music. I don’t care who Burial is. (He’s a bloke called William Bevan from South London.) I don’t care about anything but the music when it’s playing through my brain, almost exclusively on public transport, or on foot, and very rarely by day.

Archangel is night music. It’s not really to be extracted and ripped from the womb of the full album, and yet, it’s borne of the pick’n’mix iTunes age, and probably more usually heard mixed into the track before and into the track after on a pirate radio station. Actually – and I have a young relative who’s heavily into dubstep and a DJ – I know that a track from Untrue isn’t being played on a pirate radio anywhere, as it does not belong to the believers. It’s one for the Word readers, the middle-aged, the non-clubgoing, the coffee table, the dinner party. (Remember when drum’n’bass went dinner party in the early 90s? We used to play the backside out of Goldie and Metalheadz when people came round; mind you, we were all pretty wild in the mid-90s when we turned 30, and our parties did not revolve around dinner.)

I have long entered the age of man when I don’t give a fuck what people think about me, and certainly not what music I like, or listen to. I think I truly stopped caring when I arrived at Q magazine in 1994. What liberation!

I actually bought a couple of dubstep compilations after Untrue, and learned a lot. I enjoyed some of it, and some of it was unlistenable, and there was nothing by Skream or Benga that touched Burial for the cinematic. (I quite dug a track by Steve Gurley called Hotboys (Dub), if you’re interested.)

So, back at 6 Music, late-nite, off-air, late noughties: I have been asked by this young, buzzy producer with interesting facial hair if I like dubstep. Maybe it’s a test? “Yes,” I say. “I love that Burial album.” Remember, I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks about my musical taste. But I feel a twinge when he replies, with a sneer, “That’s not dubstep!”

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Never Understand (1985)

jesus & mary chain never understand

Artist: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Title: Never Understand
Description: single; album track, Psychocandy
Label: Blanco Y Negro
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Scene: 3rd Floor lift lobby, Ralph West Halls of Residence, Battersea, London
Date: February, 1985

A 20-year-old art student bursts from his cell in what is a great big tower block full of art students in South London, overlooking the park. A haystack of backcombed hair atop his head, he sports a selfconsciously de-sleeved t-shirt, roomy dungarees and kung fu pumps without socks. Kicking the wooden wedge under his door to prop it open, a declarative skreeeee of amp feedback at full volume follows him from the Hitachi stack into the “communal area” by the lifts, where he flings himself down onto an armchair. And waits.

Never Understand, the just-released second single by music press sensations the Jesus & Mary Chain blasts forth from what might ordinarily be a “study bedroom” were the block not full of art students. (The art student had erroneously first read the East Kilbride band’s name as Jesus & The Mary Chain, when their violent early gigs were reported in the NME and the buzz coalesced into legend.) From the squall, a grumbling bassline, then a crackling guitar riff and rudimentary drum signature emerge, and an oddly sweet but half-hidden voice makes recognisable words amid the interference. It is – to borrow an ugly phrase from a quarter of a century into the future – his latest jam.

Nodding his hair, he revels in the racket, adoring the way the song’s conventional beauty is deliberately obscured under layers of extraneous din. Too young to have heard punk in its purest, pre-commoditised form at its creation, he feels blessedly connected to this music at the ground floor. Even though the band have already had an indie number one, it had passed the art student by, and Never Understand was his initiation. Its three minutes were even more intoxicating than the music-press descriptions hinted at, with their references to the Beach Boys. When was the last time an indie guitar band had done an Elvis “uh-huh-hur” and meant it?

The art student had bought the 12″ without ever having heard a note of the band (a common strategy for the NME disciple in the post-listening booth, pre-internet darklands); he knew. That pure red sleeve bearing just the band’s name? The torn-porn collage on the back? The b-side, Suck? The fact that he guessed it wasn’t even a longer version than the cheaper 7″ and boasted no extra track, but he wanted the 12″ anyway: a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger cardboard wrapper for his collection; a bigger declaration of unconditional love.

Within weeks, the fabled North London Poly “riot” would cement the Mary Chain’s reputation and confirm that he had backed a winner. But more immediate affirmation was afoot.

