Sly & The Family Stone, Family Affair (1971)

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Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Title: Family Affair
Description: single; album track, There’s A Riot Goin’ On
Label: Epic
Release date: 1971
First heard: circa 1970s

How are you with hand-me-downs? Have you spent any considerable time in secondhand clothes? Were you an Oxfam hipster before the term “vintage” legitimised the wearing of a dead man’s shoes? Have you driven a used car that smelt of a sales rep’s nicotine habit? Would you eat off a dining companion’s plate? Did your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you’re probably a fan of There’s A Riot Goin’ On, one of the down-and-dirtiest LPs ever made and all the more legendary and essential for that. Even the flag on the front is grubby.

The sixties are dead. It’s on America’s tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grow up a cow. Sylvester Stone, the man who fused psychedelic rock to funk and soul, is behaving erratically. He’s in with the Black Panthers and gangsters. He’s been missing gigs. It’s two years since the Family Stone’s last hit, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The violin case he carries with him? Full of coke and PCP, by all accounts. But Sly has a plan. He’s holed up, like a horny Brian Wilson, at The Plant in Sausolito, or at his home studio in Bel Air, and he’s recording like crazy while his pet monkey tries to fuck his pet dog, by all accounts. He’s making his own Exile On Main Street, whether consciously, unconsciously or otherwise.

Though hailed, and rightly so, as a pop classic, There’s A Riot Goin’ On (its title an answer to the question posed by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On?) is pure filth. The Funk courses through its every capillary. The sound is muddied and muffled, like there’s fluff permanently on the needle. And yet it sings! It zings! it brings! It soars! It punches through the fog of punished magnetic tape! For an ideas-clogged meisterwerk, it even concealed two three-minute chart hits to soothe the record company’s savage breast – not to mention shipping half a million in its first year of release after summiting Billboard in its own, flag-draped right. The most decisive of the pair was Family Affair, tucked away side one, track four. (The featherlight follow-up Runnin’ Away, a blueprint for all of De La Soul, is side two, track five.)

Amid all the gung-ho experimentation, jazz freewheeling, freakouts and yodeling, Family Affair feels as honed and polished as a diamond. There’s nothing here to frighten the horses: a clicky beatbox beat, a steady rubber-band bass, some Rhodes swirls from Billy Preston, Rose Stone’s repeated, magic-hour refrain (“It’s a family affair/It’s a family affa-ai-ai-air“), overlaid by Sly’s oak-smoked tones, riffing. The cumulative effect is akin to voodoo; though hooky, singalongable and populist in construct, it’s sodden with black history and as liable to crack as Sly’s voice. What went into the making of this record is right there in the grooves: the insomnia, the introspection, the self-medication, the peek over the lip of insanity, the whole superfly soap opera with that revolving door for fragrant female auditionees whose tryouts were committed to tape and then recorded over by the next candidate, by all accounts. This is why the grooves overfloweth.

Out of all the drug-taking, love-making and piss-taking arises a social conscience every bit as vivid as the one that beats beneath Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street or Marvin’s Inner City Blues, and achieved in fewer words.

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them
You see it’s in the blood
Both kids are good to Mom
“Blood’s thicker than the mud”

Quite the chronicler. For a man whose vision must have been permanently clouded by what the actor Steven Toast would later rhyme with Children In Need, Sly’s perception was keen. And was there ever a more hopeful vignette than this?

Newlywed a year ago
But you’re still checking each other out, yeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!

For a song whose instrumentation actually sounds as if it’s in the process of tripping over right the way through, Family Affair is in full control of its faculties. It might not pass a breathalyser test, but you’d want it at your birthday party. Head in the clouds, brain in its pants, a fist raised to black power and the other hand up an available skirt – this is a sex, politics, social change and happy hour in one hit. Nobody wants to blow. Nobody wants to be left out.

The Velvet Underground, Venus In Furs (1967)

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Artist: The Velvet Underground
Title: Venus In Furs
Description: album track, The Velvet Underground & Nico
Label: Verve
Release date: 1967
First heard: circa 1988

I came at the Velvet Underground from the wrong direction. Which was, for me, the right direction. Alerted to their significance by all those bands who formed because of them, I identified many of their key songs via covers in the early 80s – Sunday Morning by Strawberry Switchblade, All Tomorrow’s Parties by Japan, Femme Fatale by Propaganda, Sister Ray by Joy Division, Bauhaus’s live version of I’m Waiting For The Man – and came to fully understand their disproportionate influence when Bobby Gillespie stood up and drummed a few years later. I can say with confidence that I didn’t intimately acquaint myself with a Velvets LP until the 90s, when my rock history radar wouldn’t stop twitching and I discovered the archeological beauty of HMV’s 3-for-2 warehouse-clearers.

