Metronomy, The Look (2011)

metronomytheenglishriviera

Artist: Metronomy
Title: The Look
Description: single; album track, The English Riviera
Label: Because Music
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

Oh yeah. I can feel the cool breeze on my face as I risk everything and sail this close to the present. It makes me feel so … alive. Can a song I heard for the very first time just over three years ago really be included in The 143? Well, I’ve just proved it. Yes it can.

In many ways, this entry is perhaps the purest of them all, as the only objective context to subjectively influence my decision to induct it is that I heard the song when the album was dropped in my 6 Music pigeonhole by a friendly radio plugger, loved it at first listen and have been playing it regularly ever since (at the expense of anything else on its parent album). I know next to nothing about the band Metronomy, but that’s not important. I know I saw them on Later around the same time, and they performed this deceptively simple tune (and The Bay) live, so I had in mind that they were a band of three men and one woman and that was enough. I knew that The Look was special.

It wasn’t yet a single when I first heard it in situ, as I am old-fashioned enough to feel duty-bound to do. Then it was simply Track 4 on third album The English Riviera. (I didn’t know they were from Devon; I do now.) She Wants had been the lead-off single choice. But you didn’t need to be Mystic Meg to hear The Look at a potential smash hit. Some light research tells me that it reached 190 in the UK Charts, a giddy height Metronomy singles have yet to match. (It did better in France; they do better in France.) Because the band had somehow filtered through to me, and because I simply take zero interest in the UK Chart, I had assumed, in a cavalier fashion, that Metronomy were a chart band. They most certainly were not in 2011. The album, unhindered by a Mercury nomination, actually broke the Top 30, but only just. Their most recent LP, of whose existence I was blissfully unaware, went Top 10. I’m only discovering all this today. Literally today.

That I appear to love a song that wasn’t a hit single makes no difference to me. I have never heard the band’s previous albums. But The English Riviera is a British album to restore my faith not in modern music but in myself. If you are in my company for long enough, you will hear me exclaim that modern music does very little for me. When, in yesterday’s Guardian, I read that the album is apparently dead (sales of individual downloads have bypassed traditional album sales, suggesting an inevitable shift in listening habits from long-form to quick-fix – actually it’s more like the death of context), my first thought was: well, I’ve got plenty of albums to be going on with.

In truth, I do not add to my record collection that often. Since leaving 6 Music, I have to be sufficiently moved by something on Later, or 6 Music, to actually truffle it out and listen to it again. But then I ask: is it worth money? Usually not. Sometimes – Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire – it is, and I doggedly repair to the actual Rough Trade shop to buy an action clunky old CD. But the gaps between purchases are widening. This is not modern music’s doing, it’s my own. I’ve gone and got older, that’s all.

So, The Look. Such a significant song. So meaningful in that even though it arrived free of charge in my pigeonhole before I had the chance to invest money in the band and their record company, I wanted to keep it. I wanted to cherish it and save it for a rainy day. From the palm-tree cover design, through the seagull noises and crashing waves that open the album and bleed evocatively under We Broke Free, this album is just the sort of archly knowing yet affectionately sincere English statement that used to be a Prefab Sprout album in my graduate years. The dominant, squirky synth sounds are countered by the warm verité of Joseph Mount’s high-pitched Glam vocals and those minor guitar chords, the cocktail salt-rimmed by what sounds like actual school percussion.

There’s more seaside in the ersatz Wurlitzer organ, which fades nostalgically in, artfully placed by Mount within a cavernous ballroom echo, creating melancholy and uplift, irony and sincerity at the same time, and what you would have to pigeonhole as a killer hook. It never wavers, never misses a rep, while Mount trills about “going round in circles”, which might describe the structure of the song itself, nudged on by a remedial but actual, analogue drum beat and given new colours by sunbursts of guitar and what might actually be a Stylophone, strategically inferred to ensnare the mums and dads, who remember which TV star used to advertise it.

I find the lyric about “this town” utterly endearing and personal; double-edged and defiant. The protagonists from this town which we must assume to be Totnes are “always running round” a place Mount describes without a sneer as “the oldest friend of mine”. Its small-mindedness and routines bite hard (“And to think they said we’d never make anything better than this”), but hope springs eternal: “Remember all the things we took, took.”