Lost in the fuzz, the art student’s heart leaps when it happens, mid-song. Another art student, one without a haystack of hair and with socks, wanders into the communal area and says, earnestly and helpfully: “I think there’s something wrong with your stylus.”

Victory.

 

10cc, I’m Not In Love (1975)

10ccI'mNotInLove

Artist: 10cc
Title: I’m Not In Love
Description: single; album track, The Original Soundtrack
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1975

10cc are one of those bands who soundtracked my youth without me really ever acknowledging them or knowingly parting with pocket money for any of their hit singles or parent albums. I guess this is partly because my first spurt in singles buying occurred towards the end of that decade, by which time it was “punk” or nothing. (We’d previously requested certain seven-inches “for the house”, which we kids thought of as “ours” and were wire-racked alongside Mum and Dad’s, under the wooden unit beneath the “music centre”. 10cc were not among these. (I remember In Dulci Jubilo by Mike Oldfield – backed by On Horseback – from around the mid-70s; also Under The Moon Of Love by Showaddywaddy; The First Cut Is The Deepest by Rod Stewart, which was nominally Mum’s; also Lay Your Love by Racey, which proves how unselfconscious I was in 1978 before punk stole my soul.)

Nevertheless, I’m Not In Love is a key song of the mid-decade, and one with a personal fascination for me that I’ll get to. A number one hit – the band’s second, after Rubber Bullets in 1971 – and ubiquitous on the airwaves at the time (we had Radio 1 on as a default in the house), it is only in retrospect that I appreciate what a technical triumph it was, pushing back the boundaries of studio technique as much as their heroes the Beatles had done. In adult life, I have come to respect Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme as the witty and intelligent hitmakers they were, and a Best Of 10cc is, I find, an absolute essential. I don’t know their albums at all, not even The Original Soundtrack, which contains I’m Not In Love, by all accounts the song that clinched their $1 million contract with Mercury.

I now know – thanks to the constant repackaging of the pop and rock past by BBC4 – that its haunting choral effect was achieved in 1974 at the band’s own Strawberry Studios with each layer of voice recorded separately (all four band members are involved), until they had 256. Although the effect can now be reproduced at the click of a mouse – I can probably do it on this laptop – the sheer depth and richness of the choir is unique. This and a heartbeat of a drum line form the bed, upon which an unintrusive keyboard is added, and then that halting, delicate vocal from … is it Eric Stewart or Graham Gouldman? I know the whispered interlude was supplied by a receptionist at the studio, and it’s this passage (“Be quiet, big boys don’t cry”) that seals it forever into my heart.

Here’s why. As anyone who’s read Where Did It All Go Right? will know, I experienced an existential epiphany in 1975 when, aged 10, I saw The Poseidon Adventure at the cinema and looked mortality in the face for the first time. The mother of all disaster movies – my first – haunted me, and has remained a perpetual favourite. Somehow, in my mind, it and I’m Not In Love are intertwined. I saw the film at the very end of May, and the song was at number one a week later. A raw, full-blooded display of emotion in any case, it meant more to me as I imagined the female voice to be that of Shelley Winters’ character Belle Rosen, perhaps reassuring Eric Shea’s Robin at a moment of grisly, mortal, smudge-faced tension in the bowels of the SS Poseidon. I can almost see her, in the film, shushing him by touching his boyish lips, like a reassuring mom. It’s oddly disappointing that she doesn’t actually say, “Be quite, big boys don’t cry” in the film.

I love the way a song can become imprinted on a time and a place for all time. I am in love with this for all of the technical and musical reasons stated, but it goes that extra Proustian mile thanks to a random series of events and that’s the alchemy of cheap, potent pop music.

