Arcade Fire, Rebellion (Lies) (2004)

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Artist: Arcade Fire
Title: Rebellion (Lies)
Description: single; track, Funeral
Label: Merge/Rough Trade
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

On Saturday 17 March, 2007, I ventured southwest to Brixton Academy to see Arcade Fire play live on their fourth consecutive sell-out night at one of my favourite London venues with it proscenium arches and ski-slope floor. I had loved them on first listen, deeply involved with this gawky Montreal-coalesced co-op of Ontarians, Québéquoise and itinerants Californians since hearing their first-album-proper Funeral in 2004, and, with a regular weekday show on the nascent 6 Music, I had experienced them on heavy rotation, and backpedalled to their debut EP Arcade Fire. Twelve people had participated in creating the EP (or mini-album if you wish to haggle over semantic precedent); 15 were credited on Funeral, although the band’s nucleus was six. When they tour, they are these days between 12 and 14, but on that night they were 11. Like Downton Abbey, they have two Butlers.

I regarded my first Arcade Fire show as a pilgrimage, as I had started to get out less in the new century. By 2007, I was picking and choosing very carefully. According to the review I posted on my mothership blog Never Knowingly Underwhelmed, I piped their current album Neon Bible into my head on the train journey there, and Funeral on the train journey home. “I knew in my bones, and from what I’ve read, that it would be a semi-religious experience, and when I saw the huge church organ onstage, reassurance set in,” I wrote. (“Look at that organ and shit,” exclaimed an eloquent young student standing behind me.)

An even age range and gender split confirmed the Canadian or adopted-Canadian arts-lab as a thoroughly modern proposition. I noted a lot of people wearing glasses (I, at that stage, did not), all the better to see the band with. I felt part of a congregation of other believers, eyes wide open, ready to embrace and take communion. I only saw beer fly twice that night (I’d grown used to this sticky expression of joy at Arctic Monkeys shows), but both liquid explosions occurred during the encore, as if the real dicks could contain their excitement no longer. There was relatively aggressive moshing, but where I was standing, polite jigging on the spot was de rigueur.

Neon Bible was at number two in the UK album charts that week, behind the Kaiser Chiefs’ Yours Truly, Angry Mob, suggesting that the transition from airborne lager to Boots lens-wipes was not yet a done deal. More impressively perhaps, the Bible was also at number two in the Billboard album charts, behind Notorious BIG’s Greatest Hits. I deduced that perhaps an album about death (“working for the church while your family dies”) can never beat an album propelled by death. They foregrounded the current record that night, naturally, but the selections from Funeral proved crowd-pleasers: Power Out rain straight into Rebellion/Lies, and my world was complete.

Whether live or on record, the secret to Arcade Fire’s hope and glory is its expansiveness, which is neither forced nor over-calculated. Their best songs seem to grow to fill every nook of your attention as they go along. Even if they’re singing about the power being out in the heart of man or a great black wave in the middle of the sea they seem to do so with a unifying melancholy joy, or a joyful melancholy. Like a Charlie Chaplin film, they love being sad.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of that sequenced, near-consecutive run on Funeral, vis-à-vis the four numbered versions of Neighborhood – Nos. #1 #2 #3 and #4, subtitled Tunnels, Laika, Power Out and 7 Kettles (the first three released as singles, in numerical order!) – but if you think the record has peaked too early, Wake Up alerts you for what I consider to be the real deal: namely, Rebellion (Lies), again subtitled as if it’s the first Rebellion to make the grade. It takes everything we’ve heard and triples it.

I admire a song that starts with a bare, dull thud of a bass drum (I’m used to hearing it within the album, so it actually emerges from the siren-like squall at the end of Haiti), but that’s Arcade Fire all over. They’re builders. They’re layerers. They’re crescendo-seekers. They Icarus their way up, beyond sensible parameters and see how much further out there they can get without losing the tune. There are a lot of them. The drum marches through the preamble, created using I don’t know what instruments to form a kind of crackle, underpinned by that thump-thump-thump-offbeat!-thump. A bassline curls around it, then a clanky, Low-style piano. Butler’s first appearance.

Sleeping is giving in
No matter what the time is

A sentiment only available to a young man (Butler will have been in his early 20s when he wrote it), the song taps into mortality, in common with the entire suite of songs on Funeral, a work haunted by the death of relatives – grandparents in the main, although let us not dismiss this as the self-indulgence of youth: when your grandparents start to die, you’re one generation closer to the final curtain. Further on in the lyric, which gets into your skull through joyful repetition, Butler speaks of “hiding the night underneath the covers,” as if regressing to childhood, then jarringly flashes forward to hiding “your lovers, underneath the covers.” He’s adjusting the speed of life, experimenting, missing out great chunks in order to better understand the journey ahead to oblivion. The accompaniment rattles and hums around his chest-beating performance, augmented at every turn by more music. It swirls with Régine Chassange’s violin and parenthetical vocal (“Lies! Lies!”); there are handclaps, there is foot stomping, there are key changes, it’s a hoedown at a wake. When it ends, as life for all of us must, there is more scratching, as if behind sore eyelids.

