Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Unfinishedsympathy

Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

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Killah Priest, B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth) (1995)

GZALiquid-Swords

Artist: Killah Priest
Title: B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)
Description: album track, Liquid Swords (credited to Genius/GZA); album track, Heavy Mental (credited to Killah Priest)
Label: Geffen/MCA
Release date: 1995; 1998
First heard: 2000

The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
And, uh, the second son of Pope Alexand-uh
The Sixth of Rome, and once the picture was shown
That’s how the devils tricked my dome

A curious case. Liquid Swords is the second solo album from Wu-Tang Clan key man and co-founder GZA (aka The Genius), recorded and released in the hiatus between the first and second Wu-Tang albums in 1995. Like most Wu solo projects, it involves the majority of the Clan and numerous satellites in at least a guest capacity: RZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God and Masta Killa. It was recorded and produced by RZA.

So what’s the 13th and final track, B.I.B.L.E., all about? Despite a performance credit to GZA/The Genius “featuring” Killah Priest, it is, to all intents and purposes, a solo piece by Priest, then a Wu affiliate but not a full, card-carrying member. The artist born Walter Reed is best known for his group Sunz Of Man, who released two albums in 1998 and 2002. He has since severed ties with the Wu. If this isn’t interesting to you, I hope it at least goes some way to illuminating the complex, internecine, cross-hatched nature of the Wu-Tang family.

Having enrolled the Wu-Tang Clan’s Let My Niggas Live into The 143 – for me, a supreme example of teamwork – I’m left with a well twice as deep filled with Wu-Tang solo records. A number are registered classics among the rapuscenti: Tical by Method Man, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon, Supreme Clientele and Fishscale by Ghostface Killah, and GZA’s Liquid Swords, which is where, as they say, we at.

As a long-player, it run on samples from a 1980 marital arts film I have never seen, and am unlikely ever to see, Shogun Assassin. Such snippets of dialogue, usually dubbed into English and badly, are a thread that runs through the entire Wu canon. But no such find a place on B.I.B.L.E., the album’s final track, left off certain formats. Why? Perhaps because it appears to have very little to do with GZA, whose name does not even appear in the song’s credits. Quite what it’s doing on the LP is a mystery to me.

And yet, it makes sense, as it’s nothing like the rest of the album, and it comes at the very end, like the bonus it appears to be. It’s produced by 4th Disciple, an enduring Wu knobsman with prod and co-prod credits on the output of most principal members and the Clan themselves on Wu-Tang Forever (he also turntabled on Enter The Wu-Tang). So, B.I.B.L.E. is canon, but not. Run on a looped rhythm from the final track (apt!) of 1972 Ohio Players LP Pleasure – the eerie, hiccuping, childlike cry is presumably singer Robert Ward, hamming it up – it moves at an unhurried pace, creating a lowdown, smoky vibe, entirely suited to the earnest sermon thereupon.

Not a single curse-word passes its lips. You can play it on the radio. I did play it on the radio. (I think the first time I did I credited it to GZA and was quickly pulled up on my mistake.) As verbose as many a core Wu-Tang piece, its chorus is a soothing repeat of the “basic instructions before leaving earth” refrain and the lyric actually bears examination. That this investigation into Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology and imagery is not tossed off quickly becomes clear. “Life is a test,” he testifies, referring to “research”, which involved feeling “joy an’ the hurt.”

He spools back to when he was 12 years old in Bedford-Stuyvesant and presumably still called Walter (“I loved doin’ right, but I was trapped in Hell”). It’s a moving stanza about “mad ideas, sad eyes an’ tears” and “years of fears.” This church-going, juvenile “search for truth” ended when Priest found his own priest wanting: “souped up with lies,” he recalls.

Durin’ the service, he swallowed up the poor
An’ after they heard this, they wallowed on the floor
But I ignored an’ explored my history that was untold
An’ watched mysteries unfold

He returns to this theme of the unreliable preacher later in the song:

See, look into my eyes, brethren, that’s the lies of a Reverend

There are references here to Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, Hebrew, Job, the Bible, “hocus pocus”, space, sin and abortion. This is not a lyric you’ll get on first listen, nor one you hear every day. It, too, requires “research.” (“I studied ’til my eyes was swollen.”) But it’s eloquent, fluid, personal, questioning and complex, replete with surprising rhymes and twists: “abyss” twinned with “hiss”, “turban” with “urban”, “beanie” and “genie.”