The Wedding Present, My Favourite Dress (1987)

wedding george best

Artist: The Wedding Present
Title: My Favourite Dress
Description: single; album track, George Best
Label: Reception
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

That was my favourite dress you know
That was my favourite dress
Ohhh

I feel fairly certain that the first song by The Wedding Present I ever heard was their rumbustious cover of Felicity, which must have been the version from their first Peel session in 1986, when I was still at college. I know I sat up by the stereo and taped the songs I didn’t already have from his Festive Fifty at the end of that year and counted Felicity (number 36) and Once More (number 16) among numerous other cherishable gems on that live-paused cassette, like This Is Motortown by the Very Things, Kiss by Age Of Chance and Truck Train Tractor by The Pastels. In another year dominated by The Smiths – indeed, in an era dominated by The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain and New Order, the three Colossi of Indie – The Wedding Present felt like young, short-trousered pretenders, and were all the more thrilling for it. (Though of course they, too, would come to dominate the Peelscape, and with perhaps more purchase on Peel’s soul, a possession more akin to that exerted by The Fall.)

Remember that feeling of suddenly being overcome by the need to commit? I don’t mean to a girl in a favourite dress. I mean to a band. You’ve heard them on Peel, you’ve taped them off the radio, you’ve read about them in the NME; now it’s time to buy the album. You don’t have bottomless pockets; to fork out for an LP is a major declaration of love. Remember how stung you felt when you spent that week’s allowance from your grant on Dali’s Car by Dali’s Car because it was Pete Murphy and Mick Kahn from pre-accredited bands and you’d found the single hooky on Max Headroom or some other video show? An LP you wished you’d never bought was a shot through the heart. A waste of money. When I bought George Best on the strength of all those Peel tracks I knew it would be a sound investment. Well, if I didn’t like the record, I would always want that sleeve in my collection.

I loved the record as much as I loved the sleeve. I loved it more. Its locomotive guitar and drums combined under Chris Allison’s sympathetic, heads-down production to provide a new way to travel for the grown-up indie kid. There was something so right about David Gedge’s lovesick northern ballads, set to he and Peter Solowka’s never-ending riffs which were as raw and plaintive as the woes of the songs’ packed-in protagonists, whom we all suspected were Gedge himself, a man near-permanently let down, finished with, betrayed or two-timed by girls. Gedge was a few years older than me, but I identified with his struggle. Being single is the great leveller. I was newly single when I bought George Best and would soon be living in my first one-room studio flat, the perfect cell in which to lose myself in The Wedding Present’s breakneck melancholia.

My Favourite Dress is my favourite Wedding Present song. I think of it as definitive, and for all the constant pleasures Gedge has supplied since, as The Wedding Present and Cinerama, it remains unassailable. It pretty much breaks my heart each time I listen to it. Gedge’s pained recollection of uneaten meals, a lonely star, a long walk home, the pouring rain and a six-hour wait, leads inexorably up to this image of an ex’s dress. We who have fallen under Gedge’s spell have all imagined what that dress might look like. My first imagining – a floral print dress, maybe Oxfam, perhaps worn under a cardigan – is hard to shake.

There are two reasons why this song is magic. One is the decisive moan Gedge delivers after the last line. There are a lot of important “oh”s in pop music, but this is one to bruise your ribs from the inside. The second is the one minute and 24 seconds of outro, which rises and falls from that thousand-words “Ohhh” to the final, undressed jangle. I wouldn’t mind if it lasted a bit longer. It’s not even the end of the album, merely the end of side one.

When I finally met Gedge and interviewed the band in 1991 in snowbound Minnesota where they were recording their third album Seamonsters, he and I agreed to disagree that George Best was a classic album because it wasn’t perfect; he felt it could be improved. I don’t have that copy of the NME to hand, but if you do, look it up.

George Best and its zenith My Favourite Dress could not be improved.

George Harrison, Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) (1970)

All_Things_Must_Pass

Artist: George Harrison
Title: Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)
Description: album track, All Things Must Pass
Label: Apple
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1999

I have the parlous state of modern music during the dog days of the 20th century to thank for one of the richest periods of musical archeology of my adult life. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, as I found much to get animated about in the early 21st century, but circa 1999-2000 I found myself increasingly underwhelmed by the new. Neither of these two bands is to blame, but it was the era of Travis and Coldplay, The Man Who and Parachutes. Both albums have merit both musical and technical, but neither exactly set my world on fire. They were fine. Put it this way, OK Computer and Fat Of The Land suddenly felt as if they were a lo-o-o-ong time ago.

