Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes (1984)

lloyd-cole-rattlesnakes

Artist: Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Title: Rattlesnakes
Description: single; album track, Rattlesnakes
Label: Polydor
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

In the same week in 2013, the National Literary Trust revealed that only 28.4% of children in Britain read for pleasure outside of school (down from 38.1% in 2005), blanket media coverage afforded David Bowie’s top 100 reading list, as collated by the Art Gallery of Ontario. As I wrote in the Guardian that week (I used to write for the Guardian): “For my generation, raised on literate pop music, it was like being given homework by the coolest teacher in the world.”

It was, in fact, a reading festival.

Shall we agree that Lloyd Cole is the coolest teacher in the world? Although long since flown from the mainstream (a concept enshrined in the ironic title of his third album Mainstream), he remains a reliable mix of icy reserve and bookish warmth, from the other side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts, and I am proud to confirm that my own love of Raymond Carver’s writings was sparked by an interview I conducted with Lloyd for the NME in Bar Italia in London’s Soho circa 1990. I took his Bowie-like recommendation away with me and invested in poetry collections Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985) and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). As I built my Carver library, I even included poetry by his second wife Tess Gallagher. (When I recommend books by and about the Mitford Sisters to those who occasionally inquire, I feel like I have improved the world by proxy. Mr Cole, as we would have called him if he was our teacher, improved mine.)

When I put together a fanzine named This is This in 1988, I wrote a two-page feature about Lloyd Cole’s water metaphors under the pseudonym “Rusty James”, taken from a character in Susan Hinton’s novel Rumble Fish, filmed in 1984 by Francis Coppola, in which he is played by a young Matt Dillon. I think you can see the tendrils of cultural connection winding around my relationship with Lloyd Cole.

Rattlesnakes is one of my favourite LPs of the 1980s, and I’ve found it difficult to extract one song from it. The first I knew of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions was when their debut single Perfect Skin landed them, or him, on the cover of Melody Maker and on Top of the Pops, a performance marked by the look of fear on the singer’s face. I invested. The tunes were pin-sharp and the arrangements made the pieces sound easy. But it was the lyrics that besotted me and kept me up all night with their references and allusions (“it’s just a simple metaphor,” Lloyd admits in Forest Fire, blowing the metatextuality wide open on side one). If I single out the title track, which became the unsuccessful third single, it’s because it encapsulates everything that was refreshingly brainy and archly poetic about the commotion Lloyd Cole made. For heaven’s sake, it includes this line:

“She looked like Eva Marie-Saint in On The Waterfront …

Now, in 1984, when I first heard Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, I was this side of fashioning myself as a young, bohemian cineaste; a bushy-tailed young art student in dungarees and high hair who still lived at his Mum and Dad’s, besotted with Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now and Dispatches by Michael Herr. During the previous summer, the writing-things-out tedium of A-Level revision had been alleviated by A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, both of which I’d taped in audio off the telly (by placing my ghetto blaster next to the speaker when nobody was likely to walk in). I could quote liberally from both: “You’re not too funny today, fatman … What’s this article? It’s a solid gold dress I believe … Do you know what I say? Ha ha. D’you hear me? Ha ha!”

Can you imagine how loud the worlds colliding sounded at that crux in my cultural education? The pop music fed into the films fed into the books fed back into the pop music. In Rattlesnakes, we learn that Marie-Saint lookalike Jodie wears a hat “although it hasn’t rained for six days” (note to self: buy a hat); that she looks like Eva Marie-Saint, but not in North by Northwest or The Sandpiper or Grand Prix, but in On The Waterfront (my film!); that she reads Simone de Beauvoir (note to self: find out who, in a pre-Wikipedia age, Simone de Beauvoir is); she’s in some kind of “American circumstance” and there’s San José and traffic police and therapy (be more American, more introspective; look into a jumper purchase); she needs a gun on account of all the rattlesnakes (don’t be a snake); and her heart’s like crazy paving, “upside down and back to front” (Mum and Dad had crazy paving, but this sounds more like a suitable case for treatment – nothing is common or garden in the Transatlantic hinterland of Lloyd Cole).

