The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

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Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for lute by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?

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The Kingsmen, Louie Louie (1963)

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Artist: The Kingsmen
Title: Louie Louie
Description: single
Label: Jerden
Release date: 1963
First heard: 1979

The most recorded song all time, thought to have been covered over 1,500 times since its composer Richard Berry’s original recording in 1957, there really is no topping the Kingsmen’s drawling blueprint. The oldest record currently in The 143 at time of writing*, I can pinpoint my first exposure to its near-narcotic singalong catchiness to 1979, as that was the year I turned 14 and became eligible to see a “AA” at the cinema. Ceremonially, this was National Lampoon’s Animal House, which felt to me like forbidden fruit, with its gross-out larks, bare breasts, rude words, equine heart attacks and anarchic tendencies. But beyond all the adolescent rites of passage, it introduced me to Louie Louie.

In the film, it’s playing on a Rock-Ola jukebox in Delta House during the ritualised “hazing” of Kent Dorfman and Larry Kroger. The collective frat boys sing boozily along to the Berry original. It caught my ear at the time. I must have filed it away. (It never crossed my radar but John Belushi recorded a version for the soundtrack and released it as a single.) Animal House is set in 1962, a year before the Kingsmen’s version was released, but this will have gone over the head of the 14-year-old me; I didn’t know that contemporaneous family favourites Grease and Happy Days were set in the past, either. I just assumed life in 1970s America was just like that – milkshakes, college jackets, convertibles, jukeboxes – and to a degree, for all my provincial naivete, I think I was right.

Historically, the America portrayed in Animal House is one of sharp racial divisions; there are no black students, but the white kids are hip to black music, hiring Otis Day & The Knights for a frat party, and subsequently falling foul of unofficial segregation when they enter a night club to see the band play and find themselves in a conspicuous white minority and run out of the parking lot. It will not be lost on historians that in 1962, Louie Louie by the black Richard Berry might not have even been on the jukebox, as it was only a regional hit in Los Angeles. It took a white group, the preppy Kingsmen from Portland (by way of a prior cover by Tacoma’s Wailers), to have a smash hit with it.

My eventual appreciation of “garage rock”, the movement of which the Kingsmen were an unknowing part – not even called “garage rock” until after it had faded away – came about in the early 21st century during that whirlwind romance with ancient music at the infant 6 Music, where my magpie producer Frank would constantly shove spicy compilations under my nose: ska, reggae, blues and all points inbetween. The Wailers, the Sonics, the Kingsmen, the Seeds, proto-garage kingpin Link Wray – it was at this point that I made the eureka musical link back to the psychobilly I’d dabbled in as an art student in the mid-80s. (I felt sure that one of the Klub Foot compilations I taped at college had a version of Louie Louie on it, but I can find no record of this. I was, however, getting into the dirty early years of the Kinks at the same time, and one of their recordings may have found its way onto a TDK cassette.) It floods the heart when synaptic connections like these are retrospectively made. It’s why I feel sad for youngsters growing up today when all music is available, and thus all music is potentially worthless.

The song itself is a copper-bottomed, no-arguments classic. (Berry sold the rights to it in 1959 and didn’t become the millionaire he had every right to be until the 80s when the Artists’ Rights society tracked him down for a signature to allow its use in a wine cooler advert. He died in 1993, apparently not even in the least bit bitter.) What’s to add? From that seductive organ intro, offset by the warning-sign of a single offbeat on the snare, the arrangement crashes through the wall, fully formed, driven by a rhythm that must have sounded deeply satanic, even played by middle-class white boys. It was recorded in one take, of course. But not in a garage.

Jack Ely’s mewling vocal is so unaffected and so felt, ranging from fired up to disinterested in a beat and perhaps thus encapsulating the confusion of the American teenager at a time of George Wallace and John F Kennedy, Clemson University and Betty Friedan, the Space Race and the Cold War, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. What I love about the vocal is that it’s so comprehensively buried among the racket of drums, keyboard and guitar, it barely qualifies as a lead until Ely shrieks, “OK, let’s give it to them, right now!”

