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.

James Brown, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1 (1970)

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Artist: James Brown
Title: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine Part 1
Description: single
Label: King (UK: Polydor)
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1980s

Fellas, I’m ready to get up and do my thing!
Yeah! That’s right! Do it!
I want to get into it, man, you know?
Go ahead!
Like a, like a sex machine, man.
Yeah!
Movin’, doin’ it, y’know?
Yeah!
Can I count it off?
Okay!
One, two, three, four!

On 21 March, 1983, BBC2 repeated an edition of Pop Carnival featuring band of the moment Echo & The Bunnymen, live at Sefton Park in August 1982. I taped it, as we used to say in those days, and played it on a loop. Captivated in general by a lithe, smooth-skinned, coolly possessed Ian McCulloch in close up, lit in red and green and sliding out of a wide-necked t-shirt, I was particularly taken with his trademark, Jim Morrison-inspired freeforming. During a memorable protraction of Do It Clean, he yelled these instructions at the audience, separated from the stage by an actual moat:

“Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like a sex machine!”

Ill-educated at that tender stage in the riches of soul and funk, I wrongly assumed these provocative words to be of McCulloch’s own wild invention and not, as it turned out, a sincere tribute to Mr James Brown.

As the decade wore on, the goalposts of my mind were moved exponentially, and a James Brown best-of was added to my collection under “essentials”. Sampling had breathed new life, if not new royalties, into the Godfather of Soul’s knockout canon, and by the end of the 80s, his horns, his rhythms and his catchphrases belonged to the world. For me, it may well have been Sefton Park that cast a special aura around Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – a critical moat, if you like – but no matter how deeply his other greatest hits burrowed under my skin, it was unimpeachable. His biggest hits in the UK up to the mid-80s had been It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and Get Up Offa That ThingSex Machine only reached 32 on initial release in 1970 and barely charted at all in endless, greedy reissues – and then that blatant bid for glory Living In America put them all in the shade. But for an artist whose back catalogue goes classic, classic, classic, classic, classic, you need your own criteria for selecting one.

To say that it’s his best work is to perhaps undersell the marksmanship of the JB’s, who’d only just been assembled in 1970 and the horn section are relatively quiet on the track after that signature “count-off”. But in some ways, the lack of arrangement gives the music air, and over that modest but hypnotic guitar phrase from Bootsy’s brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins and the low-energy beat from “Jabo” Starks, Brown and co-writer Bobby Byrd are able to effectively duet, affecting a funky version of bants (“Dig it!” “Right on, right on!” “Shake your money maker”). When Byrd’s piano adds some fleeting colour, it’s about as complex as the five-minute studio version gets. This is stark stuff. Like a machine, in fact.

When – after teasing the band once again with a call-and-response – Brown takes them to the surely definitive bridge, and then counts it off “one more time”, nothing miraculous actually happens. It barely even goes up a gear, for all the fanfare and spoken preamble. And that’s the way I like it: the way it is. There’s steam coming off this recording, and yet the lid stays on; it constantly pulls its punches, but such restraint takes skill and judgement. It’s what, for me, renders it so irresistible, a tune you go back to again and again and again. There are elongated live versions on wax (featuring the returning Fred Wesley), but you’ll never top this original take for sheer precision and, yes, discipline.

The JB’s had a tough boss, but, y’know, dig it, James Brown ran a tight ship, he docked people’s wages and he got results. To lift a call-and-response from my second favourite James Brown tune:

What you gonna play now?
Bobby, I don’t know. But whatsoever I play, it’s gotta be funky.
Yeah!

Johnny Cash, Hurt (2002)

JCashAmericanIV

Artist: Johnny Cash
Title: Hurt
Description: album track, American IV: The Man Comes Around
Label: American Recordings
Release date: 2002
First heard: 2002

Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Johnny Cash died, aged 71, on 12 September 2003, in Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I was on the air the next day on 6 Music and had a copy of his most recent album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to hand. I played his movingly spare claim on Vera Lynn’s wartime spiritual We’ll Meet Again, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

I’d come to Cash late, but so many of us did. I remember in my first months in the art room of the NME producing a page layout marking a new Johnny Cash covers album for the Terence Higgins Trust by various “approved” artists – Michelle Shocked, Sally Timms, David McComb, Voice Of The Beehive, the Mekons, Marc Riley – and recognising the visual power of the Man In Black, whose image formed a striking half-tone backdrop to the text. I will have been aware of his greatest hits, but perhaps not fully up to speed with his fast life and times. Dropped from Columbia in the 80s, he went from country superstar and world-famous outlaw to sepulchral cult figure, and it took U2 (who invited him in from the cold for a cameo on Zooropa) and Rick Rubin to fully rehabilitate him for a new generation. Mine.

