Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

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Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …

Killing Joke, Love Like Blood (1985)

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Artist: Killing Joke
Title: Love Like Blood
Description: single; track Night Time
Label: E.G.
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

In 1990, Killing Joke, or Killing Joke’s record company, or Killing Joke’s record company’s PR company, came up with the wheeze of promoting their new record by sending a female stripper to the offices of various music publications. Just doing the job she was hired to do, the stripper was led into the middle of the NME shopfloor where she proceeded to disrobe to the sounds of the new Killing Joke single emanating from a ghetto blaster. I am, in retrospect, deeply proud of what happened next. Male staff members (who outnumbered female staff members by around 10 to one) evacuated the main office, en masse, and gathered in the production room rather than be a party to the degrading display. Our feminist credentials intact, and the exotic dancer’s clothes still on, she was gently guided into the adjoining offices of Shoot, the then-weekly football magazine, where her work was unironically appreciated by young men lacking our snowflake tendencies. I’m pretty sure the magazine reviewed the Killing Joke single.

In many ways, as well as a fun anecdote about the late-80s pre-Loaded male identity crisis (the future founding editor of Loaded was among the embarrassed new men – although it was he who brilliantly came up with the Shoot wheeze), this story illustrates the core difficulty of Killing Joke. One of the keystone British post-punk bands, still crazy after all these years under the stewardship of Jaz Coleman, they are, like Steven Seagal, hard to kill. Like many disaffected aficionados of the blunt-instrument force of much British rock made in the crucible of punk, I flocked to their percussive musical message around 1980, gritting my teeth to Wardance, Change and Requiem via John Peel. (Coleman was furious in a way that only a well-educated former chorister and classically-trained musician who studied international banking for three years in Switzerland can be.) They’ve dabbled in death disco, and been heavily remixed, but Killing Joke remain a racket, as influential as the Beatles to bands too young to have been into the Beatles. But they act as if they don’t want you to like them.

Love Like Blood is, for me, the high watermark of their collective genius. I remember buying the 12-inch in 1985 and playing it continually in my study cell in Battersea, all the while slightly bothered by the cover photo of a ripped warrior wielding a Samurai sword, and the elemental viscera of the lyrics. “We must play our lives like soldiers in the field,” Coleman strains, with feeling. “The life is short, I’m running faster all the time.” There is an existential panic at the centre of this thundering anthem to strength and beauty destined to decay. Is it, like one of Leni Riefenstahl’s mountaineering films, a supremacist paean to human excellence? If so, is that a problem? We are certainly seem to be urged down a quasi-fascistic, Wagnerian path, where “legends live and man is god again.” Paging Mr Nietzsche!

The blood, the rose “cut in full bloom”, the burning hearts, the frustration and despair, love and hate, promised lands and fields; and the refrain:

’Til the fearless come and the act is done

A call to arms, driven by Paul Raven’s stomach-ache bass, Geordie Walker’s mountaintop guitar fanfares and Paul Ferguson’s precision analogue drumbeat over that twilight synth wash, Love Like Blood is a recruitment as much as a pop or rock song, a sincere promise of immortality “as we move towards no end.” Coleman’s lyrics dare us to get onboard. Are we up to the task ahead? Though a gifted man of letters, he is also a man of action. And it’s that sheer physicality that rises up out of these six minutes and 44 seconds of meat beat manifesto. It’s super, man.

The band produced it, and the album, with Chris Kimsey, who cannot go unheralded, a veteran in both engineering and co-production on several key Rolling Stones records and Led Zeppelin III (he also recorded Frampton Comes Alive!) – his marshalling of the Joke’s individual contributions to the overall signature matches that of a drill sergeant. I will always hold a candle for the early Killing Joke triumphs, the likes of Follow The Leader, Unspeakable and The Fall of Because, but it’s no coincidence that the radio version of Love Like Blood became their first Top 20 hit (and, at time of writing, their last). It is, simply, impeccable; fearless; peerless; the deep-rooted sound of a band in full bloom. And yet, queasy listening. Not a relaxation record. But that which does not destroy Killing Joke makes them stronger.

