Lana Del Rey, Radio (2012)

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Artist: Lana Del Rey
Title: Radio
Description: track, Born To Die
Label: Interscope/Polydor
Release date: 2012
First heard: 2012

Motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin

I still appreciate accredited lyrics and have done since the Smash Hits revolution of my early teens. When a freckly contemporary of Weston Favell Upper School called Stuart Skelton first introduced a copy of the pop mag into the playground, I was slap-bang smitten. This particular issue was dated June 14-27, 1979, which meant the fortnightly glossy publication was not yet six months out of the traps (and nor did I know that among its staff were a handful of young, witty men who would in my future employ me to do what they were already doing). It had Donna Summer on the cover and tantalising promise of the words to Up The Junction, Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Ring My Bell and Masquerade within. To my knowledge, I didn’t miss an issue until the late 80s and only then because I had by then fixed my sights on the inky music press and brooked no argument from Black Type and Bev Hillier.

Within that first year of plighting my troth to Smash Hits it was with deep existential horror that the magazine confessed that the lyrics it had printed to Duchess by the Strangers (a single I’d bought) had been procured by listening with the head pressed against a speaker rather than sourced from the record company. I still distinctly remember the phrase “Dutch of the terrace” when my own ears told me it was “Duchess the terrace.” I’d like to say I never trusted them again. But I did.

We live now in an age of one-click, one-swipe everything. Ironically, this guarantees neither quality nor veracity. You’re as likely to encounter bluffed, phonetic, inaccurate lyrics on a lyric site as verse-chorus poetry directly sent directly down the pipe from a song’s copyright owners. I resent that. If I wanted poorly transcribed lyrics I’d transcribe them poorly myself. Which brings me to Radio by Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey in general.

I took a flyer on this cinematic-seeming new artiste in 2012, ignoring the nagging voice in my head that told me I was too old for this type of thing: a willowy young woman with an apparently fake ID and Hollywood-esque backstory – take your pick from a buffet of waitressing, teenage dyspepsia, pseudonyms, Catholicism, the Bronx, a hippy uncle and aunt, a degree in metaphysics – and a fabulously smoky, sneering vocal style. I wasn’t interested in her CV, but I liked her style. The singles – and there were a gluttonous, Thriller-approaching six –  from her second album Born to Die cast their net and I took the shiny bait. Whether she was real or fake, Del Rey’s record felt raw and ambitious and fiercely grown-up behind that varnished Lolita outer shell (“swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car”). And in one track, Radio, she sang so sweetly and melodically about “motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin” (hence: not a single). These were word combinations that interested me.

Well, guess what? She wasn’t singing that at all. After closer examination and with no Smash Hits to consult, I became convinced she wasn’t even swearing in that stanza from the song’s knockout chorus. I’m a grown man. I’m not impressed by strong language from the start per se, but I respect the commercial self-harm of building in a bad swear – not least if it discounts putting out a seventh single from an album that only contains 12 tracks. Anyhoo, here’s the apparently definitive couplet, which is only marginally less poetic than my misheard version:

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio

Be honest. It’s the syncopated, rhetorical question, “How do ya like me now?” that tips the chorus into invincibility. Del Rey is a natural wordsmith. She bullseyes again with, “Lick me up and take me like a vitamin,” which is an original come-on, steeped in the modern world of snowflake millennials. Then she’s claiming her body’s “sweet like sugar-venom, oh yeah.” This is beat poetry, man. The blank look of a blank generation she wears on the album’s sleeve sort of dares you to reflect it back. She isn’t going to be the first to blink in a stare-off. She’s a kohl-eyed JFK. She’s a poolside Svengali. Her name’s the name of a bar or a rodeo or a turnpike.

Songwriters are involved throughout the LP, sourced from as far apart as Lincolnshire, Warrington, Palo Alto and New Jersey – not to mention where genial Jim Irvin, former music journalist, editor and frontman of Furniture, hails from in London – but Del Rey’s family surname Grant is a constant. This is her truth, even if it isn’t true.

The arrangement is strewn around gossamer ambience and deep echo, combined with crunching beats, and it’s simultaneously chilly and warm. How do they achieve that? No matter. She sings, “Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise,” and your spider-sense tingles: has this apparently non-fictional character found peace beneath the chlorine? So soon?

I’ve realised that Lana Del Rey is for Christmas as well as for life. How do ya like me now?

 

 

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Sleaford Mods, Face to Faces (2015)

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Artist: Sleaford Mods
Title: Face to Faces
Description: track, Key Markets
Label: Harbinger Sound
Release date: 2015
First heard: 2015

Get me: I hosted a premiere at Cineworld in Birmingham for the big-screen, red-carpet premiere of the first episode in the second series of BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. In my ice-breaking introduction, I played self-effacingly to the predominantly Brummie audience by revealing that I was born and raised in the East Midlands, “the second sexiest half of the Midlands.” I was joking, of course.

You run a crap club in Brum, you lose

In truth, the hoary heritage of the Midlands is as long as your arm; Birmingham (cradle of heavy metal), Stourbridge (grebo), Wolverhampton (Morrissey’s first solo gig), Coventry (2-Tone) and Stoke (Robbie Williams) have the West sewn up, while the East provides back-up through my own hometown Northampton (Bauhaus) and nearby Leicester (Mark Morrison, Family, Showaddywaddy, Cornershop, Kasabian). The once-impenetrably chewy accent heard around Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire has been belatedly enshrined in popular culture through the dialectic patchwork of This is England. But the East needs a mascot. Two, ideally.

Face to faces, alive

Sleaford Mods, named after the Lincolnshire town near Grantham, where Margaret Thatcher began her long walk to Finchley, are a siren call, a last exit, a final comedown and a stab in the dark all in one, or two. The duo, who’ve been around the bloc at least twice if not thrice (they are both in their late-to-mid-40s at time of going to press), semantic street preacher Jason Williamson, born in Grantham, and DJ, tunesmith and wiggler Andrew Fearn, born in Staffs but raised in rural Lincs, carry the weight of town and country on their shoulders, and it resonates in both their flat vowels and their stripped-back style. It is written that the pair have known each other since 2009, working together since the fifth Sleaford Mods album Wank (and thus, in a sense, the first). They are defined by their own failure – if failure to find an audience can really be called a failure – but creating your own sound is not always an overnight eureka. (Many great bands have as much failure below the line as success above it – Pulp a good example – and not all arrive fully-formed – Elbow a case in point. Because life’s not like The X-Factor.)

Nick Clegg wants another chance – really?
This daylight robbery is now so fucking hateful
It’s accepted by the vast majority

I first heard them when most people outside of the toilet circuit did, through those subversive underground outlets 6 Music, BBC’s Glastonbury coverage and Later … with Jools Holland (“We don’t want radio play, we’re not fucking Cannon and Ball,” Williamson barks on In Quiet Streets). The singer, with his face like Michael Fassbender’s portrait in the attic, happily admitted in one interview that he was turned on to the post-punk Mod revival by seeing The Jam on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978, so what goes around. Like the Woking Mods, Williamson, Fearn, a laptop and two crates arrived on television fully-baked, wound up and ready to play. With their self-described “coarse English music”, they were fast, furious and funny, not above calling you a “silly Billy”. At that stage I’d come to terms with the notion that Arctic Monkeys would be the last new band I would fall in love with from nought to obsessed with their chronicles of rubbish modern life. Seeing Sleaford Mods, I knew I was wrong.

It’s wise to assume that Williamson and Fearn hate whatever you love, especially if you love Blur. They might even hate Sleaford Mods, I don’t know, but they hate the way this country is sliding down the flue even more. They are old enough to know better. You could fill the vacuum inside Ed Sheeran with a hundredth of Sleaford Mods’ conviction and eloquence. But they do not operate on a level playing field, as much as Ed acts like a troubadour. While Ed has nothing to say, Sleaford Mods are biologically and ideologically incapable of saying nothing:

Is it right to analyze in a general sense the capital machine
Its workings and what they mean?
Passive articles on political debate
Its implications are fucking meaningless, mate

It goes without saying that Williamson transforms “fucking” into “fooking” and, later, “I’ll come out to you” to “Arl cum aht too yer“, and “You cunt” to “Yer coont.

New build, new bricks
New methods, old tricks

Why have I chosen Face to Faces as the definitive selection from their definitive album Key Markets? Because it does not deviate. With a fixed drumbeat, a perpetual Marxist bassline and a repeated mantra (“Face to faces“), its three-and-a-half minutes move from National Insurance to new-builds via Boris on a bike, your wife and shit you need to be pissed up to smoke, and its sinews and blood vessels strain to contain its message. Some of the best pop music bursts at the seams of production, and long may it; the jungle concrète of Sleaford Mods is defined by its parameters; Dogma 2015. What you hear is what you get. Other tracks on other albums do the same (BHS, Tiswas, No One’s Bothered, Rupert Trousers), but until Britain is fixed, even a Top 11 chart placing and increased volume in key markets won’t put out the fire. The names are changed to protest the ignorant but the punchline remains the same.

In dragging their concerns back to the original pirate material of English folk music and voicing them in their own voice, Sleaford Mods find a new vanishing point where a pre-industrial past meets a post-industrial future.

 

Sonic Youth, (I Got A) Catholic Block (1987)

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Artist: Sonic Youth
Title: (I Got A) Catholic Block
Description: track, Sister
Label: SST/Blast First
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

You have to love the honesty of a song played on guitars that begins with the familiar b-zzzzzt of jack plugs going into amplifier sockets. Crackling like synapses, it forges a short, sharp overture of electrical gain. It means business (“I let it go to work”). And it means not to deceive.

Hey, who wasn’t a bit frightened of Sonic Youth when you first heard or saw them? I don’t mind admitting it. Noo Yoik extreme-noise-terrorists who favoured sunglasses after dark and sleeve art scratched out as if by a caged animal, they seemed the very height of Warholian post-punk nihilism, plugged in by the time I encountered them and ready to play with your entrails. And they were called that – an amalgam of tributes to Patti Smith and Jamaican sound systems. I first picked up on them via the traditional extrasensory pincer movement of the NME and John Peel, whose Radio 1 shows in the mid-80s I was taping whenever it was practical to sit with my finger hovering over the pause button on my tape recorder after dark. That’s how Catholic Block got its hooks into me.

Sister, then, was my first Sonic Youth album. It was Sonic Youth’s fourth, and pertinently their second for SST, the label that hosted their transmogrification from “No Wave” to hummable alt-rock. It was not until they sold their spiky, PVC souls at the crossroads of corporate America and signed to David Geffen’s decoy boutique DGC that they started to shift units in time for the grunge revolution. Overground, they made as much noise as they had done underground. That remains their academic/instinctive genius. But back in 1987, Sister, my first Sonic Youth album, was very much a private pleasure. It did not chart in any territory in the world, as far as I know, although the 60,000 copies I’ve read that it sold represented what wankers now call an uptick. (Actually, be proud, British record buyers, as we were the first to catapult the band into a non-indie chart when Sister’s follow-up the epic double Daydream Nation rocketed to number 99 in the UK. Made it! Fans! Autographs later!)

As we have established, it starts with woodpecker electro-stutter as preparations are made – a sound evocative to anyone who’s ever been in any kind of electric rock band – the lead instruments then abused with a tremolo arm by either Thurston Moore or Lee Ranaldo in woozy style. But this primeval interference is given form by Steve Shelley’s pat-a-cake drums – and a hi-hat like an aerosol – while Kim Gordon’s muscular bass, as if in explicit imitation of Sonic Youth’s imminent trajectory from din to dinner party, ushers in harmony from discord, truth emerges from error, faith emerges from doubt, and hope from despair. There is no conventional chorus; the lyric actually begins with Moore’s helpful refrain (“I got a Catholic block/Inside my head”), and drinks from it repeatedly.

Join me, won’t you, in my 22-year-old head, alone in a one-person London flat far above the world, absorbed by Peel’s latest late-night curriculum of outfits called the Folk Devils, Rose of Avalanche, Gun Club, Barmy Army, McCarthy and the Butthole Surfers. The unfamiliar sound of (I Got A) Catholic Block cuts through like a siren call. I knew not what a catholic block was, or might be – I had little knowledge of Catholicism beyond the crosses on the wall of a family I visited as a child in Blackpool – and was pretty sure I didn’t have whatever Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and Shelley claimed to have, but the way in which they said it, with its “blood orange red”, got its narcotic hooks into me, and just became a song I had to own, at a time when ownership meant parting company with cash and putting a thing in a bag.

Peel played this revelatory track and the more serviceably melodic opener Schizophrenia (“little sister came over”) from Sister that night, and I subsequently put my money where my mind was and paid cash for the long-player. Even its sleeve promised something illicit and dangerous, with its treated photographic scraps of found public-domain images and scrawls, oddly asexual and sexual at the same time, and mossy green and felt-tip gold. At the end of that year both non-singles were voted into the ’87 Festive Fifty. I was apparently not alone in my adoration. How profound that feeling was.

A postscript: I bought Daydream Nation on trust, followed by smash hits Goo and Dirty via the Geffen mailing list at the NME.

Another postscript: I played Catholic Block on 6 Music at some point in the noughties, and my producer had to mask its single swearword, fuck (“Do you like to fuck?”), by reversing it in the radio style, a distortion which I rather liked. I met Sonic Youth in 2002 when I interviewed them about Murray Street for 6 Music, minus Gordon but plus Jim O’Rourke, and he and Ranaldo spoke about their firsthand experience of the cancer dust of 9/11. They were not frightening, after all.