Musically, it’s as tight as a band who’d been together longer – they clearly did their homework before handing it in. Produced by Paul Hardiman in a pre-loved Shoreditch, Rattlesnakes (LP and song) emerged breezily and toe-tapping without pain of birth, I understand. Guitars snake, drums rattle, harmonies enhance, and Eva Marie-Saint’s name is correctly pronounced. (I learned how say the name of my new-found favourite screen goddess from Lloyd Cole – obvious despite myself.)

The one thing I already had in common with Mr Cole (actually, we called our new, turtle-necked teachers at art school by their first names: Mike, Pete, Frank, Malcolm) was that love was also my “great disappointment”, or so I believed without any evidence.

For the record, Rattlesnakes was one of four tracks out of ten on the austerely-packaged parent album co-written with three other Commotions: in its case, guitarist Neil Clark (who also co-parented the gorgeously rhetorical Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?, my second favourite tune on the LP); keyboardist Blair Cowan co-wrote Patience; golfing bassist Laurence Donegan Four Flights Up. These shared credits speak affirmatively of a meritocratic band, not merely a swoon-generating frontman and props. Indeed, the Commotions lasted as long as the Commotions were built to last, and avoided going downhill. After three Top 20 albums, all sound, all of a piece, but not all with hit singles (they accumulated five Top 40 singles, two of them Top 20), they split and Lloyd has been solo ever since, collaborative when it suits him, not least with Clark. Five years: that’s all the Commotions got – to prove their point and stake a claim in the Smash Hits sticker album before my college education had played out.

Footnote #1: I have belatedly discovered that in 1985, The Fall recorded one of their 24 Peel Sessions. (The Commotions recorded none.) It began with L.A. and some impromptu Mark E Smith beat poetry: “Lloyd Cole’s brain and face is made out of cow pat, we all know that.” If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that L.A., happens to be my personal favourite ever Fall song, and thus my selection from their catalogue in The 143.

Footnote #2: Answering a fan query on his website, Lloyd wrote this about why he was never invited to record his own Peel session: “Peel made it quite clear that he didn’t rate us. Which was slightly saddening, but that’s all. I’m not sure if he ever heard any of my solo stuff. He memorably compared the Commotions to Leicester City – a team in the first division, but one was never quite sure how they had got there, as they seemed more of a division two outfit at best.”

Footnote #3: John Peel was fallible, just like a Pope.

Ha ha.

 

The Doors, The End (1967)

the-doors

Artist: The Doors
Title: The End
Description: track, The Doors
Label: Elektra
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1982

This is the beginning …

I know exactly where I was when I first heard the establishing tinkles of John Densmore’s splash cymbal and what sound like chimes but might be something Ray Manzarek teased from his keys: I was sitting on a plastic chair in the arts centre of what used to be Northampton College of Further Education on Booth Lane, where my friends Paul, Dave, Neil and I had joined the Film Society in order to blow our minds. It was 6 April, 1982 and we were there to see the X-rated Apocalypse Now (we were 17). Francis Coppola gave The End by the Doors a starring role. Written in 1967 about a break-up, it divides chin-stroking opinion. But it’s difficult to argue with its placement at the beginning – and the end – of Coppola’s South-East Asian odyssey.  This is not background music. Jim Morrison’s mournful wail and student poetry meld into something that might have been – but wasn’t – written for the film or the war.

So, I heard the song for the first time at the same time as seeing the film for the first time. A film that would become one of my all-time favourite films. A song that would become one of my all-time favourite songs.

Both are long. The song comes in at an epic 11 minutes and 41 seconds on the Doors’ debut album. It’s reduced to just over six-and-a-half minutes on the soundtrack edit, its middle section concertina’d so that the serpentine opening and close are left fully intact. Apocalypse Now runs at 153 minutes, but there are other cuts of the film, notably the 202-minute Redux. The classic recording of The End for producer Paul A. Rothchild at Sunset Sound in Hollywood is formed of two takes, spliced together. And you can’t hear the join.

