Tom Waits, Jockey Full Of Bourbon (1985)

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Artist: Tom Waits
Title: Jockey Full Of Bourbon
Description: single; album track, Rain Dogs
Label: Island
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

The Everyman, an independent arthouse cinema, Hampstead, North London, 1988. A venue I have never visited before in a steep, rarefied area of London I have only driven through. The very concept of an arthouse cinema is still new, and mightily alluring. I’d made a new cinephile friend, Nigel, a medical student, who was also blowing my postgraduate mind with Burroughs, Ballard and Vidal. His tastes in cinema were for the American new wave (he was nuts about Scorsese and Coppola, as was I, but also the more commercial Brian De Palma) and their indie successors: Jim Jarmusch, Alex Cox, Wayne Wang. I’d broken my arthouse duck with Chelsea School of Art co-conspirator Rob when we’d discovered the coded delights of Peter Greenaway in the last year of college. But it was Nige who whisked me off to the Everyman, with its then-radical flapjacks and carrot cake for sale in the lobby, to see Down By Law.

A slow-moving, European-influenced bayou prison break movie, shot by Jarmusch in high-minded black-and-white, I will never forget the sensation of seeing its open credits. (They remain among my all-time favourites.) Cinematographer Robby Muller’s camera glides from right to left past row upon row of porch-fronted clapboard New Orleans houses, shotgun shacks, parked cars, weatherbeaten projects, French-quarter balconies and even graves while a twangy guitar, stand-up bass and bongos accompany. The voice, low and ravaged, sings of drop-dead suits, mohair vests, downtown trains and “a two dollar pistol”, perfectly in synch with its surroundings. (Even though it was written three years earlier and probably about New York or LA or Minneapolis, it fitted the pictures as if written in the stars above Louisiana.) Hello, Tom Waits, pleased to meet you.

Now, as an NME reader of many years standing, I knew of Tom Waits. The album from which Jockey Full Of Bourbon was timely ripp’d, Rain Dogs, had gone straight to the top of the paper’s end of year scorecard for ’85. (I guess I was too busy listening to Psychocandy, Steve McQueen and Meat Is Murder to investigate.) His previous, Swordfishtrombones, was adjudged the sixth best LP of all time by the staff in a 1985 poll, when, let’s be fair, it was fresh in their ears. I’d heard his crooned songs in Coppola’s One From The Heart, which I’d seen on video in the early 80s, but felt he wasn’t my cup of tea.

Thanks to the keen ear and eye of Jim Jarmusch, who’d also cast Waits alongside another musician John Lurie in Down By Law, thus making the connection complete for the uninitiated, I was now on the case and compensating. I purchased Rain Dogs (whose slower Tango Till They’re Sore had also been chosen for the Down By Law soundtrack), then Swordfishtrombones, then Franks Wild Years, and what a rich and nourishing ride into underbellies, back alleys and lounge bars it was. Since that first flush, I’ve filled in Waits’ entire back-catalogue, buying every new release from Big Time onwards, his first that I was able to purchase when it came out.

Waits is a performer who gets wierder and harder to like the older he gets, which is refreshing. (His first albums are almost easy listening, but God I’ve learned to love Closing Time and Foreign Affairs.) Jockey Full Of Bourbon represents all that was unique about his less wild years, when critical acclaim and a modest commercial equilibrium were not incompatible. (Rain Dogs, praised to the heavens, only scraped into the Billboard Hot 200, but geniuses are not always recognised in their prime.) Having made his name at the piano, Waits was now throwing in everything including the kitchen sink, with more emphasis on guitars, double bass and all sorts of things you could hit. There’s a whipcrack sound in Bourbon that really drives things along. If the image of a slow crawl in a car wasn’t already burned into your consciousness, you’d still have this down as a song in transit.

