Elbow, Any Day Now (2001)

elbow-asleep-in-the-back

Artist: Elbow
Title: Any Day Now
Description: EP track, The Any Day Now EP; album track, Asleep In The Back
Label: Ugly Man; V2
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2001

Guy, Craig, Mark, Pete, Jupp: the five of them had been a band since 1990 when four of them were 16, one of them 14, and Elbow by name since 1997. By 2001, when their debut album was released, they’d already recorded another one, for Island, which had been canned when the band were dropped, although half a dozen of its songs were re-recorded for Asleep In The Back. This long-player was, then, a long time coming. Perhaps that’s why it’s so solid, so thought-through, so cohesive, and why the band sound like they’ve been playing together for ten years.

They had me at the opening track. In fact, they had me at Craig’s opening church chord on the opening track. Once drummer Richard Jupp and bassist Pete Turner unite for that unsettling riff of spellbinding rimshot and seismic grumble, I’m Elbow’s for the taking, and Guy hasn’t even started cooing like a choirboy yet. Any Day Now is among my favourite Track 1, Side 1’s of all time. It set out a stall that I wanted to browse, and for all of Elbow’s achievements artistic, commercial and headlining in the glory years since, it’s the supplier I return to when in need of a restock.

“What’s got into me?” he asks. “Can’t believe myself. Must be someone else. Must be somewhere else.”

Garvey is a man at sea. He hangs suspended. Cold limbo. He’s a man alive but a man alone. And yet … from this slough of despond, the plaintive innocence of his soprano fills the sky with hope. The hope of “getting out of this place.” Any day now, in fact. The phrase “How’s about” may have taken on uninvited echoes of Savile, but we couldn’t be in safer hands. Isolated our protagonist may be, but he’s soon enveloped in sympathetic voices as what we used to call a “round” starts to make the room revolve, until the mantra becomes his safehouse:

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

First tracks of first albums often sounds like something a band have been building up to and rehearsing for all of their lives, but rarely do they sound as boldly understated, as casually assured and as sparingly worded as Any Day Now, and rarely are they six minutes in length. (That’s more a last track, isn’t it?) If it is a manifesto at all, it is equally a stab in the dark. And dark it was at the beginning of this benighted century, when the world was in turmoil and British music was hanging on for dear life. Elbow, who’d planned to emerge in the previous millennium but were thwarted from doing so, sound ready to save the world, or at least anyone who had a heart.

When I interviewed Elbow for Word in 2008, post-Mercury, Jupp had this to tell me about the band’s inability to assess their own work: “We can’t be objective about it. This is the only thing we’ve done in our adult lives. We cannot analyse it. You can’t step back from it.”

I can, and while Asleep In The Back is – with the benefit of hindsight – markedly more Gothic than its successors and pre-anthemic, it was not willfully difficult or awkward (except perhaps Bitten By The Tailfly, their taproom Tom Waits wonk-out). It’s distinctly lovely, in fact. Spooky, dusky, melancholy and regally slow for the most part (got a lot of spare time), with Garvey’s voice sealed in the amber of echo; as much piano- as guitar-led, and swathed in Northern English ennui, it it unafraid of tipping the five-minute mark. And it begins with Any Day Now.

Any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive, any day now, how’s about getting out of this place, anyways, got a lot of spare time, some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive …

He was wrong when he called for one day like this a year to see him right. One day is not enough. With Elbow’s back catalogue, you get a whole calender. Starting with a church chord.

 

The The, Uncertain Smile (1983)

thethesoul mining

Artist: The The
Title: Uncertain Smile
Description: album track, Soul Mining
Label: Some Bizzare
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

I can find no record of a bullet-headed statue erected near Matt Johnson’s birthplace, so we may assume there isn’t one. This is a crying shame. Although his illustrious career, effectively solo, as The The, has not always translated its musical value into monetary – only two of his singles have seen the inside of the UK Top 20, although his third and fourth albums Mind Bomb and Dusk went Top 10 at what we may now label his glory years in the early- to mid-90s – he has proven a diffident, single-minded avatar of content-based pop music, a man drummed out of the awkward squad for being too awkward and never one to compromise his mission statement. Or have a mission statement.

