Miles Davis, So What (1959)

Artist: Miles Davis
Title: So What
Description: track, Kind of Blue
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1994

Is this cool? Is this cool? Is this cool? Is this cool? Is that cool? All these people: are they cool?

I’m not qualified to take apart instrumental music, which jazz often is, but this analytical deficit has never stopped me losing myself in its syncopated currents. Jazz means different things to different hipsters: heroin, polo-necks, Gauloises, waistcoats, Prohibition, washboards, jugs, Chicago, New Orleans, Hitchin, nodding students, Afro-Cuban, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, fusion, brushes, inflatable cheeks, “sitting in”, Louis Armstrong’s hanky. To me, it means purity. It’s music that speaks for itself.

The blessing and the curse with Miles Davis is cool. As with many innovators who bottled the breeze, he gets cooler in posthumous legend. Even people whose coffee tables aren’t artfully arranged underneath a vinyl copy of Kind of Blue know that his very name spells cool. He was cool because he appeared not to have to try too hard to remain one step ahead of history, when in fact it took a lot of work, which is in itself cool. (The functioning heroin addict must find income – his arrests and court appearances only made that trickier, and as well as transcribing scores for money, he also pimped as often as he scrimped. Is that cool?) He remained fashionable as new wave after new wave crashed against his arty shore. His genius became a commodity. But neither commodification nor self-medication could erase or diminish his innate cultural chill, which was in the music.

Miles Dewey Davis III from Alton, Illinois, lived longer than he should have: to the not-inconsiderable age of 65 in ’91, when he was felled by a stroke, pneumonia and something respiratory (an especially cruel route for a man who blew). He was cool in his first bebop flush in the late 40s, in the pomp of his mid-50s comeback, with his sextet and collaborators in the early 60s, duly stirring up his Bitches Brew fusion in 1970, then again in rehabilitation in the 80s, style-magazine ready.

De-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-dum bah-bap

Let’s get into it, man. Let’s ignore the terminology – modal; voicing; tertial; major third interval; interjecting the head; a perfect fourth; a bar-line shift – these are just some of the things that go over my head. Let’s instead describe what I hear.

Warming up: notes gently teased out of the piano by Bill Evans (the only other co-writer credited on Kind of Blue), then a questioning riff played with the double bass of Paul Chambers in echo. The bass and the piano will be our guides throughout the next historic nine minutes and 22 seconds, allowing Miles to get into his space and if not blow the doors off, certainly create plumes of interesting smoke, which I imagine animated like a Pink Panther title sequence.

Much is spoken of jazz music’s improvisation, but rather than truly free-form, the most memorable pieces stick to a basic through-line and circle adroitly around it, making little clearings in which to solo. In the case of So What – note the missing question mark? – it’s the bass and the brass, with the piano sometimes dropping underneath to mimic the bass and trumpet notes. By default, the bass sounds like it’s walking around Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York. Davis’s trumpet doodles over his own sketches, ricocheting off hither and exploring thither, the star attraction, without a doubt, but generous, too. The lightest beat is maintained on snare and ride cymbal by Jimmy Cobb – no room for showing off at the stool.

It’s the whole that matters. I’m a drummer; I’ll always follow the rhythm, but when the horns of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley parp in sets of two towards the denouement, it’s like they’re calling you over, after which Chambers, Cobb and Evans finish up, almost imperceptibly faded in the final few seconds by producers Ted Macero and Irving Townsend.

There’s a myth that the entire LP was recorded in one take. It wasn’t – although I’ve read that Side Two’s Flamenco Sketches was – but it was put to bed in two sessions in March and April 1959. And it’s certainly free of overdubs.

As is the greedy modern way, Kind of Blue now comes complete with alternate takes, false starts and studio offcuts, but who needs them? Davis, his band and producers have already bottled magic and created an album that is the sound of the 20th Century pivoting on its axis.

Are they cool? Yes they are cool.

