Manic Street Preachers, Motorcycle Emptiness (1992)

Manicsmotorcycle-emptiness

Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Title: Motorcycle Emptiness
Description: single; album track, Generation Terrorists
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

All we want from you are the kicks you’ve given us …

Sometimes it’s a Moment. The kind that can no more be repeated ever after than instigated in the first instance. Let me take you back to the Reading Festival 1992, Saturday August 29 …

The Manic Street Preachers, who’ve been touring their debut Generation Terrorists around the world all year, are set to play to their biggest UK audience, third on the bill on the main stage. It is a beautifully sunny afternoon, crowning my last summer at the NME. I’m walking with close music industry pals upfield, away from the backstage paddock – retreat of all media hangers-on – in order to catch their teatime set (Ride have the “Magic Hour” slot, before hotly-anticipated headliners Public Enemy). I’m still walking back, in order to take in the full impact of this ascendant foursome finding their mark, when Motorcycle Emptiness roars into life, and that urgent guitar hook just does something to me, inside. It rises up through my entire body like an annual service. A perfect storm of good mood, optimum refreshment level, perfect light, clement weather, expectant time of day, proficiency of playing, timelessness of riff and all my feelings about the Manics rolled into one Festival Moment. I shall never forget it. I haven’t looked, but I hope it’s not available on YouTube. (Even if it is, it will be sucked of magic.)

I am blessed to have made one or two friendships with musicians I admire in the 28 years since I began trading as a music journalist. (It’s been a while since I thought of myself as primarily that, of course.) Those solid bonds aside, some meaningful relationships I maintain are more like connections that endure and which mean a kinship is perpetually felt. Perhaps the most interesting and eventful of these has been with the Manic Street Preachers. Too many events to tell here, in any case. I was at the NME when they burst forth onto the scene, initially skeptical (mainly because their first champion was Steven Wells) but rapidly swept up by the breakneck narcissism of You Love Us and the raucous, squalling iconoclasm of Motown Junk. What really won me over was their thirst for knowledge – Nicky and Richey, in particular, the band’s thematic architects and footnote compilers, were walking sponges. They didn’t need anyone in the future to invent Wikipedia.

I was at the lightbox in the art room the morning Ed Sirrs’ shots of Richey’s “4 REAL” carving came in. I witnessed James and Sean painstakingly constructing what we in the biz call “the music” for Generation Terrorists at Black Barn studios in Guildford while Nicky and Richey waxed controversial in their Joe Orton bedrooms about Slowdive and Hitler. They played privately for me when I had moved to Select in a Putney rehearsal room. I sat interviewing Richey on his bed at Hookend studios in Oxfordshire for Gold Against The Soul while he drifted off to sleep, murmuring about Steve Lamacq, after which I wandered down to the studio where James was laying down the vocals for Symphony Of Tourette. As revenge for drinking Richey to sleep, all four of them plied me with whiskey at a Soho rock club so that I later threw up in the fireplace of the flat they were billeted in. I cleared it up myself.

Events slowed down after that, as so did I. But every time I saw them, we greeted each other fondly. I’ve cheered their continual rise to Radio 2 house band, stadium staple and Welsh national team, and never lost interest in the music they make, and the impossible lyrics Nicky now writes solo for poor James to wrap his tonsils around.

Motorcycle Emptiness reigns supreme. It captures not just the Icarus-like folly of the Manics’ overnight bid for Guns N’Roses excess, but the incredible skill with which James and Sean were even at that early stage able to build whistleable rock’n’roll majestry while the other two goofed off with their books and their blouses. It was heartbreaking when Richey signed off in 1995 and I’ve spoken to the others about it in the ensuring years of healing. They are now candid, thoughtful, big-hearted, witty, self-aware middle-aged men, always one step ahead of what the sell-out police have deemed cool and uncool. But the work that they continue to do, when it’s good, is only as good as Motorcycle Emptiness. This would be the case even if my Festival Moment had never happened. I’m glad it did, though.