Waits’ imagery draws deep from the well of the most cinematic kind of Americana, from box cars and handguns to whiskey shots and doughnuts “with names like prostitutes”. It may be that it’s even more poignant and tasty to romantic outsiders, tourists like me and my friend Nige. We were based in ugly but honest South West London; even being in Hampstead made us feel like we had a day pass, never mind the “Cuban jail” or the “Hong Kong bed” where Bourbon took us. “Hey little bird,” he growled, “Fly away home.” You don’t need the sullied, figuarative, X-Factor version of the word “journey” in the case of Tom Waits. You need a ticket.

With each passing year, I’ve grown more attached to Tom Waits. Subsequently discovering the panoramic works of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth – and in cinema, Michael Cimino – gave new colour to the landscapes Waits was painting with words, accordion, marimba, tin lid and grunting. I once did a karaoke impression of him onstage at the 100 Club wearing a pork pie hat and a stick on “soul tooth”. Whatever it sounded like to the assembled, inside it felt like I had surrendered myself to him. Like Woody Allen’s Gershwin, his tunes always sound like they’re in black and white. To me, he’s the great American songwriter, greater even than Springsteen or Young or Stipe or Carter.

In the second part of Down By Law‘s opening crawl, the camera goes from left to right this time, and the view gets rougher: a black man assumes the position against a police car, skeletal cars are dumped on waste ground, the air gets dusty, there’s writing scrawled on a plasterboard wall … and then Tom Waits appears at a door. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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Radiohead, Idioteque (2000)

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Artist: Radiohead
Title: Idioteque
Description: album track, Kid A
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

It seems convenient, but you’re going to have to believe me. I fell for Radiohead when, during their support slot at the Astoria in London on October 9, 1992, Jonny Greenwood played those three “dead notes” on his guitar and the non-hit single Creep lurched into life. They were supporting The Frank & Walters, and their PR, Philip Hall, a man I liked and respected enormously, had talked me into coming with him to see Radiohead, whose first releases had not lit my fire, and who in my memory were playing to a virtually empty Astoria that night, but I may have idealised this detail.

From that day forward, I was essentially theirs. A fan of Pablo Honey when it was released in early 1993, I got to meet them before they were famous when they took me in their Transit to play a gig at Glamorgan University in Treforest, South Wales. They were polite and welcoming at whichever of them’s pleasantly appointed Oxford house we met in, and I was served hot, buttered toast made of thickly-sliced bread. Thom Yorke was harder to decode than the assorted Greenwoods, but I interviewed him alone in the back of the van at the university and a shared art school education bonded us. The “angle” for the piece I wrote for Select (headlined, “Super Creep”) was that Yorke represented a new, square-peg kind of indie “star”. Within two years, he was a star without speechmarks.

Come the end of the century, Radiohead were British music’s saving grace. Along with the Manics, they saw me through the Millennium. And Kid A was, for me, their first masterpiece. It remains a dizzying fusion of substance and style, ideas and technique, function and decoration, an experiment that worked, a bonfire of vanities that for most bands wouldn’t have even amounted to vanities that lit up the sky and a new leaf that wasn’t the same as the old leaf. Kid A reigns supreme. And of its ten tracks, Idioteque sums up its jagged glory in five tightly wound minutes.

On the back of a frantic, caffeinated electronic beat recalling Fad Gadget, what apparently originated with Jonny but was put through the Thom Yorke mincer before its oblique strategies could be unveiled to the world, Idioteque gets right under your skin with a remarkably rudimentary layering of ambient hum and interference, a mechanical concerto of rattling, shaking and shuffling.

Yorke’s snuffled, muffled distress signals may or may not presage a coming global apocalypse, but certainly conjure bunkers, an Ice Age and whatever emergency drill insists that women and children go first (“and the children, and the children”). Yorke’s first child – rather touchingly christened Noah – was not yet born when Idioteque was conceived, but it’s tempting to divine thoughts of fatherhood bubbling beneath the itchy surfaces of Kid A, and the anxiety about the future that starting a family engenders. With 21st century Radiohead particularly, it often feels like the end of days, even if the toast is thickly-sliced and hotly buttered. See them live – and I saw Idioteque essayed at Earls Court on the Hail To the Thief tour in November 2003, truly a night to remember – and your first impressions will not be of a traditional five-piece band, but of an industrial unit, busy with their machinery and infrastructure (too busy to face the audience, certainly, and often wrapped up in some function or maintenance side of stage that’s so pressing they just cannot tear themselves away).