Now put your shirt back on.

 

 

Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land (1944)

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Artist: Woody Guthrie
Title: This Land Is Your Land
Description: recording; track This Land Is Your Land
Label: Folkways
Release date: (recorded) 1944; 1967
First heard: 1998

There are some entries on my insoluble identity crisis of a CV that I have no actual record of. One of them is a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that I presented in the year 2000 called Harry Smith and the Folk Anthology. Even typing the words, I wonder if perhaps it ever happened at all, and if it did, why was I selected to link such an august-sounding music programme? Some kind of administrative error? (I’ve looked it up at the BBC Genome archive and there it is, produced by David Morley: it aired on 7 September 2000 at 11.30am, repeated on 1 May 2001 at 1.30 in the afternoon.) I wish I had a copy, but this was an ancient time before the emailing of compressed sound files was commonplace. Harry Smith was one of those amazing, tireless cultural historians, an eccentric hippie in fact, who collected out-of-print field recordings from the 1920s and 30s of the folk music of the United States of America, made at an ancient time when its transmission was still essentially oral. (Many of the recordings were made at social gatherings, not even concerts.) The resulting, six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952. Its influence is in music’s very blood.

To be fair to myself, having been unfair to myself, I had announced myself as Billy Bragg’s official biographer by the fag-end of the century, and in the same year as the biography’s publication, 1998, he’d also announced himself as the living musical executor of Woody Guthrie’s legend, anointed by the Guthrie estate, via his daughter Nora, to bring a whole tranche of the leftist American folk icon’s lyrics to life, with the band Wilco, packaged as the Mermaid Avenue sessions. My link to Woody Guthrie may have been at one remove, but that was as close as I’d ever been. I channeled his limited extant repertoire while writing and researching my book via a 1993 compilation album The Very Best Of Woody Guthrie, and read Joe Klein’s definitive biography.

In the same way that the early recordings of Robert Johnson had captivated me from across the decades in the early 90s – I was driven to purchase after reading the early, inspirational chapters of Charles Shaar Murray’s Hendrix biography Crosstown Traffic, which traces Jimi’s place in the firmament back to Johnson at the crossroads – this scratchy stand-up-and-be-counted dustbowl folk quickly had its hooks in me. I usually risk the sin of generalisation and say that popular music doesn’t truly get going for me until the early 60s girl groups and the drone of garage rock, but that’s too exclusive. For a start, my favourite patch from around 80 years of recorded movie scores has to be the 1930s and 40s, the great age of Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Newman. And This Land Is Your Land, for all of its elemental timelessness, anthemic credential and iron durability, is best known as a 1944 recording by Folkways boss Moses Asch of a song written in 1940 – to all intents and purposes the 1930s! – in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. I’m listening to it right now.

As a child raised on the sound of 8- and 16-track recordings who lived through the technological revolution of MIDI and Roland and Linn at a formative age, I was hardwired not to appreciate the sound of one man with a guitar on his knee in a booth singing folk songs in the year before D-Day. But Woody – and it feels perfectly OK to call him Woody – spoke to me.

The context helps: named after Democrat president Woodrow Wilson, he endured a childhood in pre-Depressed Oklahoma wrought with tragedy, hereditary illness and unfortunate circumstance, awoken by the blues, politicised on the road, he wrote ballads about the grim combination of bad land-management, bad weather and bad landowners that drove him out of the farmland. He wrote about what he knew, and balanced pop and politics in a way that would fundamentally speak to Billy Bragg, finding fame on the radio while writing a column for a Communist newspaper, and switching to anti-fascist songs once the Soviet Union had sided with Hitler, all the while adding university-of-life hillbilly verité to the more middle-class socialist scene he thrived in.