I will leave you with a classic Richey/Nicky stanza that would take an actual ubermensch to transform into song. It doesn’t scan, it doesn’t rhyme, it has no rhythm. And yet. And yet …

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power

Joy Division, She’s Lost Control (1979)

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Artist: Joy Division
Title: She’s Lost Control
Description: album track, Unknown Pleasures; b-side, Atmosphere
Label: Factory
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

How important were Joy Division to me? Vital. I was just getting into punk, which was really new wave or post-punk, in 1979, aged 13 going on 14, and my mind was both alive to possibilities and a closed shop to anything that I didn’t consider – or which wasn’t handed down to me as – “punk”. This was a both confusing and confirming point at which to be exposed to Joy Division, who had grown out of Manchester’s punk scene and discovered a new seam, all of their own. I didn’t live in Manchester, so I hadn’t seen them on Granada Reports or What’s On. I saw them for the first time on September 15 along with anyone outside of Lancashire, Merseyside and Cheshire: on a national BBC2 youth magazine show called Something Else, playing Transmission. You’ve seen the clip. They talk these days of “game-changers” – they talk of them way too much, actually – but this was, well, something else.

Because of the seismic cultural impact of that appearance – this haunted-looking young man Ian Curtis, who’d been on the cover of the NME at the start of the year (I’d just started buying it, my first grown-up comic), throwing shapes that had no geometric name, and repeating this mantra, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio“, while three other men, who looked like they’d just clocked off as juniors in an office, one of them with a beard, created this low, menacing industrial rumble around him – I have been tempted to name Transmission as the pinnacle of this short-lived band’s career. It is difficult to beat for a national TV debut. But then they came back on and did She’s Lost Control.

It’s weird to watch the clips again now, as I remember the appearance in black and white. It’s conceivable that I watched the show on the portable TV upstairs if Mum and Dad had been watching the news at the same time, but then again, it might just be that Joy Division, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan – and indeed, Kevin Cummins’ Manchester – will always exist in black and white. They certainly looked at home in grey shirts. But it was the one at the back, flop-fringed Stephen Morris, whose work on She’s Lost Control proved the real revelation for the budding teenage drummer, which I was at that time (I’d talk Mum and Dad into buying me a secondhand snare and cymbal off a kid at school called … Steve Morris), as he used synthesised drum pads, or “syndrums”, to create that double-handclap and space-age boink signature, and the BBC cameras allowed me a good, close look at him doing it. I was mesmerised, by his dilligence behind the kit, and by the sound he made. I was less interested in guitars, which is why I won’t have noticed that the song’s riff is played on the bass, by the man with the beard. It’s radical in so many ways.

The lyric, though, is its killer. We didn’t know then but know now that Curits was not well, and under enormous pressure at home. Within nine months, he would be dead by his own hand, sealing Joy Division’s legend forever and making their next few releases, notably and most painfully Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere, whose b-side was She’s Lost Control – eerily posthumous. (When the austerely packaged offcuts double Still came out in 1981, I was so excited to hear new material, I got my friend Dave to play me The Only Mistake down the phone, as he got hold of the LP first. That was another contender for their entry in The 143.) In death, Joy Division became a chart act, and as New Order, they emerged a pop group to rival any other in this country. But the strict Joy Division canon comprises Unknown Pleasures and Closer. And while I am a sucker for the funereal grandeur of the latter, it’s the first album that grips the throat and warms the blood (even if Peter Hook thinks it sounds like Pink Floyd and – ironically – feels that the post-punk Joe Meek, Martin Hannett, had “coloured in” their black and white sound).

Back to the lyric of She’s Lost Control. Like “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance“, it has a mantra, the title, which appears as every other line, emphasised as “she’s lost control again,” in case you didn’t get the grinding, terrifying repetition of this female protagonist’s seizures. The details Curtis adds evoke the mundanity of the symptoms of mental and physical decline: “Confusion in her eyes that says it all … she’s clinging to the nearest passer by … she gave away the secrets of her past … and a voice that told her when and where to act.” The man, ill himself, is a poet of the cracks in the human psyche. There but for the grace of some delicate chemical equilibrium, go we all: “And she turned around and took me by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost control again.'” As fellow Salfordian John Cooper Clarke intones in Beasley Street, “disaster movie stuff.”

It seems quite clear that it’s the singer himself who has “screamed out kicking on his side” and “lost control again.” He certainly expressed himself in many different ways and walked upon the edge of no escape.

Ian Curtis may not have been here for long, but his artistry and suffering cast a long shadow. View those Something Else clips, even if, like me, you think you’ve seen them enough times. Look deep into his wild, raw insomniac’s eyes and hear his cry for help.

And don’t forget to give thanks to Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, without whom, we might not have known that young man’s genius.