The guitar solo is squeaky and humorous, and Ely comes back in too early – one of the great recorded mistakes in all of rock – whereupon he pauses and drummer Lynn Easton covers with an improvised fill. Let’s do the show right here. All is well wherever your ear alights within these two minutes and 42 seconds of history. Rarely has so little variation or virtuosity given so much reward. And all captured for $50, the cost of the session. Two years later, I was born into a post-Louie Louie world.

And there’s no comma. Richard Berry said so. And he, as they say in Portland, the man.

*Subsequently preceded by Woody Guthrie, Dave Brubeck, Patsy Cline and the Shirelles.

Cocteau Twins, Ivo (1984)

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Artist: Cocteau Twins
Title: Ivo
Description: album track, Treasure
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Ping pong, peach flan …

There are a number of bands over the years who, as a fan, I’ve fantasised about becoming friends with. Cocteau Twins were one of them. Having met them professionally on numerous occasions since first falling head over heels for them around the time of Head Over Heels, I know for a fact that singling out a track from their third album, Treasure, will not make the transition to their Christmas card list smooth. Sometimes you have to put gut instinct above social ambition.

Our first meeting, ironically, was non-professional. In 1985, my first full year as a resident of London, my friend Rob and I were in our Cocteaus pomp. I’d been intrigued by their grumbling Goth beginnings back in Northampton – the tinny drum machine, the lonely echo, Robin Guthrie’s squealing guitar, Elizabeth Fraser’s fraught Esperanto – but a perfect storm of the increasingly glacial grandiosity of their music, the sheer beauty of the sleeve artwork Vaughan Oliver was creating for them (Head Over Heels, The Spangle Maker, Sunburst And Snowblind), and the top-heavy nature of their haircuts had ushered them to the top of our to-do list by Christmas ’84 and the end of that first term. As a pair of art students, we’d bonded over their aesthetic. Treasure was our first shared new release. Ivo was our first shared opening track. It shed light, truth and beauty into a nondescript study bedroom behind an ugly orange curtain in Battersea.

Self-produced, it was the first Cocteau Twins LP to include Simon Raymonde and, in retrospect, feels like their first complete work. The earlier genuflections to the wiry fuzz and angry beats of Siouxsie & The Banshees had been totally expunged in favour of cathedral guitar that exploded into shards (or “a thousand incandescent fireflies,” were you to take one florid review of the time as gospel) and a hard, resonant metronome from deep within the drumbox first discovered on Hitherto. It was as if Sugar Hiccup – the airborne lead track from Sunburst And Snowblind – was the new blueprint for their sound. That every track had its own decorative Christian name felt very much as if the Cocteaus had given birth.

There was, however, no pop hit here. No single gem from Treasure would leave the chest. It’s an album’s album. (Pearly Dewdrops-Drops had reached number 29 earlier that year, and it would remain their highest singles-chart position.) It coalesces around that signature sound. Little is left to understatement. It is an ornate Valhalla of a record. Its two almost beatless tracks, Beatrix and Otterley, make a credible claim to modern classical music. but Ivo, named after their mysterious label boss, sums up Treasure for me. Fading in, which is not something I usually encourage, on the back of strummed guitar, it allows Fraser to trill her gobbledegook refrain without having to battle for ear-time with anything ethereal or Wagnerian: [phonetically] “Ping pong, peach flan, pandor, pompadour, penleigh, peatswee, Persephone-eeeeeee.”

In a more cosmopolitan age of Danish drama, Polish supermarkets and Sigur Ros, the idea of not understanding a word of what’s being sung or said but appreciating the musical sound is commonplace. In the early 80s, Liz Fraser’s bulletins from another dimension seemed peculiar and, to some, impenetrable. To those who succumbed, they were ours to decipher. I got the feeling I’d been cheated when, in the early 90s, she started to string sentences together.