That he was laid low by the still-undiagnosed Huntington’s disease that saw his mother institutionalised when he was a boy (it’s something of a genetic lottery for the family line that carries it) lends his story a final and protracted tragic twist. He lived until 1967 but was isolated for a decade, difficult to get on with and unable to play his guitar.

This land was his land. He travelled the length and breadth of it, very often on the boxcars of myth, bound for glory but not driven by it. His songs did what folk music had been doing since Robin Hood times in this country and across the great continents of the world, and that’s tell stories. Woody’s were about economic hardship, being a migrant (how’s that going to find any resonance in the modern age?), bankers, boll weevils, oil, living conditions, Tom Joad and – why the hell not? – the Grand Coulee Dam, as commissioned by a federal hydroelectric power company, a totem of the Roosevelt New Deal. His song was called The Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody comes, as Billy says, “from the ballad tradition that goes back to Elizabethan England. If you want to find an American lyrical poet as powerful as Woody Guthrie, you’ve got to start at Walt Whitman.” He’s said to have written a thousand songs in his lifetime. None can touch This Land, adopted by some as an alternative national anthem (its original title was the slyly ironic God Blessed America), and never truer than it feels at the very moment in history that you hear it.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll, but you could start here. The lyric opens with this tour itinerary, and already you can hear the miles on its author’s clock. Rock music has always striven for authenticity, whatever that is, but no striving is required with Woody Guthrie. He picks out such poetic details as a “ribbon of highway”, the “endless skyway” and “the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” while he sums up a great nation in just a handful of verses, the “dust clouds rolling” a Yin to the Yang of those “wheat fields waving.” He may be a ramblin’ man, but he doesn’t ramble as a writer. Like Blake, he sees angels in a grain of sand, and discerns God in every golden valley (“all around me, a voice was sounding”). This song, which is your song, is as terrestrial as it is heavenly. There’s dangerous left-wing politics in a verse often omitted that tells of a “high wall” in the protagonist’s path, with a painted sign that said, “Private Property … But on the back side it didn’t say nothing.”

This land was made for you and me.

It’s the simplest song in The 143 – matched only by Blackbird, another unaccompanied snapshot of the world – but it goes on giving. Billy found Woody through Dylan (reading about him in Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan). I skipped Dylan, found Woody, then came back for Dylan. It really is the circle of life. An anthology in just over two minutes.

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

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Artist: Robert Wyatt
Title: Shipbuilding
Description: single
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 1982; 1983
First heard: 1983

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

I wish I had the guts just to type out those three lines and leave it there. What more needs to be said about this lyric, written by Elvis Costello, that’s as profound as Strange Fruit, A Nation Once Again or What’s Going On, and a tune, written by Clive Langer, as mournful and affecting as the best blues? Shipbuilding couldn’t have come at a better time. It was the worst of times, in fact: the cruel, galvanising pomp of the first Thatcher administration, in which re-election hopes were boosted by a long-distance war with a South American country that claimed sovereignty over two island off its own coast that had been declared a “royal colony” in 1841. Such dominions were usually seized by war, and for trade purposes in the age of Empire. Whether or not the Falkland islands should or should not be classed territorially as “British” rather rests upon your feelings as to whether or not the same ought still to be said in the late 20th century of Virginia, Singapore, Rhodesia, Malta, Kenya or indeed any other far outpost stamped with the royal seal at a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

Well I ask you

The story of this mild-mannered, velvet-gloved protest song is complicated. In short, Langer, formerly of Deaf School, by 1982 a producer of great note (usually with Alan Winstanley: Madness, Dexys, The Teardrop Explodes), wrote the song for Robert Wyatt, formerly drumming vocalist with Soft Machine, now solo and surely the West’s most famous paraplegic Communist. Langer asked Elvis Costello (whose landmark Punch The Clock album he and Winstanley would produce a year later) to write some better lyrics and he did. Boy, did he.