It’s a song you can play over and over and over again, without pause. It’s almost analgesic. It makes you want to go and live on the South coast and occupy a place where everyone knows you’re trouble. It would be unfair to pin all my jaded, beaten-up, won’t-get-fooled-again hopes on Metronomy, whose names I barely know and whose career I have only half-followed. But on this side of the sea, they seem the best bet for a bright future. And if not, it doesn’t matter. They have achieved greatness in my house, where I do like to be beside this A-side.

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Nine Inch Nails, Something I Can Never Have (1989)

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Artist: Nine Inch Nails
Title: Something I Can Never Have
Description: album track, Pretty Hate Machine
Label: TVT
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1994

I saw Natural Born Killers on its release in 1994 in downtown San Francisco. It seemed like the right country to be in at the time for a movie so steeped in American mythology: serial killers, tabloid TV, rolling news, video-paparazzo, guns, rednecks, prison, peyote, Rodney Dangerfield and, via its patchwork soundtrack, Patsy Cline, Patti Smith and Tha Dogg Pound. The soundtrack album, produced – or more accurately, curated and spliced – by Trent Reznor, belatedly introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, an act that had already gone overground thanks to MTV, Lollapalooza, an early Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy and, that very year, a defining appearance at Woodstock ’94. Because of my tardily circuitous route in, they – or he – first crossed my radar with the haunting lament Something I Can Never Have. I got hold of the debut album from which it came, Pretty Hate Machine, forthwith, and founding nothing else like it thereon.

The high-pitched, jackhammer-driven, no-prisoners industrial hubbubs that had made Reznor an alt-rock demigod in the early 90s seemed fairly tame to me, although they stirred something primal down there. Then again, I was old enough to remember Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke. None of which is to do down the success or raw bleeding power of Nine Inch Nails, whose unit-shifting impact owed much to an apparent existential holw in Reznor’s adolescent audience. It demanded filling. Industrial’s rise was concurrent with that of grunge, and both groundswell movements benefited from a record industry still geared up for the aggressive exploitation of the new thing. In the early 90s it was entirely feasible to be a multimillion-selling artist and still really fucking fed up. Pretty Hate Machine is no harder to listen to than Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar (which Reznor co-produced) – hell, some of it really is synthpop with a frown – but both provided a vital lever for disaffected American teens who were as desperate to piss off Mom and Dad as any teen before or after them. This was rock theatre, and I’m all for that. (Plus, NIN remind me of Einstürzenden Neubaten, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Test Dept. and Killing Joke …)

Something I Can Never Have would be a soul classic – classical soul, in fact – in any era, regardless of socio-cultural context. The bombast and thunderstorms are stripped away, leaving just Reznor to lay his emotional cards on the table, a former high-school musical prodigy from the cornfields of Pennsylvania raised by his grandparents but suckled by TV for maximum disconnectedness, here he is in his mid-20s, a driven and hardworking self-starter (“Back then I couldn’t do the things that I can do now”) with an outlet for a lifetime of frustration.

I still recall the taste of your tears
Echoing your voice just like the ringing in my ears
My favorite dreams of you still wash ashore
Scraping through my head ’till I don’t want to sleep anymore

To which lost love he is broadcasting, we do not know, but her absence is making his heart grow devil horns.

I’m down to just one thing
And I’m starting to scare myself

Like every pop singer ever, he just wants something he can never have, and it speaks to us. Not all pop music can be Love Train. Some of it must be a howl of pain, a chorus of disapproval, a rumble from the jungle, a classic cry for help ie. “This thing is slowly taking me apart, grey would be the color if I had a heart.” The only fundamental difference between this and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little,” is the strategic and artistically justified deployment of the F-bomb in the third verse, to whit:

Everywhere I look you’re all I see
Just a fading fucking reminder of who I used to be

Purists might argue that it’s unnecessary in a song that’s so elegantly arranged to convey melancholy and heartbreak, but as Mickey says to Mallory in Natural Born Killers before fading under the lilting synth intro of this very ballad, “Let me tell you somethin’, this is the 1990s, alright? In this day and age, a man has to have choices, man has to have a little bit of variety.” Within seconds, she is screaming obscenities at him: “Why’d you pick me up? Why’d you take me out of my fuckin’ house and kill my parents with me? Ain’t you committed to me? Where are we fuckin’ goin’?” I genuinely considered putting forward the soundtrack edit of this song to be committed to The 143, with the dialogue so tastefully interlaced into it, but it’s only four minutes long, and the album original is closer to six. Less is not more in this case. More is.