Can coming at the Velvet Underground via Lou Reed be considered the wrong direction? In 1989, by then a cub reporter, I treated the brand new New York as a pivotal LP, and loved every pore of it. I went to see Lou live at the Hammersmith Odeon and found my heart in my mouth when he actually told someone in the circle off for talking while he was doing a link. War stories from fellow NME scribes who’d had an audience with the man (and had to wait for him) mounted up. I put on some wraparound shades, applied a wraparound tourniquet and waded in.

What I really liked about the Velvet Underground, aside from the self-evidently attractive art school context for their willful, Warholian wailings and the fact that they existed in black and white, was how slow they were. These unknowable people, one of them apparently Welsh, barely visible behind an imagined lava-lamp slide show, seemed in no hurry to change the course of narco-art-rock. Even the jittery Waiting For The Man seemed a prelude to subsequent slowdown. While I cherish Pale Blue Eyes and I’m Beginning To See The Light on the third, Cale-free album and bits of Loaded, there really is only one Velvet Underground LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico. And from it, Venus In Furs always rises to the top and blooms like an exploding plastic inevitable in a heroin muffin.

I realise now that it’s John Cale I miss on the subsequent albums, as it’s his shrieking, bird-like viola that gives Venus both its macabre momentum and its reason for being. (Perhaps it’s also Andy Warhol’s absence I lament as his curatorial influence also fades post-banana.) I know little of the source novel of the same name by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, who sounds like a rum sort, and have myself lived a stimulating enough life without recourse to sado-masochism, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather” and “downy sins of streetlight fancies”, but isn’t that the point of the Velvet Underground? To sound like they’re having way more deviant and complicated sex than you are?

This song sounds like forbidden fruit, a sacrificial drone recorded in a secret place behind a secret door with a secret knock, in a thick fug of analgesic vapour among cross-dressing whiplash folk. It’s in the Library of Congress these days, of course, but even subversive art can be co-opted into a verified canon with the luxury of time passing. I am surely now too old and sensible to be fooled by the Velvet Underground (Venus was recorded not in Noo Yoik but in Hollywood, for God’s sake), and yet, if anything, their parallel recitation of the end of the 60s becomes more vivid and exotic. I guess part of it is academic – Venus Is Furs is important because of who made it, when they made it, where they made it, what books they were reading at the time, and for whom they played it; it’s also important because of the album from whence it was never ripp’d (one of those albums for which every track has its own Wikipedia entry) – but the bulk of its appeal remains visceral. It gets me right there.

When Lou calls out “Severin, Severin!” to the book’s submissive protagonist as he blurs the lines between master and servant, it would be rude not to get sucked into the costumes and the adornments and the bended knees of whatever wickedly unsubsidised kind of theatre this is. Cale’s caterwauling catgut, Tucker’s death-knell beat, Morrison’s almost inaudible bass, Reed’s intoxicating guitar with its strings tuned to the same note … on and on and on it marches. Who actually wants it to end after five minutes?

There’s simply no way this music was recorded ten years before punk. It’s obviously a Capricorn One-style conspiracy. There are bands making so-called rock music today that sounds like it is an early evolutionary step on the way to a generation of bands who might one day dream of sounding like the Velvet Underground, if only they could be arsed to read a book.

 

Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988)

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Artist: Happy Mondays
Title: Mad Cyril
Description: album track, Bummed
Label: Factory
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1989

I like that. Turn it up

As a journalist I was locked out of the Happy Mondays love-in somewhat during their Madchester reign in the late 80s and early 90s. Never really in the gang. Right haircut, wrong time. Not from the North like my NME compatriots Stuart Maconie and James Brown, nor an iconoclastic rottweiler like Steven Wells, who was deployed to go in for the kill when the clock struck “knock ’em down”, I remained a fan throughout. By the time I arrived at Select in 1993, where the Mondays were as good as a “house band”, again I found myself in a long queue behind Miranda Sawyer (who had perhaps the closest geographical affiliation of all and yet nobly sought the inconvenient truth for the famous “difficult fourth album” cover story), editor Andrew Harrison, and other embedded feature writers like Andrew Perry. I watched from the sidelines as Shaun Ryder, Bez, Horse, Cow and crew were mingled with and written about in the scallydelic, draw-sucking, lolloping gait of the era.