The boy said, “Dad they’re going to take me to task, but I’ll be back by Christmas”

The single recording, produced by Langer, Winstanley and Costello, with Mark Bedford of Madness on double bass, Steve Nieve of the Attractions on piano, Langer on keys and Martin Hughes a quiet whizz on the drums, was released on Rough Trade in August 1982, two months after the capture of Port Stanley and the Argentine surrender. Too soon. A reissue in April 1983 charted, a historic first for Rough Trade. 

Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

A modest number 35 chart hit, then, but already hailed in corners as a modern classic and number 2 in the 1982 Festive Fifty behind New Order’s Temptation. (It was number 11 in the all-time Festive Fifty compiled in 2000.) Wyatt’s performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test remains a definitive document, and the beret and the beard worn in the little-shown video harken to his jazz roots. He had been paralysed from the waist down in 1973, but his appearance in a wheelchair – quite an arresting sight in those pre-diverse TV times (he’d had to argue his way onto Top Of The Pops when he had a bigger hit with I’m A Believer in 1974; the producer seriously tried to sit him in a chair so as not to frighten the faint-hearted) – seemed to amplify the power of the song. It does not shout. It does not scream. It does not call in expectation of a response. It cannot be sung at barricades. And yet its rage is intense. Wyatt’s high, plaintive vocal, tempered against overstatement by that hint of a lisp, could break your heart in two.

Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin

It has all the will in the world. It cuts deep with Costello’s observation that death in the South Atlantic will mean new shoes and a bike for working-class families on the Clyde. We should never forget that 255 British service personnel died in the pointless conflict and 649 Argentinians (including 16 civilian sailors), as well as three civilians on the Island. I was 17 at the time, and greatly affected. The Crass single How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? is the only other that I remember to address this electioneering war. Sadly, it did not chart. Costello doesn’t write in slogans; rather, he pricks our conscience with passing, well-known idioms like “next of kin” and “back by Christmas”. In such short, simple phrases, he recalls other wars, other conflicts, other political campaigns and other political casualties. He even gets away with a pun (“take me to task”), proving that wit is permitted in all seriousness. The choice of “somebody” and “someone” before “people” is another sublime lyrical decision.

Sometimes, and it may only happen a couple of times per generation, a combination of voice, lyric, tune, instrumentation and timing says it all. Even, in this case, the choice of sleeve illustration: Stanley Spencer’s magnificent Shipbuilding On The Clyde series, painted between 1940-46 as a response to the Second World War, when a lot of rumours were spread around town. (The owner of the Glasgow shipyard where Spencer worked, Lithgow, did not approve of his interpretation, which is all you need to know about the art’s greatness.) You do wonder sometimes when you get to my age whether a constellation of talent as rich and influential as the one in the early 80s that gave British music 2-Tone, Stiff, Rough Trade, Costello, Langer and Winstanley could ever happen again.

Amid all the emotion and solidarity and protest, I remain in awe of Costello’s rhyming of “filled in,” “killed in,” “skilled in,” and “shipbuilding.” The Stanley Spencer of the Thatcher years.

The Jam, Beat Surrender (1982)

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Artist: The Jam
Title: Beat Surrender
Description: single
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

Succumb-ah to the beat, surrender

Debate continues to surround the line “succumb to the beat surrender”. Some hear it as “succumb unto the beat surrender”, which scans; others as the above, with a Mark E Smith-style “ah” to slot it into the rhyme scheme, so it sounds like “cucumber”. Hey, there are no rules in the art of pop scansion. If there were, you could be sure that Paul Weller would have long ago heeled them into the dirt with a black and white shoe. David Bowie added an extra syllable to “the” in Fashion (“You shout out while you’re dancing on thu-uh dancefloor”), and Elton John was forced to elongate Bernie Taupin’s “sacrifice” to “sac-a-rifice” in Sacrifice. And if ever a supplementary syllable sounded right and soulful and true, it’s the one at the end of “succumb” in The Jam’s last single, fourth number one and their best.

