The Sisters Of Mercy, Lucretia My Reflection (1988)

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Artist: The Sisters Of Mercy
Title: Lucretia My Reflection
Description: single; album track, Floodland
Label: Merciful Release, Elektra
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

Hot metal and methedrine …

Having thoroughly enjoyed the lavishly tortured imperial grandeur of Showtime’s The Borgias via Sky Atlantic over three seasons, I now hear the name in the title of this pounding song as “Lucrezia” (with an Italianate “zz”). According to extensive research on Wikipedia, I have gathered that Andrew Eldritch wrote the song for his then-new collaborator Patricia Morrison in tribute to her similarities to Pope Alexander VI’s scheming daughter. He just spelled it wrong. Who cares? Lucretia is immortalised, and sits between Marian and Alice in Sisters Of Mercy lady-worship. (And Morrison didn’t play on Floodland. Again, who cares?)

Lavishly tortured imperial grandeur is the guiding light of the second incarnation of the Sisters after all that legal argy-bargy over the name, which Eldritch won, and although he clearly resents the idea that a more mainstream rock audience “discovered” the band via the expensive studio metalwork of Jim Steinman on This Corrosion (he didn’t work on Lucretia), it provided quite a spectacle, with a band, or brand, so rooted in the underground emerging via MTV onto the freeway and blinking in the light. I had fallen in love with the first incarnation during my provincial Goth phase in 1983, enchanted by those rattly early singles Anaconda and Temple Of Love. I saw the Sisters live at London’s Lyceum in the mid-decade and felt it a religious experience. (And when I say I saw them, I peered into a wall of dry ice for an hour and occasionally caught a glimpse of a human figure.)

By the time Floodland came out in 1988, I was old enough to have a) embraced all musical forms, including jazz, blues and Bob Dylan, although not yet opera*, and b) stowed any punk-rock snobbery about “selling out”. Thus, I applauded the Sisters Of Mercy’s brazen bridgehead into crossover. I remember seeing the darkly operatic** video for This Corrosion on ITV’s The Chart Show, with its inclement weather and Fester-and-Morticia double act. The album followed through, with a form of rock not really yet stamped by the latecoming American consensus as “industrial”, and no holds barred. The Wagnerian pomp that had driven the first album was turned up to eleven. This was big music. Unabashed. Sincere or ironic? Who can ever really know? I met Eldritch once, on 6 Music, and he unironically requested that the studio webcam be switched off as he wasn’t dressed in character; however, he struck me as a very wry and self-aware chap, so, again, who can ever really know?

I know in my bones that Lucretia, in its full eight-and-a-half minute flight, is a track to drive a tank to. It consolidates all the dreams and fantasies I entertained during my Goth years of death and horror and sex and power. I don’t really have those dreams and fantasies any more, but this song still sounds magnificent. Eldritch gurgles, “I hear the roar of the big machine.” Yeah, mate, you’re making it. It’s your machine.

*I still haven’t embraced opera, unless you count Tommy.
**I know what “operatic” sounds like.

The Jackson Sisters, I Believe In Miracles (1973)

JacksonsistersIBelieve

Artist: The Jackson Sisters
Title: I Believe In Miracles
Description: single
Label: Propesy
Release date: 1973; 1987
First heard: circa 2003

I’m certain I didn’t hear this veritable starburst of Detroit soul in 1973, which is when it was first put out on the short-lived Prophesy records (look at that lovely label above, with its youngster-confusing hole), nor in subsequent 70s pressings. And I definitely wasn’t going to the right clubs to hear it resurface on the Rare Groove scene when it was reissued to a shrug of the charts’ shoulders in 1987. (Though in London, I was all about The Wedding Present, Pixies, Deacon Blue and George Gershwin at that time, my main club being the Town & Country.)

What I do know for a fact is that it was love at first listen: the Pearl & Dean-indebted orchestral fanfare, the loose-limbed groove, the keyboard splurges and then, that irresistible, sun-kissed five-sibling harmony: “I believe in miracles, baby, I believe in you-ooooooh!”

