Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

BornInTheUSAsinglecover

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Description: single; track, Born in the U.S.A.
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

When, in Springsteen on Broadway, the man who wrote Born To Run and Thunder Road and Racing in the Street reveals to his invited theatre audience that in fact he did not run (“I currently live ten minutes from my home town”) and couldn’t even put his bandmate’s car’s stick-shift into first gear when they drove cross-country to do their first out-of-town gig. Grinning at his own self-image, after a pause, he adds, “That’s how good I am.” You’re in the palm of his hand.

Against the bare-brick facade of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York – the Big Apple a faraway emerald city that nobody Springsteen knew growing up in the boondocks of Freehold Borough in New Jersey had ever visited – he does something he also confesses that he never did before: work for five days a week.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he smiles. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” And again: “That’s how good I am.”

I’ve been immune to the Boss for as long as I can remember. I never actively disliked him. I just didn’t feel any pressing need to have him in my record collection. A friend at college with more catholic taste turned me on to I’m On Fire, but it was mostly the “freight train running through the middle of my head” that grabbed me in my own wilderness of self-mythology. I’m pretty sure I intuited that the song Born in the U.S.A. wasn’t anything other than an anti-war anthem when I heard Max Weinberg’s artillery-fire retorts on the snare and sensed fists being clenched and air being punched, but they weren’t really my style. (I’d seen enough Vietnam War movies to know what the tough guy in denim and axle grease meant when he sang, or hollered, of being sent off to a foreign land to “kill the yellow man”.)

Over the years, Bruce and I have largely crossed paths only tenuously. I loved Streets of Philadelphia. I read the reviews of The Ghost of Tom Joad and wondered if it was time yet? The Rising, his rapid response to 9/11, ought to have been up my street and was, theoretically. But whatever it was I was listening to in 2002, it wasn’t him. (I looked it up: my Top 5 albums of 2002 were Where The Wild Things Are by Karen O and the Kids, Born Like This by Doom, My Way by Ian Brown, Goffam by Jim Bob and Forget The Night Ahead by The Twilight Sad. So.)

Then I saw him own Glastonbury in 2009, a pit-stop on his year-round Working on a Dream Tour. The Pyramid Stage was headlined for old folks: Neil Young on the Friday, Bruce on the Saturday and token 40-year-olds Blur on the Sunday. He played 25 songs that warm June night, five of which I knew well enough to mouth the chorus to (plus two of the covers), but a more important thing happened during that magic hour: I got him. Seeing an artist of world renown along with thousands of other people who haven’t necessarily paid to see him or her (the headliners were announced after the tickets had sold) is a great place to do so. Bruce knew he had to work hard for his money. Many of the audience couldn’t sing along and didn’t cheer the first note of every tune. The amazing thing was that I felt I knew the songs I didn’t know. That’s how good he is.

He did Born to Run and The River and Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark, so I wasn’t exactly locked out of the love-in, but he omitted Born in the U.S.A., which I found myself yearning for in the dark and wondering if it might close the show. Here was a pasture where his hymn to the fallen and his reclamation of the flag would not be misinterpreted, and what would those drums sound like?

In its from-the-womb guise for the parent album, recorded at the Power Station in New York in April 1982, produced by Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, it opens proceedings at such a high, keening pitch of ambition, as raw as a jug of eggs and pushing against the ceiling from the first blah of Roy Bittan’s synth riff and the inaugural crack of Weinberg’s tree-trunk stick on snare, surely it will have nowhere to go for the remaining four and a bit minutes? It’s peaked too early. Bruce is shouting at the top of his voice from the first stanza:

Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

If not a lucky town (although nowhere in particular packs its own punch and dead men do wear plaid), Springsteen was born in a lucky country, a lucky panorama, a lucky landscape. He’s a lucky songwriter and storyteller to have been by accident of gene born in the United States of America and with an innate understanding of what that means. (His father, he tells us on Broadway, still regarded a nursed “morning beer” as “the breakfast of champions,” before passing on in 1998, aged 74. One pictures a Schlitz?)

It takes a few hours to drive from one coast the United Kingdom of Whatever to the other, and aside from towns turning into hills then hills back into towns, it’s little wonder our inspiration tends towards introspection, nostalgia and terms and conditions. It is glorious that our island would produce Half Man Half Biscuit and Dusty Springfield, William Shakespeare and EL James, Alfred Hitchcock and Banksy, but you still ultimately have to make your own entertainment here. When Bruce broke out of his youth and discovered what lay beyond the walls of New Jersey (almost literally – he speaks in his memoir of being “walled in by God” ie. the Catholic school, the church), he was filled to the brim with ideas and wasted not one of them as they were road-tested into legend.