For an act so revered for making some noise, Something I Can Never Have appreciates the sound of near-silence. The repetitive piano motif is redolent of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, but it’s laid so low it never needles your ears. It’s not until one and a half minutes in that the song moves to the factory floor, where the whoosh, thud and crack of a satanic mill provide an unexpected rhythm to the tribute “You make this all go away.” At which, it does, and we’re back with just Trent, prodding at the keys with one hand and showing us what’s under his ribcage with the other. It’s like he’s had some kind of episode, but subdued it, pushed it back down, put it off for later.

That he’s technically limited as a singer adds to the rawness and vulnerability of the performance. He’s hiding behind nothing, fully exposed, deal with him. The snarl at the end of “something I can never have” is a defence mechanism. Reznor’s most famous song, not yet written for The Downward Spiral and neither yet claimed as the epitaph of a dying old man dressed as a mortician, is Hurt, but the hurt was always there.

If you’re not acquainted with the Natural Born Killers soundtrack album, remedy that. It’s like a jukebox being kicked for 75 minutes, hopping from L7 to Lard to Nusrat Fhati Ali Khan to Duane Eddy to the Cowboy Junkies, punctuated with rattlesnakes, Robert Downey Jr and Native American chanting. And Something I Can Never Have is on it.

That’s where we’re fuckin’ goin’.

The Psychedelic Furs, Fall (1980)

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Artist: Psychedelic Furs
Title: Fall
Description: album track, The Psychedelic Furs
Label: CBS
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

If you look up the lyrics to this dusky, disturbing declaration of love online, you will find them – or a phonetic approximation of them – erroneously credited, due to the self-fulfilling prophecy of internet fact-sharing, to the songwriting team of Justin B**b*r (never type his demonic name into the internet as locusts will plague you), Mason Levy and Jason Lutrell. This is because the imploding imp had a song called Fall on his third album, which is a different Fall. These are some of his lyrics:

Well, let me tell you a story
About a girl and a boy
He fell in love with his best friend
When she’s around, he feels nothing but joy
But she was already broken, and it made her blind

Nothing terribly offensive about them, and he was 17 at the time, but I prefer Richard Butler’s take on the subject from what I sentimentally think of as the definitive song called Fall, written over 30 years earlier:

I am you and you are me
Tie me down, I will be free
Our love will never end
Parties for our stupid friends

There are more thematic links between my all-time favourite song by one of my all-time favourite bands and this song I’ve never heard and have no intention of ever willingly listening to than you might imagine. In “his” Fall, a boy feels happy about a girl, but she’s “broken”, and all is not quite as Jackie magazine as it appears. There’s a certain amount of angst beneath the bubblegum surface: “I know you got your wall wrapped all the way around your heart … but you can’t fly unless you let yourself fall.”

Back inside the fevered suburban mind of Butler, who was around 21 at the time, a fairytale wedding is regimentally evoked (“You will have a dress of white, you will have a ring of gold, you will have a paper snow”), but things soon darken: “You will have a sheet of red, paint the trees, the trees are dead.” I will have been 15 when I first sat in my bedroom and tried to work out what the hell Butler was singing in that deadpan glasspaper rasp amid all that distorted guitar and squawking saxophone across their eponymous debut. If the moral of the imp’s tale is “I will catch you if you fall,” its postpunk equivalent was, “We will be alone and we’ll fall.” One is heroic, the other fatalistic. I know which I prefer.

There were no lyric sheets with the Psychedelic Furs’ first two albums, the smokily atmospheric The Psychedelic Furs and the more ordered Talk Talk Talk; you had to work it out for yourself. And I relished that challenge. I could never get to the bottom of “You will have a paper snow”, no matter how many times I listened to it – and I listened to it constantly – or how firmly I pressed the headphones to my head. When I finally met and interviewed my louche hero Butler for the NME in what must have been 1991 for the World Outside LP, I asked him what the third line from Fall was, and he told me. (It obliquely refers to confetti, of course, but it doesn’t sound like he’s singing “snow”.) I’m not sure the words have ever been officially typed up, and maybe it’s best that way. (There’s a line in I Wanna Sleep With You on Talk Talk Talk that I’d always heard as “a vicious dog-eyed sheik”, which turned out, disappointingly, to be “a vicious dog and I shake.”)

