Elvis Presley, Suspicious Minds (1969)

ElvisSuspiciousMinds

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Suspicious Minds
Description: single
Label: RCA
Release date: 1969
First heard: circa mid-1970s

Jordan: The Comeback is the fifth studio album by musically and lyrically eloquent northeasterners Prefab Sprout. A nominal concept album (Rolling Stone summed it up as a pop symphony about “God, love and Elvis”), its standout passage, for me, has always been its four-minute title track, in which the King laments from some rhinestone-studded version of heaven.

And all those books about me
Well there wasn’t much love in ’em boys
I’m tellin’ ya, if I’d taken all that medication
Man, I’d a rattled like one of my little girl’s toys
Now they call me a recluse
Been in the desert so long
Layin’ on my back, bidin’ my time
I’m just waitin’ for the right song

Then I’m comin’ back!

Only Paddy McAloon would have the chutzpah and chops to imagine Elvis considering a move back to Memphis from the top of a stairway to heaven. But Elvis is so big, so all-powerful, so iconic in the Mount Rushmore sense of the exhausted adjective, how else do you draw him out of the desert of pagan idolatry? Certainly, how do you pick one of the countless prêt-à-chanter tunes delivered to him over his quarter-century of pelvis-swiveling, gallery-playing and myth-salesmanship?

As with the Beatles and the Stones, the Beach Boys and the Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Squeeze and other statutory genii of the 45, you’re looking at a long list of choice cuts. There are 30 number ones to trace a finger down from Elvis’s foreshortened lifetime, never mind all of those contenders that only squeaked to number two (Hound Dog, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Burning Love), or number three (Crying in the Chapel, Devil In Disguise, In the Ghetto in the US; Teddy Bear in the UK). Suspicious Minds, first recorded in 1968 by its writer Mark James (who would go on to pen Moody Blue and Always on my Mind), became a hit on Elvis’s hips a year later, and his final living US chart-topper. (He enjoyed three further number ones in the UK: doo-wop serenade The Wonder of You, the down and dirty Burning Love and the deep and meaningful Way Down.)

The 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis, recorded there to exploit the free pass bestowed by the fabulously restorative NBC special from Burbank, Singer Presents … Elvis (colloquially known as the ’68 Comeback Special, whose soundtrack went Top 10), marked the true return of the King, having been in the desert for at least seven years, making movies with diminishing artistic returns, and not playing live. The books state that Elvis laid down Suspicious Minds between 4am and 7am in a night-shift pre-breakfast rush on 23 January, ’69, in eight takes. It was overdubbed in the not-insignificant town of Las Vegas that August and released as a single forthwith.

I’m always cheered by how low-key the intro is. It’s almost a little bit country, with Reggie Young’s caressed electric guitar and Gene Chrisman’s sticks tap-dancing on the hi-hat. Then Elvis sends out a distress signal: “We’re caught in a trap!” We quickly learn that he can’t walk out, because he loves somebody too much, baby. The last line is coloured in by the most buoyant, promenade-suite strings, which take up the cause from here. As translated into Elvish from Mark James’ text, the lyric is torrid kitchen-sink stuff. The protagonist and his ill-suited squeeze are caught in a trap of their own making. Why can’t she see what she’s doing to him? She’s probably thinking the same thing, after all, she doesn’t believe a word he says. It’s evident that they can’t go on together with suspicious minds. It’s killing them, and here they go again …

Eleven backing singers whip this problem-page teaser into a full-on melodrama, while trumpets and trombones, arranged by Glenn Spreen, pump up the volume. It’s an epic. Chrisman stick-shifts from rat-tat-tat-tat to more skittish hi-hat, and back again. He’s on  a roll. But this is expected from first-rate sessioneers.

There are two audacious, infrastructural gambits in Suspicious Minds. One comes at 1.45, when, after Elvis croons “suspicious mah-a-ha-aands“, the whole show slows down to ballad-speed crawl. The break allows him to entreaty, “let’s don’t let a good thing die”, adding an “mmmm-mmmm-mmmmm” that luxuriates in the pause for thought. Then, at 2.12, it cranks back up and starts windmilling its way to the finish. Though Chrisman holds this quick-march beat thereafter, all the heartache, harmony (“yeah, yeah“) and tumult makes it feels like it gathers further speed as it builds to the all-in climax – the eleven sound like twelve; the brass goes off the hook and proclaims heavenly timeshare; a snare fill pops in all the excitement – and then, just as it hits its exultant final bars, at 3.35 it begins to fade …

Nothing out of the ordinary there, it’s what old 45s did, for reasons practical and commercial. But don’t go away, that’s not all, folks. After 15 seconds, as the houselights are turned back on … it fades back in! Such a tease. Is it intended to conjure the band leaving the stage and coming back on for an encore? It’s certainly pure showbiz, albeit effected by a lever on the desk It legendarily fades at around 3.35 and then after 15 seconds fades back in, a sabotage decision made by producer Felton Jarvis that oughtn’t even work but, like Lou Reed struggling to scan “all the coloured girls sang” in Walk on the Wild Side and Joni Mitchell squealing with tickled delight in Big Yellow Taxi, it just does.

Now that’s what I call a comeback.

 

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The Byrds, Eight Miles High (1966)

byrds-eight-miles-high-cbs

Artist: The Byrds
Title: Eight Miles High
Description: single; album track, Fifth Dimension
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1980s

At the time of writing, I own six – count ’em – individual compilation CDs whose multi-disc track-listings are recruited from the strict gene pool known as “the 60s”. Unsurprisingly, along with the Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, The Turtles, Ohio Express and Scott Mackenzie, all six of these essential roundups are nuanced by the Byrds. The group’s signature tune Mr Tambourine Man, hijacked from under Bob Dylan’s nose, is on all six fulsome compilations; in addition, one of them (100 Hits: Peace and Love; close-up of some daisies) includes Turn! Turn! Turn!, and another (The 60s Summer Album; side-on camper van) risks breaking up the barbecue with Eight Miles High, which is the tune (Tune! Tune!) that abides with me – and the historic single that heralded their prescriptively psychedelic third album, Fifth Dimension, in the summer of ’66.

What I think I love the most about Eight Miles High is its general demeanour: frantic. A proposed chart-topper, it contains strong experimentation from the start, possibly a result of the effects of plant extract, or something with a chemical symbol. Chris Hillman’s western-TV-theme bass intro, the woodpecker attack on the ride cymbal by Michael Clarke, and “Roger” “Jim” McGuinn’s impatiently garbled twelve-string overture of entanglement – something of a unexpected musical item in the bagging area – combine to create the world’s least-likely-to intro to a pop hit in an epoch.

When you come fly with these men, it’s always a jingle-jangle morning. Not the biggest guitar group of the 60s, but arguably the one with the furthest reach into the future (the longest tail, if you like), the Byrds are in one unique sense contemporaries of Les Dawson: so adept at playing their instruments they can kick all of that knowledge into the long grass and make it sound like they’re only just discovering how to get sounds out of them for the very first time. It feels like there’s Mingus in the jumble-sale thrown by McGuinn, Clark, Hillman, Crosby and Clarke in the middle of what remains, on paper, a sweet-natured pop tune about being high and looking down on creation. (Actually, the statute books tell us that Crosby had turned the others onto Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane on the tour bus.)

Regardless of what went in at the other end, or how much sway producer Allen Stanton had over proceedings, there’s a massive attack in the way these musicians cook the hooks – even in the way they shake a tambourine, man – and it’s what sets Eight Miles High eight miles apart from the more house-trained likes of All I Really Want To Do and So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star, which are designed to make you feel a whole lot better.

Hadn’t they read the songwriting manual? Did they not want to be rock & roll stars? (They look every inch like they do, in their shades, and their suedes, and their tassels, and their Paisley, and the occasional cape, all lined up, a straight-legged groove machine.) It was not yet officially the age of Aquarius, and songs began with an intro, followed by a verse, a chorus, then another verse, a bridge, then back for a final chorus and fade. Albums were where the noodling went on – the navel-gazing and the barrier-pushing – not singles. And certainly not lead-off singles (Eight Miles High was released in March 1966; the LP followed after the second single, 5D, in July).

Eight Miles High is three-and-a-half minutes long, which is a minute longer than most radio DJs prescribed. It feels longer, like a drawn-out trip, and when you touch down, you find that it’s “stranger than known”. You may accept that the song’s about a chartered flight, legendarily to London (the “rain gray town, known for its sound,” where “small faces” – or Small Faces? – “abound”). If so, then it’s a short hop, and, be honest, something of a bad trip. The natives, some of them “shapeless forms”, are “huddled in storms”, and I don’t like the sound of those black limousines (The Man!) pushing through “sidewalk scenes”. If TripAdvisor had been around in 1966, this one would’ve averaged at two-and-a-half green circles. The guarantee with drug songs (and it is a drug song, despite thin denials after the initial US radio ban, although Clark and Crosby subsequently admitted to what the cool cats already knew), is that what goes up must come down, although not usually in such short, concertina-ed order.

