The Sweet, Blockbuster! (1973)

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Artist: The Sweet
Title: Blockbuster!
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1973

W-w-w-wuh-we just haven’t got a c-c-c-aargh-huh!

I hate the sound of sirens. The ghostly wail is actually the sound of air being pumped through a rotor, but there’s no way of boxing it off as practical mechanics when it pierces the everyday order of things and injects a note, or two notes, of alarm. In the case of the intro of Block Buster – also written as Blockbuster!, and Block Buster! – it warns of one of the most exciting glam rock singles of the era. I was seven when it was released in January 1973. The band’s classic line-up – Brian Connolly (vocals), Andy Scott (guitar), Steve Priest (bass), Mick Tucker (drums) – had been stomping around the pub/club circuits of Greater London and North Wales individually and in various configurations since the early 60s, playing R&B and bubblegum pop longer than I had been alive. In August 1970, they coalesced. And I started Abington Vale Primary School.

Painlessly guided into Bacofoil jump suits and winched aboard heels to match the age and destined for greatness under the industrial songwriting aegis of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and producer Phil Wainman, the lads were only heard vocally on the first Sweet records until their musicianship was recognised and they were allowed to take over from the session players and even write their own b-sides.

To call these androgynous, pouting, stack-heeled, spaniel-haired hod-carriers of legend a “singles band” is an understatement. Between late 1971 and early 1974 they had eight consecutive UK hits, six of which went Top 5, one of which was number one, and not one of these hits was on an album. The Sweet were a band who knew that if you couldn’t suck it in three minutes and 13 seconds, it wasn’t worth a fuck. (Most of their UK hits throughout this golden run also busted the block in Australia, Europe, North America, South Africa and Canada; in total, they had 15 smashes in the Top 40, their last post the spooky, self-penned Love is like Oxygen in 1978.)

What’s strange about The Sweet, and their sweet-smelling success, is that while glam-racket contemporaries Slade and Wizzard are still hailed as a national treasures, with Noddy Holder, Dave Hill and Roy Wood cast as bona fide Queen Mums, David Bowie is an immortal, and even Marc Bolan is an impish icon whose legend was sealed in arboreal tragedy, the Sweet seem to have slipped into a nostalgic vacuum where ridicule in snarky captions on Top of the Pops compilations is their legacy. This must be rectified.

As a child on the edge of my first breakthrough, I favoured the Sweet and Slade equally, and held Alice Cooper and Gary Glitter in the same pin-up regard, but it was Steve Priest who captured my heart one Thursday night when Nan Mabel was round to hit her mark and ask me if the pancaked bassist was a man or a woman. (In truth, I wasn’t 100% certain myself, but it’s amazing how liberal you can be at seven because I knew that he was smashing.) I must have seen Little Willy and Wig-Wam Bam performed on the Pops before Blockbuster! summitted and remained at the toppermost for five weeks in the first months of ’73, but neither is stamped on my memory. I won’t have been philosophically and politically nuanced enough at that age to appreciate the proto-punk provocation of Priest wearing a Nazi uniform from the BBC costume department for one of the Blockbuster! recordings, but it helped to nail them to the post of posterity.

Out of that siren comes the song: a percussive guitar signature into a trucker’s beat, with handclaps, a thumping bass, celestial harmonies (“Ah-ahhhhhh“), and a duality of rock’n’roll riffs, one acoustic, the other electric. Then, a warning.

You’d better beware, you’d better take care, you’d better watch out if you’ve got long, black hair

I never really took it this literally at the time, but the lyrical thrust is that an “evil” gentleman called Buster needs to caught, taught and most pertiently blocked from “stealing your woman out from under your nose.” We’re advised not to look into his eyes, as there’s something “going on behind his disguise,” and the police have been called (“they’re running about”). He sounds like a bad hombre. And although “nobody knows where Buster goes,” (no wonder Steve hasn’t got a clue what to do), the chorus is more optimistic:

There’s got to be a way
To Block Buster!

As if to confirm Chinn, Chapman and Wainman’s combined debt to Phil Spector, the bridge at two minutes is engorged by timpani. While there is a compartmental cleanliness to the arrangement of each element in this gold blend of perfect pop, it has definite dirt under its fingernails, the perfect blend of spotless and spotty for your blooming generation.

The Sweet story ends sourly, with the decline of singer Brian Connolly after being beaten up, a cancelled support at the Who’s Charlton gig in ’74, an internal power struggle just as the band took control of their own songs and production, and the inevitable split in ’79. Andy Scott and Steve Priest both lead the inevitable dual incarnations of the Sweet (prosaically, Andy Scott’s Sweet and Steve Priest’s Sweet), with Connolly and Tucker no longer with us. If they’d only recorded Blockbuster!, their place in pop’s Valhalla would be assured. They got too much, they got too high.

