XTC, Making Plans For Nigel (1979)

XTCMakingPlansForNigel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966)

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Label: Reprise
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s

In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”

Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.

Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.

*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.

It’s like there’s a party starting  but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.

“You keep saying you’ve got something for me,” she snarls, impatiently. “Something you call love, but confess.” This is not a woman torridly imploring a man to take her back, this is a woman grinding her heel into his chest. He’s been messin’ where he shouldn’t have been a messin’, after all, not to mention lyin’ when he oughtta have been “truthin'” (touché, Mr Hazelwood, a “colloquial phrase” for the statute books). Her boots are going to carry her out of this unsatisfactory situation, but not without an over-the-shoulder threat as she leaves: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” (She might well take one for her baby, too.)

It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.

Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.

After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?

Ha!

James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970)

JBSexMachinered

Artist: James Brown
Title: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1
Description: single
Label: King (UK: Polydor)
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1980s

Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing!
Yeah! That’s right! Do it!
I want to get into it, man, you know?
Go ahead!
Like a, like a sex machine, man.
Yeah!
Movin’, doin’ it, y’know?
Yeah!
Can I count it off?
Okay!
One, two, three, four!

On 21 March, 1983, BBC2 repeated an edition of Pop Carnival featuring band of the moment Echo & The Bunnymen, live at Sefton Park in August 1982. I taped it, as we used to say in those days, and played it on a loop. Captivated in general by a lithe, smooth-skinned, coolly possessed Ian McCulloch in close up, lit in red and green and sliding out of a wide-necked t-shirt, I was particularly taken with his trademark, Jim Morrison-inspired freeforming. During a memorable protraction of Do It Clean, he yelled these instructions at the audience, separated from the stage by an actual moat:

“Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like a sex machine!”

Ill-educated at that tender stage in the riches of soul and funk, I wrongly assumed these provocative words to be of McCulloch’s own wild invention and not, as it turned out, a sincere tribute to Mr James Brown.

As the decade wore on, the goalposts of my mind were moved exponentially, and a James Brown best-of was added to my collection under “essentials”. Sampling had breathed new life, if not new royalties, into the Godfather of Soul’s knockout canon, and by the end of the 80s, his horns, his rhythms and his catchphrases belonged to the world. For me, it may well have been Sefton Park that cast a special aura around Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – a critical moat, if you like – but no matter how deeply his other greatest hits burrowed under my skin, it was unimpeachable. His biggest hits in the UK up to the mid-80s had been It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Get Up Offa That ThingSex Machine only reached 32 on initial release in 1970 and barely charted at all in endless, greedy reissues – and then that blatant bid for glory Living In America put them all in the shade. But for an artist whose back catalogue goes classic, classic, classic, classic, classic, you need your own criteria for selecting one.

To say that it’s his best work is to perhaps undersell the marksmanship of the JB’s, who’d only just been assembled in 1970 and the horn section are relatively quiet on the track after that signature “count-off”. But in some ways, the lack of arrangement gives the music air, and over that modest but hypnotic guitar phrase from Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and the low-energy beat from “Jabo” Starks, Brown and co-writer Bobby Byrd are able to effectively duet, affecting a funky version of bants (“Dig it!” “Right on, right on!” “Shake your money maker”). When Byrd’s piano adds some fleeting colour, it’s about as complex as the five-minute studio version gets. This is stark stuff. Like a machine, in fact.

When – after teasing the band once again with a call-and-response – Brown takes them to the surely definitive bridge, and then counts it off “one more time”, nothing miraculous actually happens. It barely even goes up a gear, for all the fanfare and spoken preamble. And that’s the way I like it: the way it is. There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on; it constantly pulls its punches, but such restraint takes skill and judgement. It’s what, for me, renders it so irresistible, a tune you go back to again and again and again. There are elongated live versions on wax (featuring the returning Fred Wesley), but you’ll never top this original take for sheer precision and, yes, discipline.

The JB’s had a tough boss, but, y’know, dig it, James Brown ran a tight ship, he docked people’s wages and he got results. To lift a call-and-response from my second favourite James Brown tune:

What you gonna play now?
Bobby, I don’t know. But whatsoever I play, it’s gotta be funky.
Yeah!