I recall going on holiday to Ireland in ’99 and forgetting to take any CDs for the hire car; we went into a record shop in Galway and could only find Play by Moby that looked like it might provide any sonic pleasure around Ireland’s west coast, plus, we took a flyer on the Toploader album on the strength of catchy hit Dancing In The Moonlight (I think we played it through once). I don’t even mind Play – it is, to use Douglas Adams’ withering phrase, “mostly harmless”, and, for driving, it had a good beat – but the fact that it was essentially advert music sums up the period’s wretchedness.

To compensate, we turned to filling gaps in our CD collection and the end of the century turned into an orgy of classic old music, mostly – let’s be honest – from the 70s, and often with a view to completing the incomplete works of … Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Wings, John Lennon (you’re sensing a picture emerging) and George Harrison. I’d been aware of All Things Must Pass, and My Sweet Lord was ubiquitous on the radio when I was a child, but my scholarly knowledge of George’s solo work was thin up until When We Was Fab. When it arrived in the post, I didn’t know what to expect, but the sheer thickness of the CD box made it seem important. You could stand a potted plant on it, but wouldn’t.

I so wish I’d been old enough to have purchased the triple-album box set in 1970, by which I would have learned to divide it up into six sides. On CD it’s two discs, with the Apple Jam sessions joined to the end of side four. But hey, that’s the compact disc age for you; sides no longer count. Either way, my favourite track (and my favourite track for all time, I suspect) comes 12 tracks in, borne on the most beautiful, plangent, layered guitar line from steelman Pete Drake and counted in by Alan White’s brushes – abject proof, were it needed, of producer Phil Spector’s delicacy.

I had no idea then, at the end of the Millennium, when this album captured my soul and refused to come out of the CD drawer, who Sir Frankie Crisp was, but I’m with the programme now: Frank Crisp was the eccentric microscopist and horticulturalist who had Harrison’s neo-Gothic homestead Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames built, where Spector first heard his “backlog” of amazing spare songs, and which used to be a nunnery. Recorded at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple, it is through Ballad Of that the eccentric, 33-acre, Hare Krishna-renovated spirit of Friar Park is burned into the grooves, the lyric an affectionate tribute to Crisp and, in the words of one biographer, “a tour round the house and grounds”, and in particular its folly-like detailing (“Fools, illusions everywhere/Joan and Molly sweep the stairs” – love the unreconstructed Liverpudlian way he pronounces “sturs“). There aren’t many “ditties” (George’s word) about rich men who had houses built and designed their gardens, grottos and follies, full stop, but I doubt there’s one that channels its subject like this one. Each time I hear it, to borrow Liz Lemon’s phrase, “I want to go to there.”

Like most of the solo Beatle albums, it features a musicianly cast of thousands, including other Beatles and satellites, herewith: Ringo, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, Mal Evans, Ginger Baker, Ray Cooper. It’s a solo record, and yet it’s full of people, reflecting George’s perhaps over-hospitable generosity. (I understand Patti got pretty fed up with all the Hare Krishnas doing the garden!) Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp is just the loveliest moment among tons: Apple Scruffs, the Dylan tune If Not For You (which I rate higher than the Dylan recording: “if not for you, the winter would have no spring/I couldn’t hear the robin sing”), Wah-Wah, Isn’t It A Pity, the epic title track …

Around this time, I bought the drily exhaustive hardback tome The Beatles: After The Break-Up and became obsessive about the Fabs’ movements after 1970. I remain convinced to this day, during moments of personal madness, that individually they made better music than collectively. It’s certainly true of George. Now that’s a really big “discuss …”

Beastie Boys, An Open Letter To NYC (2004)

BeastiesOpenLetter

Artist: Beastie Boys
Title: An Open Letter To NYC
Description: single; track from To The 5 Boroughs
Label: Capitol
Release date: 2004; 2005
First heard: 2004

Dear New York, I know a lot has changed
Two towers down, but you’re still in the game

It may seem obscure to go off-doctrine and overlook those cultural-landscaping early Beastie Boys singles like (You’ve Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), No Sleep ’Till Brooklyn and The New Style, or even the more mature, accomplished bells/whistles direction personified by the likes of Sabotage and Intergalactic, but what’s not even the lead-off but the third single from their sixth album, To The 5 Boroughs, strikes me as one of their most important. This time it’s personal.

