Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Unfinishedsympathy

Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

My Bloody Valentine, Soon (1990)

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Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Title: Soon
Description: EP track, Glider; album track, Loveless
Label: Creation
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1990

In the 1970s, Queen would guarantee by way of a recurring sleeve note that “no synthesisers were used” in the making of their records. I always read this as a snotty form of dinosaurial purism. But Kevin Shields, the big brain and dextrous fingers of My Bloody Valentine, might have revived the very same badge of honour in the 1980s and 90s. For he, too, was proud to have created his band’s distinct sound using guitars, played live. Except with a spot of glissando.

My Bloody Valentine were just two Irishmen and two English women who walked into a bar and made some noise, and yet they were legend. The story of the band’s diffident second album Loveless is a fable well told, the hard facts of its recording as distorted as the sounds heard within it. How much it actually cost – beyond the band’s future patronage at Creation – becomes less relevant with every passing year. As with Brian May’s, time cannot wither My Bloody Valentine’s sound, because it emerged from places unidentified between the plectrum and the magnetic tape that enshrined it, and as such has never faded from vitality and relevance.

If Loveless reminds us of that awkward transition from the 80s into the 90s – and it was recorded as one decade metamorphosed into the other – it is little more than bald historical statute: that is when we first heard it. But if Soon encapsulates its era with that nod to what we used to call “indie-dance” – MBV’s own fuzzy mutation of the shuffle beat, buried deep in the miasma – there endeth its bondage to fashion.

I interviewed the whole band on the eve of release of Loveless for an NME cover story in their manager’s front room in Streatham. As a devotee of their squall since Isn’t Anything I was proud to do so, even if the on-paper results were tongue-tied and sensation-free. (It was just around the corner from where I lived at the time, which was handy.) This is a band whose music speaks for itself; at least, it speaks with more clarity than the mere mortals who make it. But let us lose ourselves in these seven minutes of mystery and see what comes out in the wash.

“The vaguest music ever to get into the charts,” according to a lecture given by Professor Brian Eno at the New York Museum Of Modern Art in 1990, Soon is the track most like and yet most unlike My Bloody Valentine at that particular equinox, a band whose kind of magic seemed unbottleable then.

You should listen to Soon in the context of Loveless. (It was previously chucked out on the Glider EP in April 1990 to appease a panicked Alan McGee as far as I can tell, while its parents shuttled like refugees between 18 studios around London until the autumn of 1991). It begins with the end: the dying, eddying embers of previous track What You Want.

Like everything My Bloody Valentine did from one end of Loveless to the other (and Soon lies at the other end), it sounds as if it were hewn from interference insomnia and something gaseous. “That” drum pattern, unlike its equivalent on a record by, say, the Mock Turtles or the Milltown Brothers, seems to work against the rest of the song rather than with it. It emerges from a near-militaristic snare doodle that may in fact have been affected by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig using sticks on a skin and then sampled and looped into the mix by Shield. (Ó Cíosóig only plays live on two tracks, which is two more than bassist Deb Googe and guitarist Bilinda Butcher.)

I won’t tie myself up in knots locating each instrument in this sonic equivalent of one of those pantomimic equations scrawled madly across a huge blackboard in films about genius. If in doubt, it’s a guitar, treated at the point of purchase using the tremelo arm of fable, then treated again a bit afterwards using some supernatural combination of pre-amp equalisers, whatever they may be. But the real treat is for our ears. To understand precisely how Shields did it would be to let light in upon magic. And there’s light here in abundance: bright, blinding, infinite, and liable to leave an imprint.

It’s not an unconventional song. It has a beat, an intro, singing, riffs. In the first sequence, a spellbinding repeat pattern throbs with ecstasy and wine, and we’re in good, happy company. And then, at 44 seconds, where there was harmony, Shields brings the first note of discord. Out of this comes Bilinda Butcher’s indistinct, woozy dream-state vocal – her lovely singing voice always a fourth “instrument” in Shields’ vision – and a narcotic state of grace is achieved. Verse? Chorus? Both and neither. Do not let the funky beat confuse you. This is a night at the opera.

I almost chose To Here Knows When as the ultimate My Bloody Valentine track – this album’s fourth: in essence the sound of an analgesic working on a headache for five minutes and 31 beautiful seconds – or the dolphin call of I Only Said, which never fails to alleviate symptoms of angst with its afternoon’s delights. In many ways, you could argue for the 49-minute entirety of Loveless as My Bloody Valentine’s greatest song. But Soon puts a tin hat on the record, unafraid of shape and form, a battler after mainstream acceptance. Shields and MBV always operated outside the tent, pitching in, and never bestrode the world like Queen. Too vaporous to handle. Too shrouded in mystery. Too much. Too Jung. But their place in history is now assured. The comeback and the third album in 2013 proved that they can still do whatever it is that they did.

Soon fades for about 20 seconds. But instead of knobs being turned, it is the sound of an idea being dissembled. It will rock you.

Cocteau Twins, Ivo (1984)

CocteausTreasure_cover

Artist: Cocteau Twins
Title: Ivo
Description: album track, Treasure
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

Ping pong, peach flan …

There are a number of bands over the years who, as a fan, I’ve fantasised about becoming friends with. Cocteau Twins were one of them. Having met them professionally on numerous occasions since first falling head over heels for them around the time of Head Over Heels, I know for a fact that singling out a track from their third album, Treasure, will not make the transition to their Christmas card list smooth. Sometimes you have to put gut instinct above social ambition.