You get the sense that Soul Mining, his first commercial release as The The after some years as a solo artist, then a duo, then a band, then a solo artist pretending to be a band on the post-punk indie fringe, has now been folded into the canon of Great Lost Albums of the 80s. Although for those of us who clasped it to our gnawed hearts, it was a Great Found Album. It was Stevo’s misspelled label Some Bizzare and Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD that became Johnson’s key patrons. He was always a magnet for collaborators, who buzzed around in the forcefield of his creativity while he remained his own nucleus.

I adore Soul Mining. In my house, it has never gone out of fashion. I purchased it, a year late, while living in a brutalist halls of residence in Battersea and writing bloody awful poetry as a release from the privations and humiliations of life on a grant in a subsidisded tower block opposite a park that served hot meals and provided a weekly laundry service. Johnson’s beef was with the modern world of “moral decay” and “piss-stinking shopping centres”, “bruised and confused by life’s little ironies”. I etched his edict on my chest: “Something always goes wrong when things are going right.” At least, I felt-tipped it into my diary. If The The were about anything, it was pithy epigrams you could adopt as your own.

How can anyone know me when I don’t even know myself?

I can’t give you up ’till I’ve got more than enough.

You’re just a symptom of the moral decay that’s gnawing at the heart of the country

How quickly I came to rely like life support on these seven lengthy compositions of aching urban melancholy with a martial beat, Johnson’s voice not technically brilliant, but authentic, low, growling, wounded, soulful and gamely straining for truth. Andy Duncan was the drummer on four sevenths of the LP, including keystone track Uncertain Smile (which had been a single in a prior version, laid down in New York with flute and saxophone for the US label and substantially re-recorded in London for the LP). His vivid, metronomic beats sound deceptively electronic in origin, but to the trained ear their analogue warmth comes through in the fills. The whipcrack style, followed through, is a signature of the album. Soul Mining is a suite that holds its sonic nerve.

A constantly revolving door of 14 musicians are credited on Soul Mining (16 if you count David Johansen and Harry Beckett who provided harmonica and trumpet for Perfect, later added to the record), including Orange Juice’s Zeke Manyika on drums when Duncan isn’t, and yet it abides a Matt Johnson joint.

Surely his most famous guest star among the multitude is Jools Holland. In 1983 not yet a national treasure at the BBC – in fact, only two years as an ex-member of Squeeze, and just carving out a presenter’s niche on The Tube – lays down what might ordinarily be boxed off as a piano solo but is in truth no such thing on Uncertain Smile. Originally intended as the traditional break in proceedings but spliced together from two takes, it not only engorges the song with improvised musicality, it gives it a second act. Who said there are none of those in pop?

Uncertain Smile could, by rights, be faded down at three minutes and nobody would have asked for their money back. It’s already a copper-bottomed attention-grabbing lament to romantic loss and solipsistic regret, whose heartbreak is grounded by references to pouring sweat, watering eyes, howling wind, “orange-coloured shapes” and the unpleasant sensation of “peeling the skin back” from your eyes. While lacking the basic verse-chorus-verse infrastructure (it’s more intro-verse-instrumental-bridge-verse-instrumental), it’s not really an experimental proposition: boom-thwack drum beat, strummed acoustic, synth chords, insistent guitar riff, some doo-doo-doos, and a protagonist who wakes up in his pit, misses his ex-girlfriend and tries to pull himself together.

After the requisite three minutes, it has done its work – moved your toes, mined your soul, made you think about your own sorry life, inserted a nagging refrain under your skin (“where the rain can’t get in”) and left you wanting more. But it’s not over yet. There is more.

At 3.25, Jools sets suavely yet demonically about his boogie-woogie piano and, for the next three virtuoso minutes, makes a watertight case against any future swipes at his propensity to ruin a perfectly good rendition on Later with a twelve-bar blues workout on the ivories. He may have become a willing parody of himself as the years have varnished his reputation and sealed him inside that suit, but Jools is an incredible pianist, a musician raised in an era where virtuosity was ideologically discouraged, and rather than work against the clipped, aphoristic protestations of Johnson, he effectively takes the baton from him and offers a “reply” to the talky stuff that’s gone before.

The result is a game of two halves that beat as one. I know Jools’ solo so well I can air-finger it on imaginary keys. God help us all if there was an actual piano there.

Matt Johnson hasn’t recorded as The The since 2000. He’s into soundtracks now. He was into soundtracks then, come to think of it. Uncertain Smile certainly scored my life at a difficult age, when the idea of a perfect day seemed anathema. And even though the shopping centres no longer stink of piss (maybe they never did), it’s still soundtracks my life and the moral decay that’s still gnawing at the heart of the country.