Scott Walker, Montague Terrace (In Blue) (1967)

Scott_WalkerScott

Artist: Scott Walker
Title: Montague Terrace (In Blue)
Description: album track, Scott
Label: Philips
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1990

Yes. I, too, was hoodwinked into the Easy Listening revival of the mid-90s when Mike Flowers stalked the earth. I, too, remembered with ironic fondness my parents’ Jack Jones and Andy Williams LPs, and enjoyed revisiting them with a straight face. But some years before it was officially decreed that “loungecore” and the theme to Animal Magic were cool, in 1990, PolyGram put out Boy Child, a fine 20-track compilation of Scott Walker’s best work, and it was with 100% sincerity that I lost myself in it.

Dimly aware of his work with the Walker Brothers through the pop radio of my youth, up to that point he’d not crossed my radar as this spicy cavalier of sleazy Euro-theatricality, from Hamilton, Ohio to swinging London via Brussels and Paris. Boy Child duly pointed me at his solo work, the albums so helpfully numbered for my listening pleasure. I knew less about Jacques Brel and only belatedly discovered that Walker was instrumental in popularising Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s English translations, including a handful on Scotts 1-3, where he was clearly feeling the Brel influence on his self-penned tracks.

I’m still captivated by his whip-cracking, high-salt-content interpretations of Brel numbers like Jackie, Amsterdam, My Death, Next and The Girls And The Dogs, with their politically incorrect talk of “queers” and “procuring young girls”. However, it’s important to note that many of my favourite Walker tracks are neither the work of Brel and his co-writers, nor covers at all, but credited to Noel Scott Engel himself.

Having thrown myself into a Scott Walker maelstrom in order to sift out my all-time favourite, I find myself almost physically unable to listen to anything else. It all seems so mechanical, faceless and fashion-led by comparison. (This is not to do a disservice to All Other Music, but to accentuate what makes the sound of Scott Walker so different, so appealing.) As well as this piece de resistance, I’m also super-fond of Engel compositions Plastic Palace People (more of a suite), The Girls From The Streets (which you’d swear was a Brel original) and Always Coming Back To You. But I am not alone, I suspect, in falling deeply in love with Montague Terrace. (Nor looking for the actual street, in vain. I read somewhere that it’s in Bromley, not the West End, although I seem to recall Stuart Maconie recording a link for a Scott Walker radio documentary in Montague Street in Bloomsbury as if that was enough.)

The orchestral arrangement by Wally Stott (how excited was I when I discovered a link between Walker and Tony Hancock, whose theme and incidental music Stott composed?) is sublime. The expectant strings, the tinkle of the chimes, Walker crooning as if out of an open window at the moon: “The only sound to tear through the night comes from the man upstairs.” This man’s “bloated belching” and imagined propensity to “crash through the ceiling soon” evoke a similarly seedy, cheapside, harbour-lit milieu to one Brel might have painted. And then that crack of drums.

The orchestra swirls around the narrator, as if in some West End musical, Walker nudged into the background by the swell as he hits the lamenting heights with a brass-backed chorus that finally names Montague Terrace … in blue. The reveal of its colour scheme delivers us back to the limpid quiet of the intro. It’s just what grunge would do 25 years later when Walker was approved for a new generation: quiet verse, loud chorus. Or in his case, limpid verse, oompah-pah chorus.

I love the percussion. I love the shifts from foreground to background. But I love Walker’s acrobatic voice most of all. The image I conjure is of Fenella Fielding’s vamp in Carry On Screaming (released the year before), who asks Det Sgt Bung, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and then starts to literally smoulder on the chaise longue until she disappears beneath the erotic fug. There goes Scott Walker into that lively pea souper. He loves a party with a slightly threatening atmosphere. Especially if there might be some sailors. And a girl whose “thighs are full of tales to tell.”

Interestingly, as a student in the mid-80s, ahead of the curve, I’d compiled Mum and Dad’s easy listenin’ LPs onto a cassette one summer – perhaps as arch respite from the endless Goth, psychobilly and 4AD arthouse. Either way, I appreciated the potency of this expensive music. And Scott Walker’s first four solo albums – the last of which contained no covers, no Brel, the stablilisers were off – remain four of my favourites. Only Morrissey, Eno, McCartney and Peter Gabriel could make a claim for the greatness of their first four solo albums after being in a successful group.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going off to listen to Scott Walker.