Having forced myself to single out a single from the canons of some of the all-time great singles bands in due deference to the rules of The 143 – Smiths, Beatles, Byrds, Squeeze, Blur, Blondie, Pet Shop Boys – it’s a task I feel I am now equal to with regards The Jam. Their six-year, 17-song rally from the docu-realist manifesto In The City in 1977 to the Motown-driven Beat Surrender in 1982 is virtually flawless. (Three of them even have A-sides for B-sides.) I’m guessing that even among diehards, few would put Funeral Pyre or When You’re Young at the top of their all-time lists, but neither wastes its three minutes of your time (and the former gives me quite a thrill with its unrelenting end-of-days rhythmic attack – the Buckler co-writing credit well earned).

Weller was never going to go quietly into that good night after disbanding the band, and the more literally soulful Style Council have their roots in the final noises of The Jam. There is continuity all over the shop: A Solid Bond In Your Heart was written for and first recorded with The Jam, but first appeared under the Style Council; protegée Tracie Young sings on the last two Jam A-sides and on Speak Like A Child; Polydor producer Pete Wilson has credits on swansong The Gift and entrée Café Bleu. As such, it’s feasible to read Beat Surrender as a Style Council number-in-waiting, a dry run, a handover of power. But it isn’t. It’s The Jam, in full effect, on all cylinders, tight as a Rick Buckler paradiddle. Ironically, they sound like a band with a future. The whole world in their hands.

I don’t knew exactly when Weller penned the lyric, but there are hints of the A.P.O.C.A.L.Y.P.S.E. herein.

And as it was in the beginning
So shall it be in the end
That bullshit is bullshit
It just goes by different names

All the things he cares about, he sings with feeling, are “packed into one punch.” The punch that we all felt in our guts when The Jam announced their departure? The farewell tour must have been a bitter pill for all who bore witness. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a song whose ions are positive and arrangement is bursting with life. Weller’s angelic serenade over a piano scale to begin before a pyrotechnic blast of soul power, writ large with the brass but countersunk to the floor with Bruce Foxton’s strutting bass, Buckler’s rollercoasting Tamla beat and a call-and-response from Weller and Foxton that speaks like a child of unity, not discord: come on girl, come on boy.

All the things that I shout about
But never act upon
All the courage and the dreams that I have
But seem to wait so long

It’s Weller alone who sings, “You’ll see me come runnin’, to the sound of your strummin’, fill my heart with joy and gladness.” It’s perplexing. Either it’s a crowded marriage on the rocks that’s holding things together for the kids (ie. us), or it’s three people holding their heads up high and going out in a blaze of glory. Had The Jam bowed out with their penultimate single, The Bitterest Pill, how differently we might have all felt.

Why is Beat Surrender my all-time favourite Jam track? Not because it’s their last, although its defiant attitude to sentimentality (“bullshit is bullshit”) scores extra points and there’s a sense of occasion here that’s touchable. Possibly because it confirms this power trio as the soul outfit they always strove for, even in the heat of punk’s scorching flames, and latterly came to be. Mostly, I think, because it’s a call to arms, and you need those at any age. (Little wonder the fire in Weller’s belly still burns, as even he slows down by the hearth.) As he says, at the ripe old age of 24, “If you feel there’s no passion, no quality sensation, seize the young determination.” If he ordered you to do the same tomorrow, from the pages of Mojo, you’d stand to attention on your old knees.

Just as James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker on Dad’s Army, was my first death, I guess The Jam were my first public break-up. The other bands I’d pledged my teenage allegiance to in the late 70s and early 80s were still going: 999, the Undertones, the Cure (even my first favourite band The Sweet soldiered on), but The Jam were the first to announce their dissolution and make a song and dance about it. It was a learning experience, one to which I had little choice but to succumb-ah.