Ivo does not tinker with the verse-chorus-bridge orthodoxy of rock. It even has a guitar solo – which is a bit like letting off a firework during a fireworks display. But in every other way it was unlike anything else at the time. (As a drummer, it’s odd for me to cleave so closely to music that dispenses with one – as I subsequently would with Carter USM and had already done with Sisters Of Mercy – but there’s nothing a man behind a kit could do to improve this rapturous, skyscraping sound.) There was jazz and there were marimbas, scratchy guitars and fisherman’s caps in the early-to-mid 80s. None were to be found here. Even the other acts on 4AD, whose sleeves looked like the Cocteaus’, didn’t sound like the Cocteaus.

Rob and I – superfans, remember – met Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie in the bar at the University of London Union in 1985, at a 4AD gig whose bill included instrumentalists Dif Juz (we’d bought their records, too, without having heard a note) and the Wolfgang Press (why, of course). Too enraptured at seeing our clay-footed gods not to approach them, I allowed Rob to make contact, and joined him once he’d broken the ice by showing them the ticket to a GLC gig they were supposed to be headlining, but which had been cancelled. (We kept the tickets as souvenirs rather than get our money back.) Robin and Elizabeth, as we now intimately knew them, seemed not to know anything about the gig and were momentarily intrigued. We had our “in”. Nothing profound was exchanged. They were shyer than we were. When the headliner went on, we accompanied them back into the hall. Liz had added playful backing vocals to an iconoclastic Wolfgang Press cover of Respect, and Rob asked her if she was getting up onstage. She shook her head and we dispersed into the overcoated throng.

I eventually seized my chance to interview them for the NME in 1990 for Heaven Or Las Vegas. It would have been the cover story if not for the Pet Shop Boys, but we ran it across the centre pages, and my circle was squared. They didn’t say much on that occasion either, although I reminded them of our first meeting at ULU, and, a few years later, managed to wangle it for Rob to interview them, briefly, for Q, when I’d taken him on as technology ed and the Cocteaus did an early streamed gig on a new thing called the Internet.

In 1993, Guthrie unloaded some post-rehab, 12-step coke confessions into my tape recorder in Brussels, and in 1996, I went to his house to interview he and Liz, then separated, for a record company bio. We never became friends, which means I am allowed to carry on loving Treasure.

When I listen to Ivo today, it takes me back to sitting in the dark as a first-year and thinking beyond the instant coffee and Marlon Brando postcards. I never ever went off the Cocteau Twins, but will always prefer their earlier, more incandescent fireflies.

Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love (1969)

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Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: Whole Lotta Love
Description: album track, Led Zeppelin II
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1972

Long and hard did I cogitate over which Led Zeppelin track to single out as their pinnacle for The 143. Because the band and their manager were so adamant that their albums were “indivisible” and arrogantly eschewed single releases as part of their deal with Atlantic, it seems counter-intuitive, not to mention rude, to boil them down to one song. But I have. It could have been Kashmir, or Moby Dick, or Communication Breakdown, or Custard Pie, or Good Times Bad Times, or even Stairway To Heaven. But it’s not. It’s their most recognisable song. The Top Of The Pops theme.

Actually, Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in the United States in 1969, apparently without the band’s permission and against the terms of their contract. It went to number four and helped break them in America. This is the inconvenient truth. (It was even edited down from its original 5′ 34″ in the process.) The unifying myth of them not putting out singles elevates them from the rock and pop herd: big and principled, they defied record industry orthodoxy and did it their way. As a massive if belated fan of Led Zep’s work, I bought into this myth with my eyes wide shut. So much of the band is mythology, who wouldn’t “print the legend”?

However antithetical to the legend it may be, they also put it out as a single in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. That’s a whole lotta Whole Lotta Love. One the most imitable and best remembered guitar riffs in all of rock – thanks to its use over the chart rundown on Top Of The Pops throughout most of the 70s – it’s actually disarming to hear in its primal form and for Robert Plant to start singing over it. But he’s got something important to say, and it’s that he’s gonna give you his love. Not only that but he’s gonna give it to you “way down inside, honey”, not just a lot of his love either, but “every inch.”