The album as a whole, self-produced and recorded between 2002 and 2004 while the cosmic and actual dust was still settling after the September 11 attacks, acts as a love letter to their home city. By definition, this track amplifies that sentiment, a fluent and heartfelt lyrical adventure around the landmarks of their misspent youth and a moving tribute to the diverse populations that make New York the melting pot it has always been (“Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin/Black, white, New York, you make it happen”). Aside from Bleecker Bob’s and Battery Park, I don’t even recognise all the local namechecks, but this just makes them more evocative: the Deuce, Blimpies, Fulton Street Mall, the L.I.E., the B.Q.E., I could look them up but that would let light in on magic.

I remember going nuts for this the moment I heard it, and playing it excitedly on Roundtable on 6 Music, whereby guest Stewart Lee remained unmoved as he felt that much of its appeal lay in the driving guitar riff appropriated from The Dead Boys’ Sonic Reducer. He really is a curmudgeon. The use of that riff is part of its genius; likewise the opening stab of New York’s My Home by Broadway star Robert Goulet (“Listen, all you New Yorkers”). The construction of the song around the Dead Boys lick, with a clicky beat and the Beasties’ trademark drawling three-way rap, is simplicity itself, and allows for close examination of the lyric, which is the heart of the tune: “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan …”

It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring. And their sixth album is way better than it probably has any right to be (Rolling Stone awarded it five stars). Michael Gillette’s stark line drawing of a New York skyline that includes the Twin Towers is poignant, too. (His artwork was followed through to related sleeves – including the one pictured – and promos.)

The list of American songs written and released in response to 9/11 is unsurprisingly long; everyone from Sheryl Crow and Living Colour to Neil Young and Sleater-Kinney. Springsteen wrote a whole album. But I would nominate An Open Letter as the finest, funkiest and least mawkish I’ve heard from the locals.

Clock DVA, 4 Hours (1981)

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Artist: Clock DVA
Title: 4 Hours
Description: single; album track from Thirst
Label: Fetish
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

A piano falls from above
And smashes in front of me

There are some songs in The 143 that may only have entered my personal pantheon in the last few years; instant classics, you might call them. There are others which were instant classics when I first heard them – in this case almost 40 years ago – but which have never left me in the interim. Those songs that you turn to frequently, and regularly, for sustenance. Not necessarily the most famous songs in the canon, but the ones that literally never fail to do it for you. As The 143 grows, a number of these will crop up: Little Fluffy Clouds, She’s Lost Control, Heart Of Glass, Le Freak. And this.

Because of the vintage, this might be one of those singles that I bought sight unseen – or rather, sound unheard – having liked the name of the band and read a rave review of it in the NME or Smash Hits and then taken a flyer. Or, I could have heard it on John Peel. I have a feeling it’s the former. I started meaningfully collecting seven-inch singles in 1979, suffused with a 14-year-old’s urgency to buy into punk just as it was burning out, and, I admit, dazzled by the “picture sleeves” they almost always came in. (I’ve mentioned my later love of 4AD sleeves; this magpie attraction started with punk singles, whose stylish arcana I pored over.) The magazines would illustrate their singles review columns with postage-stamp reproductions of the sleeves of the day, and these were the pocket-money-clutching consumer’s flags.

The sleeve of 4 Hours – an indie single recorded by an unknown-to-me Sheffield industrial-experimental funk-punk outfit comprising Adi Newton and the late Judd Turner whose name couldn’t have been more starkly post-punk if it had tried – was murky and obtuse, but its horror-movie imagery drew you in. Who was that lurking figure, and who were the couple horizontal? The equally murky and obtuse record within revealed the source: “I see two people, asleep,” groans Newton, delivering a protracted fever dream of vivid, cinematic vignettes which to this day never fail to do it for me.