The choice for toppermost Furs song was a battle fought long and bloody. I am to this day enthralled by the first album’s opening epic India, with its teasingly extended, cymbal-swooshed astral-interference intro and its hardline bass riff. Also, the urgent Wedding Song, which forms a thematic piece with Fall, and ironic list-song We Love You. From the second album, the clattering It Goes On, the heart-tugging All Of This And Nothing. Even the transatlantic albatross smash Pretty In Pink is a Trojan horse of R-rated content within a PG-13 package. There are less contenders on the third album, but President Gas still coruscates like a mission statement, ungratefully having a go at the America that had embraced them, and Love My Way scales heights, with Todd Rundgren on marimba! But I’ve fallen for Fall, as there’s nothing about the Psychedelic Furs that isn’t present and correct inside these berserk and lusty two minutes and 40 seconds.

Tim Butler’s pulsing bass and Vince Ely’s attack drums are in step; the combined guitars of Tim Ashton and Roger Morris fill the room; Richard Butler barks out his poisoned opinions on love and marriage as if testifying at Speakers’ Corner; and Duncan Kilburn’s sax cooks up a storm, marking the band out from the angular postpunk gaggle and making them so different, so appealing. (Kilburn left after the second album, but Rundgren took his part in the studio, as the Furs sans sax would not have been the Furs.) Steve Lilywhite produces the album, except where Ian Taylor, Howard Thompson and the band do. Fall is a Lilywhite joint. It remains definitive. It’s on everything but rollerskates. And when it’s just Ely and Butler, drums and vox, and it still mesmerises (“Marry me and be my wife, you can have me all your life, our love will never end”), it hits you like you’ve been shot by a diamond bullet right through your forehead. And you think, to borrow a speech written around the same time as the song: my God … the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!

When asked who my favourite band is, I’ll unconsciously cite The Fall or the Wu-Tang Clan. But I have never stopped returning to the fountain of the Furs for sustenance, therein to drink of their diabolically hummable racket and to tick off Butler’s recurring images: coats, kisses, guns, paper, traffic, sleep, flowers, clothes, cars, colours, stupidity.

Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.

 

 

Free, All Right Now (1970)

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Artist: Free
Title: All Right Now
Description: single; album track, Fire And Water
Label: Island
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1970s

Great to chew, even better to share …

More cowbell. I interviewed Paul Rodgers on 6 Music and it must have been before he joined Queen as I know this didn’t come up in our on-air chat. He was a nice, voluble guy, if a little orange in skin tone and practiced in his responses, and he must have been promoting a solo single as we were duty-bound to play it – and did so, happily. Because the 6 Music guest format was three tracks, wrapped around two hefty chunks of chat, I recall opening with the single (of which I can now find no record), during which I told Rodgers that I would be playing All Right Now – and sort of apologising for what was an obligatory choice – and also an old Free album track I’d carefully chosen as I liked it and it rarely got played on the radio. He was delighted that I’d gone to all the trouble, but his passive-aggressively controlling manager tried to intervene and stop us from playing it, as the interview was about his solo career and not his past. Rodgers overruled her and we played it. I wish I could remember which one it was, but it was from Free’s kickstarting third album, Fire and Water.

Anyway, who gives a monkey’s? Their stake in Actual Rock History is All Right Now, a thudding blues-rock keystone that’s so good it survived the chemical castration of being used in a TV advert for gum in 1990 and being a Top 10 hit again, 21 years after the first time and in a more sanitised context. This classic pick-up tune found a new, younger audience thanks to the aspirationally sweaty couple on the hot bus stuck behind a combine harvester who bond over the ulterior offer of his last stick of Wrigley’s (an act of spearmint philanthropy that causes her to get off the coach at his stop, in order no doubt to seal the deal, get a room and enjoy some mutual mastication). Free had split in 1971 (drugs, musical differences, sales charts), given it another bash in 1972, then split again in 1973. How nice for them to have an “As Seen On TV” hits album in the charts in 1991.