An’ from the caves he crept from behind
An’ what he gave was the sect of the swine

You don’t need to sign up with the Nation of Islam – or indeed the Black Hebrew Israelites – to find the theological rigour intoxicating. It certainly makes a change from rap’s incessant braggadocio and gun-slingin’. As a longtime white fan of this deeply black music (one of the devils, I guess, who “tricked his dome”), I have long since made peace with the fact that I am a geographical and cultural outsider listening in, with issues, and accredit the best of the genre to its raw power, archaeological originality and lyrical dexterity. When Priest raps, “For years religion did nothing but divide,” you sense a man of peace not war.

Why should you die to go to Heaven?
The Earth is already in space

You can’t help but feel warmth when our father speaks of teaching his son “as he kneels on the stoop.” He augers, “Son, life is a pool of sin,” and then appears to warn of “wicked” women who “build picket signs to legalise abortion.” We’re in murky waters here, but to listen is not to condone. Think of it as reading a novel. You don’t have to vote for him.

This tune’s instructions are not basic at all, but a resplendent, fabulously interwoven crown of thorny issues. It’s one of my favourite Wu-Tang Clan tracks and yet occupies its own pitch on the outer limits. It’s not even really on the album it says it’s on. But it makes you think and nod your head, even if you don’t agree with every sentiment.

And it rhymes “And, uh,” with “Pope Alexand-uh,” which ought to win a poetry prize.

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

CarterUSMOnlyLivingBoy

Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days before writing this entry, along with let’s say 4,999 others, I witnessed Carter play their final, final gig on 22 November 2014 at Brixton Academy in London, which is practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their last final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago in Brixton.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the now-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

ADFRafi'sRevenge

Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Label: FFRR
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than Edwin Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.

Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.

Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political as institutionalised racism became a big issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.

Birmingham six
Bridgewater four
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?

One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant after a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.

Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools

It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.

Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek

It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.

There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustically strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.

Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action, Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.

Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.

My Bloody Valentine, Soon (1990)

MBVGlider

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Title: Soon
Description: EP track, Glider; album track, Loveless
Label: Creation
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1990

In the 1970s, Queen would guarantee by way of a recurring sleeve note that “no synthesisers were used” in the making of their records. I always read this as a snotty form of dinosaurial purism. But Kevin Shields, the big brain and dextrous fingers of My Bloody Valentine, might have revived the very same badge of honour in the 1980s and 90s. For he, too, was proud to have created his band’s distinct sound using guitars, played live. Except with a spot of glissando.

My Bloody Valentine were just two Irishmen and two English women who walked into a bar and made some noise, and yet they were legend. The story of the band’s diffident second album Loveless is a fable well told, the hard facts of its recording as distorted as the sounds heard within it. How much it actually cost – beyond the band’s future patronage at Creation – becomes less relevant with every passing year. As with Brian May’s, time cannot wither My Bloody Valentine’s sound, because it emerged from places unidentified between the plectrum and the magnetic tape that enshrined it, and as such has never faded from vitality and relevance.

If Loveless reminds us of that awkward transition from the 80s into the 90s – and it was recorded as one decade metamorphosed into the other – it is little more than bald historical statute: that is when we first heard it. But if Soon encapsulates its era with that nod to what we used to call “indie-dance” – MBV’s own fuzzy mutation of the shuffle beat, buried deep in the miasma – there endeth its bondage to fashion.

I interviewed the whole band on the eve of release of Loveless for an NME cover story in their manager’s front room in Streatham. As a devotee of their squall since Isn’t Anything I was proud to do so, even if the on-paper results were tongue-tied and sensation-free. (It was just around the corner from where I lived at the time, which was handy.) This is a band whose music speaks for itself; at least, it speaks with more clarity than the mere mortals who make it. But let us lose ourselves in these seven minutes of mystery and see what comes out in the wash.

“The vaguest music ever to get into the charts,” according to a lecture given by Professor Brian Eno at the New York Museum Of Modern Art in 1990, Soon is the track most like and yet most unlike My Bloody Valentine at that particular equinox, a band whose kind of magic seemed unbottleable then.