 

Frank Wilson, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) (1965)

BestNorthernSoulAllNighterEver!

Artist: Frank Wilson
Title: Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)
Description: promo single; single
Label: Soul
Release date: 1965
First heard: 2002

What? No scan of the original 1965 sleeve on the Beat label to illustrate? Nor the 1979 UK reissue on Tamla Motown? No. The CD inlay of a compilation album from 2001. In the interests of full disclosure I am going to confess to you right now that the only “rare” record I own is the 7″ of Blur’s Wassailing Song, which I think is worth about £300 but I’m not selling it. I have never bought a record, in any format, as an investment. (The Blur one was given away after a gig.) I bought the singles I wanted, or could afford, as a teenager, and I still own every one of them. I sold the bulk of my 12-inch vinyl collection in the mid-noughties because, having moved house with it a number of times, I decided it was time to let it go and save my spine.

I’d acquired every album that mattered on CD and never played the vinyl, so off it went to Steel Wheels in Newcastle, where I hope it was redistributed to countless happy collectors via its shop and website. (Rob, the voluble guy who runs it, got back in touch some weeks after taking my collection away and informed me that he had found a “rare” Radiohead record among it which he hadn’t spotted when he priced it up at my house and he sent me a cheque for it. What an honest man. That’s how tuned in to the “rarity” of records I am!)

Frank Wilson’s unreleased pressing of Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) is the most valuable Northern Soul single ever. There are only a couple of copies of the 1965 original in circulation, which explains that. As it happens, it’s also one of the best known Northern Soul records. It’s in The 143 for neither of those two reasons. It’s in because I just love it; even a stint as the music to a KFC advert couldn’t destroy its magic. In common with every song knighted by northern treasure hunters, it has a chequered history and the power to make white men dance like loons.

Guess what? I didn’t really get a handle of what Northern Soul even was until the earliest days of working on 6 Music. I was aware of its importance in certain clubs in the North of England, thanks to the tales told by my friend Stuart Maconie, which had opened my eyes to the “scene”, but as for individual records? I was pretty clueless.

What’s particularly sweet about my long overdue conversion to the simple pleasures of obscure US soul cuts that had found new currency among DJs and scenesters in Wigan, Manchester, Blackpool and Stoke in the 60s and 70s, is that my magpie-like swoop on a kaleidoscope of musical genres in order to spice up the predominantly Caucasian 6 Music playlists in 2002-03 was overseen and encouraged by my producer, whose name – as older listeners will remember – was Frank Wilson. I took enormous pleasure in broadening my mind to reggae, ska, blues and old-style R&B through Frank’s deep love of black music, and snaffled up compilations aplenty – usually purchased with my own money round the corner at HMV on Oxford Street. The “show copy” of The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter Ever, a double-CD containing pretty much every key “side” at the top of the genre, became studio-worn very quickly, not least thanks to a simple feature called Northern Soul O’Clock. But some tunes would recur, and the “other” Frank Wilson’s was one of them.

Having read up on him, Wilson was a producer hired by Berry Gordy in ’65 who would go on to record the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Four Tops, and this was his only vocal recording, whose demo copies were deleted either by Wilson or Gordy, hence the rarity. Typically of Motown soul recordings of the era, you can hear the room, with arrangement coming at you from every corner: those exquisite vibes, strings and brass rising up around Wilson’s carefree voice as he answers his own rhetorical query. The rat-tat-rat-a-tat drum signature hallmarks the kind of record later pressed into service on the sprung dancefloors of Lancashire, but it’s the chiming notes that single this song out. We must assume the sterling work of Motown house band the Funk Brothers throughout, but there’s accompaniment all over the place, creating a joyous, celebratory racket against the pre-Dolby hiss. You can really explore the space on headphones, but frankly, it’s designed to be heard at the hop, two and a half Detroit minutes of affirmation.

I am the same age as this record. I hope I have aged as well as it, although I suspect Do I Love You will be around forever more. Indeed I do.

The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses (1971)

rolling-stones-sticky-fingers

Artist: The Rolling Stones
Title: Wild Horses
Description: US-only single; album track, Sticky Fingers
Label: Rolling Stones
Release date: 1971
First heard: 1992

I’ve got my freedom, but I don’t have much time …

I know; 1992 seems like a strange and horribly belated time to have first heard the classic ballad Wild Horses. But you will admire my candour. I didn’t own a Rolling Stones album until the mid-90s. My first was Let It Bleed, which I bought in one of those HMV sales where they offloaded a lot of old stock and you could pick up bona fide classics for a couple of quid (built most of my belated Dylan collection that way). It instantly became my favourite Rolling Stones album. Well, it would.