Reminder: this is a band’s first album.

They don’t sample and sequence – or at least, they didn’t in their more artisanal incarnation, prior to Reflektor in late 2013 – they just play and play and play. Rebellion (Lies) is a memorial and a rebirth.

It was a hit in the UK – broke the Top 20, long before the band were solvent in Canada or the US – and abides as the band’s go-to encore. You may say I’ve not exactly dug deep here – especially with so much wonder still to come from The Suburbs and Everything Now – but I return to it again and again and again. And it still makes my heart leap.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!

Don’t have nightmares.

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Bauhaus, In The Flat Field (1980)

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Artist: Bauhaus
Title: In The Flat Field
Description: album track, In The Flat Field
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

Bliss it was in the early 80s to be alive, but to be in Northampton was very heaven. Bauhaus were our band. Formed in our town. Forged in our town, where so little else was forged in those dark days before Alan Carr, Matt Smith, Mark Haddon, Jo Wiley and Marc Warren. Even after they became pop stars in late 1982 with a cover of Ziggy Stardust and Pete Murphy did the Maxell tapes advert, you’d still see David J, Danny Ash and Kevin Haskins in the wine bar on Bridge Street. (Don’t look for it, it’s not there any more, although the area around it has been turned into the Cultural Quarter, which is nice.) Not that any of us Goths were uncool enough to stare, or approach these local heroes. It was enough that they were still in town, when they could be anywhere else, like Pete Murphy always was. We never saw him.

Not that any of us thought of ourselves as Goths. Nobody did in 1982. But we were. Like Bauhaus, we wore black, and netting, and makeup (I never went that far), and we wore our hair high and hard. It was a heady time. I was 15 when I went to my first gig – U2 supported by Altered Images at Northampton College of Further Education, and yes, Dad picked us up in the car afterwards – and in that same year, I saw Bauhaus play at Lings Forum, a gathering of the Northampton tribes, most of whom were more aromatic and Gothic and sexually provocative than me and my friends Pete and Craig. But it didn’t matter. We were there. We lived close enough to walk home. My Mum and Dad still live within view of Lings Forum.

Bands did not slot Northampton into their national tour itineraries in 1982; it was a rock desert and we had to make our own entertainment (we were all in bands). People in raincoats and leather jackets had to take coach trips to Leicester and Nottingham and London for that particular cerebral fix. But Bauhaus, some of whom did the same art foundation course at Nene College that I would subsequently enroll for, were already here. (Our art history teacher, filling us in on the actual 1920s German art school, made the devastatingly cool claim that he’d taught members of the band about it and thus helped give them their name.)

Not since the 1960s when Northampton Town FC ascended and descended the four divisions in near-successive seasons – “The real miracle of 1966,” according to Manchester City’s then-manager Joe Mercer – had our town even been on the map. So you can perhaps imagine our excitement at Bauhaus’s ascent to the top of the pop table.

The nine-minute debut Bela Lugosi’s Dead makes a solid claim to be their meisterwerk. It was a national anthem for much of my youth, and thrills me to this day with its depraved dub and Grand Guignol. But the five-minute title track of their debut album, which, fittingly, I borrowed from Northampton Record Library and taped, distills all of what made Bauhaus far more than just a cheap, powdered novelty. The drums are fast, tribal and spotless and keep time in deafening haste. The bass rubs your loins. The guitar makes a blackboard of your senses, then become a writhing bag of spiders.

It is a waking fever dream, Pete Murphy’s hallucinogenic imagery moves from cut-up mind games (“into the calm gaping we … Calm eye-flick shudder … of black matted lace of pregnant cows … my slender thin and lean”) to punk-rock ennui (“I get bored, I do get bored”). He sounds like a ravaged, consumptive marquis in search of ever more filthy kicks, from Piccadilly whores to whatever the holy fuck “filing cabinet hemispheres” were. I’d never heard of a “lumbar punch” but I knew it wasn’t good that he was up for one. Aged 16, the very utterance of “spunk-stained sheets” was X-rated. Sometimes, especially when you’re a teenager, you need your favourite band to be on another plane, in another place, on another planet. (Even when some of them are in your wine bar.)