At around the four-minute mark of the definitive recording, a strange, immutable thing happens: Weinberg seems to submit to the gods of drumming and allows his hands and sticks to be puppeteered by some higher force, as if this song, its intent, its power and its glory are circuited into a higher realm. This songs begins at a sociopolitical and actual pitch that lesser men after the same affect might build up to. Result: it’s impossible to disentangle the actually iconic pose of Bruce – with his guitar arm in the air, that ripped knee-slit in his work trousers and the stars and stripes rendered in duct-tape strips behind him – from the art it promises. Same goes for the concert promo clip, assembled and shot through with footage of working men coming and going to work by John Sayles, although the black headband hasn’t worn as well.

Born in the U.S.A. was just one among seven top 10 hits mercenarily taken from the album, which changed the Springsteen optics for life; the new Boss was not the same as the old Boss. He was Michael Jackson now. Madonna. Aretha. Elvis. Bono. Prince. Bowie. Sinatra. Crosby. Doris Day. When I interviewed the impressively self-aware Jon Bon Jovi for the NME in 1989, he knew that Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2 were bigger than he was, and accepted it with grace. He didn’t mention Bruce, who came from the same neck of the woods. I suspect of the two New Jerseyites, Bruce spent less time doing the Forbes arithmetic, although both he and Jon had written songs that were bigger than they were.

Back at the boards of Walter Kerr a decade after my Glastronautical epiphany, in much more intimate surroundings with not a single casual bystander in the house, and Springsteen almost apologises for the “long and noisy prayer” he’s been reciting. He explains, “I wanted to rock your very soul. I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”

He has, not least on his best song, and without moving more than a few feet. That’s how good he is.

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The Chameleons, Don’t Fall (1983)

ChameleonsScriptofabridge

Artist: The Chameleons
Title: Don’t Fall
Description: track, Script Of The Bridge
Label: Statik
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1983

“In his autumn, before the winter, comes man’s last mad surge of youth.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

It’s the rejoinder from an exchange in a box at the theatre that clinches it as a typically random mouthful of dialogue lent unfathomable depth of meaning and angst by its very detachment from context. In a way, even telling you that it’s ripp’d from the mainly unknown 1946 American musical comedy Two Sisters From Boston ruins it. That the exchange is enacted by Peter Lawford as the idealistic son of Nella Walker, playing his uncomprehending mother, is irrelevant. It’s better if we don’t know.

Book publisher, sports writer, biographer and documentarian Mark Hodkinson – who hails from the same neck of the Greater Manchester woods as The Chameleons – named his first novel after the intriguing word combination The Last Mad Surge of Youth in 2009. It was about a struggling indie outfit called Group Hex. (At the time of its self-publication I praised it in Word magazine for containing “all the affection missing from John Niven’s similarly biz-themed Kill Your Friends,” a compliment to both.)

The Chameleons, though led from the front by a charismatic if fanciful, self-romanticising young man like the novel’s John Barratt, were not Group Hex. Mark Burgess, for it was he, was a melodramatic post-punk touchstone briefly in the early-to-mid 80s. He went straight onto the hit-list my like-minded bedroom co-conspirator Kevin and I kept circa 1983 after the band’s ferocious debut In Shreds and the Rochdale-recorded debut LP’s hand-pencilled sleeve illustration, which promised hope and glory. (The illustrator was guitarist Reg Smithies, which fed into my own twins dreams of art school and rock’n’roll.) Before the decade was out, I’d gone to London to see the Queen and backdoored my way into the NME as a layout boy. I met Burgess professionally in the boozer-next-door in 1988 by which time, improbably signed to Geffen, he’d forgotten to tell his paymasters that he and John Lever had changed the optics and become The Sun and the Moon. Whatever. The record was all the excuse I needed to genuflect at the fringe of a hero, regardless of fripperies like which band called what was signed to whatever label.

Without exhausting the elastic “post-punk” cordon, it can be difficult to put your finger on what was occurring in that fecund wake of the first mad surge of the independent sector. Punk bands stopped playing punk and started foregrounding melody and decoration over spit and sawdust. I guess if anything it was the knobs in higher education saying, “Hold my beer!” before that concept had been invented. If nothing else, the mid-80s were literate and a bit speccy, but not without some dramatic swoops of hair and permanently aloft jacket and overcoat collars. Had the Chameleons sold as many records as, say, China Crisis, or Big Country, or the dreaded Thompson Twins, they might have made more of a mark. Instead, they were Modern Eon or Essential Logic or Clock DVA or The Scars or Jesus Couldn’t Drum: deserving of more appreciation. (Alright, perhaps not Jesus Couldn’t Drum.)