It’s subversive, it’s on the edge, it’s of its time and yet beyond its years. It captures a five-piece band at a crossroads, just as they downsize to a four-piece, playing a song co-written by the cuckoo who flew over the rest and was missing from Fifth Dimension’s Arabian carpet.

Whether they were on drugs, or rugs, the Byrds staked out an important swatch of territory in the era during which they thrived. They’d invented folk rock and date-stamped “jangly”. The 90s would have been a lot quieter had they not done so, when punk rock electric guitar ran out of filth and fury, and fell obsolete, and the jingle-janglers had their season in the sun.

Thank heavens it had nothing to do with drugs.

 

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 Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

TheJamBeatSurrender

Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned.

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

Chic, Le Freak (1978)

chic-le-freak

Artist: Chic
Title: Le Freak
Description: single; album track, C’est Chic
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed …

Though my formative dancing years were complicated by hormones and punk rock, I was no wallflower, as romantic as that may autobiographically be. Once the school disco had established itself as a pre-sexual playground where manoeuvres could be rehearsed in the dark in civilian clothes, to not dance was to not participate in the social whirl. You couldn’t haltingly approach a girl you fancied for a slow dance at the end if you’d spent the previous couple of Fanta-sipping hours glued to a plastic seat. You had to spin it to be in it, and you had to be in it to win it.

I consulted my childhood diaries in order to assess the vivacity of the discotheque culture at Abington Vale Middle School, and am able to confirm that there were two discos on the French trip in 1978 (although I didn’t go to the second one, which I decreed to be “chronic”), and another which I called a disco but was actually a house party at Nina Thadani’s. I hadn’t really started dancing yet. After graduating to Weston Favell Upper School in September, things hotted up. There was a disco that Christmas, held in the sixth form common room but for third years only, at which, I chronicled, “everyone freaked out.” This was the year of Le Freak, aptly French-inflected in the cross-channel circumstances. At this milestone social event, I smooched with Liz Carr. I also did a pogo with John Lewis and a “footsie” with John, Bill, Lee, Si and George, who were the cool kids. (Even though a footsie would be imminently besmirched by Shakin’ Stevens.)

By March 1979, I had thrown my lot in with punk and would only dance – or effect the Doc Martened version of a violent can-can – to approved tunes, which remained in the minority. It is recorded that a disco in March 1980 boasted tunes by the Sex Pistols and the Skids; come December, we high-kicked to the Undertones, Sham 69 and, generously, the Tourists. But as my circle approached full adolescence, we occasioned to go to organised discos in clubs or booked rooms, and, post-enlightenment and keener to move closer to the other gender, we’d dance to a wider range of music: the Whispers, say, followed by the Jam, followed by Diana Ross. Which takes us back to Chic.

There remains no limited company as likely to make me dance than the Chic Organisation, especially in my older bones. Any one of their five consecutive UK Top 10 hits from 1977 to 1978 will do the trick, but there’s something alchemical about Le Freak’s siren call – that “one-two aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” – which yanks you onto the dancefloor. I’m right, aren’t I? You simply do not want to miss another second of its one-two-three-and-a-half-minutes of aerobic bliss. This song is like a form of conscription. Resistance is futile. (I hate being urged by others to get up on the dancefloor, and petulantly pull back, but when Chic are asking, I’m dancing.)

Sometimes it’s best not to lift the bonnet on perfection, although producer Steve Levine did just that with the mastertapes on his Radio 2 show The Record Producers and to hear the individual engine parts of Le Freak did not rob it of its mystery. So efficiently are Nile Rodgers’ forensic guitar, Bernard Edwards’ intricate bass and Tony Thompson’s surgical drums entwined in that intro, you wonder why Mount Rushmore wasn’t re-chiselled as a result and all those dead presidents replaced. As with a lot of monumental music, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in, and in the case of the intro, it’s a bass drum beat where that beat ought to go. Listen to it now. That’s mostly just Rodgers, a hi-hat and a snare. It’s the feeling you get when you ride a bike without holding the handlebars.

