The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)

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Artist: The Waterboys
Title: The Whole Of The Moon
Description: single; album track, This Is The Sea
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers …

Mike Scott had heard the Big Music, and he’d never be the same. I am loath to be so vague, but I don’t know who introduced me to the Waterboys during my college years. But their sizeable strain of rock moved me in a powerful way in the middle of a decade that was often characterised by scale. Drums went off like cannons in so much 80s music. Brass emphasised that which had already been expressed in foot-high capital letters. Male voices in particular strained hard for operatic grandeur. Producers stretched every overblown gesture to fill the widest screen.

Trumpets, towers and tenements, wide oceans full of tears …

Inadvertently or otherwise, the Waterboys coined the name of their own genre – The Big Music – on their second blood-stirring album, A Pagan Place. In characteristically arse-about-tit style, I got into their third album This Is The Sea first, then their second, then their first. So for me, their music got smaller, as This Is The Sea is the pinnacle of their bid for windswept magnitude. Ironically, they were never as big as their music sounded, and only got big when their music got more intimate. Arguably their signature tune, The Whole Of The Moon only managed number 26 on its first release (“too high, too far, too soon” indeed). Not that I cared as I attempted to apply the rubric of the song’s roof-raising lyric to whichever student relationship was falling apart around me at the time. It’s a pretty compelling device, with the narrator comparing his own feeble efforts at dealing with the complexities of the world around him with the cosmic equivalent of some estimable maiden. To whit: “I pictured a rainbow, you held it in your hands.” And again, “I had flashes, but you saw the plan.” And again, “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.” Who wouldn’t insert themselves and their unmanageable partner into this plan? (Or which self-pitying man wouldn’t?)

Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves …

It seems dimwitted to say it, but this is the Big Music writ large. It’s not just session man Chris Whitten’s gloriously elephantine drums, or the heavenward, multi-tracked trumpet of Roddy Lorimer, or Anthony Thistlethwaite’s unapologetic sax, or Karl Wallinger’s synth, which hits a spot somewhere between the fairground and Van Halen, it’s the sentiment. Scott could be delivering this sermon from a mount. It’s not about some of the moon, no more than the album’s title track is about sea. I’m never sure how I feel about literal sound effects in serious songs, but when he testifies, possibly in a biblical hailstorm, “You climbed on a ladder, with the wind in your sails, you came like a comet …” the thundercrack of what we must assume is a comet proves pretty persuasive. (Naturally, as a young, romantically precarious twentysomething, the double entendre of a woman “coming like a comet” was not lost on me.)

Every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars …

And just when you’re getting the hang of this I’m-rubbish-you’re-amazing love declaration (“I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon”), the lyric dovetails into Gandalf’s shopping list. There’s something so fundamentally uncool about those scimitars and scarves, those unicorns and cannonballs (this was decades before Game Of Thrones), you’d have to have a heart of granite not to want to embark on a shopping spree.

It’s hard to think of a riper fruit than The Whole Of The Moon. I might once have argued you have to be in the mood for its overstatement and bombast, but this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood. This erudite poet of the seas is so knocked out by the completion of the lunar object he gives up and just shouts, “Hey, yeah!” at one juncture. That Scott and fellow travellers put the brakes on after This Is The Sea and decamped to Spiddal to make Irish folk music – entering their “raggle-taggle” phase and lining up with the Hothouse Flowers et al – is a natural wind-down. Where can you fly to next when you’ve been to the whole of the moon on the back of a comet?

I didn’t know what Brigadoon was when I first entered this song in 1985-86 at the urging of someone I’ve misplaced. I subsequently found out and another jigsaw piece slotted into place.

 

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The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963)

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Artist: The Ronettes
Title: Be My Baby
Description: single; album track, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica
Label: Philles Records
Release date: 1963; 1964
First heard: circa 1969

For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three …

In Pop Goes The Soundtrack, the second episode of Neil Brand’s tremendous BBC4 series Sound Of Cinema, key proponent of the jukebox score Martin Scorsese remembers synching up the pre-credits sequence of his first classic movie, Mean Streets, to a classic pop tune from his childhood. Harvey Keitel’s troubled Charlie wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, gets up, passes the crucifix on his apartment wall to lean into the mirror and see if he recognises himself. He fails, then falls back onto his bed with a distant police siren wailing. As his head hits the pillow, the song strikes up with another start: bap, bap-bap, pow! bap, bap-bap pow!

“The first beats of Be My Baby just emerged,” Marty explains, “and they’re with me all the time.” Even when he’s on set, he reveals, he taps out those three bass drum beats on his right knee and the almighty crack of the snare on his left (“It’s just what I do, it’s become part of my DNA”).

Do it now. bap, bap-bap, pow!

The song itself accompanies an establishing montage of home-movie footage, both real and staged, wherein Charlie poses for the cine camera with assorted “guys from the neighbourhood”. The streets don’t look so mean with that glorious, teetering wedding cake of a pop song serenading them. My guess is that Be My Baby permeated my consciousness via pop radio in the late 60s and early 70s, but it won’t have been until I finally caught Mean Streets on video in the early 80s that the power of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound hit me … and it felt like a kiss. It was, you might say, Scorsese’s firsthand experience of the song as a man on the cusp of his twenties in Queens (Spector, his peer, grew up in the neighbouring Bronx) that provided my own secondhand equivalent in the cleans streets of Northampton. You have to cherish these connections. There is, as I hope we have established, no wrong way to arrive at an appreciation of great pop music.

Spector went to Hollywood, of course, and it is the cinematic drama of his best productions that earn their top billing. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Da Doo Ron Ron, River Deep Mountain High, even the less archetypal My Sweet Lord – these nuggets were embedded into my childhood. Designed to work on radio and jukebox alike, these sonic overstatements came jam-packed. Why use one piano in the studio when you could use three?