That Mr Plant also wants to be “your backdoor man” is as close as this disarmingly direct lyric gets to mystery. (Although I think we know what he’s talking about.) Stuart Maconie wrote a piece for Select about the abject unsuitability of most rock and pop lyrics as chat-up lines and the illustration by the mighty Carl Flint depicted an open-shirted Robert Plant schmoozing a wench at a bar and no doubt suggesting she squeeze his lemon until the juice runs down his leg. It was understood, at sufficient ideological remove, that as long as you thought of Plant as “Percy” he could get away with offensive bawdy nonsense that was otherwise verboten. (Plant actually used the word “wench” to Stuart when he interviewed him on Radio 2; I believe it was an off-air invite to a gig in Birmingham that included a plus-one, ergo, “Bring the wench.”)

Away from the tumescent lyric (Plant later described Led Zep II as “very virile” and has spoken of the band’s “carnal approach”), there’s the riff itself, no less sexual as it pumps urgently and snakily away beneath Plant’s entreaties and guarantees in that famous intro. I looked it up, and Jimmy Page is playing a Telecaster through a Vox Super Beatle, whatever that is. It sounds amazing either way, played twice – hey, probably on a different guitar, don’t ask me. Page and Plant build to Bonzo’s lazy-sounding but laser-guided drum fill that ignites the song and we’re off. Page seems to be playing about three or four parts – and producing himself of course. Bonzo does that salt-shaker rhythm where the whole kit seems to be keeping time under his weight, nothing like as flamboyant and dangerous as the man himself, but as solid.

Yeah, it sounds like a hit single in the making. And then. Not even a minute and a half in, Whole Lotta Love stops being popular music, stops being a future TV theme toon, and starts being jazz-fusion. With every knob on the desk being fiddled by Page and engineer Eddie Kramer so we’re now told, it loops off into a prog hinterland of tickled cymbals, errant percussion, scraped strings, spectral echoes, space traffic, orgasmic monkey noises and then, at the three-minute mark, to the sound of radio station playlist managers heading for the car park, Bonzo signals the song back in, with a Page solo that’s built for the concert arena. But it’s not back on conformist track yet. Plant goes “way down inside”, deserted by all but his own cavernous echo. Further rat-a-tat from Bonzo and it’s a warm welcome back to listeners to the heretical 3’10” “radio edit”.

I think I understand why I have chosen what seems such a first-thought-that-springs-to-mind track by Led Zeppelin: it expresses all the foot-on-floor bluesy orthodoxy and stadium-ready majesty of one of the biggest rock bands of all time. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s over the top, it’s raw and overcooked at the same time, it’s West Bromwich and the Mississippi Delta, and yet it’s a number one smash hit. Good times, bad times.

These qualities, which ought to work against each other, but in fact find sweet, filthy harmony, are “indivisible”.

Dr Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg), Still D.R.E. (1999)

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Artist: Dr Dre (featuring Snoop Dogg)
Title: Still D.R.E.
Description: single; album track, 2001
Label: Interscope
Release date: 1999
First heard: 1999

I’m representing for them gangstas all across the world
Still hitting them corners on the low-lows girl
Still taking my time to perfect the beat
And I still got love for the streets

If I say I’ve lost touch with hip-hop this century, that’s true of most musical genres so part of a broader pattern of disengagement which I put down to my age and to how shit music now is. As for hip-hop, I gave Jay-Z my best shot and appreciated The Black Album, but that’s a decade old now. I found 50 Cent exciting to begin with, but his flame quickly went out. Eminem made some great records, but crashed and burned and I don’t find his nasal whining easy to listen to any more. It’s hard to imagine that Kanye West was an artist to take seriously at one time, but he lost me at Graduation, which, again, is some years back. Sasha Frere-Jones gave such a positive write-up for Virgina duo Clipse in the New Yorker around the release of their third album Hell Hath No Fury, I bought it without hearing a note and was with them for a while. Buy that was 2006. There’s a theme here. I had a later dalliance with MF Doom’s excellent Born Like This in 2009, but the pickings had, for me, become slim.