Had I owned the parent album – and who realistically owned disco albums? – I would have had the five-and-a-half-minute 12-inch mix, but there’s something pure about doing what has to be done to the seven-inch. There’s no fat on the record, and there can be no fat on your bodily expression. I don’t know if it’s Luci Martin or Alfa Anderson who sings the line, “Le Freak, c’est Chic,” – it could be both – but its a clarion to anyone yet to fully appreciate the international sexiness of this musical form, rooted in the warmth and sorrow of soul, schooled in the double-jointedness of funk, and smoothed of all rough edges in the studio by, in Chic’s case, the sages who wrote and played it (and engineer Bob Clearmountain). Songs like Le Freak were such staples of the disco, and remain so, you didn’t need to own them. They were being-out records, not staying-in records. They were in fact “being out, out” records.

I may have fancied myself a 14-year-old punk, but even at the height of my commitment to anarchy, I knew that disco didn’t suck. (What kind of a philistine would think that, even for a pose?) There was only so much jumping up and down you could do before your head hurt. I was never the greatest dancer, but I knew the primal power of fancy footwork’s release, even before I boast bum-fluff.

Chic wrote, produced and sometimes played some of the most significant dance music of my teens. I have hymned Diana Ross’s Diana album elsewhere. The canon of Sister Sledge twirls for itself. I even have room for Let’s Dance, which Rodgers underpinned like a master craftsman. In 2013, with Edwards and Thompson gone but never forgotten, Get Lucky reinstated Rodgers in the firmament.

Though for many of us there will always a hint of the Proustian about hearing Le Freak, this is a rush that never loses its momentum.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –

The Triffids, Wide Open Road (1985)

TriffidsWideOpenRoad1

Artist: The Triffids
Title: Wide Open Road
Description: single; album track, Born Sandy Devotional
Label: Mushroom
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1988

By the time I arrived, in my art school dungarees and with a green Pentel behind my ear, at the NME offices in 1988, The Triffids had already been anointed as An Important Band. And quite right, too. Traditionally under-appreciated in their native land, they had done what all interesting Australians do and travelled. They’d already done Perth to Sydney in search of a record deal. By 1984, they were Australians in Europe, tracing the footsteps of the Go-Betweens and the Birthday Party before them to London. These rock’n’roll Clive Jameses did as he did: enrich our culture with their wide eyes, itchy feet and tall stories.

As told elsewhere, one of my first responsible jobs in the NME art room was to design and illustrate the packaging for the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. One of the gems nestling within its three-disc tracklisting was Wide Open Road by the Triffids. I had yet to hear the incredible LP from whence it came, Born Sandy Devotional – whose title alone ought to have caused me to buy it, had money not been so tight in the days before I got on the record company mailing lists – but the song caused proverbial guns to go off in my chest. I had never been to Australia. I’d barely been further than the Channel Islands in 1988 and had to apply for a passport when the NME sent me on my first foreign trip later that same year. Wide Open Road was my visa to the other side of the world.

I’ve still never been to Australia, incidentally, but find myself a sucker for its myth and legend through films and TV and music. The Triffids, though expats, immortalised the land down under like no other group of battlers before or since. Their titles bespeak a deep communal link to their native country and a yearning to travel: You Don’t Miss Your Water (’Til Your Well Runs Dry), Estuary Bed, In The Pines, Tarrilup Bridge, Suntrapper, Hometown Farewell Kiss, Jerdacuttup Man, Bury Me Deep In Love, even Calenture, which is a word for cabin fever at sea. It’s made by men and a woman with guitars and drums and keyboards and a violin, but The Triffids’ music is elemental – beaches, estuaries, reefs and saltwater seem to define them – and I have adored exploring my way through their catalogue in the years since 1988.

We must speak of David McComb. When the Triffids enjoyed their first cover during my tenure at the NME, this Byronic, windswept poet-warrior was photographed crawling up a beach in his native Perth, as if shipwrecked. It captured his spirit perfectly, as if newborn, certainly sandy, and always devotional. To mark the release of Black Swan, their proposed commercial breakthrough (although not in actuality; it reached number 63 in the UK, and became their swansong), NME had flown out to Australia and found the band cast asunder before a tour, some working, some gardening. Out tour guide, McComb was a mass of anxieties about national and Western Australian identity, the Perth music scene (which the journalist described as “moribund” and “third or fourth world”), and his preference for “moontanned” women over bronzed bikini babes. Before the year was out, the Triffids had jacked it in. Within a decade, McComb would be dead, despite getting a new heart in ’96. His lifestyle had not been one to ensure long live, and it’s a shame he was better recognised in his home country as a songwriter of quality and distinction posthumously.