 

The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

Good_Vibrations_single

Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go?) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman (1968)

GCampbellWichitalineman

Artist: Glen Campbell
Title: Wichita Lineman
Description: single; album track, Wichita Lineman
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1990s

I am a lineman for the county …

My musical education continues. I hope it always will. But if you drew up a graph, with Musical Knowledge Gleaned on one axis, and Time on the other, it would start twitching upwards in a meaningful way at around 1969-70, when, aged four going on five, I really started to take notice of songs on the radio: Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, Gimme Dat Ding by the Pipkins, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes by Edison Lighthouse, My Sweet Lord, Wandrin’ Star, Sugar Sugar by the Archies, Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I have even earlier memories of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days from 1968. What you think I’m going to say next is that Wichita Lineman got into my system around this time.

It didn’t. At least, I wasn’t aware of it doing so, even though it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the one that had Wichita in it, and the other one. Wichita Lineman didn’t enter my internal playlist until the mid-90s, when I was working at Q magazine. Indeed, if you really did map that graph of my musical education, the years 1993-97 would see a sharp rise, as the experience behind the desk as features editor and then editor broadened my mind and my sense of history like no other office I’ve worked in, and I remain grateful. Staff who were ahead of me included the likes of Bill Prince, John Bauldie, Adrian Deevoy, Paul Du Noyer and John Aizlewood – if not older in age, wiser in miles on the clock – and I used these clever, seasoned gentlemen as my yardsticks, and gladly took steers from any of them.

Although my arrival at Q coincided with a changing of the cultural guard and the Britpop explosion  – which I think explained part of my indie-shorted usefulness to the august rock monthly – it was still a safe house for classic rock and pop, and wore its anti-ageism as a badge of honour. As such, I threw myself backwards into history and topped up my degree. I remember Bill Prince interviewing Jimmy Webb – I’m guessing it was around the time of his Ten Easy Pieces LP – and even the act of sub-editing the copy, and providing a sidebar, blurb and headline matured my understanding of a man whom I only really knew for writing Up, Up And Away (another hit that must have seeped into my consciousness in my first few years of sentience).

Result: hello, Wichita Lineman! It wasn’t exactly like hearing a song that was almost as old as me for the first time. It is, after all, a certified classic, and will have been playing somewhere in the background for most of my life. But in that instant of seeking it out and making sense of its creation, everything fell into place. (I’d been in a postgraduate comedy production in the late 80s where I played a simple farmboy from Wichita, but the connection eluded me even then.) Webb was driving down a long, straight road in his native Oklahoma and saw a lineman up a telegraph pole and was struck by the loneliness of the job. The lyric flowed from there. It seems such an original observation and setting, perhaps it’s little wonder the song reverberates still.

It’s a song that feels like a story and yet, broken down, the lyric is quite spare. (Unlike this ramblin’ essay.) But what imagery it fixes in your mind’s eye. There he is, the lineman “for the county” (not even terminology we use in this country, or county, thus already romantic), and he “drives the main road, searchin’ in the sun for another overload.” This is overall-wearing detail about a work detail. But how soon its high-viz practicality is punctured by sentiment: “I hear you singin’ in the wire.” Is it as creepy as it first seems? Surely he’s the flower-power prototype for Mark E Smith’s Stasi-like “telephone thing, listenin’ in.” And yet, the Wichita Lineman who’s “still on the line” and “can hear you through the whine” is clearly lovestruck. And it’s lonely up that pole.

The weather’s looking rotten, too. It may not look like rain, but if it snows “that stretch down South won’t ever stand the strain.” But the strain isn’t in a length of telegraph wire, no more than the “overload” is about his job description. It’s the lineman himself who’s close to collapse.