The tumultuous “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming” passage is what recorded music is all about, those multi-tracked vocals suggesting a choice invisible at a moment of existential truth. Rattling like a little girl’s toy, it makes you jerk your elbows, it makes you think, it makes Thom Yorke enter the same seizure-like state of grace that once possessed Ian Curtis. It’s surely an explicit reference to the nightmarish rape of Rosemary Woodhouse by Satan himself when Yorke intones, “This is really happening” (as in, “This is no dream, this is really happening” in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – end of days, once again), but it might just be a thumbed nose to climate change deniers. You deconstruct Radiohead’s lyrics at your own peril.

That all of this industry conspires to create something as delicately balanced, emotionally affecting and ultimately human as anything on Kid A and its less socialised brother Amnesiac, but Idioteque in particular, is all the testament you should require that Radiohead are not as other bands. When they released Pablo Honey and I went down the M4 with them and Yorke had yet to grow the peroxide out of his hair, they were still as some other bands, but not for long.

Hey, Creep‘s a great song, too, but “everything all of the time”? No contest.

Diana Ross, Upside Down (1980)

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Artist: Diana Ross
Title: Upside Down
Description: single; album track, Diana
Label: Motown
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Respectfully I say to thee …

Because life isn’t perfect, I sold my entire vinyl record collection to a voluble sounds-trader called Rob in 2005. Hundreds of circles went in the back of his truck bound for Newcastle and what was then a shopless mail-order service (he’s since reopened the shop, which I would love one day to visit). I hope those records that have been subsequently re-sold went to happy homes. They certainly came from one.

Of course I’m tinged with sentimental hoarder’s regret, but the back-breaking collection had come with us twice when moving house and with another move on the horizon, we made the Big Decision to set the LPs and 12-inch singles free, and clear some physical and psychological space. Every significant LP had been replaced on CD in any case, and that supposedly “compact” collection in itself was arduous enough to lift. Of course I was sad to see a few items of sentimental value go, but I squared it with myself by keeping back all of my seven-inch singles. Every single one. These now occupy a hefty flight case in the eaves and act as as a musical photo album. Flick through the 600 or so singles and each produces a Proustian memory.

And so to the seven-inch of Upside Down by Diana Ross. This, I can tell you with total confidence, I purchased in St Helier in Jersey in the Channel Islands while on a family holiday in July 1980. Staying in a hotel called the Merton, it was the Collins family’s first ever catered holiday after years in North Wales farmhouses and bungalows, and our first across a body of water. The quick-witted will have already deduced that this seven-inch single in its monochrome paper sleeve was a useless item. I couldn’t play it until we got home a week later. So why did I buy it?

I bought it because I was 15 and at that enraptured time measured out my life in seven-inch singles. These were affordable with saved pocket money and fitted snugly into the handled record box we all carried. I bought Upside Down as a trophy, because even though I was on holiday, the accumulation of seven-inch singles need not be put on hold. With limited funds, the choice of a single was no quick decision made lightly. Planning was involved. The selection process was complex. You didn’t want to waste your next turn.

I suspect we had extra spending money that fortnight because we were on holiday. I asked Twitter how much a seven-inch single retailed for in 1980 and the hive mind reckons between 99p and £1.29. It would have been a chart single as it went to number 2 and I suspect the record shop I bought it in would have been a Woolies and nothing too specialist? (Residents of Jersey at that time will be able to confirm this.) So let’s assume I set aside a pound which might otherwise have gone on a paperback or a miniature bottle of spirits (which I’d convinced my parents were collectable) and spent it on a piece of black extruded polyvinyl that I could only look at.