It would be coy to attribute the longevity of the Free name to anything other than All Right Now. It is a career in four minutes (five and a half on the album), and it’s enough to have the faces of Rodgers, bassist and All Right Now co-writer Andy Fraser, tragic guitarist Paul Kossoff and so-solid drummer Simon Kirke hewn into rock. Most bands form and split without coming anywhere near a four-to-the-floor geological event of the catchy, raw power of All Right Now. Unlike that chewing gum advert, it’s timeless.

Kirke’s industrial cowbell (more of that, please) leading a heavy-breathing beat, Kossoff’s roughly wristed riff, and just a wordless noises-off moan-and-yelp combination from Rodgers: it’s a textbook 60s-into-70s intro by a bunch of hairy blokes from London and Middlesbrough wishing they were from Memphis or Chicago, and wishing so hard it almost comes true. The blues was in these men at the time, and yet they would sell millions, fill arenas and steal festivals, just like the bluesmen didn’t. Like Mott and Zeppelin and Purple and Argent – and subsequently Bad Company – America would accept them as natives and form orderly beer queues to be near them. Somebody had to find a way of getting past the almost-academic legacy of the Beatles. In rediscovering their inner caveman, groups like Free achieved that Holy Grail.

If Fraser is playing the bass at all at the beginning, it’s too low to tell. But what’s key about the arrangement (by the band, John Kelly and future Queen man Roy Thomas Baker) is the space between the strokes and thumps. This allows the air in and accentuates each grunt. “There she stood,” regales Rodgers, his voice even at 21 sounding lived-in and world-weary, “There she stood in the street, smilin’ from her head to her feet.” You’re picturing the scene. It does that.

Much of the lyric is presented as a two-way reported conversation – no wonder it became a storyboard for a commercial. He was like, “Hey, what is this?” and she was like, “Look, what’s your game? Are you tryin’ to put me to shame?”

I love the horny protagonist’s chat-up line, “Now don’t you wait, or hesitate. Let’s move before they raise the parking rate.” At any rate, he takes her home to his place, “watchin’ every move on her face,” and it’s he who tells her to slow down when they get there. Not such a macho ape after all. He’s a sensitive lover. And at the end of the day, it’s all – beat – right now, baby, it’s a-all – beat – right now. (I love classic songs that don’t quite scan, it’s like the lyric had to be contained somehow by the tune and not the other way around.)

Highlight for me is the machine-gun snare fill by Kirke after the “parking rate” line and a Rodgers howl before the first chorus, or else the polite appearance of the bass for the bridge under a blowtorch solo from Kossoff even in the truncated single edit. A fine, serpentine vocal take from Rodgers, too – let’s hope it was live – as spontaneous as jazz in parts, and the lust never sounds play-acted.

I can’t lie, I thought of buses and chewing gum while writing this. But I didn’t go out and buy any. So that’s all right. Now …

Prefab Sprout, When Love Breaks Down (1984)

 

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Artist: Prefab Sprout
Title: When Love Breaks Down
Description: single; album track, Steve McQueen
Label: Kitchenware
Release date: 1984, 1985
First heard: 1984

I’m not even sure why, but it was a standing joke that Prefab Sprout, critical darlings clearly capable of mainstream commercial embrace, kept on re-releasing When Love Breaks Down until it was a hit. In fact, they released it once, prior to its parent album Steve McQueen, in 1984 – when it failed to make the Top 75 – and again, in 1985, when it scaled to number 25 and made Top Of The Pops. I’m not sure the embellished version of events was even meant to denigrate the band, or their doughty label Kitchenware, merely to underline their determination to break on through to the other side. Which they surely did. (Come the next album, they were a Top 10 certainty, and shampooed their hair accordingly.)

Prefab Sprout shone for all the bands forged on the anvil of post-post-punk, who appreciated the here’s-three-chords-now-form-a-band ethic, but had broader musical aspirations and tended toward the windswept and interesting: Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Associates (all Scottish, so far), Win, Deacon Blue (still Scottish), ABC, The Christians, Danny Wilson, Wet Wet Wet (and we’re back in Scotland). Not all as cool as each other, but all willing to admit to an appreciation of Steely Dan, the collective sense of ambition was palpable, but there was further to fall. Once you’ve cracked the actual charts and become what used to be called a “housewives’ favourite”, the only way is down or Las Vegas. (Or a comfortable dotage on Radio 2, which is less of a comedown these days, of course.)