As it stands, Script for a Bridge, and follow-ups What Does Anything Mean? Basically and Strange Times, are of historical interest rather than cultural. A general sense of rainwear awareness (“A storm comes, or is it just another shower?”) weds them to the blockbusting likes of the Bunnymen and the Goth bands, but not in unit terms. Their sound was arena-ready but never got the chance to prove it. They had the alienation, but not the niche of Alien Sex Fiend. No wonder they semi re-formed in the 2000s for a second crack at the cherry and were by all accounts louder than Motorhead. (Burgess’s wingman and drummer Lever sadly died, aged 55, in 2017, a sad day.)  They have every right to play as a legacy act. They are an act that has a legacy.

So why is Don’t Fall one of the 143 best songs of all time?

For me, because it means more than a phase, or a whim, or a makeweight, or a notch on a recovering new romantic’s bedpost in an East Midlands town. The Chameleons mattered because they meant it, man, and they soared when the sociopolitical trajectory pointed alarmingly towards a fork in the road where neither choice filled you with optimism. (Imagine that!) At times like these, we need something more than Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding’s product-placing career plans and artists featuring other artists featuring other artists: something mad, something that surges, something that says youth.

Only in adolescence do we write or think thoughts like this, and I know of what I squeak.

Hiding inside
A room that’s running red
The place to be
Exists only in your head
And the focus of fear
In the creases of a dress
A female dress
How did I come to be drowning in this mess?
This fuckin’ mess?

If you managed to get through your exams without Yes, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Specials, Soft Cell, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen, The Tube, The Chart Show, grunge or Pubic Enemy, I salute you. In this hormonal hinterland, we do need another hero: one who articulates the state of the nation and all the trouble in the world better and more poetically than we humanly can. With longer words, or shorter ones, but always better ones. We all feel as if we have an uncomprehending mother or father and wonder what on earth we’re talking about.

Who can honestly say they didn’t at a certain tender, shoe-gazing age feel as if they were drowning in a mess – beat – a fuckin’ mess?

The Doors, The End (1967)

the-doors

Artist: The Doors
Title: The End
Description: track, The Doors
Label: Elektra
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1982

This is the beginning …

I know exactly where I was when I first heard the establishing tinkles of John Densmore’s splash cymbal and what sound like chimes but might be something Ray Manzarek teased from his keys: I was sitting on a plastic chair in the arts centre of what used to be Northampton College of Further Education on Booth Lane, where my friends Paul, Dave, Neil and I had joined the Film Society in order to blow our minds. It was 6 April, 1982 and we were there to see the X-rated Apocalypse Now (we were 17). Francis Coppola gave The End by the Doors a starring role. Written in 1967 about a break-up, it divides chin-stroking opinion. But it’s difficult to argue with its placement at the beginning – and the end – of Coppola’s South-East Asian odyssey.  This is not background music. Jim Morrison’s mournful wail and student poetry meld into something that might have been – but wasn’t – written for the film or the war.

So, I heard the song for the first time at the same time as seeing the film for the first time. A film that would become one of my all-time favourite films. A song that would become one of my all-time favourite songs.

Both are long. The song comes in at an epic 11 minutes and 41 seconds on the Doors’ debut album. It’s reduced to just over six-and-a-half minutes on the soundtrack edit, its middle section concertina’d so that the serpentine opening and close are left fully intact. Apocalypse Now runs at 153 minutes, but there are other cuts of the film, notably the 202-minute Redux. The classic recording of The End for producer Paul A. Rothchild at Sunset Sound in Hollywood is formed of two takes, spliced together. And you can’t hear the join.

What I’m saying is, there’s no rush, and yet there is such a rush.

This is the middle bit …

It’s not a single and was never designed to be, but it climaxed Doors live shows as a backstop and would be the last song the band would ever play together, in New Orleans. (Morrison’s end came four years later in a rented room in the 4th arrondissemont, aged 27, an early bath foreshortening his “elaborate plans”.) In 1983, the Fun Boy Three tapped into the darkness on the edge of town and covered The End for novelty purposes on a proprietary music show called Switch and did a worthwhile job, I recall, including a good bash at the famous Oedipal interlude; this re-lit my fire for the Doors, whose eponymous debut album I purchased on cassette. I don’t know why cassette.

The sidewinding lyrics to The End had already entered my bloodstream via the film. The “stranger’s hand in a desperate land”; that “wilderness of pain” and “all the children” who went insane while “waiting for the summer rain” – Yeah!