Possibly my favourite soul track of all-time, it’s so positive, so airborne, so persuasive, it has you hammering thin air and kills all known melancholia dead. Still only sporadically recruited for compilations (I first came across it on the out-of-print 100% 80s Soul, where it out-funked better-known tunes by Indeep and the Salsoul Orchestra by dint of not actually being 80s soul), the Jackson Sisters remain a collector’s item with a misleading surname, having put out one LP on Tiger Lily and never had a hit. But such intellectual credibility is dust next to the spritzing, zealous, sky-touching glee of the track. Lyn, Pat, Rae, Gennie and Jacqueline believe in miracles – don’t you-ooooh?

NB: This entry was adapted from a piece about “happy songs” I contributed to Word magazine in 2011. It is the very criminal lack of Word magazine that in many ways drove me to start this blog, so it seems entirely apposite.

The Orb, Little Fluffy Clouds (7″ Edit) (1990)

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Artist: The Orb
Title: Little Fluffy Clouds
Description: single; album track, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
Label: Big Life
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1991

What were the skies like when you were young?
They went on forever

I’ve wanted to start a novel with that couplet for 30 years. Just printed, in italics, as a sort of philosophical frontispiece. It’s only the formality of nobody wanting to pay me to write a novel that stands in the way of this burning ambition. (I used it as the lead-off to a piece I wrote for Word magazine on nostalgia in 2011 – that’ll have to do.) The question and answer come from the defining spoken sample of what is the greatest single ever made. (The 143 was never about quantifying individual tracks, but if I am ever forced to choose my favourite song of all time, I never later regret saying Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb. It’s my Apocalypse Now or Slaughterhouse Five or The Wire of songs.)

I think I always knew, or knew early on in my ardent relationship with this insistently lilting four and a half minutes of ambient pop, that the woman answering the question was Rickie Lee Jones. I didn’t initially know that the interview was essentially a promotional one – hence the vanilla questions – conducted for an extra disc included by Geffen in the box set edition of her 1989 Flying Cowboys album, as A Conversation With Rickie Lee Jones. You must admit, it’s a fantastic question. I wish I’d asked it of someone I’d interviewed in my time as an interviewer. What were the skies like when you were young? It’s not even the first utterance on the single, whose 7″ Mix I select amid a welter of longer, more luxurious and tangential remixes; that, following a crowing cock, and a buzzing biplane, is a Radio 4-style voice, possibly John Waite, saying:

“Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the drone of a lawnmower, the smack of leather on willow, comes a new sound …”

And we’re off, into a remarkably disciplined sonic creation, whose voices drift across the production’s blue sky like clouds (I always see them as perfect, white, Simpsons-credits clouds – you’re with me?), and from a heartbreaking harmonica wail emerges that hypnotic keyboard signature which bubbles away beneath, quickly joined by a hard bass drum and a Tight Fit-styled Afro-beat and, at one minute 13 seconds, a supplementary synth noodle provides the nagging riff: we have lift-off. Rickie waxes hippy about “purples and reds and yellows” and how these colours are “on fire”, and eventually wonders if you still see such psychedelic Arizona skies “in the desert.” The deft combination of boho guff and ultramodern techno groove is just perfect, and what might have initially been a mischievous glint in the eye of Dr Alex Patterson is ultimately rendered sincere and moving. You’re with her! You want to see those skies! Those little fluffy clouds!

I will have been more than aware of The Orb’s significance in the post-rave world as I was playing out my third act at the NME in 1991-92, but I was not a raver. I was too scared to take the relevant drugs. Which is not to say that the moment did not regularly get into my bloodstream. I was dispatched to Sheffield by the live desk to review a benefit for miners’ families in November 1992 staged by Primal Scream, with The Orb supporting. (Documented evidence tells us that the Orb played longer than the Scream, and gave phenomenal stage show, despite there only being three of them onstage at Sheffield Arena: the good Doctor, “Thrash” and Steve Hillage.) I remember having a couple of beers in the VIP paddock during the interval, but this was not a night of intoxication. I watched The Orb from the seated area near the front and remember Little Fluffy Clouds doing everything in its cosmic, thumping power to get me out of that stupid plastic fold-up chair. (Arena dance: not one of the modern word’s great ideas.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to get up and dance more in all my life. But such encroachment into walkways was discouraged by security and, surreally, we had to nod and bounce in our seats and be happy with that. I’ve had more fun subsequently dancing to it in my house, or secretly, on public transport. Little Fluffy Clouds is a form of transport. It takes me places, and not just to an imagined Arizona when Rickie Lee Jones was young. I’m sticking with it as best single ever made, as it epotomises the lure of nostalgia on many levels, it works its alchemy on me every single time, and I play it a lot.

