Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

SonicYouthSister

Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.

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The Stone Roses, Fools Gold (1989)

StoneRosesFoolsGold

Artist: The Stone Roses
Title: Fools Good
Description: single
Label: Silvertone
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

I don’t need you to tell me what’s going down

You don’t choose when you are born. Entering my teens in 1978 I was historically too late for the healing fires of punk, and, though in time for New Wave and 2-Tone, I was still too young to get to gigs, and my burgeoning attachment was necessarily passive. It was this accident of birth that put me in the right place at the right time to pledge my troth to the post-punk bands of the early 80s, and even venture out into the world to see some of them play live: U2, The Cure, the Bunnymen, Joy Division/New Order and assorted Goth tub-thumpers. Once emigrated to London, my professional life at the music press similarly coincided with Grebo, t-shirt indie and Madchester, and it is with eternal cosmic gratitude that I am able to state that the stars aligned for me in February 1989.

The already guru-like Steve Lamacq, filling in for Helen Mead on the NME live desk, asked me if I’d like to travel to Manchester and review this new guitar band everyone was talking about at the most famous nightclub in Britain. I was still a relative novice at that time, having only stepped through the paper’s doors the previous summer and picked up a couple of days’ work a week in the layout room, and just over the threshold into my nascent reviewing career. The closest I’d been to Manchester was a family trip to Thornton-Cleveleys, just outside of Blackpool, when I was 14.

The Stone Roses played several high-profile gigs in support of their debut album (due out in May but circulating the music press on advance cassette), including one on February 27 at what was regarded as the centre of the associated Madchester and baggy scenes, Manchester’s The Haçienda nightclub. I know all of this to be the case, as it’s lifted from the band’s Wikipedia entry, as is this:

Andrew Collins wrote in NME: “Bollocks to Morrissey at Wolverhampton, to The Sundays at The Falcon, to PWEI at Brixton – I’m already drafting a letter to my grandchildren telling them that I saw The Stone Roses at the Haçienda.”

Some context. These other landmark gigs were pertinent to the era: Wolverhampton Civic Hall had been Morrissey’s first solo gig, with free entry to anyone in a Moz/Smiths t-shirt, in December 1988; pub venue The Falcon, in Camden, had given the world future indie darlings the Sundays in August 1988, debuting that night (and with kingmaker Lamacq in attendance); and Brixton Academy in London was where Pop Will Eat Itself almost joined the hip-hop orthodoxy when they supported Public Enemy and Run DMC, and been coined offstage, in October 1988. I was at that. And, dear grandchildren, I was at the Hacienda.

I have no grandchildren, but apart from that, if I may say so, I was bang on about the Stone Roses, which is why I still bang on about it. Geography met Art and Culture, and made History. My ardent, in-print response to a gig by four young men in a venue in a city needs no seasonal adjustment. It was the dawn of something, a compass reset, and those heady years, from 1988 (earlier if you were already baggy and caught Sally Cinnamon first time round) to 1990 (when the Roses entered a four-year legal tangle with Silvertone) were impeccable, and beyond the accepted criteria of technical virtuosity, cultural chance or audio perfection. The Roses’ eponymous debut – whose opener I Wanna be Adored also opened the gigs in earth-moving grandeur – is a modern classic, but it did not contain their finest hour. That came with their first Top 10 hit, in November 1989. Of the release’s two A-sides, What the World is Waiting For turned out not to be the one the world was waiting for.

I know the truth, and I know what you’re thinking

Fools Gold, missing apostrophe forgiven, and at just under ten minutes long less a single, more a way of life, cannot be withered by time. Fads that do not destroy it make it stronger. It starts not with an earthquake but a distant paradiddle that sounds like it’s been slapped on a thigh, and with a no-arguments kick-drum THUMP we’re in business. Most ten-minute mixes or extensions on a theme outstay their welcome, go over old ground or allow your mind to wander. Not this one. Produced by first-album talisman John Leckie, it is so luxuriously tooled and yet ultimately so unshowy; it locks down that beat (produced by a human man, Alan Wren, and based upon, but not sampled from, James Brown’s set text The Funky Drummer), lays in the bass (also humanoid: Gary Mounfield), lets John Squire’s guitar sort of wonder out loud, and the tape run. He’s soon into effects mode and Ian Brown joins in, his voice sufficiently treated to make it at the same time otherworldly and part of the woodwork.

The gold road’s sure a long road
Winds on through the hills for fifteen days
The pack on my back is aching
The straps seem to cut me like a knife

The four of them do not so much build up a head of steam, as lay out a body of work in heaven-sent precis. There’s nothing that made the Stone Roses legendary that isn’t in Fools Gold: the insouciance, the confidence, the ESP, the funk, the space, the glory. Brown’s lyric, which directly and indirectly references John Huston, the Marquis de Sade and Nancy Sinatra, is no singalong, but it doesn’t need to be; we’re singing along to the guitar, the bassline, even the drums. (It’s worth calling up the lyric, actually – Brown’s imagery is already knowing, poetic and political: “You’re weighing the gold/I’m watching you sinking.”)

There are passages where the bass rumbles like an earth tremor. Occasional bongos. John’s guitar sometimes sharks in, then switches pedal, live. At one dub-assisted juncture, I hear Daniel Ash from Bauhaus (although that might be just me). Brown disappears for bridges at a time. Squire fills the sky. Reni never stops. It’s a finished symphony. At about a minute-and-a-half from the end, you start to fret about it ending.

I witnessed Fools Gold for the first time in Widnes, swallowed by the estuary breeze. It was an unforgettable occasion, but a problematic concert. In truth, Spike Island rode the gap between ambition and reach, which sometimes swallowed the band. But in the pure, recorded form of Fools Gold, it is its own stairway to heaven.

The trousers haven’t worn as well.

Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

Whenthesungoesdown

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …