Cornershop, Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) (1998)

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Artist: Cornershop
Title: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix)
Description: single; track The Greatest Hits – Why Try Harder (Fatboy Slim)
Label: Wiiija; Big Beat
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow

How many number one records have made The 143? I reckon around a dozen, with the same number again for tracks that appear on number one albums. This is not necessarily because my tastes don’t often merge with the tastes of the nation. There are plenty of chart-topping groups and singers in my list, but in only selecting one song for any given artist, my final choice might not be their biggest hit. For instance, my chosen Elvis song is Suspicious Minds, which only reached number two in the UK. (It was number one in the US and Canada.) Similarly with those multi-chart-topping beat groups the Beatles and the Stones: neither Blackbird nor Wild Horses reached the top and had to stop. (Blackbird was not a single, and Wild Horses, a US-only single, reached 28 there.) All of which brings me to the rare thrill of agreeing with the British record-buying public and ending up on the same page. This happened in February 1998 when a peppy new remix of Brimful Of Asha beat all comers.

I was lucky enough to see Cornershop play before they were music-press darlings. I’d been sent by the NME to review the Rockingbirds at a club in Leeds in 1992 and Cornershop were the support. They were good and I met them afterwards. My main impression of them was that they seemed shy and polite. I don’t recall being that shocked that two members of an indie band were Asian, or that the Singh brothers used their ethnicity as both sonic turbine and sentient gimmick. It sometimes felt as if their adoption of Asian signifiers was partly done to bait an Anglocentric music press (or perhaps just Morrissey at the time); it was certainly deployed as an ironic weapon. You may recall the “curry-coloured vinyl” release of their first EP (which I still own), the Punjabi version of Norwegian Wood, more than one use of the thankfully now-moribund term of abuse “wog”, and of course, there’s their name. They are a fiendishly clever band, always one step ahead and one step to the side.

The smash hit version of Brimful Of Asha is 90% Cornershop’s achievement, and 10% Norman Cook’s. (I’m sure Norman would humbly accept this share, and I expect Cornershop thanked him kindly for unleashing its beast within.) Their original 1997 iteration of what would be their defining song – a langorous paean whose only signs of danger are a tambourine and a teasing string sample on the playout – reached number 60 in the national charts. Once Cook had got his hands on it, spotting its potential for immortality and universality, it roared back into national consciousness and topped the poppermost: a victory for “our” music over “their” music in those still-entrenched times before file-sharing and giveaway NMEs, and a red-letter day for the independent sector and in particular the Rough Trade-birthed Wiiija.

It was already a uniquely warm, personal and witty evocation of growing up against a rarefied backdrop of Hindi playback singers epitomised by Asha Bhosle (ennobled in the lyric as “sadi rani” or “our queen”), set to a lazily summery indie riff ideal for its original August release and appealingly sung by Singh; Cook simply sped it up, spiced it up, changed the key (or so I’m told by musicologists) and added a bigger beat, the kind that had only just been defined as “Big Beat” and twinned with Brighton. Like the Bollywood tunes that feed into the heritage singalong feel, it’s a tune for dancing. The beachfront remixer spotted that and splashed it up in massive letters.

There’s dancin’ behind the movie scenes

It informs as it entertains, listing Bhosle’s contemporaries Mohammad Rafi and
Lata Mangeshkar and going on to namecheck All India Radio, Trojan Records, Marc Bolan and French singer Jacques Dutronc. It’s a song about singers; it’s music about music; it’s a lyric about lyricists. It says, “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” Brimful of Asha is a celebration of itself, if you like. Even if you’re not on Cornershop’s actual wavelength, you get the gist. They care about RPMs. They acknowledge the power of radio. They love 45s. And so do you. After all, you’re holding theirs. And everybody, regardless of backdrop, ethnicity or accident of geography, needs a bosom for a pillow.

Cornershop continue to produce the goods on their own fluid terms (Tjinder and Ben Ayres survive from the founding squad), albeit away from the treacherous eddies of the UK chart. Their subsequent singles have been no less catchy and colourful, and who cares if Asha was a commercial fluke? It got higher than Strawberry Fields and Vienna. I reviewed their sixth album Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast in Word in 2009, and wrote that they “continue to forge a singleminded path between English pop kitsch and Asian birthright”, noting the use of “supplementary tambura and sitar,” and a preoccupation with “a surreal form of pacifism.”  I also stated that “a soulfulness roots Tjinder Singh’s elusively quirky lyrics in sincerity.” Hold that thought.

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Metronomy, The Look (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prefab Sprout, When Love Breaks Down (1984)

 

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Artist: Prefab Sprout
Title: When Love Breaks Down
Description: single; album track, Steve McQueen
Label: Kitchenware
Release date: 1984, 1985
First heard: 1984

I’m not even sure why, but it was a standing joke that Prefab Sprout, critical darlings clearly capable of mainstream commercial embrace, kept on re-releasing When Love Breaks Down until it was a hit. In fact, they released it once, prior to its parent album Steve McQueen, in 1984 – when it failed to make the Top 75 – and again, in 1985, when it scaled to number 25 and made Top Of The Pops. I’m not sure the embellished version of events was even meant to denigrate the band, or their doughty label Kitchenware, merely to underline their determination to break on through to the other side. Which they surely did. (Come the next album, they were a Top 10 certainty, and shampooed their hair accordingly.)

Prefab Sprout shone for all the bands forged on the anvil of post-post-punk, who appreciated the here’s-three-chords-now-form-a-band ethic, but had broader musical aspirations and tended toward the windswept and interesting: Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, The Associates (all Scottish, so far), Win, Deacon Blue (still Scottish), ABC, The Christians, Danny Wilson, Wet Wet Wet (and we’re back in Scotland). Not all as cool as each other, but all willing to admit to an appreciation of Steely Dan, the collective sense of ambition was palpable, but there was further to fall. Once you’ve cracked the actual charts and become what used to be called a “housewives’ favourite”, the only way is down or Las Vegas. (Or a comfortable dotage on Radio 2, which is less of a comedown these days, of course.)

Paddy McAloon never aimed low in his life, and continues to defy a string of crueler-than-cruel medical jokes by finding new ways around his disabilities, a spirit undimmed. His songs have always been intricate, opaque and one step ahead of you. I bought Steve McQueen and Swoon in the wrong order during college, and thus experienced them getting less accessible, and thus more intriguing. Swoon beguiled me before I knew the meaning of the word. It was terrible background music, as it demanded you pay attention to its curling lyrics and unpredictable tempo changes. Steve McQueen was a more approachable affair, full of potential singles, not least the locomotive country opener Faron Young, and this one.

Torrid and aching in arrangement and thrust, after some of the cryptic crossword clues on Swoon, it’s pretty straightforward: McAloon’s love and he “work well together”, but are “often apart”. Nothing too melodramatic, just a couple separated by distance. Instead of fonder, “absence makes the heart lose weight” (even when he’s playing a straight bat, McAloon still hits a six). When love breaks down, we tell lies, we fool ourselves, we do all sorts of stuff to “stop the truth from hurting”, but soon, we’ll be as “free as old confetti.” More given to Sondheim than Strummer, Paddy brings a great gift to the masses: eloquence with wit. Prefab Sprout are like punk never happened.

It’s hard not to swoon to the desaturated Hollwood pose on the sleeve of the album (I don’t know about you, but I never imagined McAloon could ride that Triumph), and the clean lines of the production from either Thomas Dolby (the longer, album version) or Phil Thornalley (the single). But most of all, I admire the daring Americanisation of the imagery, building from Swoon‘s basketball, cornball, Bobby Fischer and “Chicago urban blues” (carefully tempered by tea-rooms, A-Levels and Jodrell Bank), to take transatlantic flight with blueberry pies, bubblegum, “the songs of Georgie Gershwin” and Pearl Harbor. McAloon imagines and interprets like a novelist, of course. He was sort of leapfrogged by Lloyd Cole in this department, who made America his lyrical, then spiritual, then actual home. All roads lead back to Tyne and Wear for McAloon.

Let us praise his bandmates, for this was a band, whose lineup remained steady until after Andromeda Heights in 1997, and a one that was fleet of finger and foot. McAloon and Wendy Smith’s vocals work well together, her angelic hosts, treated in the manner of I’m Not In Love, a constant, breathy presence. Brother Martin McAloon’s air-conditioned bass never falters. The exactitude of Neil Conti’s clockwork rimshot and feathery snare fills were good enough to get him recruited for Bowie’s band at Live Aid.

Even the LP take, at just over four minutes, ends too soon. But Prefab Sprout make alchemical pop at all lengths (on Steve McQueen alone there’s Blueberry Pies at two-and-a-half, and Desire At over five), and in any case, the lyric has quietly come to a conclusion. You may have missed it. Here’s where the story ends: with the protagonist and his former love joining “the wrecks who lose their hearts for easy sex.” His work here is done; he’s ridden that triumph.

I realise now that Prefab Sprout are wasted on the young. They age like port.

By the way, Stuart Maconie and I subsequently spent the back end of a boozy evening in Newcastle in 1992 sitting round a grand piano in a hotel bar singing along as Paddy McAloon pounded out requests from the Sprout catalogue. It was one of the greatest back ends of a boozy evening of my life.

Kevin Coyne, Dynamite Daze (1978)

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Artist: Kevin Coyne
Title: Dynamite Daze
Description: album track, Dynamite Daze
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1988

Revolution!

I don’t expect people to have heard of Kevin Coyne. I know I hadn’t when a friend with more left-field taste than mine introduced me to his work in the late 80s. By then, the square-peg troubadour had put out about 20 albums, including live ones and a double LP he recorded in 1980 at the time of his nervous breakdown, backed on Disc 1 by Robert Wyatt and Disc 2 by the Ruts, a bizarre cocktail that might help place the prolific, self-propelled and often uncategorisable ex-psychiatric nurse from Derby. Like Wyatt, he forged his own towpath and sang the blues; but he also embraced the punk spirit, having a dig at the record industry and his label boss Richard Branson in Having A Party, and dedicating the title track of Dynamite Daze to Sid Vicious.

Dynamite Daze, one of Coyne’s raucous, rattlebag English-psychedelic “band” albums before a marked left turn into sparser, less populated recorded material, was the first of Coyne’s albums I heard in full, and although I’ve dug deep into his bottomless back catalogue since then – and thoroughly enjoyed his 21st century work, from the sweet Sugar Candy Taxi to his unintendedly posthumous swansong One Day In Chicago with Jon Langford (he died in 2004 after two years of living with lung fibrosis) – it remains a beacon. Its highlight is always a two-horse race for me, with the opening title track neck and neck with Amsterdam, an equally lively rock-out that heralds what we used to call Side Two and hymns the aromatic delights of the Dutch capital (“Down in the Melkweg, the heat is on, it’s smoking and knocking them out”).

The reason Dynamite Daze pips it is because it so brilliantly, breathlessly captures the sound of a musician enjoying his work. Coyne had a curious voice, squeaky, rasping, definitely melancholy in the blues tradition, but prone to outbursts of joy, too. I could recommend any number of Coyne’s quieter, more intimate ballads – on this album alone there’s the mournful, lovesick I Only Want To See You Smile, accompanied by yes-him Tim Rice at the piano, and the lilting Are We Dreaming with Paul Wickens on accordion – but Dynamite Daze is an unabashed stomp, counted in by a couple of guitars, one electric, one acoustic, and a whump.

That punk spirit I mentioned? “You see me and I stand outside the Palais de Dance, I’m rattling my bones, I’m pogoing.” (That’s the Hammersmith Palais by its more historic name.) He goes on to state for the record that he’s “in a rage, in a rage, waiting for the dynamite days … You little punks, come out to play.” However, a hairy man in his mid-30s, he’s under no illusions about being part of Generation X, and with typical world-weariness, he crows, “Revolution! Seen it all, seen it all before!”

The beat gallops, time is kept, guitars are thrashed, and through it all, Coyne’s almost comedic gurgle; impossible to tear your ears away from, it hiccups and free-forms, rising to a crazy, yodelling falsetto with total abandon, and then he cackles into the second verse, chuckling away like the “luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-luna-tic” he evokes elsewhere (this is a man who will title a later album Sanity Stomp without irony). His voice is a unique instrument, his delivery unhampered by selfconsciousness or any foolhardy desire to sound authentic. Coyne’s kind of authenticity is not earned, it is innate. In his best East Midlands drawl, he ends Dynamite Daze with a throaty “Git ard of it!” which – despite the geographical remove – reminds me of one of my Northamptonian elders.

Coyne should be as cherished as any other in the canon of English musical eccentrics: Barrett, Stanshall, Moon, Brown, Davies, Harper, Lydon, Sensible, Albarn, Haines. In my world, he is.

 

ABC, Unzip (1983)

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Artist: ABC
Title: Unzip
Description: album track, from Beauty Stab
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

Know this: The 143 will be catalogued in no particular order. Each is as vital as the other. We begin with ABC because we do. Having trained myself to love only punk and post-punk music in my early-to-mid teens, it took the more electronic/cinematic sweep of what we called New Romantic music to break my self-imposed spell circa 1980-81. Into the strict buzz of punk rock electric guitar I allowed synthetic beats and beeps, and via the “white funk” of bands like Pigbag, A Certain Ratio, and ABC, and Spandau Ballet’s Chant No. 1, bongos, brass and strings.

We all fell hard for The Lexicon Of Love didn’t we, in that summer of Smash Hits, 1982? It felt like it. To say that ABC injected some glamour back into the people’s music was an understatement. It almost felt like contraband in my record collection, which remained mostly dark and dirty with Bauhaus, B-Movie and the Bunnymen still dominant. I don’t know how I missed Beauty Stab, the gleefully arrogant follow-up, in 1983, but I must have, as it only crossed my radar when I arrived at Ralph West Halls of Residence in Battersea, London, in September 1984. My new neighbour, Stephen Clasper from Morpeth, lent me it, and it knocked me sideways.

It was big and bold, and it had guitars. And where Lexicon swooned, Beauty Stab, well, stabbed. It wasn’t as great a leap sideways as it felt – both LPs were overstated and epic – but this one had blood rushing through it. And although I was taken by the singles That Was Then And This Is Now, and the appeasing S.O.S. (neither of which went Top 10: a mark of its chilly reception), it’s this track that got under my skin and has stayed there all these years. To the point where I have chosen it over ABC’s fireside favourites.

Moving from one founder of ZTT, Trevor Horn, to another, Gary Langan, the sound on Beauty Stab is spare and graphic. Unzip opens with a guitar riff that sounds synthesised, even if it isn’t, and the drums sound triggered, even if they aren’t. It may simply be precision playing (Andy Newmark had George Benson, John Lennon and Pink Floyd under his belt), but it raises the tension for what is clearly an ode to sex. When Fry growls, “Love’s just a gimmick, a mime or a mimic,” he seems to be making a bonfire of his own recent pop past. The sax sounds predatory, the bass is around Joe Cocker bassist Alan Spenner’s knees, and the tom toms are tribal. It’s a new lexicon of lust.

Fry’s sap is certainly rising (“Why take pleasure in censorship?”) and when he delivers the killer line in the second verse, “She’s vegetarian except when it comes to sex,” I blush every time.

It’s all over in under three minutes. As well it might be. I am proud in adult life to have played this song on national radio with Martin Fry in attendance. And I remain grateful to Stephen Clasper for the tip-off. We both leapt on the stuttering cartoon-pop third album How To Be A Zillionaire the week it came out in January ’85, which was another leap again.