Paddy McAloon never aimed low in his life, and continues to defy a string of crueler-than-cruel medical jokes by finding new ways around his disabilities, a spirit undimmed. His songs have always been intricate, opaque and one step ahead of you. I bought Steve McQueen and Swoon in the wrong order during college, and thus experienced them getting less accessible, and thus more intriguing. Swoon beguiled me before I knew the meaning of the word. It was terrible background music, as it demanded you pay attention to its curling lyrics and unpredictable tempo changes. Steve McQueen was a more approachable affair, full of potential singles, not least the locomotive country opener Faron Young, and this one.

Torrid and aching in arrangement and thrust, after some of the cryptic crossword clues on Swoon, it’s pretty straightforward: McAloon’s love and he “work well together”, but are “often apart”. Nothing too melodramatic, just a couple separated by distance. Instead of fonder, “absence makes the heart lose weight” (even when he’s playing a straight bat, McAloon still hits a six). When love breaks down, we tell lies, we fool ourselves, we do all sorts of stuff to “stop the truth from hurting”, but soon, we’ll be as “free as old confetti.” More given to Sondheim than Strummer, Paddy brings a great gift to the masses: eloquence with wit. Prefab Sprout are like punk never happened.

It’s hard not to swoon to the desaturated Hollwood pose on the sleeve of the album (I don’t know about you, but I never imagined McAloon could ride that Triumph), and the clean lines of the production from either Thomas Dolby (the longer, album version) or Phil Thornalley (the single). But most of all, I admire the daring Americanisation of the imagery, building from Swoon‘s basketball, cornball, Bobby Fischer and “Chicago urban blues” (carefully tempered by tea-rooms, A-Levels and Jodrell Bank), to take transatlantic flight with blueberry pies, bubblegum, “the songs of Georgie Gershwin” and Pearl Harbor. McAloon imagines and interprets like a novelist, of course. He was sort of leapfrogged by Lloyd Cole in this department, who made America his lyrical, then spiritual, then actual home. All roads lead back to Tyne and Wear for McAloon.

Let us praise his bandmates, for this was a band, whose lineup remained steady until after Andromeda Heights in 1997, and a one that was fleet of finger and foot. McAloon and Wendy Smith’s vocals work well together, her angelic hosts, treated in the manner of I’m Not In Love, a constant, breathy presence. Brother Martin McAloon’s air-conditioned bass never falters. The exactitude of Neil Conti’s clockwork rimshot and feathery snare fills were good enough to get him recruited for Bowie’s band at Live Aid.

Even the LP take, at just over four minutes, ends too soon. But Prefab Sprout make alchemical pop at all lengths (on Steve McQueen alone there’s Blueberry Pies at two-and-a-half, and Desire At over five), and in any case, the lyric has quietly come to a conclusion. You may have missed it. Here’s where the story ends: with the protagonist and his former love joining “the wrecks who lose their hearts for easy sex.” His work here is done; he’s ridden that triumph.

I realise now that Prefab Sprout are wasted on the young. They age like port.

By the way, Stuart Maconie and I subsequently spent the back end of a boozy evening in Newcastle in 1992 sitting round a grand piano in a hotel bar singing along as Paddy McAloon pounded out requests from the Sprout catalogue. It was one of the greatest back ends of a boozy evening of my life.

Bob Marley & The Wailers, No Woman, No Cry (Live) (1975)

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Artist: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Title: No Woman, No Cry (Live)
Description: album track, Live!
Label: Island
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1980

Just as we learned about the United States of America from the movies, we learned about Jamaica from reggae. Just as musically hungry residents of the fifth largest island country in the Caribbean got their jazz and R&B from US forces radio in the 50s, which helped fertilize the birth of ska and rocksteady, here in the UK we relied heavily on the likes of Island and Trojan for our understanding of reggae, which first infiltrated the charts through Eric Clapton before demand for the real thing took over. Cloaked in the smoke of myth and misinformation, reggae and Rastafari seemed exotic and aspirational: the big hats, the dope, the dub plates, the low-speed patois, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, the uprising against colonial thumb. Punk embraced it. We embraced it.