Kanye West, Jesus Walks (2004)

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Artist: Kanye West
Title: Jesus Walks
Description: single; album track, The College Dropout
Label: Rock-A-Fella
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long

I think I know what you’re thinking. But I used to like Tony Blair, Woody Allen and Christopher Hitchens, too, until I changed my mind (or in fact, to a degree, until they changed theirs). In the same way, we shouldn’t allow the global court jester Kanye West has turned into since his first two albums in 2004 and 2005 to blot his once good name. That was some run. (I know, other people retain a candle for his third LP Graduation in 2007, but he’d lost me by then and Auto-Tune has had him ever since.)

Having grown up with hip-hop, I’ve often despaired of the way it turned out in mainstream terms. The most powerful, profitable and influential music since piano-tie rock’n’roll, hip-hop has grown bloated and increasingly meaningless. Certainly, pockets of sincerity and invention exist, on the fringes (Death Grips, MF Doom, briefly Clipse – and those date me), but since the Wu-Tang Clan’s glory days, little has floated my boat. This is not snobbery; I’ve been into Jay-Z, had a crack at Nas, but in the main, I find that the genre’s been co-opted by careerists and poppets.

In 2004 (God, that’s a decade ago), it looked very much like we’d found a new saviour. Kanye, a man with no gangsta credentials, had overcome the industry commonplace that he was a producer not a performer through grit and determination, and crafted College Dropout pretty much singlehandedly. It was a visionary record, personal, palatable, ambitious and honest. The calibre of guest stars didn’t hurt, of course (Jamie Foxx, Common, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, also credited as executive producer), but this was essentially all his own work. A star was born. I knew nothing about him when I first listened to the LP, but plenty by the time I’d finished.

He’s not the first rapper to thank God, but there’s something almost militantly theist about Jesus Walks, far away the best track on the album and a hymn to convert any unbeliever. It had me at the military “Order Arms!” at the beginning. Remember, I’m the bloke who bought the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack album on the strength of Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and Nigel Goulding’s title song, which adds a modern beat to R. Lee Ermey’s drill instruction and attendant Marine call-and-response. The Bill Murray comedy Stripes was the first time I’d encountered the melodic singing of square-bashing US platoons but it kindled my imagination. Jesus Walks, built upon a similar marching rhythm, also samples Walk With Me, performed by The ARC (Addicts Rehabilitation Center) Choir and (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go by Curtis Mayfield. If there’s a message above, it’s that God is good.

It is to West’s credit that a lyric which had singlehandedly failed to win him a record deal during his wilderness period because open Christianity wasn’t “marketable” in a world of 50 Cent (West would have the last laugh there) should be so robustly and thumpingly framed in song. If you’d never heard Kanye before this tune, you’d be intrigued by his opening remarks: “We at war, we at war with terrorism, racism … but most of all, we at war with ourselves.”

Now, I was still visiting Northampton regularly when the Jesus Army became a ubiquitous sight around town in their camouflaged bus and have long associated Christians with soldiers, “marching as to war.” Jesus Walks is a natural progression of that association and makes a compelling rap: “God, show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’-a beat me down!”, he implores, that voice gritty and honeyed at the same time, angry and beatific. Not big on cussing, West has his urban cake and eats it by affecting the cry of “Niggaz!” [EXPLICIT CONTENT] as if it were some kind of echo and not him uttering it in the stanza:

Where restless [niggaz!] might snatch yo’ necklace
And next these
[niggaz!] might jack yo’ Lexus
Somebody tell these
[niggaz!] who Kanye West is

Third person: always a warning sign of megalomania, but we’ll let it pass. Such intrigues are common on this record, which is lyrically fleet and thematically grounded. When he talks of being “breathless”, he draws breath and wheezes in a way that will spook asthmatics everywhere, every time. He compares the way he believes in Jesus to “the way school needs teachers” and “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis” (a reference to the syndicated morning TV hosts). If he is testifying, he displays the common touch, insisting he “ain’t here to argue about His facial features,” or to “convert atheists into believers.”