Blockbuster! was the first single I ever bought.

Killing Joke, Love Like Blood (1985)

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Artist: Killing Joke
Title: Love Like Blood
Description: single; track Night Time
Label: E.G.
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

In 1990, Killing Joke, or Killing Joke’s record company, or Killing Joke’s record company’s PR company, came up with the wheeze of promoting their new record by sending a female stripper to the offices of various music publications. Just doing the job she was hired to do, the stripper was led into the middle of the NME shopfloor where she proceeded to disrobe to the sounds of the new Killing Joke single emanating from a ghetto blaster. I am, in retrospect, deeply proud of what happened next. Male staff members (who outnumbered female staff members by around 10 to one) evacuated the main office, en masse, and gathered in the production room rather than be a party to the degrading display. Our feminist credentials intact, and the exotic dancer’s clothes still on, she was gently guided into the adjoining offices of Shoot, the then-weekly football magazine, where her work was unironically appreciated by young men lacking our snowflake tendencies. I’m pretty sure the magazine reviewed the Killing Joke single.

In many ways, as well as a fun anecdote about the late-80s pre-Loaded male identity crisis (the future founding editor of Loaded was among the embarrassed new men – although it was he who brilliantly came up with the Shoot wheeze), this story illustrates the core difficulty of Killing Joke. One of the keystone British post-punk bands, still crazy after all these years under the stewardship of Jaz Coleman, they are, like Steven Seagal, hard to kill. Like many disaffected aficionados of the blunt-instrument force of much British rock made in the crucible of punk, I flocked to their percussive musical message around 1980, gritting my teeth to Wardance, Change and Requiem via John Peel. (Coleman was furious in a way that only a well-educated former chorister and classically-trained musician who studied international banking for three years in Switzerland can be.) They’ve dabbled in death disco, and been heavily remixed, but Killing Joke remain a racket, as influential as the Beatles to bands too young to have been into the Beatles. But they act as if they don’t want you to like them.

Love Like Blood is, for me, the high watermark of their collective genius. I remember buying the 12-inch in 1985 and playing it continually in my study cell in Battersea, all the while slightly bothered by the cover photo of a ripped warrior wielding a Samurai sword, and the elemental viscera of the lyrics. “We must play our lives like soldiers in the field,” Coleman strains, with feeling. “The life is short, I’m running faster all the time.” There is an existential panic at the centre of this thundering anthem to strength and beauty destined to decay. Is it, like one of Leni Riefenstahl’s mountaineering films, a supremacist paean to human excellence? If so, is that a problem? We are certainly seem to be urged down a quasi-fascistic, Wagnerian path, where “legends live and man is god again.” Paging Mr Nietzsche!

The blood, the rose “cut in full bloom”, the burning hearts, the frustration and despair, love and hate, promised lands and fields; and the refrain:

’Til the fearless come and the act is done

A call to arms, driven by Paul Raven’s stomach-ache bass, Geordie Walker’s mountaintop guitar fanfares and Paul Ferguson’s precision analogue drumbeat over that twilight synth wash, Love Like Blood is a recruitment as much as a pop or rock song, a sincere promise of immortality “as we move towards no end.” Coleman’s lyrics dare us to get onboard. Are we up to the task ahead? Though a gifted man of letters, he is also a man of action. And it’s that sheer physicality that rises up out of these six minutes and 44 seconds of meat beat manifesto. It’s super, man.

The band produced it, and the album, with Chris Kimsey, who cannot go unheralded, a veteran in both engineering and co-production on several key Rolling Stones records and Led Zeppelin III (he also recorded Frampton Comes Alive!) – his marshalling of the Joke’s individual contributions to the overall signature matches that of a drill sergeant. I will always hold a candle for the early Killing Joke triumphs, the likes of Follow The Leader, Unspeakable and The Fall of Because, but it’s no coincidence that the radio version of Love Like Blood became their first Top 20 hit (and, at time of writing, their last). It is, simply, impeccable; fearless; peerless; the deep-rooted sound of a band in full bloom. And yet, queasy listening. Not a relaxation record. But that which does not destroy Killing Joke makes them stronger.

Now put your shirt back on.

 

 

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

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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.