You should listen to Soon in the context of Loveless. (It was previously chucked out on the Glider EP in April 1990 to appease a panicked Alan McGee as far as I can tell, while its parents shuttled like refugees between 18 studios around London until the autumn of 1991). It begins with the end: the dying, eddying embers of previous track What You Want.

Like everything My Bloody Valentine did from one end of Loveless to the other (and Soon lies at the other end), it sounds as if it were hewn from interference insomnia and something gaseous. “That” drum pattern, unlike its equivalent on a record by, say, the Mock Turtles or the Milltown Brothers, seems to work against the rest of the song rather than with it. It emerges from a near-militaristic snare doodle that may in fact have been affected by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig using sticks on a skin and then sampled and looped into the mix by Shield. (Ó Cíosóig only plays live on two tracks, which is two more than bassist Deb Googe and guitarist Bilinda Butcher.)

I won’t tie myself up in knots locating each instrument in this sonic equivalent of one of those pantomimic equations scrawled madly across a huge blackboard in films about genius. If in doubt, it’s a guitar, treated at the point of purchase using the tremelo arm of fable, then treated again a bit afterwards using some supernatural combination of pre-amp equalisers, whatever they may be. But the real treat is for our ears. To understand precisely how Shields did it would be to let light in upon magic. And there’s light here in abundance: bright, blinding, infinite, and liable to leave an imprint.

It’s not an unconventional song. It has a beat, an intro, singing, riffs. In the first sequence, a spellbinding repeat pattern throbs with ecstasy and wine, and we’re in good, happy company. And then, at 44 seconds, where there was harmony, Shields brings the first note of discord. Out of this comes Bilinda Butcher’s indistinct, woozy dream-state vocal – her lovely singing voice always a fourth “instrument” in Shields’ vision – and a narcotic state of grace is achieved. Verse? Chorus? Both and neither. Do not let the funky beat confuse you. This is a night at the opera.

I almost chose To Here Knows When as the ultimate My Bloody Valentine track – this album’s fourth: in essence the sound of an analgesic working on a headache for five minutes and 31 beautiful seconds – or the dolphin call of I Only Said, which never fails to alleviate symptoms of angst with its afternoon’s delights. In many ways, you could argue for the 49-minute entirety of Loveless as My Bloody Valentine’s greatest song. But Soon puts a tin hat on the record, unafraid of shape and form, a battler after mainstream acceptance. Shields and MBV always operated outside the tent, pitching in, and never bestrode the world like Queen. Too vaporous to handle. Too shrouded in mystery. Too much. Too Jung. But their place in history is now assured. The comeback and the third album in 2013 proved that they can still do whatever it is that they did.

Soon fades for about 20 seconds. But instead of knobs being turned, it is the sound of an idea being dissembled. It will rock you.

Teenage Fanclub, The Concept (1991)

TeenageFanclubTheConcept

Artist: Teenage Fanclub
Title: The Concept
Description: single; album track, Bandwagonesque
Label: Creation
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I’m writing this in a coffee shop in the centre of Glasgow. Teenage Fanclub, like the Soup Dragons and BMX Bandits, formed in Belshill, a town ten miles south east of the centre of Glasgow. We are under a week away from the Scottish Referendum. Scotland, and in particular its most characteristic city, feels like a pretty vital place to be having a coffee and an opinion. We have established elsewhere what a vibrantly musical would-be republic Young Scotland is, and it was carrot-topped emeritus Alan McGee’s London-based but Greater Glasgow-spirited Creation who helped bring Teenage Fanclub to the wider audience they strove for and fully deserved in the early 90s, when “indie” was not yet a dirty word.

British guitar music slowed down to an interminable crawl in the mid 2000s, the main drag caused by Coldplay but sluggishly adhered to by Snow Patrol, Travis, Embrace, Keane. Why didn’t they just call themselves Slow Patrol and be done with it? This era was turgid indeed. A go-slow does not automatically equate with grandeur or meaning – you have to be as assured as Elbow or Doves to crack that. I mention all this only because Teenage Fanclub, a decade earlier, had also eased off the pedal (if not the pedals) and created a glorious new groove for themselves that never plodded or trudged. Listen in particular to their third, fourth and fifth albums again – on which nary a foot is put wrong – and experience a band at the top of not just any game but a game they’d devised themselves. It’s not that literally every song is slow, but listen in wonder at how naturally they slip into that gear.