He’s no angel after all, as implied by his fear of talking to God when it’s been “so long” since his last confession, or ecumenical equivalent.

It’s a pretty direct and inclusive concoction. The march time. The instructions. The shopping list of “hustlas, killas, murderas, drug dealas, even tha strippers”, accompanied by the choir invisible’s firm assurance: Jesus walks with them. For an artist-producer with all the tricks of the motherboard at his disposal, he and his collaborators are more than capable of stripping back and striking a line through some of the excesses that would dog his subsequent output.

It wasn’t long before West became the scourge of awards ceremonies, invading the stage when he didn’t win, and in the most famous case, interrupting Taylor Swift (“I’m-a let you finish”) and bloodsucking her moment of glory in 2006. Kanye the oxygen thief was not a good look. I could have lived with these antics if his music hadn’t started to reflect this messianic tendency.

It’s a free country and the lifestyle is not the artist (I didn’t go off Woody Allen’s films because of that business with his step-daughter, but because his films went bad). Kanye West can marry a woman from a reality show, start his own fast food franchise, design shoes, and it wouldn’t matter. But when a musician becomes more famous for being famous than for being a musician, I instinctively find myself looking elsewhere for stimulation. (It is not a pose to say that I didn’t really know who Kim Kardashian was for some years into her reign. The day I started writing this entry, her photograph was on the front of most of the smaller-format national newspapers, because you can see the whole of her large bum in it.)

None of which vampires the phenomenal impact of The College Dropout, or the aftershock of its follow-up Late Registration, whose singles Touch The Sky, Gold Digger and Diamonds From Sierra Leone shone brightly. One critic described Kanye’s arrival as “post-thug”, and I guess that’s why it felt as refreshing as De La Soul once did. But De La Soul never embarrassed themselves. Or sold their souls to Auto-Tune.

Remember him this way. After all, Woody Allen pulled one out of the hat with Midnight In Paris.

Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, The Only Living Boy In New Cross (1992)

CarterUSMOnlyLivingBoy

Artist: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine
Title: The Only Living Boy In New Cross
Description: single; album track, 1992: The Love Album
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Hello, good evening, welcome, to nothing much …

Five days ago I, along with let’s say 4,999 others, witnessed Carter play their final, final gig at Brixton Academy in London, which is practically their home ground. Apparently, this time they meant it. For two hours, two men filled the vast ampitheatrical space, using only voices, guitars and backing tapes, and a certain amount of moving backwards and forwards. Were we not entertained?

This final comedown was something to behold, as was their last final gig at Brixton Academy, and the one before that. Who of sound mind and body could deny them the financial injection of what turned into an eight-year reunion? There was, as Jim Bob observed when I asked him to define this second coming, a lot of love in the room. During the last song before the first of two encores, it was possible to conclude that The Impossible Dream was their finest song. But they didn’t write that, another duo, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion, did in 1965, and Carter adopted it 27 years later (as did we), and in any case, there is another song, one of theirs, that tries, when its arms are too weary, to reach the same unreachable star.

Quite why a band called Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine weren’t taken seriously is beyond me. Jim Bob and Les “Fruitbat” Carter were men of serious intent and righteous late-Thatcher discontent. Their place in history has long been denied them. Amid a whole wave of alternative British bands that came through at the end of the 80s and were signed by funky-vicar major labels desperate to get a piece of the independent action, Carter epitomised that quiet revolution. Not literally quiet, of course. They made a proper racket.