And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

But it’s not a poem, and Webb’s not just a wordsmith. He’s not the singer either. Glen Campbell, whom I associated in childhood with True Grit, which I’d seen on the television, brings the song to heartbroken life and a country authenticity to the sound pictures. The ex-session man – a member of LA’s amorphous Wrecking Crew – and touring Beach Boy was more than just a hick from Arkansas with a guitar on his back. He wrote, and he joined bands, and he appeared on the TV, and he had his first big hit with a pacifist anthem by Buffy Saint-Marie even though he thought draft-dodgers should be hung, possibly from a telegraph wire. His vocal is coffee-smooth – perhaps sipped from a flask – and conveys the plaintive in our lineman’s lament for lost love in such a sincere and moving way you could never see him as a telegraphic stalker. He means it, man. And the held note at the end of “still on the liiiiiiiiine” seems to echo around the wide open plains, as if the shot is panning back, wider and wider, until he’s a speck on a stick.

The string arrangement, by Campbell talisman and fellow Wrecking Crewer Al De Lory, does some daring wire work, too. After a descending guitar twang and patted intro beat, there they swirl, filling the Kansas sky with sun, while violins and a keyboard (played by Webb?) get to work on the pre-digital approximation of a telegraph’s bleeps and whines. Invention permeates.

It’s a downhome, nice-and-simple, over-easy slice of life which finds symbolism in the horny hands of the working man and creates something almost space-age out of its allotted instruments. And it’s sung by Campbell like it matters. I read on Wikipedia that my friend Stuart Maconie called it the “greatest pop song ever composed” in one of his books, which I don’t have to hand, and I think his tribute is contained in the word “composed”. Wichita Lineman doesn’t feel written, or knocked out to order, it’s a novella that’s been inspired by real life and if it’s a little bit country, it feels more local than that.

It’s county music.

The Eagles, Hotel California (1976)

EaglesHotelC

Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Label: Asylum
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994

Such a lovely place …

I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.

It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Croweded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).

Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.

I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.

If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.

Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!

That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …

Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with the “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?

There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon or Racey.

And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”

And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?

For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.

The Kingsmen, Louie Louie (1963)

LouieLouie

Artist: The Kingsmen
Title: Louie Louie
Description: single
Label: Jerden
Release date: 1963
First heard: 1979

The most recorded song of all time, thought to have been covered over 1,500 times since its composer Richard Berry’s original recording in 1957, there really is no topping the Kingsmen’s drawling blueprint. The oldest record currently in The 143 at time of writing*, I can pinpoint my first exposure to its near-narcotic singalong catchiness to 1979, as that was the year I turned 14 and became eligible to see a “AA” at the cinema. Ceremonially, this was National Lampoon’s Animal House, which felt to me like forbidden fruit, with its gross-out larks, bare breasts, rude words, equine heart attacks and anarchic tendencies. But beyond all the adolescent rites of passage, it introduced me to Louie Louie.

In the film, it’s playing on a Rock-Ola jukebox in Delta House during the ritualised “hazing” of Kent Dorfman and Larry Kroger. The collective frat boys sing boozily along to the Berry original. It caught my ear at the time. I must have filed it away. (It never crossed my radar but John Belushi recorded a version for the soundtrack and released it as a single.) Animal House is set in 1962, a year before the Kingsmen’s version was released, but this will have gone over the head of the 14-year-old me; I didn’t know that contemporaneous family favourites Grease and Happy Days were set in the past, either. I just assumed life in 1970s America was just like that – milkshakes, college jackets, convertibles, jukeboxes – and to a degree, for all my provincial naivete, I think I was right.

Historically, the America portrayed in Animal House is one of sharp racial divisions; there are no black students, but the white kids are hip to black music, hiring Otis Day & The Knights for a frat party, and subsequently falling foul of unofficial segregation when they enter a night club to see the band play and find themselves in a conspicuous white minority and run out of the parking lot. It will not be lost on historians that in 1962, Louie Louie by the black Richard Berry might not have even been on the jukebox, as it was only a regional hit in Los Angeles. It took a white group, the preppy Kingsmen from Portland (by way of a prior cover by Tacoma’s Wailers), to have a smash hit with it.