It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a horny sixth-form poet with the top button of his leather trousers accidentally left unpopped, and because The End is essentially free-form, refined into copyright over a series of jams, it doesn’t all read that well on the page. He reaches the bottom of his pencil case when he suggests we “ride the snake to the lake” and declares that “the West is the best.” But this song, this track, this Freudian trip, this outpouring of childhood angst brought on by a rich diet of reading, defines the Doors.

They made shorter, better, tighter, more hummable songs – Break On Through, People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You, Riders on the Storm, Touch Me – and three of these were million-sellers, once Light My Fire had been pruned back to three minutes. They pulled six albums out of the chaos over five years, each a huge record in the multi-platinum orbit. But for all of Morrison’s apparent unsuitability for the straight and narrow – singing the forbidden word “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show against the show’s express wishes; the public obscenity charge; taunting his fans at an over-sold show in a seaplane hangar; bothering blameless cabin crew – he kind of turned up for work nonetheless, however drunk. The lizard king myth was successfully blown out of proportion, but the late 60s and early 70s were a heady time, and if Jim Morrison hadn’t existed, they’d have had to invent him.

This is the end

What elevates The End from an overlong song at the end of a perfectly sensible psychedelic rock album by a gigging band who’d found their feet to a work of genius is – boring as this seems – its very length. Its mission to explain and explain. The long-windedness beneath its wings. The fundamental wherewithal to go where no band had gone before while staying fashionable. Not many greatest hits get away with a spoken interlude – ABC’s The Look of Love (“They say, Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”); Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“Darkness falls across the land”); Britney’s Oops! … I Did It Again (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”) – but those that do need to get some perspective. At about six-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison slips out of his stentorian oratory, leans on the mic stand, and starts to tell us a sto-o-ory. Are you sitting uncomfortably?

“The killer awoke before dawn … He put his boots on … He took a face from the ancient gallery and walked on down the hall … And he came to a door and he looked inside …”

That we associate this edition of Crackanory with Captain Willard’s journey to enlightenment beyond the Do Long Bridge and the Montagnard Army in Apocalypse Now, followed by its murderous fruition, is easy to follow. It’s not about the Vietnam War, but it’s 1967 and everything’s about the Vietnam War, man.

Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother … I want to … waaaaaarrrgghhhh

And Densmore’s drums explode into abandon, Robby Krieger’s guitar gets out of the boat, and Manzarek mellows the situation out with a go-around the keys, while Morrison breaks on through to the other side, that peyote still pecking at his vitals and Rothchild manning the pumps. They meet at the back of the blue bus, Morrison lashing away, using “fuck” as a beat, Densmore adds more cowbell, Krieger banjo-duels with his himself, until it all falls apart and – in the mind of an Apocalypse Now devotee – a sacred cow is sacrificed.

This was the end, and, for me, the start of beautiful friendship. He did, however, write some bloody awful poetry.

 

 

Lana Del Rey, Radio (2012)

LanaDelReyBornToDieAlbumCover

Artist: Lana Del Rey
Title: Radio
Description: track, Born To Die
Label: Interscope/Polydor
Release date: 2012
First heard: 2012

Motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin

I still appreciate accredited lyrics and have done since the Smash Hits revolution of my early teens. When a freckly contemporary of Weston Favell Upper School called Stuart Skelton first introduced a copy of the pop mag into the playground, I was slap-bang smitten. This particular issue was dated June 14-27, 1979, which meant the fortnightly glossy publication was not yet six months out of the traps (and nor did I know that among its staff were a handful of young, witty men who would in my future employ me to do what they were already doing). It had Donna Summer on the cover and tantalising promise of the words to Up The Junction, Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Ring My Bell and Masquerade within. To my knowledge, I didn’t miss an issue until the late 80s and only then because I had by then fixed my sights on the inky music press and brooked no argument from Black Type and Bev Hillier.

Within that first year of plighting my troth to Smash Hits it was with deep existential horror that the magazine confessed that the lyrics it had printed to Duchess by the Strangers (a single I’d bought) had been procured by listening with the head pressed against a speaker rather than sourced from the record company. I still distinctly remember the phrase “Dutch of the terrace” when my own ears told me it was “Duchess the terrace.” I’d like to say I never trusted them again. But I did.

We live now in an age of one-click, one-swipe everything. Ironically, this guarantees neither quality nor veracity. You’re as likely to encounter bluffed, phonetic, inaccurate lyrics on a lyric site as verse-chorus poetry directly sent directly down the pipe from a song’s copyright owners. I resent that. If I wanted poorly transcribed lyrics I’d transcribe them poorly myself. Which brings me to Radio by Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey in general.