In The Flat Field is at once apocalyptic and Edenic. A runaway rapture of Hammer horror and Kafka nightmare that lifts the humdrum listener to unimagined heights of fetid fantasy. “Assist me to walk away in sin”, Murphy intones. To quote a road safety advert of my childhood, he don’t need any help, does he?

The sleeve shrouded around this record is none more black. Within, the band are picked out only in shirtless, emaciated shadow. The low, guttural, metaphysical moaning that underpins the song’s protracted outro is a primordial sound that would recur in Bauhaus’s canon, as they first got darker, then became more music hall, then fell apart in dub. I salute it. This was music to pore over. To take apart. To unpick. To offer yourself up to. To raise a blackcurrant-coloured drink to, as you had borrowed your Mum’s Mini Metro, which was parked up by the Guidhall.

For a couple of years, there really was energy in Northampton.

The Orb, Little Fluffy Clouds (7″ Edit) (1990)

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Artist: The Orb
Title: Little Fluffy Clouds
Description: single; album track, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
Label: Big Life
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1991

What were the skies like when you were young?
They went on forever

I’ve wanted to start a novel with that couplet for 20 years. Just printed, in italics, as a sort of philosophical frontispiece. It’s only the formality of nobody wanting to pay me to write a novel that stands in the way of this burning ambition. (I used it as the lead-off to a piece I wrote for Word magazine on nostalgia in 2011 – that’ll have to do.) The question and answer come from the defining spoken sample of what is the greatest single ever made. (I know. The 143 is not about quantifying individual tracks, but if I am ever forced to choose my favourite song of all time, I never later regret saying Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb. It’s my Apocalypse Now or Slaughterhouse Five of songs.)

I think I always knew, or knew early on in my ardent relationship with this insistently lilting four and a half minutes of ambient pop, that the woman answering the question was Rickie Lee Jones. I didn’t initially know that the interview was essentially a promotional one – hence the vanilla questions – conducted for an extra disc included by Geffen in the box set edition of her 1989 Flying Cowboys album, as A Conversation With Rickie Lee Jones. You must admit, it’s a fantastic question. I wish I’d asked it of someone I’d interviewed in my time as an interviewer. What were the skies like when you were young? It’s not even the first utterance on the single, whose 7″ Mix I select amid a welter of longer, more luxurious and tangential remixes; that, following a crowing cock, and a buzzing biplane, is a Radio 4-style voice saying:

“Over the past few years, to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the drone of a lawnmower, the smack of leather on willow, comes a new sound …”

And we’re off, into a remarkably disciplined sonic creation, whose voices drift across the production’s blue sky like clouds (I always see them as perfect, white, Simpsons-credits clouds – you’re with me?), and from a heartbreaking harmonica wail emerges that hypnotic keyboard signature which bubbles away beneath, quickly joined by a hard bass drum and a Tight Fit-styled Afro-beat and, at one minute 13 seconds, a supplementary synth noodle provides the nagging riff: we have lift-off. Rickie waxes hippy about “purples and reds and yellows” and how these colours are “on fire”, and eventually wonders if you still see such psychedelic Arizona skies “in the desert.” The deft combination of boho guff and ultramodern techno groove is just perfect, and what might have initially been a mischievous glint in the eye of Dr Alex Patterson is ultimately rendered sincere and moving. You’re with her! You want to see those skies! Those little fluffy clouds!

I will have been more than aware of The Orb’s significance in the post-rave world as I was playing out my third act at the NME in 1991-92, but I was not a raver. I was too scared to take the relevant drugs. Which is not to say that the moment did not regularly get into my bloodstream. I was dispatched to Sheffield by the live desk to review a benefit for miners’ families in November 1992 staged by Primal Scream, with The Orb supporting. (Documented evidence tells us that the Orb played longer than the Scream, and gave phenomenal stage show, despite there only being three of them onstage at Sheffield Arena: the good Doctor, “Thrash” and Steve Hillage.) I remember having a couple of beers in the VIP paddock during the interval, but this was not a night of intoxication. I watched The Orb from the seated area near the front and remember Little Fluffy Clouds doing everything in its cosmic, thumping power to get me out of that stupid plastic fold-up chair. (Arena dance: not one of the modern word’s great ideas.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to get up and dance more in all my life. But such encroachment into walkways was discouraged by security and, surreally, we had to nod and bounce in our seats and be happy with that. I’ve had more fun subsequently dancing to it in my house, or secretly, on public transport. Little Fluffy Clouds is a form of transport. It takes me places, and not just to an imagined Arizona when Rickie Lee Jones was young. I’m sticking with it as best single ever made, as it epotomises the lure of nostalgia on many levels, it works its alchemy on me every single time, and I play it a lot.

We walked all the way from the Arena back to the hotel in central Sheffield after the gig, but the Orb, not Primal Scream, were ringing in my happy ears.