My eventual appreciation of “garage rock”, the movement of which the Kingsmen were an unknowing part – not even called “garage rock” until after it had faded away – came about in the early 21st century during that whirlwind romance with ancient music at the infant 6 Music, where my magpie producer Frank would constantly shove spicy compilations under my nose: ska, reggae, blues and all points inbetween. The Wailers, the Sonics, the Kingsmen, the Seeds, proto-garage kingpin Link Wray – it was at this point that I made the eureka musical link back to the psychobilly I’d dabbled in as an art student in the mid-80s. (I felt sure that one of the Klub Foot compilations I taped at college had a version of Louie Louie on it, but I can find no record of this. I was, however, getting into the dirty early years of the Kinks at the same time, and one of their recordings may have found its way onto a TDK cassette.) It floods the heart when synaptic connections like these are retrospectively made. It’s why I feel sad for youngsters growing up today when all music is available, and thus all music is potentially worthless.

The song itself is a copper-bottomed, no-arguments classic. (Berry sold the rights to it in 1959 and didn’t become the millionaire he had every right to be until the 80s when the Artists’ Rights society tracked him down for a signature to allow its use in a wine cooler advert. He died in 1993, apparently not even in the least bit bitter.) What’s to add? From that seductive organ intro, offset by the warning-sign of a single offbeat on the snare, the arrangement crashes through the wall, fully formed, driven by a rhythm that must have sounded deeply satanic, even played by middle-class white boys. It was recorded in one take, of course. But not in a garage.

Jack Ely’s mewling vocal is so unaffected and so felt, ranging from fired up to disinterested in a beat and perhaps thus encapsulating the confusion of the American teenager at a time of George Wallace and John F Kennedy, Clemson University and Betty Friedan, the Space Race and the Cold War, Bob Dylan and Patsy Cline. What I love about the vocal is that it’s so comprehensively buried among the racket of drums, keyboard and guitar, it barely qualifies as a lead until Ely shrieks, “OK, let’s give it to them, right now!”

The guitar solo is squeaky and humorous, and Ely comes back in too early – one of the great recorded mistakes in all of rock – whereupon he pauses and drummer Lynn Easton covers with an improvised fill. Let’s do the show right here. All is well wherever your ear alights within these two minutes and 42 seconds of history. Rarely has so little variation or virtuosity given so much reward. And all captured for $50, the cost of the session. Two years later, I was born into a post-Louie Louie world.

And there’s no comma. Richard Berry said so. And he, as they say in Portland, the man.

*Subsequently preceded by Woody Guthrie, Dave Brubeck, Patsy Cline and the Shirelles.

The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses (1971)

rolling-stones-sticky-fingers

Artist: The Rolling Stones
Title: Wild Horses
Description: US-only single; album track, Sticky Fingers
Label: Rolling Stones
Release date: 1971
First heard: 1992

I’ve got my freedom, but I don’t have much time …

I know; 1992 seems like a strange and horribly belated time to have first heard the classic ballad Wild Horses. But you will admire my candour. I didn’t own a Rolling Stones album until the mid-90s. My first was Let It Bleed, which I bought in one of those HMV sales where they offloaded a lot of old stock and you could pick up bona fide classics for a couple of quid (built most of my belated Dylan collection that way). It instantly became my favourite Rolling Stones album. Well, it would.

Up to that point, I’d been – to borrow a phrase – aware of their work. I knew and liked the singles which were constantly played. Friends had albums of theirs, but I never even thought to borrow them and tape them. To me, in that heady post-punk reverie, I didn’t need the Beatles or the Stones to put marrow in my bones. They’d done their work. Sure, the Stones were still a going concern, but they felt to me like they belonged to the past. (Actually, in 1982, I found my interest piqued by the opening bars of Under My Thumb on my older friend Vaughan’s copy of the live album Still Life, but mostly due to Duke Ellington’s Take The ‘A’ Train, and the thwack of Charlie’s first drumbeat. It was a pretty limited sortie into their vast and aromatic back catalogue, but the ignition was there.) Anyway, then I grew up.