Pink Floyd, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V (1975)

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V
Description: album track, Wish You Were Here
Label: Harvest
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1988

Come on you raver, you seer of visions
Come on you painter
You piper, you prisoner and shine

Here’s my footnote in Pink Floyd history: I proof-read the booklet that was boxed up with the remastered Shine On compilation set released in 1992. I’m not 100% sure how it happened. Either my friend Rob was working for Storm Thorgerson, who by law designed the sleeve and packaging, or he was working for Stylo Rouge, who may have been designing the book. Either way, it was a commission borne of benign nepotism, and not one that I was honestly up to. A journalist of some three or four years’ standing, what I knew of “subbing marks” was learned from having had my own typewritten pages red-penned at the NME. Nonetheless, I manfully went through the proofs and – somebody else will have to check this – I think I earned a thanks in the box-set credits.

What’s more significant about my intersection with the mighty Floyd’s back catalogue (Shine On contained nine discs and was a selective history via eight albums – from their second, A Saucerful Of Secrets, to their 13th, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason – plus some early singles) is that it was my first in any meaningful way. I did not own a Pink Floyd album in 1992. I had reviewed the live album Delicate Sound Of Thunder for the NME in 1988, when I was at the office-boy stage of my writing career and was grateful for rejects and flotsam from the LPs cupboard, but I really was unqualified. I only recognised the hits.

However, it helps me carbon-date what was my first conscious exposure to Shine On You Crazy Diamond, which endures as my favourite Pink Floyd track. (It’s actually rather sweet that the first version I must have heard was a live one, in all its grandiloquent melancholy at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island.) I think we all know the score about this track, and the album it so definitively bookends in its nine – count ’em – parts: it’s a tribute to Syd Barrett that would have been no sadder and more heartfelt had the band’s tragically scooped-out founder actually died before they laid it down.

Crazy Diamond defines Pink Floyd. Big, beaty and bold, it’s also personal and emotional, a prog-rock movement that actually moves. So much of it is preamble, so much of it is atmosphere and noodling – the very facets of this kind of “dinosaur” rock that made it toxic and heinous to punk rock come the revolution – and yet, at its heart lies a song. An old-fashioned song. It earns back every minute you’ve potentially wasted not singing along, not tapping a toe, tempted to make a cup of herbal tea and come back. It’s the longest song in The 143, in that even Parts I-V divorced from Parts VI-IX runs for 13:38, but it’s succinct and to the point in surprising ways. Roger Waters only sings his handful of verses in the two-and-a-half-minute Part IV (and again, foreshortened, in Part VII); the rest, you could say, is noise. But what noise!

This being Pink Floyd, whose compositions have been picked over by the technically inclined for decades, I could look up exactly which guitars and keyboards are played where, and in what key, and blind you with talk of arpeggio variations and 6/4 time and the “bleed” on the Abbey Road mixing console, but let’s just instead switch off and tune in. Nobody actually died in the making of it, but four grown men left a little bit of their souls in the studio over the days and weeks it took to process, a spirit that’s unlocked each time they play it live. Know that.

I will have innocently enjoyed the majesty of its rock and the mystery of its roll without gleaning its meaning, but it’s the backstory that powers it (and the rest of the album; this was a close-run thing with the title track Wish You Were Here itself), and the tribute that lifts it. We won’t ever really know what Syd thought of it (see how easily we call him by his first name?), even though he wandered into Abbey Road while they were laying it down and made Waters cry with his altered physical state, but there are few nods of the head in song that shine so brightly with sincerity and pulse. When Waters sings, “You wore out your welcome with random precision,” that’s the sound of something being nailed.

I grew to appreciate Pink Floyd with age. I certainly had to get out of the NME first. They’re one of those classic rock bands whose back catalogue I greedily completed at the fag-end of the century when new music – except Radiohead, funnily enough – was failing to move me. I recognised Floyd as canon. You need all of the albums, but each can be addressed separately, and individual tracks isolated, depending on mood. I think I enjoyed shocking my teenage self by getting into them.

There are parts of Dark Side Of The Moon, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Barrett’s solo records and even The Wall that I enjoy as much as Wish You Were Here, but it retains its seat at my top table. Because it’s got Shine On You Crazy Diamond on it, in full.