We walked all the way from the Arena back to the hotel in central Sheffield after the gig, but the Orb, not Primal Scream, were ringing in my happy ears.

Everything But The Girl, Each And Every One (1984)

Everything But The GirlEden

Artist: Everything But The Girl
Title: Each And Every One
Description: single; album track, Eden
Label: Blanco y Negro
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Maybe you should just think twice
I don’t wait around on your advice

I didn’t see jazz coming. The Lovecats by The Cure was a curve ball in 1983, at a time when my musical core was defined by doom and gloom and minor chords. It opened my ears to brushwork and double bass and Django Reinhardt-style guitar. It’s amazing how a jackknife in direction by one of your pet bands can broaden your mind in an instant. It was the year I stopped being a sixth-former and became a student and fumbled towards a sartorial identity. Oxfam raincoats, big hair and ripped t-shirts initially. But something happened during that one-year foundation course at Nene College: I met Dave.

Dave Keech, a fellow art student from nearby Kettering with a much more mature palate – and palette – was a jazz aficionado. He listened to it, understood it and played it. And he got me into it. I made cassettes of artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald (her standard of Too Darn Hot came to epitomise the hot summer of ’84). This was trad jazz. Swing. I wasn’t ready for modern jazz yet. But I remain grateful to Dave for blowing away so many of my post-punk prejudices, and for leading me towards a flat-top.

So by the time I arrived in London in September ’84, away from home for the first time, I was primed to welcome in the jazz- and Latin-infused wave of pop music already happening in the pages of the NME and Smash Hits. This was the breezy, horizontally-striped time of Weekend, Sade, Café Bleu, Carmel and, at the forefront, rising as ambassadors from the defiantly wispy Pillows & Prayers swoon-iverse, Everything But The Girl.

Before my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence, Stephen Clasper, got me into ABC’s Beauty Stab, he flooded the corridor with the irresistible clean air of Eden. An already hardened Smiths fan, I was alert to melancholy, and here was a whole slab of it, with plaintive brass, school-orchestra percussion (what is that hollow, ridged wooden thing you scrape a stick across?) and voices spun from silk. Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt share everything, including the vocals across the album. But the opening track – and the revelation for me – Each And Every One, is Tracey’s, with a bit of Ben on backing (“Slam the door” “Much too dear”), I think; it might be Tracey multi-tracked.

(It’s funny how it seemed OK to think of them as Ben and Tracey, even though we didn’t know them. I met them in 1990 around the release of the super-sophisticated – and thus slightly more remote – Language Of Life album, but it was as if I already knew them, so intimate and heart-on-sleeve was their music.)

That they were a couple made Everything But The Girl so much more significant and authentic when they crooned these gorgeous, heart-tugging songs. Theirs was a kitchen-sink romance, more about a dare-I-say domestic togetherness than a fleeting quickie, or a passing moment of bruised ribs. Lyrically, they draw too upon past relationships, whose failings still resonate even when you’re in a stable one, so when Tracey sings to a lost love, “And your kind of love is the kind that always disappears,” we wonder if she’s fearing the same of the current one. (I have no way of knowing, as Tracey is commendably guarded in her otherwise revealing memoir, but one wonders aloud if by writing songs about sour times, they exorcised them from their own home life.)

Even though it’s the second album Love Not Money (another that I hungrily taped from Stephen) that bears the monochrome, photographic sleeve, like Woody Allen, I always see Eden – and Each And Every One – in black and white.

Maybe it seems unfair to cite the first song of an artist’s first album as my all-time favourite – after all, I’ve consistently drawn comfort and joy from their subsequent work, from the harmonica-infused Native Land, through the captivatingly orchestral agit-prop Little Hitler, to Toddy Terry’s wipe-clean Missing, and into Tracey’s lovely recent solo work, like Grand Canyon and Nighttime – but you can’t match the feeling of the right music in the right place at the right time.

Just a few years after punk, and its independent spirit was alive and well and jazzy. Who saw that coming?