Up to that point, I’d been – to borrow a phrase – aware of their work. I knew and liked the singles which were constantly played. Friends had albums of theirs, but I never even thought to borrow them and tape them. To me, in that heady post-punk reverie, I didn’t need the Beatles or the Stones to put marrow in my bones. They’d done their work. Sure, the Stones were still a going concern, but they felt to me like they belonged to the past. (Actually, in 1982, I found my interest piqued by the opening bars of Under My Thumb on my older friend Vaughan’s copy of the live album Still Life, but mostly due to Duke Ellington’s Take The ‘A’ Train, and the thwack of Charlie’s first drumbeat. It was a pretty limited sortie into their vast and aromatic back catalogue, but the ignition was there.) Anyway, then I grew up.

Even as a cub reporter for the NME, my knowledge of the Rolling Stones was basic; enough to get by. (I knew way more about Led Zeppelin, whose runaway blues-metal had turned my head.) And then I interviewed The Sundays, in 1992, on the cork-popping occasion of their belated return to our empty lives with second album Blind. I discussed Wild Horses in a Camden boozer with Harriett Wheeler and Dave Gavurin, a couple, and they told me what it meant to them and why they’d recorded it as a B-side. (Also, now I think of it, the Dylan tune Corrina, Corrina came up, which drove me to Freewheelin’ – I’m happy when synapses crackle in this way.) I loved their Wild Horses, knew it to be a cover, but had never heard the original. I don’t think I told them this.

But ain’t this often the way? Unless you were born before World War II, you’re bound to have heard occasional cover versions before originals in the pop era. For instance, I assumed the Flying Lizards to have written Money, then later found out it was a Beatles tune, then later still found out it was Barrett Strong’s. This is archaeology, and we should embrace it. The Sundays gave me the Rolling Stones.

Don’t worry. I have all the Rolling Stones albums now, and know them intimately. I prefer many of them to the Beatles’, and particularly favour Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Some Girls and – still, after all these years – Let It Bleed. In order to sum up their effortless, smoky, unstoppably ragged glory (and let’s face it, their story is what makes them so good; their longevity feeds their legend where it might ordinarily leech it away), I took particular notice of a jukebox playing Forty Licks, I’m guessing, in an unassuming studenty pub in Tunbridge Wells. It played You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy For The Devil, Tumbling Dice, and it made me consider Have You Seen Your Mother Lately, and Brown Sugar, and Happy, which almost squeaked it. But there is no Rolling Stones song that delivers the emotional rescue of Wild Horses. (Also, Happy is a Richards vocal, and that don’t seem right.)

Jagger’s woundedly plaintive lyric was written, so I discovered after a cursory Wikipedia search, some time after splitting from Marianne Faithful (it was recorded in 1969), so not directly about her; meanwhile Richards reckons it’s borne of that loneliness you get when you’re on tour, of being “a million miles from where you want to be”. (This information comes from the sleeve notes to the Jump Back compilation.) What a monster breakup it evokes: “A faith has been broken, tears must be cried … no sweeping exits or offstage lines.” And waa-ah-ahhhh-ahhhhld horses couldn’t drag him away. Sticky Fingers, lest we forget, was the first album without Brian Jones, so some profound sadness is expected.

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock’n’roll, and that combination of acoustic and electric guitars is enough to break anybody’s heart. That it was recorded, like Brown Sugar, in the soulful stewpot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama may explain the blues notes. (Were the Stones the first white rockers to rock up there? Fable says it’s so.) Hear it in situ on “Side One” of the LP, between the raw, metallic Sway and the urgently rockin’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, and Wild Horses takes on an even balmier aspect; it cleanses the palate. I twin it with the resonant, Albatross-like Moonlight Mile, the album’s closer.

Hard to imagine that I had no Rolling Stones albums in 1992. Thank God for the Sundays.

 

Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987)

pet-shop-boys-introspective

Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Description: single
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.

Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.

Since it is a cover – and there will be further covers in The 143 as a great song is not a great song without a great version; I’m even hovering over another cover by Willie Nelson for inclusion –  I feel duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.

