The Psychedelic Furs, Fall (1980)

The_Psychedelic_Furs_cover

Artist: Psychedelic Furs
Title: Fall
Description: album track, The Psychedelic Furs
Label: CBS
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980

If you look up the lyrics to this dusky, disturbing declaration of love online, you will find them – or a phonetic approximation of them – erroneously credited, due to the self-fulfilling prophecy of internet fact-sharing, to the songwriting team of Justin B**b*r (never type his demonic name into the internet as locusts will plague you), Mason Levy and Jason Lutrell. This is because the imploding imp had a song called Fall on his third album, which is a different Fall. These are some of his lyrics:

Well, let me tell you a story
About a girl and a boy
He fell in love with his best friend
When she’s around, he feels nothing but joy
But she was already broken, and it made her blind

Nothing terribly offensive about them, and he was 17 at the time, but I prefer Richard Butler’s take on the subject from what I sentimentally think of as the definitive song called Fall, written over 30 years earlier:

I am you and you are me
Tie me down, I will be free
Our love will never end
Parties for our stupid friends

There are more thematic links between my all-time favourite song by one of my all-time favourite bands and this song I’ve never heard and have no intention of ever willingly listening to than you might imagine. In “his” Fall, a boy feels happy about a girl, but she’s “broken”, and all is not quite as Jackie magazine as it appears. There’s a certain amount of angst beneath the bubblegum surface: “I know you got your wall wrapped all the way around your heart … but you can’t fly unless you let yourself fall.”

Back inside the fevered suburban mind of Butler, who was around 21 at the time, a fairytale wedding is regimentally evoked (“You will have a dress of white, you will have a ring of gold, you will have a paper snow”), but things soon darken: “You will have a sheet of red, paint the trees, the trees are dead.” I will have been 15 when I first sat in my bedroom and tried to work out what the hell Butler was singing in that deadpan glasspaper rasp amid all that distorted guitar and squawking saxophone across their eponymous debut. If the moral of the imp’s tale is “I will catch you if you fall,” its postpunk equivalent was, “We will be alone and we’ll fall.” One is heroic, the other fatalistic. I know which I prefer.

There were no lyric sheets with the Psychedelic Furs’ first two albums, the smokily atmospheric The Psychedelic Furs and the more ordered Talk Talk Talk; you had to work it out for yourself. And I relished that challenge. I could never get to the bottom of “You will have a paper snow”, no matter how many times I listened to it – and I listened to it constantly – or how firmly I pressed the headphones to my head. When I finally met and interviewed my louche hero Butler for the NME in what must have been 1991 for the World Outside LP, I asked him what the third line from Fall was, and he told me. (It obliquely refers to confetti, of course, but it doesn’t sound like he’s singing “snow”.) I’m not sure the words have ever been officially typed up, and maybe it’s best that way. (There’s a line in I Wanna Sleep With You on Talk Talk Talk that I’d always heard as “a vicious dog-eyed sheik”, which turned out, disappointingly, to be “a vicious dog and I shake.”)

The choice for toppermost Furs song was a battle fought long and bloody. I am to this day enthralled by the first album’s opening epic India, with its teasingly extended, cymbal-swooshed astral-interference intro and its hardline bass riff. Also, the urgent Wedding Song, which forms a thematic piece with Fall, and ironic list-song We Love You. From the second album, the clattering It Goes On, the heart-tugging All Of This And Nothing. Even the transatlantic albatross smash Pretty In Pink is a Trojan horse of R-rated content within a PG-13 package. There are less contenders on the third album, but President Gas still coruscates like a mission statement, ungratefully having a go at the America that had embraced them, and Love My Way scales heights, with Todd Rundgren on marimba! But I’ve fallen for Fall, as there’s nothing about the Psychedelic Furs that isn’t present and correct inside these berserk and lusty two minutes and 40 seconds.

Tim Butler’s pulsing bass and Vince Ely’s attack drums are in step; the combined guitars of Tim Ashton and Roger Morris fill the room; Richard Butler barks out his poisoned opinions on love and marriage as if testifying at Speakers’ Corner; and Duncan Kilburn’s sax cooks up a storm, marking the band out from the angular postpunk gaggle and making them so different, so appealing. (Kilburn left after the second album, but Rundgren took his part in the studio, as the Furs sans sax would not have been the Furs.) Steve Lilywhite produces the album, except where Ian Taylor, Howard Thompson and the band do. Fall is a Lilywhite joint. It remains definitive. It’s on everything but rollerskates. And when it’s just Ely and Butler, drums and vox, and it still mesmerises (“Marry me and be my wife, you can have me all your life, our love will never end”), it hits you like you’ve been shot by a diamond bullet right through your forehead. And you think, to borrow a speech written around the same time as the song: my God … the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!