What I’m saying is, there’s no rush, and yet there is such a rush.

This is the middle bit …

It’s not a single and was never designed to be, but it climaxed Doors live shows as a backstop and would be the last song the band would ever play together, in New Orleans. (Morrison’s end came four years later in a rented room in the 4th arrondissemont, aged 27, an early bath foreshortening his “elaborate plans”.) In 1983, the Fun Boy Three tapped into the darkness on the edge of town and covered The End for novelty purposes on a proprietary music show called Switch and did a worthwhile job, I recall, including a good bash at the famous Oedipal interlude; this re-lit my fire for the Doors, whose eponymous debut album I purchased on cassette. I don’t know why cassette.

The sidewinding lyrics to The End had already entered my bloodstream via the film. The “stranger’s hand in a desperate land”; that “wilderness of pain” and “all the children” who went insane while “waiting for the summer rain” – Yeah!

It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a horny sixth-form poet with the top button of his leather trousers accidentally left unpopped, and because The End is essentially free-form, refined into copyright over a series of jams, it doesn’t all read that well on the page. He reaches the bottom of his pencil case when he suggests we “ride the snake to the lake” and declares that “the West is the best.” But this song, this track, this Freudian trip, this outpouring of childhood angst brought on by a rich diet of reading, defines the Doors.

They made shorter, better, tighter, more hummable songs – Break On Through, People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You, Riders on the Storm, Touch Me – and three of these were million-sellers, once Light My Fire had been pruned back to three minutes. They pulled six albums out of the chaos over five years, each a huge record in the multi-platinum orbit. But for all of Morrison’s apparent unsuitability for the straight and narrow – singing the forbidden word “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show against the show’s express wishes; the public obscenity charge; taunting his fans at an over-sold show in a seaplane hangar; bothering blameless cabin crew – he kind of turned up for work nonetheless, however drunk. The lizard king myth was successfully blown out of proportion, but the late 60s and early 70s were a heady time, and if Jim Morrison hadn’t existed, they’d have had to invent him.

This is the end

What elevates The End from an overlong song at the end of a perfectly sensible psychedelic rock album by a gigging band who’d found their feet to a work of genius is – boring as this seems – its very length. Its mission to explain and explain. The long-windedness beneath its wings. The fundamental wherewithal to go where no band had gone before while staying fashionable. Not many greatest hits get away with a spoken interlude – ABC’s The Look of Love (“They say, Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”); Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“Darkness falls across the land”); Britney’s Oops! … I Did It Again (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”) – but those that do need to get some perspective. At about six-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison slips out of his stentorian oratory, leans on the mic stand, and starts to tell us a sto-o-ory. Are you sitting uncomfortably?

“The killer awoke before dawn … He put his boots on … He took a face from the ancient gallery and walked on down the hall … And he came to a door and he looked inside …”

That we associate this edition of Crackanory with Captain Willard’s journey to enlightenment beyond the Do Long Bridge and the Montagnard Army in Apocalypse Now, followed by its murderous fruition, is easy to follow. It’s not about the Vietnam War, but it’s 1967 and everything’s about the Vietnam War, man.

Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother … I want to … waaaaaarrrgghhhh

And Densmore’s drums explode into abandon, Robby Krieger’s guitar gets out of the boat, and Manzarek mellows the situation out with a go-around the keys, while Morrison breaks on through to the other side, that peyote still pecking at his vitals and Rothchild manning the pumps. They meet at the back of the blue bus, Morrison lashing away, using “fuck” as a beat, Densmore adds more cowbell, Krieger banjo-duels with his himself, until it all falls apart and – in the mind of an Apocalypse Now devotee – a sacred cow is sacrificed.

This was the end, and, for me, the start of beautiful friendship. He did, however, write some bloody awful poetry.

 

 

Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1966)

Nancy_Sinatra_single_cover_These_Boots_Are_Made_for_Walkin

Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Label: Reprise
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s

In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”

Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.

Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.

*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.

It’s like there’s a party starting  but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.