It is a simple fact that Bob Marley was the first rock star of reggae. The leonine, dressed-down, kickabout messiah looked and sounded like he could lead an exodus anywhere, any time he liked. He and the original Wailers toured the UK’s clubs, polytechnics and Top Ranks in ’73 and ’74, but it was the two nights at London’s Lyceum ballroom in ’75 after a long tour of the States in support of Natty Dread that gave us the monumental Live! album, and with it the definitive version of No Woman, No Cry. It does not strike me as perverse to enter the concert recording of what is, for me, their greatest song, into The 143. I am hardly the first to favour it over the 1974 studio original.

Arranged on the album by Hammond organist Jean Roussel, the keyboardist who sets the live rendition sail is new member Tyrone Downie, basically playing the vocal line, which causes sections of the ecstatic London audience to sing along even before the I Threes start mellifluously wailing. There’s a full minute of this somnolent, take-your-time intro and no showmanship intrudes on the vibe; new drummer Carlton Barrett and his bassist brother Aston “Family Man” keep the patient, confident beat, Alvan Patterson skims in a bit of bongo, while guitarist Al Anderson largely keeps his powder dry, content to simply catch the downbeat. (He’ll have his Eagles-style solo about four minutes in.) Bob’s first croak is not even that loud in the mix, and he sounds like he’s done every one of the previous 34 American shows, but it’s all the more plaintive for that. Sore throats and a touch of feedback remind us it’s live. Even the feedback is cool.

That first verse is so evocative of a home turf Marley and the Wailers haven’t even seen for six weeks, you can feel the pang of what the Welsh call hiraeth as Bob remembers sitting in the Government Yard in Trench Town, “observing the ’ypocrites” as they “mingle with the good people we meet.” There’s emptiness and longing in the talk of “good friends we’ve lost along the way”, not to mention a hint of Jamaica’s mortality rate, but optimism and pragmatism in the command to “dry your tears, I say.” Everything, after all, is gonna be alright.

The best reggae lyrics – in common, perhaps, with country’s – do not mince words. While not everything is literally spelt out, it’s unlikely to be obfuscated by metaphor. We hear, again nostalgically, that “Georgie would make the fire lights”, upon which “cornmeal porridge” was cooked and then shared. Never bothering to look it up, I always heard Bob sing, “My faith is my only carriage” – metaphor alert! – but the Internet tells me it’s the more terrestrial “feet“. With the Jamaican pronunciation (“fait‘”), you can empathise with my mishearing, but in the final analysis both versions work for me.

The advantage of a live recording, aside from the satisfying verité of hearing musicians ply their trade without overdubs, is the context. The reaction of the audience becomes part of the performance. Literally so, when what we may assume is a multi-ethnic throng joins in and preempts (producing a haunting pre-echo on the chorus). But this speaks of communality and where better to join hands with your fellow man than at a Bob Marley gig? In the mid-70s! Nobody in that ballroom is going to enunciate the words like Bob does, but it’s sweet hearing them try.

It’s seven minutes long. Another plus. Let’s be brutally frank, there is noodling, including some dextrous but surplus Hammond detail in the finish, but nobody in the room wants this one to end and that sense of gratitude seeps from the sum of its parts. Loose-limbed and lazy-sounding might be the modus operandi, but the Wailers’ command over the occasion is calculated and precise, and the rousing “everything’s gonna be alright” section takes off and lands right on schedule.

Marley wrote more political songs in his foreshortened lifetime and poppier ones. He proved himself a formidable albums artist, and yet the first posthumous compilation Legend sealed his reputation as one of the century’s master singles artists.

I never owned the big albums at the time – I always had a friend who did – so it was always the hits for me. I saw the Sisters Of Mercy at the Lyceum, my only pilgrimage to this seat of musical learning. There was a lot of smoke then, too.