I took a flyer on this cinematic-seeming new artiste in 2012, ignoring the nagging voice in my head that told me I was too old for this type of thing: a willowy young woman with an apparently fake ID and Hollywood-esque backstory – take your pick from a buffet of waitressing, teenage dyspepsia, pseudonyms, Catholicism, the Bronx, a hippy uncle and aunt, a degree in metaphysics – and a fabulously smoky, sneering vocal style. I wasn’t interested in her CV, but I liked her style. The singles – and there were a gluttonous, Thriller-approaching six –  from her second album Born to Die cast their net and I took the shiny bait. Whether she was real or fake, Del Rey’s record felt raw and ambitious and fiercely grown-up behind that varnished Lolita outer shell (“swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car”). And in one track, Radio, she sang so sweetly and melodically about “motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin” (hence: not a single). These were word combinations that interested me.

Well, guess what? She wasn’t singing that at all. After closer examination and with no Smash Hits to consult, I became convinced she wasn’t even swearing in that stanza from the song’s knockout chorus. I’m a grown man. I’m not impressed by strong language from the start per se, but I respect the commercial self-harm of building in a bad swear – not least if it discounts putting out a seventh single from an album that only contains 12 tracks. Anyhoo, here’s the apparently definitive couplet, which is only marginally less poetic than my misheard version:

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio

Be honest. It’s the syncopated, rhetorical question, “How do ya like me now?” that tips the chorus into invincibility. Del Rey is a natural wordsmith. She bullseyes again with, “Lick me up and take me like a vitamin,” which is an original come-on, steeped in the modern world of snowflake millennials. Then she’s claiming her body’s “sweet like sugar-venom, oh yeah.” This is beat poetry, man. The blank look of a blank generation she wears on the album’s sleeve sort of dares you to reflect it back. She isn’t going to be the first to blink in a stare-off. She’s a kohl-eyed JFK. She’s a poolside Svengali. Her name’s the name of a bar or a rodeo or a turnpike.

Songwriters are involved throughout the LP, sourced from as far apart as Lincolnshire, Warrington, Palo Alto and New Jersey – not to mention where genial Jim Irvin, former music journalist, editor and frontman of Furniture, hails from in London – but Del Rey’s family surname Grant is a constant. This is her truth, even if it isn’t true.

The arrangement is strewn around gossamer ambience and deep echo, combined with crunching beats, and it’s simultaneously chilly and warm. How do they achieve that? No matter. She sings, “Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise,” and your spider-sense tingles: has this apparently non-fictional character found peace beneath the chlorine? So soon?

I’ve realised that Lana Del Rey is for Christmas as well as for life. How do ya like me now?

 

 

OutKast, Hey Ya! (2003)

OutkastHeyYa

Artist: OutKast
Title: Hey Ya!
Description: single; track, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Label: LaFace/Arista
Release date: 2003
First heard: 2003

1, 2, 3, uh!

In his knockout book Uncommon People, the sage-like David Hepworth notes that “the age of the rock star” – his chosen subject – “was coterminous with rock and roll, which in spite of all the promises made in some memorable songs proved to be as finite as the era of ragtime or big bands.” His introduction concludes, “The rock era is over. We now live in a hip hop world.”

Cue:

My baby don’t mess around
Because she loves me so
And this I know for sho’

It is not with disdain or regret that David reports the death of rock, nor the ascension of hip hop, merely acknowledgement of fact. The subculture that grew exponentially into a culture, or arguably the culture, was founded on the art of rapping, the overhaul of the traditional modus of the vinyl turntable, pre-digital sampling and a deep base of African-American heritage that would drive what started at local block parties into the mainstream, international arena.

Don’t try to fight the feeling

The centre of gravity initially bounced from East coast to West, ricocheting between the South Bronx and South Central fairly constantly throughout the 80s, with gangsta rap eventually eclipsing New York and forging a new orthodoxy for the 90s based on questionable male sexual politics, the entrepreneurial and criminal accumulation of money, and fame and fortune for their own sake. As the industry craned for new sounds, new colours, new stars, the belated emergence of Southern hip-hop was inevitable, and two teens named André Benjamin (“Andre 3000”) and Antwan Patton (“Big Boi”) emerged from a nascent scene in Atlanta, Georgia, funkier and more free-wheeling than the West Coast shoot-’em-up style and with an attractive drawl. They went platinum before I’d ever heard of them, and I make no apology for that. I got them in the year 2000, like most people did.

Thank God for Mom and Dad
For sticking two together

Stankonia was neither OutKast’s debut album, nor their second, nor their third, but their fourth. Full marks if you were already following their origins story and could see it coming. I did not. I heard the backmasked, social-realist, Wagner’s Wedding March-sampling Ms Jackson in October 2000 when it lolloped to number one in the US and two in the UK. Having left Q magazine, I may well have paid good money for the parent LP and I was sold on all 73 minutes of its contents: melodic, meaningful, not always languid, packed with diversity, hard to tear your ears from, and quadruple-platinum, Grammy-trousering successful.