“You keep saying you’ve got something for me,” she snarls, impatiently. “Something you call love, but confess.” This is not a woman torridly imploring a man to take her back, this is a woman grinding her heel into his chest. He’s been messin’ where he shouldn’t have been a messin’, after all, not to mention lyin’ when he oughtta have been “truthin'” (touché, Mr Hazelwood, a “colloquial phrase” for the statute books). Her boots are going to carry her out of this unsatisfactory situation, but not without an over-the-shoulder threat as she leaves: “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” (She might well take one for her baby, too.)

It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.

Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.

After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?

Ha!

10cc, I’m Not In Love (1975)

10ccI'mNotInLove

Artist: 10cc
Title: I’m Not In Love
Description: single; album track, The Original Soundtrack
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1975

10cc are one of those bands who soundtracked my youth without me really ever acknowledging them or knowingly parting with pocket money for any of their hit singles or parent albums. I guess this is partly because my first spurt in singles buying occurred towards the end of that decade, by which time it was “punk” or nothing. (We’d previously requested certain seven-inches “for the house”, which we kids thought of as “ours” and were wire-racked alongside Mum and Dad’s, under the wooden unit beneath the “music centre”. 10cc were not among these. (I remember In Dulci Jubilo by Mike Oldfield – backed by On Horseback – from around the mid-70s; also Under The Moon Of Love by Showaddywaddy; The First Cut Is The Deepest by Rod Stewart, which was nominally Mum’s; also Lay Your Love by Racey, which proves how unselfconscious I was in 1978 before punk stole my soul.)

Nevertheless, I’m Not In Love is a key song of the mid-decade, and one with a personal fascination for me that I’ll get to. A number one hit – the band’s second, after Rubber Bullets in 1971 – and ubiquitous on the airwaves at the time (we had Radio 1 on as a default in the house), it is only in retrospect that I appreciate what a technical triumph it was, pushing back the boundaries of studio technique as much as their heroes the Beatles had done. In adult life, I have come to respect Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme as the witty and intelligent hitmakers they were, and a Best Of 10cc is, I find, an absolute essential. I don’t know their albums at all, not even The Original Soundtrack, which contains I’m Not In Love, by all accounts the song that clinched their $1 million contract with Mercury.

I now know – thanks to the constant repackaging of the pop and rock past by BBC4 – that its haunting choral effect was achieved in 1974 at the band’s own Strawberry Studios with each layer of voice recorded separately (all four band members are involved), until they had 256. Although the effect can now be reproduced at the click of a mouse – I can probably do it on this laptop – the sheer depth and richness of the choir is unique. This and a heartbeat of a drum line form the bed, upon which an unintrusive keyboard is added, and then that halting, delicate vocal from … is it Eric Stewart or Graham Gouldman? I know the whispered interlude was supplied by a receptionist at the studio, and it’s this passage (“Be quiet, big boys don’t cry”) that seals it forever into my heart.

Here’s why. As anyone who’s read Where Did It All Go Right? will know, I experienced an existential epiphany in 1975 when, aged 10, I saw The Poseidon Adventure at the cinema and looked mortality in the face for the first time. The mother of all disaster movies – my first – haunted me, and has remained a perpetual favourite. Somehow, in my mind, it and I’m Not In Love are intertwined. I saw the film at the very end of May, and the song was at number one a week later. A raw, full-blooded display of emotion in any case, it meant more to me as I imagined the female voice to be that of Shelley Winters’ character Belle Rosen, perhaps reassuring Eric Shea’s Robin at a moment of grisly, mortal, smudge-faced tension in the bowels of the SS Poseidon. I can almost see her, in the film, shushing him by touching his boyish lips, like a reassuring mom. It’s oddly disappointing that she doesn’t actually say, “Be quite, big boys don’t cry” in the film.

I love the way a song can become imprinted on a time and a place for all time. I am in love with this for all of the technical and musical reasons stated, but it goes that extra Proustian mile thanks to a random series of events and that’s the alchemy of cheap, potent pop music.