Even as a cub reporter for the NME, my knowledge of the Rolling Stones was basic; enough to get by. (I knew way more about Led Zeppelin, whose runaway blues-metal had turned my head.) And then I interviewed The Sundays, in 1992, on the cork-popping occasion of their belated return to our empty lives with second album Blind. I discussed Wild Horses in a Camden boozer with Harriett Wheeler and Dave Gavurin, a couple, and they told me what it meant to them and why they’d recorded it as a B-side. (Also, now I think of it, the Dylan tune Corrina, Corrina came up, which drove me to Freewheelin’ – I’m happy when synapses crackle in this way.) I loved their Wild Horses, knew it to be a cover, but had never heard the original. I don’t think I told them this.

But ain’t this often the way? Unless you were born before World War II, you’re bound to have heard occasional cover versions before originals in the pop era. For instance, I assumed the Flying Lizards to have written Money, then later found out it was a Beatles tune, then later still found out it was Barrett Strong’s. This is archaeology, and we should embrace it. The Sundays gave me the Rolling Stones.

Don’t worry. I have all the Rolling Stones albums now, and know them intimately. I prefer many of them to the Beatles’, and particularly favour Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Some Girls and – still, after all these years – Let It Bleed. In order to sum up their effortless, smoky, unstoppably ragged glory (and let’s face it, their story is what makes them so good; their longevity feeds their legend where it might ordinarily leech it away), I took particular notice of a jukebox playing Forty Licks, I’m guessing, in an unassuming studenty pub in Tunbridge Wells. It played You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy For The Devil, Tumbling Dice, and it made me consider Have You Seen Your Mother Lately, and Brown Sugar, and Happy, which almost squeaked it. But there is no Rolling Stones song that delivers the emotional rescue of Wild Horses. (Also, Happy is a Richards vocal, and that don’t seem right.)

Jagger’s woundedly plaintive lyric was written, so I discovered after a cursory Wikipedia search, some time after splitting from Marianne Faithful (it was recorded in 1969), so not directly about her; meanwhile Richards reckons it’s borne of that loneliness you get when you’re on tour, of being “a million miles from where you want to be”. (This information comes from the sleeve notes to the Jump Back compilation.) What a monster breakup it evokes: “A faith has been broken, tears must be cried … no sweeping exits or offstage lines.” And waa-ah-ahhhh-ahhhhld horses couldn’t drag him away. Sticky Fingers, lest we forget, was the first album without Brian Jones, so some profound sadness is expected.

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock’n’roll, and that combination of acoustic and electric guitars is enough to break anybody’s heart. That it was recorded, like Brown Sugar, in the soulful stewpot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama may explain the blues notes. (Were the Stones the first white rockers to rock up there? Fable says it’s so.) Hear it in situ on “Side One” of the LP, between the raw, metallic Sway and the urgently rockin’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, and Wild Horses takes on an even balmier aspect; it cleanses the palate. I twin it with the resonant, Albatross-like Moonlight Mile, the album’s closer.

Hard to imagine that I had no Rolling Stones albums in 1992. Thank God for the Sundays.

 

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Beyond Belief (1982)

ElvisCImperialBedrooom

Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Title: Beyond Belief
Description: album track, Imperial Bedroom
Label: F-Beat/Columbia
Release date: 1982
First heard: circa 1999

I’ve got a fee-e-ee-ling
I’m going to get a lot of grief

Although late to his albums, I can honestly say now that I listen to Elvis Costello in his prime in a state of awe. It is not to overstate the case to reveal that when I am in the presence of his finest work, I feel a real sense of privilege. And none more keenly than when I listen to Imperial Bedroom, the second of his LPs to invade me during the aforementioned lull at the end of the century when I forsook new music and flooded the gap with albums by classic artists I felt I had to get to know better.