My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.

I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was unbearable.

Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been on Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough).  Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.

I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.

Yes, there may well be an Elvis entry in The 143. And as previously vouchsafed, definitely a few further covers.

Scott Walker, Montague Terrace (In Blue) (1967)

Scott_WalkerScott

Artist: Scott Walker
Title: Montague Terrace (In Blue)
Description: album track, Scott
Label: Philips
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1990

Yes. I, too, was hoodwinked into the Easy Listening revival of the mid-90s when Mike Flowers stalked the earth. I, too, remembered with ironic fondness my parents’ Jack Jones and Andy Williams LPs, and enjoyed revisiting them with a straight face. But some years before it was officially decreed that “loungecore” and the theme to Animal Magic were cool, in 1990, PolyGram put out Boy Child, a fine 20-track compilation of Scott Walker’s best work, and it was with 100% sincerity that I lost myself in it.

Dimly aware of his work with the Walker Brothers through the pop radio of my youth, up to that point he’d not crossed my radar as this spicy cavalier of sleazy Euro-theatricality, from Hamilton, Ohio to swinging London via Brussels and Paris. Boy Child duly pointed me at his solo work, the albums so helpfully numbered for my listening pleasure. I knew less about Jacques Brel and only belatedly discovered that Walker was instrumental in popularising Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s English translations, including a handful on Scotts 1-3, where he was clearly feeling the Brel influence on his self-penned tracks.

I’m still captivated by his whip-cracking, high-salt-content interpretations of Brel numbers like Jackie, Amsterdam, My Death, Next and The Girls And The Dogs, with their politically incorrect talk of “queers” and “procuring young girls”. However, it’s important to note that many of my favourite Walker tracks are neither the work of Brel and his co-writers, nor covers at all, but credited to Noel Scott Engel himself.

Having thrown myself into a Scott Walker maelstrom in order to sift out my all-time favourite, I find myself almost physically unable to listen to anything else. It all seems so mechanical, faceless and fashion-led by comparison. (This is not to do a disservice to All Other Music, but to accentuate what makes the sound of Scott Walker so different, so appealing.) As well as this piece de resistance, I’m also super-fond of Engel compositions Plastic Palace People (more of a suite), The Girls From The Streets (which you’d swear was a Brel original) and Always Coming Back To You. But I am not alone, I suspect, in falling deeply in love with Montague Terrace. (Nor looking for the actual street, in vain. I read somewhere that it’s in Bromley, not the West End, although I seem to recall Stuart Maconie recording a link for a Scott Walker radio documentary in Montague Street in Bloomsbury as if that was enough.)

The orchestral arrangement by Wally Stott (how excited was I when I discovered a link between Walker and Tony Hancock, whose theme and incidental music Stott composed?) is sublime. The expectant strings, the tinkle of the chimes, Walker crooning as if out of an open window at the moon: “The only sound to tear through the night comes from the man upstairs.” This man’s “bloated belching” and imagined propensity to “crash through the ceiling soon” evoke a similarly seedy, cheapside, harbour-lit milieu to one Brel might have painted. And then that crack of drums.

The orchestra swirls around the narrator, as if in some West End musical, Walker nudged into the background by the swell as he hits the lamenting heights with a brass-backed chorus that finally names Montague Terrace … in blue. The reveal of its colour scheme delivers us back to the limpid quiet of the intro. It’s just what grunge would do 25 years later when Walker was approved for a new generation: quiet verse, loud chorus. Or in his case, limpid verse, oompah-pah chorus.

I love the percussion. I love the shifts from foreground to background. But I love Walker’s acrobatic voice most of all. The image I conjure is of Fenella Fielding’s vamp in Carry On Screaming (released the year before), who asks Det Sgt Bung, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and then starts to literally smoulder on the chaise longue until she disappears beneath the erotic fug. There goes Scott Walker into that lively pea souper. He loves a party with a slightly threatening atmosphere. Especially if there might be some sailors. And a girl whose “thighs are full of tales to tell.”

Interestingly, as a student in the mid-80s, ahead of the curve, I’d compiled Mum and Dad’s easy listenin’ LPs onto a cassette one summer – perhaps as arch respite from the endless Goth, psychobilly and 4AD arthouse. Either way, I appreciated the potency of this expensive music. And Scott Walker’s first four solo albums – the last of which contained no covers, no Brel, the stablilisers were off – remain four of my favourites. Only Morrissey, Eno, McCartney and Peter Gabriel could make a claim for the greatness of their first four solo albums after being in a successful group.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going off to listen to Scott Walker.