Such was the heady power of pop music. Now, Upside Down – a fastidiously produced nugget of disco funk from the Chic Organisation used to flag up the May-released Diana album – was not my usual poison, musically speaking. In 1980 I was all about angular post-punk and way more likely to be getting a penny change from a pound note at the record shop for Totally Wired, Holiday In Cambodia or Feeling Alright With The Crew.

That said, I was going to youth club discos at the time, because that’s where the girls were at, and among my immediate circle of friends, both Craig McKenna and Andy Bonner had begun to invest in disco 12-inches, which had piqued my interest with their executive-length and predominantly beat-driven mixes. If I didn’t hear Upside Down at a disco, I’d be surprised. I fell for it instantly and for reasons visceral not intellectual or even social. That it didn’t quite fit into my handled record box, as it were, was possibly part of its appeal. And at least it had a picture sleeve, which wasn’t a prerequisite of disco singles.

But I feel I appreciate its artistry more keenly now. I gamely attempted to copy Tony Thompson’s immaculately fluid drum fills at the time with rulers on a stool without even knowing his name, or fully appreciating that the people who made Le Freak, which I was also dancing to at discos, had made Upside Down. There is much I didn’t know then that I know now; crucially, that Miss Ross got into a funk with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards as she didn’t like their final cut of the LP, going so far as to remix it herself with an in-house producer. Motown put out her version and inflamed the wrath of Chic’s learned friends. It all got a bit nasty. Which is a shame, as the album – whose subsequent hit singles the declamatory I’m Coming Out and jaunty My Old Piano are also spectacular – does not sound of acrimony or post-rationalisation.

The lyric may not be Shakespeare – “Upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively” – but the use of “thee” in “respectfully I say to thee” is cute and in any case, Ross’s voice, high in the mix (maybe higher than intended), is light, sexy and seamlessly authoritative throughout, aware of its space and reflected off the mirrored architecture of the Chic sound: Rodgers’ much-copied masturbatory guitar (the song is counted in by a jitter), Edwards’ spare bass and Thompson’s airtight beat, while the Chic Strings punctuate skywards. The single edit runs some 30 seconds shorter than the album version and gives Rodgers the elbow room to freak out a bit, but even in the fade, Thompson’s tactile curlicues are memorable, each concentrated splash of Zildjian a graphic marker flag. I’ve attempted in adult life to “learn” the drums on this track, and the sequence is beyond my capabilities. We may never see the late Mr Thompson’s like again.

Maybe I should have saved up the extra 50p and purchased the 12-inch in St Helier, although it would only have been the four-minute album track. With singles, the selection process was complex. But I didn’t waste my next turn.

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959)

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Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Title: Take Five
Description: single; album track, Time Out
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1970

How do you pinpoint when you first heard one of the most popular jazz hits of all time? Especially one recorded before your parents had even got married. It feels to me as if Take Five has always been in the background, either as the accompaniment to some TV show, laid across a montage or played over a testcard. I may have first heard it in the womb in late 1964 and early 1965, or in my cot thereafter. I usually stick a pin in 1970 as the year I first became aware of which songs I was actually hearing through the radio (the birth of a collector and archivist), although TV theme tunes lodged much earlier, as there’s a feted reel-to-reel recording of me, aged two, parroting the themes to The Monkees, Z-Cars and Dee Time into a fuzzy mic, much to my Dad’s glee.

In a way, it’s immaterial. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Take Five is the best-selling jazz single of all time and the first to sell a million copies. But since jazz was never really a singles club (and Take Five was a five-and-a-half minute album track by birth, talked down to three for release as a 45 with Blue Rondo A La Turk by CBS boss Goddard Lieberson), it’s the wrong yardstick. What’s remarkable about it is the fact that an instrumental workout in quintuple time inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck had heard on tour became a hit at all.