Having invested in their own studio after album #3, the heat was off and they’d allowed themselves a year to make Stankonia. They claim to have deliberately stopped listening to hip hop in lieu of listening to rock’n’roll, soul and funk. It shows. Shame about the blunts and the loose women (“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha we love deez hoez”), but enlightenment does not descend overnight.

And the pair hadn’t peaked. Three years later, they returned with a double album, and not just a double album but two solo albums, one each. Speakerboxx is Big Boi, whose modus operandi is to jam at home in LA for just under an hour; The Love Below is Benjamin and runs for 78 minutes. Both feature guest stars (Big Boi ropes in Killer Mike, Ludacris, Jay-Z and Cee-Lo; Benjamin has Norah Jones and Kelis) and – so much for the trial separation – each appears on the other’s disc. This is nothing new. Nary a single solo record by any ex-Beatle or member of the Stones comes without the casual appearance of a fellow ex-Beatle or member of the Stones, or both.

The commercial and creative crux of not just this album but the duo’s entire glittering career is Hey Ya! The ninth track on The Love Below, it thus by rights belongs to Benjamin. He recorded and self-produced it in Atlanta and Los Angeles, apparently free-forming the lyrics, which read like the schizophrenic breakdown of a man who cannot decide how to play the relationship he’s in. From one line to the next he flips between thinking he’s got it, then fearing that he hasn’t: “Oh, you think you’ve got it, but ‘got it’ just don’t get it at all.” He and his partner are “together … but separate’s always better.”

No wonder he gives up and gives in to a two-word assessment.

Hey ya! Hey ya!

Benjamin, fleet of tongue, gets this poem of faith and doubt across like the actor he always wanted to be. You can almost imagine his acting coach encouraging him to dig deep: “So why oh why oh, why oh why oh are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”

In case this is all sounding solipsistic, remember it’s laid across a thumping, hand-clapping, squelching-synth pop masterpiece that’s so confident in its authority it runs on a strummed acoustic guitar and sh-shakes it like a Polaroid picture. The author acknowledges this: “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.” Correct. Hey Ya! is one of the greatest pop songs of the 21st century, borne of every bloodline and bassline that merged to put black history back at the front of the book. But Benjamin has to be playing it for parody when he claims he “don’t want to meet your daddy”, but wants you in his Caddy, and neither does he want to “meet your mama”, he just wants to “make you cumma,” a line about the female orgasm being played on a mainstream radio station as we speak somewhere in the world, right now.

Having placed this mighty oak of a single into context – and the single’s genre-bending appearance on Billboard’s Modern Rock Charts tells us all we need to know about its crossover appeal – I have to say I never really followed up with OutKast. OutKast did, with an equivalent hit from Speakerboxx, The Way You Move, which also went to number one and in fact neatly replaced Hey Ya!, and Roses, which I never liked (“roses really smell like boo boo”), but united the pair as it’s the only track on The Love Below that also features Big Boi. I know, sweet. Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour!

OutKast split after a failed period gangster movie and soundtrack proved unable to generate any sugar (and was, ironically, set in the era of ragtime and big bands), although Benjamin does seem to be carving out an acting career after valiantly playing Hendrix in a biopic with no rights to his music.

In a hip-hop world, the pre-hip-hop artists are played by hip-hop artists.

 

Kraftwerk, The Model (1981)

kraftwerkTheModel

Artist: Kraftwerk
Title: The Model
Description: single; track, The Man-Machine
Label: EMI Capitol
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1981

She has been checking nearly all the men …

Any documentary about the music scene of the 1980s is good news for Rochdale’s Kieran Prendiville, whose your-favourite-teacher bulletins from the wild frontier of electronica on BBC’s cutting-edge crystal-ball science fair Tomorrow’s World gave elbow-patch life to the brave new world of computer love.

In a piece to camera from 1980 about the bleeding-edge Fairlight synthesiser, Prendiville admitted, “We’ve never been very good at electronically creating sounds that sound real.” Until now, that is. He bangs a timpani for real – bom! – then asks us to “cock an ear” to the sampled sound of a timpani triggered by his finger on the key of a keyboard. “That’s almost perfect isn’t it?” It had better be: a computer has “mathematicaly worked out the incredible complexity of the soundwave a timpani makes” – bom! And that, he vouches, is just the beginning. It’s played for laughs, but it’s popular science.