Adele, Rolling In The Deep (2011)

Adele21

Artist: Adele
Title: Rolling In The Deep
Description: single; album track, 21
Label: XL
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

The romantic, disenfranchised outsider I once fancied myself as – in my early 20s, I might add – would no doubt be horrified by a choice of song by one of the biggest artists on the planet; a song from an album that – at time of writing in 2013 – has currently sold around 26 million copies worldwide; a song that in itself has sold well over 10 million copies; a song that is surely playing somewhere right now. But what can you do in the face of such blinding preeminence? To deny a place for Rolling In The Deep would be an act of pure snobbery. Adele is brilliant. Adele, the romantic, franchised insider, is in her 20s.

To say I’ve always liked Adele – her voice, her look, her manner – implies that I was in some way ahead of the pack. I wasn’t. I heard Chasing Pavements in January 2008 when everybody else did. (I prefer Hometown Glory, which had been her debut, but I don’t recall hearing it, even though it went Top 20.) It seems immaterial now but in April 2008 I mischievously posted a picture of Adele and a picture of Duffy on my blog and asked the simple question: “Adele or Duffy?” It drew 67 comments and the debate ranged from “Adele all the way” to “I liked Mercy,” passing through “Neither … Awful cod-soul”. And many mischievously voted for Laura Marling. Ha ha. Hey, I liked Mercy, too, but it seemed like a pertinent either-or for the times.

Either or, Adele won the war. While there are comparably successful female solo artists in the world today, they all seem to have to work so much harder to maintain their position. For Adele, it’s effortless. She sings; the world listens. She’s risen to record-breaking superstar status without touring her backside off, or selling her soul, or – at the time of writing in 2013 – losing a pound in weight, or showing her cleavage, or inviting Hello into her beautiful kitchen. It’s easy to admire her. But she’s not in The 143 because I admire her. Even if she hadn’t co-written Rolling In The Deep and had just sung it, it would be similarly honoured. That she did co-write it – the lyric, as per most of 21, was inspired by a break-up – makes it all the more personal. When she sings, “We could’ve had it a-a-a-aaall“, a young woman who seemingly does have it all, it gets you right there. Where it’s supposed to get you.

To praise her pipes is hardly to go out on a limb. But I love the smokiness in her voice; the cracks; the scratches; the way she pulls back from total vocal acrobatics; always patting her heart. She’s in a fine tradition and it’s not of “cod-soul”. She means it, man. And while her intonation on the poetic Hometown Glory (“short skirts, shorts and shades”) is pure North London, here, she’s gospel, rolling in the deep South, you might say, testifying to the “depths of your despair” and the “scars of love” that make her “breathless.” She can pull this shit off. Though produced by her enabling co-writer Paul Epworth (who also seems to have played a lot of the instruments), Rolling In The Deep nestles between tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, and even though the bulk of those sessions was scrapped, I like to think some of the dirt rubbed off. Allow me that.

Let us praise the arrangement: that understated guitar strum intro; the impact of that ragged bass drum; the pure drama of the sucked hi-hat before it all kicks off. And at one minute (“We could’ve had it all”), we’re into the exquisite but again never showy vocal layering: the lines the backing choir picks out are in clipped parenthesis (“You’re gonna wish you … never had met me … tears are gonna fall … rolling in the deep”), and yet they somehow push Adele’s more drawn-out, emotional crooning side of stage, where she must suffer in isolation. It’s a clever trick. (Seven backing singers are credited on the sleeve; power to them.)

With some songs in The 143, I enjoy the challenge of selling an entry, making it sing for those who aren’t familiar with it. Rolling In The Deep is so familiar, I suspect many treat it as wallpaper. But while many more fashionable items come and go on my iPod, I have found myself returning again and again and again to 19 and 21, and regard them both as landmark albums of the early 21st century. Adele can get more and more successful if she likes. It won’t put me off. Knocking points off her for being popular would be like denying Elvis, or Vivaldi, or Spielberg, or Leonardo Da Vinci. It can’t always be about obscurity and showing off, although both have their place, believe me.

I still like Mercy, by the way.