Over a grumbling bass, a blunt-instrument drumbeat and the pained wail of a sax, we are indoctrinated into a neo-noir nightmare of taxi cabs, falling pianos, distant clarinet, stained sheets, indistinct cities (“this could be New York, this could be London, I don’t care any more”), the pressures of some kind of Orwellian statism (“I could go to work, I know where it is … they will not have to force me, I will go there willingly” – spooky throw-forward to today’s Coronavirus Pandemic), black tie, black suit, black case, and what sounds like a “suction entanglement” but may be “such an entanglement”. The groan is augmented by a muttered version of the same lyric, lagging behind, adding to the unease. Hey, this is uneasy listening. I was so taken with the four-minute 4 Hours, I never thought to check out the album, Thirst, and only heard it years later; it was disappointingly not much like 4 Hours, more squonky, more experimental, less linear.

I’ve read that Newton has reconvened Clock DVA many times since they first split in 1981, and you sense that he is driven, creative man, kept going by the more arty pockets of Europe, and long may that be the case. In this one uniquely intoxicating slab of Gothic “pop concrète“, he has sealed his place in the Valhalla of post-punk immortality.

Let us join them in their dreams. We’re only four moments.

The Elgins, Put Yourself In My Place (1966)

Elgins-put-yourself-in-my-place

Artist: The Elgins
Title: Put Yourself In My Place
Description: B-side of Darling Baby; reissued as A-side
Label: Tamla-Motown
Release date: 1965; 1971
First heard: circa 1988

I would dearly love to tell you that the label above is from my own original 1966 UK copy of Put Yourself In My Place by the Elgins. It isn’t. It’s borrowed from the rather excellent 45cat website, which sells old vinyl. I do not own it as a single. I own it via the also rather excellent 3CD set Capital Gold Motown Classics (it’s on CD2). But I do know this: I fell in love with it instantly, and I’m almost positive I first heard it on the radio in the 80s, without even knowing who sang it. The possibility hangs over this entry that the version I first heard was by the Supremes. But for me, the first recording, by the Elgins, is by far the best – and how often do you get to say that about a tune also sung by Diana Ross?

There will be other Motown singles in The 143, so let’s get this said. Put Yourself In My Place is a perfect example of a Motown song that came off the conveyor belt, machine-tooled if you like for the newly-minted young pop audience. (Swiss architect Le Corbusier called a house “a machine for living”; these records are “machines for dancing.”)

There lingers a cloud of rock snobbery about “manufactured” bands, about artists who get their songs written for them, but classic songwriting – and classic song-making – cannot be faked. And in any case, to use the qualification of writing your own songs as a stamp of authenticity would discount Elvis, Bing and Frank, not to mention a large proportion of the artists on Motown, the greatest pop label in history. (Also, to discount the “production line” methodology of Motown or dismiss Hitsville as a “factory” would be to deny the skilled and intuitive musicianship of the house band – collectively, the Funk Brothers – and the angelic singers themselves.)

With that on the contextual statute books, what’s on the record? I won’t lift the Elgins’ biography from Wikipedia; suffice to say, they came and they went, with only one LP to their name (and even their name changed about three times), but what this single tells us is that they could sing, and that lead vocalist Saundra Edwards was a match for any other in Detroit, and in fact sounds a little like Smokey Robinson. Written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, whose conjoined genius needs no further eulogy from me, it runs on an ascending, somersaulting piano riff that lends an edgy urgency to Edwards’ plea for empathy after sour times (“Put yourself in my place/You’d learn to treat me right/And you wouldn’t stay out late at night”).

It was first issued on the flip of Darling Baby at the end of 1965, before my first birthday, but issued in the UK in 1966, through a licensing agreement with EMI. A reissue in 1971 made it a hit here, too, having gone Top 10 in the R&B charts over there.

A saccharine, heady, insistent tune that grips your heart, even in that moment of instant summer you can feel the author’s pain. Bittersweet, I think they call it.