What You Do To Me, Metal Baby, Sidewinder, Alcoholiday, Guiding Star, About You, Mellow Doubt, Don’t Look Back, Neil Jung, I Gotta Know, I know, I know, I’m just listing tracks now, but great tracks, and not one of them breaks a sweat. It’s as if the Fanclub recognised that Everything Flows was the key song on A Catholic Education and based a whole repertoire around its colours, just as Rothko had done with his crimsons and burgundies, and nobody asked for their money back.

It was a headache choosing one song from that repertoire (and I did not discount Songs From Northern Britain or Howdy when making the dreaded final selection), but the impact of being the first song on their first copper-bottomed classic LP proved hard to ignore. The Concept even sounds definitive from its title. (By the way, I should confess now and forever hold my peace: I had never heard a note of the fabled Big Star when I heard Teenage Fanclub, so their thrall to Alex Chilton and gang meant nothing to me beyond the theoretical. I’ve heard Big Star since, and yeah, I get it. Everything flows from somewhere.)

Four seconds of tasty feedback, then that first couplet: so evocative, so arch, so potent, like the opening lines of a hip, dog-eared novel.

She wears denim wherever she goes
Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo
Oh yeah … Oh yeah

Let’s go over that again. Who’s she? What’s the significance of her choice of denim? That’s she’s cool? That she’s uncool? She’s promising to fill the Status Quo void in her record collection. Is that cool? She thinks they’re called “the Status Quo”, or perhaps she’s balancing the semantic karma after Mark Goodier’s habit of dropping the definite article from band names (Farm, Charlatans). She doesn’t even know the name of the band she thinks are cool enough to boast about thinking of investing in, but who may not be as cool as this denim-clad woman thinks they are. It’s Norman Blake singing his own lyrics here, but it might just as well not be, as Teenage Fanclub remain the most democratic songwriting unit ever registered. This instrument-swapping egalitarianism does them great credit, and stops Norman from being the frontman, even though he is. But what darkness is this?

Still she won’t be forced against her will
Says she don’t do drugs but she does the pill

What fierce creature is she? Not the sad groupie hinted at by the later intelligence that “she likes the group ’cause we pull in the slack” and even drives them home “if there isn’t a bar”; compos mentis, it seems, and yet contraceptively covered. Our protagonist says, “I didn’t want to hurt you,” which suggests that he did hurt her. That’s gratitude for all the compliments about his hair she gave, the designated driver. There is some fine lyrical alchemy afoot here, and maybe that’s why the slow pace works: it gives you time to ruminate on what you’re hearing.

“Slacker” was an imported lifestyle choice in the early 90s, matched by the often laboured nature of grunge and the thinness of its complaint. Teenage Fanclub “pull in the slack”. They are bright, breezy, self-mocking individuals. If ever a member disappeared, he was replaced by another just like him. Belshill seems to breed rare, fluting wits (the Soup Dragons’ Paul Quinn was an easy fit after the manic Brendan O’Hare left). Once you’ve met Norman and Gerry and Raymond, it’s impossible to unpick them from their music, but if you’ve encountered them live, you’ll feel you know them anyway. I was blessed to be in faraway Wick with the second line-up of Teenage Fanclub on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, and while they treated her tragic passing with respect, I recall a natural optimism that seemed to bounce off them like positive ions as we breathed deep of the sea air outside the hotel.

To pick out a couple of the niceties that raise this six-minute song up from merely super-tuneful, intelligent, timeless epic rock that you can listen to between meals without ruining your appetite: the simple contrast between the crackle of distortion and the sweetness of Norman’s vocal; the full-bodied depth on the “Oh yeah”s; the droll guitar “quotes” from Parfitt and Rossi before the second verse and the bridge; and the dramatic gap at the halfway mark, where everything stops flowing and Brendan almost falls across his kit to bring it back from the brink and the four of them harmonise like angels. Angels, I tell you.

As if we deserve swooping, sawing strings as well.

I finish writing this on the train back to London. When I cross the Scottish border, it may be the last time I do so without a passport in my jacket pocket, so I’d best mark this momentous occasion but putting The Concept back on, which is a pretty vital song about the status quo. Oh yeah.

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

NINpretty-hate-machine

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’.