Metronomy, The Look (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free, All Right Now (1970)

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

Great to chew, even better to share …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America, A Horse With No Name (1971)

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Artist: America
Title: A Horse With No Name
Description: single; album track, America
Label: Warner Brothers
Release date: 1971; 1972
First heard: 1970s

There’s a strong imperative to enshrine this classic afternoon delight right now, because it’s been purloined and pillaged for use in a TV commercial for a make of car. It’s not a refusenik pose to say that I have no idea which make of car it’s advertising. Partly, I usually fast-forward through the ads; mostly, I don’t much care about makes of car. In any case, it’s something to do with a driver singing along to A Horse With No Name by America in his car, which is stuck in traffic, but he doesn’t care. I think we are supposed to divine that he doesn’t care because he’s in this particular vehicle. But surely it’s because he’s listening to A Horse With No Name, a song that can only soothe the savage breast.

My appreciation of the song is sincere, although I sense that some people consider it a bit of a joke. Written by Harrogate-born Dewey Bunnell, I’ve discovered that the other two members of the band – which famously comprised the sons of American fathers and British mothers united by the USAF base at Ruislip – didn’t much like it either, which is presumably why it was initially left off their debut LP. I have certainly made quips about Bunnell’s lyric, to whit: if I’d been through the desert on a horse with no name, one thing I’d definitely have done is name it. On paper, a line like, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” is lazy in the extreme – no matter what Bunnell was or wasn’t smoking – but perhaps it accurately reflects the frazzled state of the horse rider’s mind. Suitably fried in the desert sun, you might well complain that “the heat was hot.” it’s not the meaning but the rhythm of the line “there ain’t no-one for to give you no pain” that makes it so memorable. It’s a song, for singing in traffic, not a university lecture.

In any case, the lyric evokes. I didn’t even think to examine it after those first, osmotic hearings. I was right there with him, on that unchristened nag, traversing the hot sand. And I was bereft when he had to let his steed go after nine days, thus facing almost certain death by dehydration and heat stroke, unless he could land him a bird with one of those rocks or things. Its innocence is what’s beautiful about this song, which sold a million, pushed the album to the Billboard heights, landed them a best new artist Grammy, and made America massive in the land of their fathers, with hit albums throughout the 70s over there and over here, even enjoying a commercial renaissance as a duo in the 80s. And then, in 2010, A Horse With No Name was used in a Season Three episode of Breaking Bad, providing its title, Caballo sin nombre.

It was already cool to me.

Sometimes, literal is just the ticket. That this song about a horse should be made motile by a clip-clopping beat is perfect. (Ray Cooper provides the on-the-nose percussion to augment session man Kim Haworth’s drums.) The texture is acoustic guitar and plenty of it, unhindered in Cliff-linked staff producer Ian Hamwell’s production by kitchen sink. I believe the first guitar we hear is the 12-string of Gerry Beckley.

It’s Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Many apparently thought they were listening to a new Young track at the time.) It’s what the 60s sounded like when the 70s came calling. This verdant period, with the compass set to point West and Laurel Canyon a sort of Mecca, is often dismissed as the limp, malleable epicentre of “soft rock”, but rock – and things – can’t always be hard. The sound of three young men harmonising can be as lilting and elevating as birdsong. (All songbirds can sing; but not all young men can – it deserves a round of applause.)

Bunnell sings the lead although he resists being described as the lead singer, and as if to prove why, when fellow Americans Beckley and bassist Dan Peet (sadly no longer with us, as of 2011) throw their vocal weight behind him for the first course of la-la-las, and then the second chorus, the lift is palpable. It’s a sad song, whether taken literally – in which case, a man loses his horse, gets sunburnt and finds himself in the sea – or cosmically – whereby man is clearly adrift from nature and royally screwing up the planet, running its rivers dry and self-servingly wearing out God’s creatures and this ride is a retreat back to Eden. And the melancholy tone of metaphysical ennui is exquisitely described by these uncorrupted voices. And the somersaulting strings in the bridge are actually like rain. Clever, that.

America always felt they ground their own unique blend out of the West Coast harmonies of C, S, N & Y and the British Invasion nod/wink of the Beatles – having a pretty good biodiverse claim on the Transatlantic middle – but I grew up thinking they were simply Americans, from America, writing and recording in America (the album America was, of course, recorded in London and part-written in Puddletown, Dorset), and it was always fine by me. There’s nothing British about Ventura Highway with its sunshine and chewed grass and “alligator lizards”.

Sometimes, as in Hollywood movies, America wins.

Pet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind (1987)

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Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Description: single
Label: Parlophone
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.

Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.

Since it is a cover – and there will be further covers in The 143 as a great song is not a great song without a great version; I’m even hovering over another cover by Willie Nelson for inclusion –  I feel duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.

My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.

I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was unbearable.

Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been on Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough).  Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.

I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.

Yes, there may well be an Elvis entry in The 143. And as previously vouchsafed, definitely a few further covers.