Our first meeting, ironically, was non-professional. In 1985, my first full year as a resident of London, my friend Rob and I were in our Cocteaus pomp. I’d been intrigued by their grumbling Goth beginnings back in Northampton – the tinny drum machine, the lonely echo, Robin Guthrie’s squealing guitar, Elizabeth Fraser’s fraught Esperanto – but a perfect storm of the increasingly glacial grandiosity of their music, the sheer beauty of the sleeve artwork Vaughan Oliver was creating for them (Head Over Heels, The Spangle Maker, Sunburst And Snowblind), and the top-heavy nature of their haircuts had ushered them to the top of our to-do list by Christmas ’84 and the end of that first term. As a pair of art students, we’d bonded over their aesthetic. Treasure was our first shared new release. Ivo was our first shared opening track. It shed light, truth and beauty into a nondescript study bedroom behind an ugly orange curtain in Battersea.

Self-produced, it was the first Cocteau Twins LP to include Simon Raymonde and, in retrospect, feels like their first complete work. The earlier genuflections to the wiry fuzz and angry beats of Siouxsie & The Banshees had been totally expunged in favour of cathedral guitar that exploded into shards (or “a thousand incandescent fireflies,” were you to take one florid review of the time as gospel) and a hard, resonant metronome from deep within the drumbox first discovered on Hitherto. It was as if Sugar Hiccup – the airborne lead track from Sunburst And Snowblind – was the new blueprint for their sound. That every track had its own decorative Christian name felt very much as if the Cocteaus had given birth.

There was, however, no pop hit here. No single gem from Treasure would leave the chest. It’s an album’s album. (Pearly Dewdrops-Drops had reached number 29 earlier that year, and it would remain their highest singles-chart position.) It coalesces around that signature sound. Little is left to understatement. It is an ornate Valhalla of a record. Its two almost beatless tracks, Beatrix and Otterley, make a credible claim to modern classical music. but Ivo, named after their mysterious label boss, sums up Treasure for me. Fading in, which is not something I usually encourage, on the back of strummed guitar, it allows Fraser to trill her gobbledegook refrain without having to battle for ear-time with anything ethereal or Wagnerian: [phonetically] “Ping pong, peach flan, pandor, pompadour, penleigh, peatswee, Persephone-eeeeeee.”

In a more cosmopolitan age of Danish drama, Polish supermarkets and Sigur Ros, the idea of not understanding a word of what’s being sung or said but appreciating the musical sound is commonplace. In the early 80s, Liz Fraser’s bulletins from another dimension seemed peculiar and, to some, impenetrable. To those who succumbed, they were ours to decipher. I got the feeling I’d been cheated when, in the early 90s, she started to string sentences together.

Ivo does not tinker with the verse-chorus-bridge orthodoxy of rock. It even has a guitar solo – which is a bit like letting off a firework during a fireworks display. But in every other way it was unlike anything else at the time. (As a drummer, it’s odd for me to cleave so closely to music that dispenses with one – as I subsequently would with Carter USM and had already done with Sisters Of Mercy – but there’s nothing a man behind a kit could do to improve this rapturous, skyscraping sound.) There was jazz and there were marimbas, scratchy guitars and fisherman’s caps in the early-to-mid 80s. None were to be found here. Even the other acts on 4AD, whose sleeves looked like the Cocteaus’, didn’t sound like the Cocteaus.

Rob and I – superfans, remember – met Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie in the bar at the University of London Union in 1985, at a 4AD gig whose bill included instrumentalists Dif Juz (we’d bought their records, too, without having heard a note) and the Wolfgang Press (why, of course). Too enraptured at seeing our clay-footed gods not to approach them, I allowed Rob to make contact, and joined him once he’d broken the ice by showing them the ticket to a GLC gig they were supposed to be headlining, but which had been cancelled. (We kept the tickets as souvenirs rather than get our money back.) Robin and Elizabeth, as we now intimately knew them, seemed not to know anything about the gig and were momentarily intrigued. We had our “in”. Nothing profound was exchanged. They were shyer than we were. When the headliner went on, we accompanied them back into the hall. Liz had added playful backing vocals to an iconoclastic Wolfgang Press cover of Respect, and Rob asked her if she was getting up onstage. She shook her head and we dispersed into the overcoated throng.

I eventually seized my chance to interview them for the NME in 1990 for Heaven Or Las Vegas. It would have been the cover story if not for the Pet Shop Boys, but we ran it across the centre pages, and my circle was squared. They didn’t say much on that occasion either, although I reminded them of our first meeting at ULU, and, a few years later, managed to wangle it for Rob to interview them, briefly, for Q, when I’d taken him on as technology ed and the Cocteaus did an early streamed gig on a new thing called the Internet.

In 1993, Guthrie unloaded some post-rehab, 12-step coke confessions into my tape recorder in Brussels, and in 1996, I went to his house to interview he and Liz, then separated, for a record company bio. We never became friends, which means I am allowed to carry on loving Treasure.

When I listen to Ivo today, it takes me back to sitting in the dark as a first-year and thinking beyond the instant coffee and Marlon Brando postcards. I never ever went off the Cocteau Twins, but will always prefer their earlier, more incandescent fireflies.