I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint exactly where hip-hop I parted company but the Wu-Tang Clan’s weak swansong 8 Diagrams, which I loyally paid money for in 2007, was certainly a watershed. My patience ran out. Maybe I grew out of it, or it grew out of me.

I remain attached to the genre, historically. It really shook me out of the rock ghetto in the 80s and continued to provide exotic sustenance through the 90s, especially when Dre and Snoop Dogg helped define the low-riding G-funk sound. Doggy Style, for all its juvenile content, was a set text at Q magazine of all places, thanks to the influence of our dear leader Danny Kelly. Dr Dre’s The Chronic was much in evidence in the office, too; what nobody in those days called a “game-changer”. But its belated follow-up 2001 remains a preeminent Millennial work. Its lead-off single is the definitive article; a “previously on” recap of Dre’s empire-building interim (“Guess who’s back?”).

Bragging about how good at rapping you are was a thematic linchpin of early hip-hop, but this was quickly overtaken by bragging about how successful at rapping you are when the genre struck oil. As a producer and mogul, Dre’s showing-off is strictly business: “Since the last time you heard from me I lost some friends/Well, hell, me and Snoop, we dipping again/Kept my ear to the streets, signed Eminem/He’s triple platinum, doing 50 a week.” It’s not a new thing for artists to achieve success and turn kingmaker, but I still find it sweet that Dre bigs himself up by bigging up his new signing. “My last album was The Chronic,” he states, baldly, for the record.

Even his preeminence in the field is couched in a line about his judgement in a shifting marketplace. “They say rap’s changed, they want to know how I feel about it.” Whatever the view, he’s insistent that we know he’s “still got love for the streets.” The streets are lucky to have his patronage.

It’s not always easy to describe why you like one rapper’s voice over another’s. I like the sheer amount of saliva Method Man seems to work up, and the way Dre signing Nate Dogg (RIP) sounds like he can’t quite fit in all the words he wishes to get out, but these are rare examples of me putting my finger on it. It’s more about intonation and rhythm with Dre – the way the word “still” is employed, for instance, driven into the ground like a stake – and of course his avuncular sparring with naughty nephew Snoop Dogg, happy to play second vocal fiddle to his boss, with a complementary and complimentary “uh-huh”, “fo’ sho'” and “Nigga”, plus the defining refrain, “If you ain’t up on thangs”. Snoop also gets to vibe a solo verse about marijuana (“No stress, no seeds, no stems, no sticks” – we want to know how he feels about it).

Underpinning all this vocal tennis is one of the great pilfered-or-otherwise cinematic/orchestral riffs in all of hip-hop, an insistently plucked string instrument – and two notes of cello to start? – which is not credited as a sample and the song’s composition is shared between Dre, Snoop, Jay-Z and producers Mel-Man and Scott Storch, so I’m assuming it was played for the track. Is that likely? You can usually identify samples with an Internet search, but nothing comes up for this one. Any clues gratefully considered. In the video, unsurprisingly, Dre and Snoop rock along in a car. Play this song in a car and it’s impossible not to do just that. It’s a low rider.

Because rap is all about dead presidents, the fact that, as a single, Still D.R.E. sold four million copies in America is significant. (It went Top 10 here, too.) No longer underground, if hip-hop doesn’t go quadruple platinum, can it really be said to be hip-hop at all? But of all at rap’s top table, I find Dre one of the most palatable. Since putting out 2001 in 1999, he appears to have recorded and scrapped the follow-up – and his proposed “final album” – Detox. If he never puts it out, as hinted, he’s done enough already, as an architect, administrator, scout and musician.

He’s the same age as me. Bastard.