I finally pulled my numbered ticket from the deli-counter dispenser in 1997, by which time Shaun was the leader of Black Grape, an incarnation way more successful off the blocks than anybody could have hoped. For their underwhelming second album, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, I got to hang out in a locked municipal park in West London for the photos and back at a hotel posh enough to have Chris Eubank’s tank (registration: “KO 1”) parked up on the kerb outside and to serve mushy peas in a ramekin. We spoke of many things, most memorably his new domestic bliss in southern Ireland with new partner Oriole Leitch, their passionate relationship perfectly summed up by the argument they’d had before he’d left their Irish getaway, which involved the Little Hulton tearaway, 35, tipping a Pot Noodle over “her favourite Buddha” which sat in the fireplace, “facing the right way and everything”, and ramming her favourite £700 hoover up the chimney. He was top company and he loved those mushy peas. Now I knew why all of those journalists who’d gone before me since 1987 had been so reluctant to come home.

It is with the luxury of hindsight that we may elevate the magnificent musical output of the Happy Mondays – whose loose-fit gang mentality and garrulous sociability made them so alluring to be around – to the podium. For me, Martin Hannett’s Bummed and Osborne and Oakenfold’s chart-cracking follow-up Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, are among the cornerstone recordings of the glorious, terraces-pacifying “white men dancing” epoch. (It was the Southern fop Danny Kelly who identified Ecstasy’s greatest achievement in the 1990 Granada documentary Celebration: The Sound Of The North as its ability to make white men dance. I was in the background on that, too, while Maconie walked purposefully past me, taking the Lancastrian lead.)

I select Mad Cyril from a number of contenders to marker-flag the Mondays’ apex. They also captured the hooded-top/blue-Rizla zeitgeist with Hallelujah, WFL, Lazyitis, Step On, 24 Hour Party People and Kinky Afro (“Son, I’m thirty, I only went with your mother ’cos she’s dirty”) but if a single four-and-a-half minutes seal in amber what made this Salford Family Stone the greatest rock’n’roll band in Britain for a brief period, it’s the dizzying charge of Mad Cyril, with its taped-off-the-telly dialogue samples, that crashing rhythm from Gary Whelan and those migraine synth bursts from Paul Davis, or possibly sonic overlord Hannett himself (it’s impossible to know who’s responsible for what individual sound in a madhouse Hannett production, usually committed to tape in the early hours).

It’s easy to imagine the Mondays bonging out to Performance on video in some rented room near Whalley Range. Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s fabled meditation on fatal fame and identity theft has it all for the new-lad cinephile stoner: gangsters, nostalgia, cars, violence, Jagger, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Big Audio Dynamite raided it first, for the quickstep E=MC2 in 1985, but there’s plenty of Cockney banter to go round, herein such muffled, isolated gems as the opening mission statement, “We’ve been courteous!”, the definitive, “I need a Bohemian atmosphere,” and the sinister shopping list, “It’s a right pisshole … long hair, beatniks, druggers, freeloaders.”

Amid these Carnaby-Street cinematic conundrums, Ryder does what he always does and does best: testify and swear. Are you ready? Let’s go. “Although our music and our drugs stayed the same,” he reasons, “Although our interests and our music stayed the same, we went together, fuckers from the well, we smoked together and we slipped down in hell.” This beat poetry from the back-bar Bukowski or – according to the late, kingmaking Tony Wilson – the Wine Lodge Yeats, gives vital shape to what is otherwise a near formless barrage of noise.

Subsequent Mondays classics cleave more conventionally to the baggy beat and summon sleaze and summertime from a slower, more sophisticated groove. Their older cousin in the attic plays with madness, a half-cut, Kit-Kat-wrapper cacophony from inside a padded room. And a right old performance. Turn it up.

No longer the big draw, but a hero to most, Shaun Ryder has settled into a self-parodic dotage made thrilling by his very survival and we should salute him. Not all the beatniks, druggers and freeloaders made it.

It was Mad Cyril …

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

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Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.