Spector’s Gold Star was a palace of excess. That the eights beats that kick off the Ronettes’ definitive two-and-a-half minutes should be big enough to open a movie tells all. Of course there are castanets over the arrangements, which is already pea-soup with percussion; an echo chamber wraps a vacuum of loneliness around Ronnie Spector’s plea, “So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me”; eleven warm bodies provide backing vocals (including Sonny and Cher, and Ronnie augmenting herself); a full orchestra is wheeled in for the first time, the names of its anonymous virtuosos listed nowhere. They say Hal Blaine (bap, bap-bap, pow!) is one of the most recorded drummers in history. A cast of thousands, indeed, and let’s not forget Ellie Greenwich (also a backing singer) and Jeff Barry, who co-wrote the thing with Spector.

But the casting vote goes to another native New Yorker, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, aged 20 in 1963 and not yet married to the mob. Her life was not a bed of roses, especially as Mrs Spector, but she survived, and look where he is how. And in any case, her promise on Be My Baby to give three kisses for every one hypothetically provided by her prospective “baby” is one of the high watermarks of all recorded pop.

Pow!

The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses (1971)

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Artist: The Rolling Stones
Title: Wild Horses
Description: US-only single; album track, Sticky Fingers
Label: Rolling Stones
Release date: 1971
First heard: 1992

I’ve got my freedom, but I don’t have much time …

I know; 1992 seems like a strange and horribly belated time to have first heard the classic ballad Wild Horses. But you will admire my candour. I didn’t own a Rolling Stones album until the mid-90s. My first was Let It Bleed, which I bought in one of those HMV sales where they offloaded a lot of old stock and you could pick up bona fide classics for a couple of quid (built most of my belated Dylan collection that way). It instantly became my favourite Rolling Stones album. Well, it would.

Up to that point, I’d been – to borrow a phrase – aware of their work. I knew and liked the singles which were constantly played. Friends had albums of theirs, but I never even thought to borrow them and tape them. To me, in that heady post-punk reverie, I didn’t need the Beatles or the Stones to put marrow in my bones. They’d done their work. Sure, the Stones were still a going concern, but they felt to me like they belonged to the past. (Actually, in 1982, I found my interest piqued by the opening bars of Under My Thumb on my older friend Vaughan’s copy of the live album Still Life, but mostly due to Duke Ellington’s Take The ‘A’ Train, and the thwack of Charlie’s first drumbeat. It was a pretty limited sortie into their vast and aromatic back catalogue, but the ignition was there.) Anyway, then I grew up.

Even as a cub reporter for the NME, my knowledge of the Rolling Stones was basic; enough to get by. (I knew way more about Led Zeppelin, whose runaway blues-metal had turned my head.) And then I interviewed The Sundays, in 1992, on the cork-popping occasion of their belated return to our empty lives with second album Blind. I discussed Wild Horses in a Camden boozer with Harriett Wheeler and Dave Gavurin, a couple, and they told me what it meant to them and why they’d recorded it as a B-side. (Also, now I think of it, the Dylan tune Corrina, Corrina came up, which drove me to Freewheelin’ – I’m happy when synapses crackle in this way.) I loved their Wild Horses, knew it to be a cover, but had never heard the original. I don’t think I told them this.

But ain’t this often the way? Unless you were born before World War II, you’re bound to have heard occasional cover versions before originals in the pop era. For instance, I assumed the Flying Lizards to have written Money, then later found out it was a Beatles tune, then later still found out it was Barrett Strong’s. This is archaeology, and we should embrace it. The Sundays gave me the Rolling Stones.

Don’t worry. I have all the Rolling Stones albums now, and know them intimately. I prefer many of them to the Beatles’, and particularly favour Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Beggars Banquet, Some Girls and – still, after all these years – Let It Bleed. In order to sum up their effortless, smoky, unstoppably ragged glory (and let’s face it, their story is what makes them so good; their longevity feeds their legend where it might ordinarily leech it away), I took particular notice of a jukebox playing Forty Licks, I’m guessing, in an unassuming studenty pub in Tunbridge Wells. It played You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy For The Devil, Tumbling Dice, and it made me consider Have You Seen Your Mother Lately, and Brown Sugar, and Happy, which almost squeaked it. But there is no Rolling Stones song that delivers the emotional rescue of Wild Horses. (Also, Happy is a Richards vocal, and that don’t seem right.)

Jagger’s woundedly plaintive lyric was written, so I discovered after a cursory Wikipedia search, some time after splitting from Marianne Faithful (it was recorded in 1969), so not directly about her; meanwhile Richards reckons it’s borne of that loneliness you get when you’re on tour, of being “a million miles from where you want to be”. (This information comes from the sleeve notes to the Jump Back compilation.) What a monster breakup it evokes: “A faith has been broken, tears must be cried … no sweeping exits or offstage lines.” And waa-ah-ahhhh-ahhhhld horses couldn’t drag him away. Sticky Fingers, lest we forget, was the first album without Brian Jones, so some profound sadness is expected.

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock’n’roll, and that combination of acoustic and electric guitars is enough to break anybody’s heart. That it was recorded, like Brown Sugar, in the soulful stewpot of Muscle Shoals, Alabama may explain the blues notes. (Were the Stones the first white rockers to rock up there? Fable says it’s so.) Hear it in situ on “Side One” of the LP, between the raw, metallic Sway and the urgently rockin’ Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, and Wild Horses takes on an even balmier aspect; it cleanses the palate. I twin it with the resonant, Albatross-like Moonlight Mile, the album’s closer.

Hard to imagine that I had no Rolling Stones albums in 1992. Thank God for the Sundays.