When asked who my favourite band is, I’ll unconsciously cite The Fall or the Wu-Tang Clan. But I have never stopped returning to the fountain of the Furs for sustenance, therein to drink of their diabolically hummable racket and to tick off Butler’s recurring images: coats, kisses, guns, paper, traffic, sleep, flowers, clothes, cars, colours, stupidity.

Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.

 

 

Advertisements

The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)

WaterboysThisIs

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.

 

The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963)

ronettes17

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 Wedding Present, My Favourite Dress (1987)

wedding george best

Artist: The Wedding Present
Title: My Favourite Dress
Description: single; album track, George Best
Label: Reception
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

That was my favourite dress you know
That was my favourite dress
Ohhh

I feel fairly certain that the first song by The Wedding Present I ever heard was their rumbustious cover of Felicity, which must have been the version from their first Peel session in 1986, when I was still at college. I know I sat up by the stereo and taped the songs I didn’t already have from his Festive Fifty at the end of that year and counted Felicity (number 36) and Once More (number 16) among numerous other cherishable gems on that live-paused cassette, like This Is Motortown by the Very Things, Kiss by Age Of Chance and Truck Train Tractor by The Pastels. In another year dominated by The Smiths – indeed, in an era dominated by The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain and New Order, the three Colossi of Indie – The Wedding Present felt like young, short-trousered pretenders, and were all the more thrilling for it. (Though of course they, too, would come to dominate the Peelscape, and with perhaps more purchase on Peel’s soul, a possession more akin to that exerted by The Fall.)

Remember that feeling of suddenly being overcome by the need to commit? I don’t mean to a girl in a favourite dress. I mean to a band. You’ve heard them on Peel, you’ve taped them off the radio, you’ve read about them in the NME; now it’s time to buy the album. You don’t have bottomless pockets; to fork out for an LP is a major declaration of love. Remember how stung you felt when you spent that week’s allowance from your grant on Dali’s Car by Dali’s Car because it was Pete Murphy and Mick Kahn from pre-accredited bands and you’d found the single hooky on Max Headroom or some other video show? An LP you wished you’d never bought was a shot through the heart. A waste of money. When I bought George Best on the strength of all those Peel tracks I knew it would be a sound investment. Well, if I didn’t like the record, I would always want that sleeve in my collection.

I loved the record as much as I loved the sleeve. I loved it more. Its locomotive guitar and drums combined under Chris Allison’s sympathetic, heads-down production to provide a new way to travel for the grown-up indie kid. There was something so right about David Gedge’s lovesick northern ballads, set to he and Peter Solowka’s never-ending riffs which were as raw and plaintive as the woes of the songs’ packed-in protagonists, whom we all suspected were Gedge himself, a man near-permanently let down, finished with, betrayed or two-timed by girls. Gedge was a few years older than me, but I identified with his struggle. Being single is the great leveller. I was newly single when I bought George Best and would soon be living in my first one-room studio flat, the perfect cell in which to lose myself in The Wedding Present’s breakneck melancholia.

My Favourite Dress is my favourite Wedding Present song. I think of it as definitive, and for all the constant pleasures Gedge has supplied since, as The Wedding Present and Cinerama, it remains unassailable. It pretty much breaks my heart each time I listen to it. Gedge’s pained recollection of uneaten meals, a lonely star, a long walk home, the pouring rain and a six-hour wait, leads inexorably up to this image of an ex’s dress. We who have fallen under Gedge’s spell have all imagined what that dress might look like. My first imagining – a floral print dress, maybe Oxfam, perhaps worn under a cardigan – is hard to shake.

There are two reasons why this song is magic. One is the decisive moan Gedge delivers after the last line. There are a lot of important “oh”s in pop music, but this is one to bruise your ribs from the inside. The second is the one minute and 24 seconds of outro, which rises and falls from that thousand-words “Ohhh” to the final, undressed jangle. I wouldn’t mind if it lasted a bit longer. It’s not even the end of the album, merely the end of side one.

When I finally met Gedge and interviewed the band in 1991 in snowbound Minnesota where they were recording their third album Seamonsters, he and I agreed to disagree that George Best was a classic album because it wasn’t perfect; he felt it could be improved. I don’t have that copy of the NME to hand, but if you do, look it up.

George Best and its zenith My Favourite Dress could not be improved.