It was Cash’s hospitalisation in the mid-90s that coloured his second two Rubin albums, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around (with that fatalistic title track), and among the stunt covers found on those two splendid albums, it is surely Hurt by Nine Inch Nails that most convincingly and acutely sums up the condition his condition was in. The original suicide note was posted on Trent Reznor’s multimillion-selling second album The Downward Spiral in 1994, which served to cook down his industrial disco into a fine, reduced sauce – a concept album, no less. Hurt closes that album, and effects to end the life of its protagonist. Not an untwitching eye in the house. But what Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin did with it, and to it, casts the original into the middle distance.

Cash’s ripe old age, the ravages of neurodegenerative atrophy, and the likelihood of the Man Coming Around (he would come first for Cash’s wife, June Carter) combine to engrave Reznor’s depressive theatre permanently into granite. Not since Love Will Tear Us Apart had a song sounded so much like an epitaph in waiting.

Consider the difference in your gut reaction to these same words sung by a 29-year-old multi-instrumental prodigy from Pennsylvania and a dying septuagenarian icon who’d grown up in the cotton fields of Arkansas during the Depression:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting …

Reznor’s needle is hypodermic, and so is Cash’s, but whereas one threatens opiate oblivion, the other promises pain relief, perhaps even administered by a health professional. The damage done is the same. How profound to hear a lament of urban Gen-X loneliness transformed into a housebound elegy to old age. This cover – if “cover” isn’t too flimsy a word – is surely the polar opposite of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day being turned into a celebration of the BBC licence fee in 1997, its original meaning laid waste in the process (and by consent of the author). Or the Clash’s London Calling being eviscerated and de-clawed by Scouting For Girls in the concert at Buckingham Palace for the Cultural Olympiad in August 2008 (I can hardly bear to re-live the hurt; Strummer’s ghost is still spinning).

To say that Cash’s Hurt is the musical equivalent of the sequel that’s better than the original is to reduce the transubstantiative power of interpretation down to a competition. Both versions abide. The song is the thing. (I have never heard Leona Lewis’s version, but I don’t think I need to.) If Reznor is all about synthetic, cinematic FX, Cash is all about found sound. His rendition begins with just voice and what sounds to my layman’s ear to be a single guitar on a lap. Chords are picked out. The voice croaks its confessions (“I will let you down, I will make you hurt”), and the two coalesce. Rubin’s pin-sharp production allows us to hear the moisture being summoned up in Cash’s mouth as he contemplates his own “going away in the end”.

When he sings, “I remember everything“, he mines greater depth than Reznor, having walked this earth since 1932 and threatened to leave it prematurely more than once (out of it, he walked into a cave in Tennessee in 1968 with no intention of coming out again, but – as he tells it – God entered his heart and gave him the extra gas in the tank to follow the light to the exit). When he inquires, of his “sweetest friend”, “What have I become?”, he might be asking God himself – or the other fella. As they square off, a bystander might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s the guy with Johnny Cash?”

Mortality stalks Hurt like a ghost at a wedding. “You could have it all,” sounds like our man preparing to do a deal, and a jabbed piano and second guitar underline the importance of what’s afoot. The arrangement, Gothic, overwrought, final, clangs like a church bell, before draining back to one man and his guitar again for the second verse. The old quiet-loud dynamic from grunge serves him well. And then, the only change. Reznor’s “crown of shit” is replaced by Cash’s “crown of thorns”, for reasons of decency, perhaps? Or piety? A fluting synth steers this verse into the climactic chorus, where all hell breaks loose. If your heart isn’t in your mouth by now, you might want to check you have one.

We’re going through a tunnel. “I would find … a way.”

Reznor was gracious enough to say this about Cash’s version of his song: “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in … That winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” His conclusion is ours: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

I haven’t even mentioned the video.