Which is why to rewind to Born Sandy Devotional is to discover the Triffids at their transformative best. Recorded in London and Liverpool, thus planting them in the their adopted home, and the home of their ancestors, producer Gil Norton found shape in their raggle-taggle sound and its fulcrum, Wide Open Road, feels so optimistic, so swollen with possibility. Written as a hymn to what McComb described as “a particular landscape”, specifically a stretch of highway between Caiguna and Norseman in Western Australia that’s apparently one of the longest straight roads in the world. You can sort of tell that without looking it up, as drums “roll off” in the singer’s forehead while he remembers carrying a baby, “crying in the wilderness.” (I did say “elemental.”) That Alsy MacDonald’s drums do indeed roll off to illustrate the lyric underscores the literal nature of the song’s mission: to describe the world around it. For a tune built on an electronic rhythm and washed with synth, it feels as organic as the “big and empty” sky above.

This is pop music as psycho-socio-geography that carves a narrative out of the rock – it’s Walkabout, it’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, it’s Wake In Fright. “I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin, I cut them off as limbs,” McComb wails, before confessing to “hunting down you and him” on the flatlands with his “chest filled to explode.” You picture a car, but the protagonist is clearly on his knees in the treeless, post-apocalyptic plain when he yells his “insides out at the sun”. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Their only hit in the UK (they couldn’t even break the charts with Bury Me Deep after it had been used on Neighbours), Wide Open Road still feels like the widest and longest four-minute song in the world.

Elbow, Any Day Now (2001)

elbow-asleep-in-the-back

Artist: Elbow
Title: Any Day Now
Description: EP track, The Any Day Now EP; album track, Asleep In The Back
Label: Ugly Man; V2
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2001

Guy, Craig, Mark, Pete, Jupp: the five of them had been a band since 1990 when four of them were 16, one of them 14, and Elbow by name since 1997. By 2001, when their debut album was released, they’d already recorded another one, for Island, which had been canned when the band were dropped, although half a dozen of its songs were re-recorded for Asleep In The Back. This long-player was, then, a long time coming. Perhaps that’s why it’s so solid, so thought-through, so cohesive, and why the band sound like they’ve been playing together for ten years.

They had me at the opening track. In fact, they had me at Craig’s opening church chord on the opening track. Once drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner unite for that unsettling riff of spellbinding rimshot and seismic grumble, I’m Elbow’s for the taking, and Guy hasn’t even started cooing like a choirboy yet. Any Day Now is among my favourite Track 1, Side 1’s of all time. It set out a stall that I wanted to browse, and for all of Elbow’s achievements artistic, commercial and headlining in the glory years since, it’s the supplier I return to when in need of a restock.

“What’s got into me?” he asks. “Can’t believe myself. Must be someone else. Must be somewhere else.”

Garvey is a man at sea. He hangs suspended. Cold limbo. He’s a man alive but a man alone. And yet … from this slough of despond, the plaintive innocence of his soprano fills the sky with hope. The hope of “getting out of this place.” Any day now, in fact. The phrase “How’s about” may have taken on uninvited echoes of Savile, but we couldn’t be in safer hands. Isolated our protagonist may be, but he’s soon enveloped in sympathetic voices as what we used to call a “round” starts to make the room revolve, until the mantra becomes his safehouse:

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

First tracks of first albums often sounds like something a band have been building up to and rehearsing for all of their lives, but rarely do they sound as boldly understated, as casually assured and as sparingly worded as Any Day Now, and rarely are they six minutes in length. (That’s more a last track, isn’t it?) If it is a manifesto at all, it is equally a stab in the dark. And dark it was at the beginning of this benighted century, when the world was in turmoil and British music was hanging on for dear life. Elbow, who’d planned to emerge in the previous millennium but were thwarted from doing so, sound ready to save the world, or at least anyone who had a heart.

When I interviewed Elbow for Word in 2008, post-Mercury, Jupp had this to tell me about the band’s inability to assess their own work: “We can’t be objective about it. This is the only thing we’ve done in our adult lives. We cannot analyse it. You can’t step back from it.”

I can, and while Asleep In The Back is – with the benefit of hindsight – markedly more Gothic than its successors and pre-anthemic, it was not willfully difficult or awkward (except perhaps Bitten By The Tailfly, their taproom Tom Waits wonk-out). It’s distinctly lovely, in fact. Spooky, dusky, melancholy and regally slow for the most part (got a lot of spare time), with Garvey’s voice sealed in the amber of echo; as much piano- as guitar-led, and swathed in Northern English ennui, it it unafraid of tipping the five-minute mark. And it begins with Any Day Now.

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

He was wrong when he called for one day like this a year to see him right. One day is not enough. With Elbow’s back catalogue, you get a whole calender. Starting with a church chord.