Aware and noncommitally fond of his singles from Watching The Detectives through to A Good Year For the Roses in 1981, the first Elvis album I bought during that self-educational pre-millennial frenzy was Punch The Clock, from 1983. I was instantly hooked by the jaunty likes of Let Them All Talk and Everyday I Write The Book and the morose glory of Pills And Soap and his reclamation of Shipbuilding. So, Imperial Bedroom, released a year earlier, I came to from the wrong direction.

To name Beyond Belief, its opening track, as my all-time favourite, may seem odd, especially among all those memorable singles, not all of them hits, and the more obviously “important” Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding. Let’s be perfectly clear: I could list about 25 Costello songs, most but not all with the Attractions, that sit at my top table. I could make my selection from pretty much anything on Blood & Chocolate, or Get Happy!!, or Goodbye Cruel World, or King Of America, or the Attractionless Spike and Brutal Youth, or even, hey, The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps its highlight I Almost Had A Weakness. (I’m rustier on his more recent works, but that must be resolved in my own time.)

But Imperial Bedroom does not put a single toe wrong, from its beguiling Barney Bubbles pastiche of Picasso to the orchestral fade of Town Cryer. And hearing track one Beyond Belief just makes me excited as it means I’ll soon be listening to the cheeky Tears Before Bedtime, the torrid Man Out Of Time, the heartbreaking Almost Blue, the gossamer Kid About It, and the crooked waltz of Imperial Bedroom itself, which came only as a bonus track on the CD (typically for Elvis, the title track of an album rarely features on that album – you’ve got to love that about him, the ornery fellow).

Beyond Belief, a short hop at two and a half minutes, drops us without much warning into Fabs engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio environment: a little hissy, dare I say, which suits the energy of the performances and with enough reverb to give melodrama to Elvis’s voice; out of a simple bassline and some tickled hi-hat and a barely audible sustained keyboard chord it comes, “History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” he trills, almost blue already. (History doesn’t repeat here, of course, as it’s the first Elvis album without Nick Lowe at the controls.) He’s mannered, of course, dipping down in self-parody, rising up for the line, “in a very fashionable hovel,” and I truly understand why, like Dylan’s, certain respectable adults have a problem with his voice. That nasal voice. Almost sneering. But these are the elements which I love about it. And the clever wording around which he wraps his tonsils!

I think it was the way this opener ensnared me at first listen that keeps me coming back to it, to sup from the fountain. Who but McManus would even construct phrases like “this almost empty gin palace” or “her body moves with malice” or “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault” and expect them to fit into a two-tiered pop song? Around every corner with this erudite songsmith you get a new arrangement of the English language that intrigues and challenges and paints pictures every bit as colourful and bendy as Barney Bubbles’. “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard”? I mentioned awe, right? It’s like reading a great novelist, or listening to a great orator at the stump, or seeing a beautifully but assymetrically framed shot in a foreign film. I’m not even sure at this remove what Beyond Belief is about, and that’s the alchemy. Most Elvis songs seem to be about relationships gone South. This one certainly “seemed so appealing” but now it’s “beyond belief.”

About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning. And it doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s kind of all verse. I guess you might even dismiss it as a kind of intro, rather than a song, an establishing shot, a mood-setter, but it has it all, from where I’m sitting, even if it does fade out way too soon. Hello, cruel world.

I’ll admit to going for long periods without calling up my Elvis Costello and/or the Attractions albums, and I always wonder why. As a lyricist of quality and distinction, he’s in the superleague. As a singer of character and tenacity, he is out there on his own. As an albums artist, he’s David Bowie with a band. To quote Town Cryer, from the end of Side Two, he’s “a little down, with a lifetime to go.” Amen to that.