Talking of which, Kraftwerk, the avant-boffin synthesis pioneers from Dusseldorf, emerged from the indelicately categorised Krautrock wave of the late 60s and early 70s, and embraced the circuit board with all of their hearts, with founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider actually filing the patent for an early, electronic drum machine that you hit with metal sticks in 1975. They got their big break in 1975 not on The Old Grey Whistle Test, or Cheggers Plays Pop, but Tomorrow’s World.

In the witty words of Andrew Harrison in the Guardian, looking back from the advantage of 30-odd years, Tomorrow’s World showcased “four young Germans dressed like geography teachers, apparently playing camping stoves with wired-up knitting needles,” performing (a verb suddenly in need of an upgrade) a song (another one) called Autobahn. Whereas rock and roll sang of cars, Kraftwerk genuflected towards the motorway itself. The clip nudged the world off it axis. Drummers ran for their lives.

In 1991, Kraftwerk were back on Tomorrow’s World, this time in robot form before their tour. But their innovation was part of the furniture by then. It’s not the law to appreciate Kraftwerk only for their Vorsprung durch Technik, but it’s tricky to separate the scientific advance from the artistic endeavour. What I find myself constantly knocked out by is how popular they were from such fundamentally radical roots. Autobahn was a hit in 1974, Top 10 in West Germany and New Zealand, Top 20 in Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, the parent LP likewise, which was Top 5 in the United States. But The Model, a jauntily fizzing if deadpan pop single from 1978’s rather severe-looking The Man-Machine, topped the UK charts when belatedly issued as a single in 1981. It was the b-side to the more melodic Computer Love, which was mercenarily flipped by EMI after it stalled at 36 and it went to the top of the shop. Sometimes there’s a reason to like being beside the b-side.

Chips with everything! To file The Model (or Das Model) under “disarmingly simple” is not to denigrate but to admire. The beat, created by either man (Wolfgang Flür), machine or a fusion of the two (it doesn’t matter), is as formal as a click-track and its double snare-snap is as close as it gets to abandon; Hütter’s vocal and the foreground riff almost rhyme with each other; but the pulsing bass beat is actually rather athletic if you tune into it, the song’s secret ingredient. There’s not much room for analysis, but that just reflects the machine-tooled surfaces of the music. It’s hard not to admire the sustained drone that announces the run-out at the end of its three-and-a-half minutes. A little dose of psychological warfare not usually applied to perfect pop (unless you count the “neighing stallion” keyboard sound in Crazy Horses by the Osmonds).

Check the lyrics, delivered with neither irony nor public display of affection by Hütter. They are enough to make you wonder if he’s talking about a flesh-and-blood human mannequin, or a robot with a model number:

She’s a model and she’s looking good
I’d like to take her home, that’s understood

That she “plays hard to get” and “smiles from time to time” is a direct hit, as descriptive as a magazine profile of many hundreds of words. “It only takes a camera to change her mind,” has a dystopian ring, shades of the robotic machinemensch in the German silent Metropolis, who leads a revolution, driving men to distraction. Our synthetic femme fatale “goes out to nightclubs, drinking just champagne,” but when she’s said to be “checking nearly all the men,” is she actually ogling them, or more methodically checking them off a list? She is, after all, “playing her game.” The line, “for beauty we will pay” doesn’t accidentally bespeak pimps and johns. For all its brushed-steel precision and antiseptic sheen, The Model is as wayward and fatalistic as any Weimar cross-dresser pushing a wheelbarrow of hard currency before the youth start singing about tomorrow belonging to them.

It was a rare chart-topper recorded in the 70s that referred to “consumer products” but Kraftwerk were part of the future and they did things differently there. The model is “a big success,” which is why the song’s protagonist wants to meet her again. The 80s apparently came early to Dusseldorf. To keep things corporeal and human, let us pay tribute to the song’s writers, as, contrary to the national panic, hit tunes didn’t write themselves: take a stiff bow, Hütter, Karl Bartos and Emil Schult.

Back on a more conventional kind of screen from before the dawning of a new era, Kieran Prendiville boasts in 1980 of his hard drive having “barks, cannons, creaks, footsteps, miaows, oinks, quacks …” For Kraftwerk, true pioneers, such fripperies seemed much smaller in the rear view mirror.

Bom!

Elvis Presley, Suspicious Minds (1969)

ElvisSuspiciousMinds

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Suspicious Minds
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1969
First heard: circa mid-1970s

Jordan: The Comeback is the fifth studio album by musically and lyrically eloquent northeasterners Prefab Sprout. A nominal concept album (Rolling Stone summed it up as a pop symphony about “God, love and Elvis”), its standout passage, for me, has always been its four-minute title track, in which the King laments from some rhinestone-studded version of heaven.