I’ve stated elsewhere that jazz entered my life in a more conscious way in the mid-80s, when the form was infusing much of the modern indie pop I was listening to (blimey, including The Cure) and sounding a lot like summer. Also, I’d met a card-carrying jazz musician and expert, fellow art student Dave Keech, whose influence on my musical outlook was as seismic as that of Frank Wilson, my first 6 Music producer, 20 years later. Both men bent my ear away from the pale-faced 4/4 rock that dominated my core. Ironic, you might say, that the first jazz entry in The 143 should come from a white pianist and composer, but the two-tone multi-ethnicity of postwar jazz is what made it so appealing to so many kids in the shadow of the Atom bomb, as likely to tap a toe to the cool jazz of Stan Getz, Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. (By the way, don’t be impressed by the way these names trip off my typing fingers; I had literally never heard of these people before Keech became the jazzmaster to my Grasshopper at Nene College.)

Brubeck’s writing partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond, who composed Take Five, was also white. (I just read on Wikipedia that he bequeathed his royalties to the American Red Cross, who still get a “check” every year. What a swell guy.) We have Joe Morello to bow down to for that smoky beat, and Eugene Wright for the sparing stand-up bass, although it’s the foregrounded alchemy of Brubeck’s languid ivory-tickling and Desmond’s airy sax that clinches the tune. You don’t need to be a scholar to surmise that jazz is less about the composition and more about the execution. In this, it’s closer to eternally interpretable classical than the fixed formulas of pop. It’s not dance music, and can be appreciated seated, but let’s not dismiss nodding as anything other than a valid and primal response.

It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind. In this, it’s pretty unique among the “songs” the comprise The 143. We’ve welcomed Archangel by Burial, whose voices are only fragments; I can easily see Green Onions finding a seat here; something from John Murphy’s 28 Weeks Later soundtrack is shortlisted; and distinct passages of Autobahn are instrumental, another essential tune that’s very possibly coming over the hill. But Take Five goes further than all of these contenders, because, in the collective bones of the Quartet, it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, or how it will it all turn out. In this and only this respect is it like the TV series Lost.

Recorded jazz is almost a contradiction in terms. But it’s how we preserve and the Time Out rendition is as near as dammit. Purists will tell you that it’s better on vinyl, too, where, for instance Morello’s kick drum really kicks. I will take this on advisement, for I have not the hardware to play vinyl. Certainly, the key jazz sides I taped off Keech in 1984 were flat and pre-digital, and they were my tablets of stone for a good few years.

Some detail. I will always love a tune that begins with a beat, because the drum is the only instrument I have ever been able to master, but how unintrusive the intro on Take Five, the ride cymbal almost literally tickled and the snare tapped by expertly pulled punches. And how regular and conventional the 5/4 quickly becomes. The high alto coos like a pigeon; it summons images of summer breezes, ceiling fans and open windows – jazz on a summer’s day – while that piano doggedly presses its delicate but hard-wearing underfelt into place beneath. (You may say it’s a thankless task for the bandleader with his name above the title to keep insistently looping that piano signature, but where would we all be without it?) I think I’m right in saying that only on the album version does Morello get to “go round the kit” quite as much as the full length permits. I’m latterly so hooked on the five-and-a-half-minuter I can’t even recall what the foreshortened precis sounds like. It’s unfettered at executive length and yet never reckless or indulgent.

I’m listening to it now. Background music? By definition if you take into the account the way Take Five entered my consciousness by osmosis without ever introducing itself and how snugly it provides accompaniment to imagery. But only if you treat what happens in the background with the utmost respect. True “background music” is exposed if you listen too hard to it. Not this.

The Human League, Being Boiled (1980)

 

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Artist: The Human League
Title: Being Boiled
Description: EP track, Holiday ’80; album track, Travelogue
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

In 1980, I heard the future and it was The Human League. I suspect I read about them in the NME before I heard them, but when I did hear them – inevitably on the recommendation of a much more electronically advanced friend from another school whose real name was David Freak – I was overjoyed to discover that they sounded as remote, stark, serious and yet instantly cherishable as they looked with their stares and their jackets and their science-fiction board game and slide show and just the one pioneering haircut between the four of them. Although it wasn’t called that, post-punk was starting to really form shapes for the still malleable pig iron of my teenage brain.