Much has been written about the comfort and the joy of Jim Bob’s punning titles and lyrics. Most of it by me. But a keen mind and an ear for wordplay are not a prerequisite for writing memorable power-pop songs, and if he and Fruitbat had written only instrumentals, they would have been a pretty tasty double-act. That said, it was Jim’s droll eloquence that elevated Carter to the top tier. Though it has improved like a fine port over the years and into his more thoughtful, less punny solo incarnation, his singing voice began as a can of Special Brew. Perfect for the inner-city rage within him, and as effective an outlet as Fruitbat’s squalling guitar. That their second single, first classic and first Top 30 hit on reissue, Sheriff Fatman, survived for a quarter of a century as the ultimate Carter anthem clues you into how good they were from the outset.

The Only Living Boy In New Cross, the first single from their third album and their first Top 20 hit, its very title a hallmark of quality (you had to be old enough to know Simon and Garfunkel and metropolitan enough to know the London Underground map to get the joke), is the favourite Carter song of many Carter fans. Including me. It’s not the one that landed them with a lawsuit from the Rolling Stones, or earned them their first go at Top Of The Pops, or got banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, nor was it the last song they ever played, five days ago in Brixton.

But it is the one I personally chose to interpret at Karaoke Circus in London in 2011 – the now-defunct night where comedians and hangers-on performed with a live band at venues around London (and Edinburgh). The scene of this particular crime was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on the right side of the river for Carter, and low-quality phone footage confirms that my interpretation was spirited if not 100% accurate. (It’s on YouTube, but is yet to monetise.) It should be noted that Jim Bob was in the audience. He was magnanimous about it.

It may be the definitive Carter song. Think about it. It begins with a slow, quiet, contemplative passage, a moving piano prelude to earth-moving punk rock. It explodes into sequenced life with a throbbing synth line, raucous, wagon-train guitar and – that Carter building block – a joyous fanfare. Rarely has a band provided itself with so many internal reveilles. The drum pattern is one that a real drummer would never attempt in real life, and, suitably stroked by Fruitbat, adds to the urgency of the engine. Lyrically, it begins with a pun – again, one that requires you to be as old as Jim and Les, as it’s David Frost’s trademark greeting from the 70s – and quickly arrests your ears.

A no holds barred half nelson
And the loving touch

Such affection for the way the English language slots together, juxtaposing a wrestling move with something tender, and rhyming the whole thing with “nothing much”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: poetry. It would be just that without the tip-top tune, whose epic scope requires Jim to hold a note for 12 seconds at the end of the second sort-of-chorus (“New Crooooooooo-ooooooooo-oooo-ooooss!”). I like the fact that the line after “Fill another suitcase” is perpetually mis-transcribed as “with another hall”, when it’s actually “another haul.” Such is the beguiling nature of the imagery, either would work.

Then wipe the lipstick hearts and flowers
From the glass and chrome
Take five or six hot showers
And come on home

It’s rare that a single song surveys the cultural and tribal landscape of the day, but The Only Living Boy, with its hidden-in-plain-sight HIV-panic subject line (check the condom-packet inner sleeve), does just that, with the gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebos, crusties and goths, not to mention the more obtuse “butchered bakers, deaf and dumb waiters, Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28-ers, authors, authors, plastered outcasts, locked up daughters, rock and roll stars.” (Where was the Ivor Novello nomination for this song?)

In a rare moment of autobiography, Jim declares he’s “teamed up with the hippies now” and has his “fringe unfurled”, before delivering a heartfelt plea from a weary pacifist in a post-Gulf War world:

I want to give peace, love and kisses out
To this whole stinking world

I’m not showing off (well I am), but I remember being in Fruitbat’s house in Brixton circa 1991, with no journalistic purpose, just loitering. And Jim was so excited about a couplet he’d just written, he premiered it in my presence. It was that one.

We don’t know who Rudy, David, Rosie, Abraham and Julianne are, but we wish them farewell all the same, unable not to think back to After The Watershed, which expensively bid goodbye to Ruby Tuesday, while at the same time begging the “silly cow” to come home. This song welcomes and repels at the same time. It’s what happens when you live in a stinking world. It probably explains why Carter kept reforming, promising to retire and then reforming again. Hello, good evening, welcome and goodbye.