And all those books about me
Well there wasn’t much love in ’em boys
I’m tellin’ ya, if I’d taken all that medication
Man, I’d a rattled like one of my little girl’s toys
Now they call me a recluse
Been in the desert so long
Layin’ on my back, bidin’ my time
I’m just waitin’ for the right song

Then I’m comin’ back!

Only Paddy McAloon would have the chutzpah and chops to imagine Elvis considering a move back to Memphis from the top of a stairway to heaven. But Elvis is so big, so all-powerful, so iconic in the Mount Rushmore sense of the exhausted adjective, how else do you draw him out of the desert of pagan idolatry? Certainly, how do you pick one of the countless prêt-à-chanter tunes delivered to him over his quarter-century of pelvis-swiveling, gallery-playing and myth-salesmanship?

As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Squeeze and other statutory genii of the 45, you’re looking at a long list of choice cuts. There are 30 number ones to trace a finger down from Elvis’s foreshortened lifetime, never mind all of those contenders that only squeaked to number two (Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Burning Love), or number three (Crying in the Chapel, Devil In Disguise, In the Ghetto in the US; Teddy Bear in the UK). Suspicious Minds, first recorded in 1968 by its writer Mark James (who would go on to pen Moody Blue and Always on my Mind), became a hit on Elvis’s hips a year later, and his final living US chart-topper. (He enjoyed three further number ones in the UK: doo-wop serenade The Wonder of You, the down and dirty Burning Love and the deep and meaningful Way Down.)

The 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, recorded there to exploit the free pass bestowed by the fabulously restorative NBC special from Burbank, Singer Presents … Elvis (colloquially known as the ’68 Comeback Special, whose soundtrack went Top 10), marked the true return of the King, having been in the desert for at least seven years, making movies with diminishing artistic returns, and not playing live. The books state that Elvis laid down Suspicious Minds between 4am and 7am in a night-shift pre-breakfast rush on 23 January, ’69, in eight takes. It was overdubbed in the not-insignificant town of Las Vegas that August and released as a single forthwith.

I’m always cheered by how low-key the intro is. It’s almost a little bit country, with Reggie Young’s caressed electric guitar and Gene Chrisman’s sticks tap-dancing on the hi-hat. Then Elvis sends out a distress signal: “We’re caught in a trap!” We quickly learn that he can’t walk out, because he loves somebody too much, baby. The last line is coloured in by the most buoyant, promenade-suite strings, which take up the cause from here. As translated into Elvish from Mark James’ text, the lyric is torrid kitchen-sink stuff. The protagonist and his ill-suited squeeze are caught in a trap of their own making. Why can’t she see what she’s doing to him? She’s probably thinking the same thing, after all, she doesn’t believe a word he says. It’s evident that they can’t go on together with suspicious minds. It’s killing them, and here they go again …

Eleven backing singers whip this problem-page teaser into a full-on melodrama, while trumpets and trombones, arranged by Glenn Spreen, pump up the volume. It’s an epic. Chrisman stick-shifts from rat-tat-tat-tat to more skittish hi-hat, and back again. He’s on  a roll. But this is expected from first-rate sessioneers.

There are two audacious, infrastructural gambits in Suspicious Minds. One comes at 1.45, when, after Elvis croons “suspicious mah-a-ha-aands“, the whole show slows down to ballad-speed crawl. The break allows him to entreaty, “let’s don’t let a good thing die”, adding an “mmmm-mmmm-mmmmm” that luxuriates in the pause for thought. Then, at 2.12, it cranks back up and starts windmilling its way to the finish. Though Chrisman holds this quick-march beat thereafter, all the heartache, harmony (“yeah, yeah“) and tumult makes it feels like it gathers further speed as it builds to the all-in climax – the eleven sound like twelve; the brass goes off the hook and proclaims heavenly timeshare; a snare fill pops in all the excitement – and then, just as it hits its exultant final bars, at 3.35 it begins to fade …

Nothing out of the ordinary there, it’s what old 45s did, for reasons practical and commercial. But don’t go away, that’s not all, folks. After 15 seconds, as the houselights are turned back on … it fades back in! Such a tease. Is it intended to conjure the band leaving the stage and coming back on for an encore? It’s certainly pure showbiz, albeit effected by a lever on the desk It legendarily fades at around 3.35 and then after 15 seconds fades back in, a sabotage decision made by producer Felton Jarvis that oughtn’t even work but, like Lou Reed struggling to scan “all the coloured girls sang” in Walk on the Wild Side and Joni Mitchell squealing with tickled delight in Big Yellow Taxi, it just does.

Now that’s what I call a comeback.