OK, ready, let’s do it.

Now, as scholars of the Sheffield sound will know, there are two distinct versions of Being Boiled. The original and therefore some would say best, released on key Edinburgh indie Fast Product in 1978 and reissued in the same dispassionate pastel sleeve in 1980 on EMI (and again, in “stereo”, in 1982 when it went Top 10); and the comprehensively re-recorded and beefed up 1980 version, released by Virgin as the third track on the Holiday ’80 EP (from whence they made Top Of The Pops with the more “commercial” Gary Glitter cover Rock ’N’ Roll Pt 1) and included on the band’s magnificent second album Travelogue, which is where, in that year, I first heard it. I subsequently bought the Fast reissue, and have great affection for both. The earlier incarnation is tinny and hissy and opens with that gorgeous “OK, ready, let’s do it” call to arms by a callow-sounding Phil Oakey. But I’m going to seriously test the weight-bearing capacity of this limb and vote for the John Leckie re-record, or Album Version.

It’s longer, and rather than languidly emerge from the white noise of what sounds like machines being switched on and valves being warmed up, it explodes in an insect frenzy of rhythmic pulse and floating bleeps and bloops. The confidence of its totally synthesised modus operandi is almost overwhelming, a new sound indeed from the still-industrial north, hinting at space-age portent and totalitarian dance. The intro takes it time, then crashes into life with a terrifying cathedral riff. The voice that issued forth out of this crackling telex from another dimension was always going to be deep and booming, and Oakey slaps down his orders with the authority of a less genial Tharg, albeit not until a glam rock handclap beat has got the party started.

We are implored to “listen to the voice of Buddha” as the sound drops out, a spiritual entreaty at odds with the dictatorship of the delivery. A new button is pressed and a sort of squelchy horn section is summoned. At which point a truly pivotal moment in pop music is born: a singer uses the word “sericulture”, which even a 19-year-old Will Self wouldn’t have been able to provide a definition for. It means the agricultural rearing of silkworms for silk, although it was years before I found that out. The way the word sounds was exotica enough for provincial me. The eventual meaning doesn’t rob it of any mystery.

All I knew in 1980, aged 15, is that I had embarked upon a journey uncharted and intellectually and sonically demanding, very different from the fraught bike ride to Dave’s house in Trinity on the other side of town to swap seven-inches. A diary entry for 4 October, 1980, records my reaction to hearing and then borrowing Dave’s copy of Rock ’N’ Roll: “I’m into it, man. I wanna side-part my hair and wear thin black ties and button-down collar black shirts and black baggies.” It was about more than the way Phil Oakey looked, but that was a part of the allure. Dave picked up for me my seven-inch copy of the brand new, still-wet Boys and Girls – what would be the last Human League single pre-Crazy Daisy –  because he was going into town before I had the chance to do so, and I vividly remember him bringing it along to a meeting of the Film Society in a plain brown paper bag, on which he’d carefully traced the sleeve (including, of course, the face of the Doctor, illustrating the B-side Tom Baker).

Travelogue remains one of the keystone albums of my blind youth. I love Reproduction, too, with what I thought of as those Coronation St ladies’ legs dancing on babies and Circus Of Death, but Travelogue is unimpeachable, featuring black hit of space after black hit of space, a crow and a baby who had an affair, and the tune from the Gordon’s Gin advert you saw at the ABC. Being Boiled is its altarpiece.

I never once forsook The Human League when they went pop. I invested heavily into Dare, the Jam & Lewis experiment and Electric Dreams, applauded their 90s comeback and felt warm inside this century when they and other 80s stars were able to do package tours and earn a pension. But it’s the stuttering beat, burping synths and basso verbosity of Being Boiled that remind me of parking my bike and gazing out at the edge of  a brave new world and willing my fringe down over my eye.