XTC, Making Plans For Nigel (1979)

XTCMakingPlansForNigel

Artist: XTC
Title: Making Plans For Nigel
Description: single; album track, Drums and Wires
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Not yet proficient, I was nonetheless convinced around the turn of the decade that drums were my instrument. The components of rhythm caught my ear in the music I listened to and seeing a drummer hunched over a kit caught my eye. Although the desire to mime playing the guitar is instinctive to all of us, learning notes and chords never really had any pull for me. Whereas hitting things …

I can’t source it, but I definitely saw some kind of documentary or even news item about XTC around this time, and it showed the band in the studio: four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry. I was instantly taken by Terry – Terry Chambers – whose inventive proficiency was mesmerising at a time when I had only the vaguest idea of how a drum kit might be assembled around a drummer. I can only think that the band must have been laying down their Black Sea album in the summer of 1980 in London’s Townhouse Studios, which had the famous “stone room” for an exceptional live drum sound. I was already a fan of the band from Top Of The Pops, but had only belatedly taken their previous LP, Drums and Wires, out of the record library, and taped it. The connection I’d formed with Chambers gave me extra purchase with their sound. And if ever a pop song is beat-driven, it’s Making Plans For Nigel.

It opens the album with that mighty Chambers rhythm, treated by Steve Lilywhite to give it a space-age resonance as it rumbles almost musically around the available space from the floor tom through the mounted toms, a luxuriously sucked hi-hat attracting attention away from the featherlight snare. It’s BIG without being caps-lock. In my imagination it goes unaccompanied on forever before Dave Gregory’s sci-fi guitar and Colin Moulding’s underfloor bass come in, but in reality it’s only a bar. Such is the impression it makes.

The single came in a limited-edition board-game sleeve, which I never owned, and neither did anyone I know. I found one, already sold, on eBay, but there’s no photo of it unfolded. It adds to the myth of a single that was much more inventive and content-led than most New Wave of that time, its arrangement spare and meticulous, the punctuating canine yelp “Oh-woo” adding abandon to the social comment and the ker-ash! of Chambers’ cymbals close to the sound of breaking glass, which I love. Written by Colin Moulding, it speaks of jobs for life, the dying days of British industry, the allure of conformism, and parental control. Nigel, so acutely named for that era, is “not outspoken”, but he “loves to speak and he loves to be spoken to.” He is ordinary, he is normal, he is no agitator or subversive, and yet, as his Mum and Dad coo over the fact that “if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy in his world,” we suspect the worst. (The Undertones would subsequently create their own Nigels – Jimmy, Terry, Kevin – achieving similar pathos through Beano comedy.)

But we never hear from Nigel. We have no idea what goes on in his world (a line bent into a tragic lament by Andy Partridge, and curved away in cold echo by Lilywhite). Steeped in studio drama, Nigel is a song in the saddest key of life, a Play For Today in which the titular character has no lines. Does he have “a future in British Steel”? Does British Steel have a future in British Steel? This is pop to turn over in your brain long after the needle’s come off the record. Life may begin at the hop, but it ends in a future that’s as good as sealed.

The other songs on Drums and Wires are much more choppy and perverse and staccato. I liked them, but I was truly moved by Nigel and didn’t feel that way again until the end of Side Two, and another epic studio sweep, the closer Complicated Game. Its infinite echo chamber finds Partridge tearing his heart out and raging against the dying of the light (“I said, God, it really doesn’t matter where you put your world/Someone else will come along and move it/And it’s always been the same/It’s just a complicated game”). Because of the fabled sleeve of Nigel, I linked the two bookends together, Nigel’s parents’ “helping hand” perhaps touching fingertips with Partridge’s powerless God in mockery of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. In the creation of Nigel, the complicated game was life, the universe and everything. Not bad for four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry playing guitars, drums and wires on the Goldhawk Road.

Following Partridge’s dramatic breakdown and the band’s withdrawal from touring (which saw the gig-hungry Chambers bail out), the studio-only XTC found sanctification by connoisseurs of intelligent, pastoral pop and English folkedelia. Gravitas was theirs. I can’t claim to have kept up with their every move, but enjoyed Oranges and Lemons at the end of the decade which incidentally saw British Steel privatised, and wished them well. The compilation Fossil Fuel in 1996 cemented my appreciation, although it was hearing Nigel again that made me happiest in my work.

I was assembling and hitting my own secondhand drum kit by 1981, but never as elegantly as Terry did.