Blur, Song 2 (1997)

Blur_song_2

Artist: Blur
Title: Song 2
Description: single; album track, Blur
Label: Food
Release date: 1997
First heard: 1997

Woo hoo

It would be nice to write an essay about Song 2 that was as short as Song 2 – that is, two minutes and one second. (Never underestimate that last second.) However, there is so much to say about it. I reviewed its parent album, the band’s difficult fifth, the self-redefining Blur, across a double-page spread for Q, the magazine of which I was, incredibly, the editor, at the beginning of 1997. (By the end of 1997, I would no longer be its editor, by my own hand. It was a self-redefining year for me, too.) This is what I wrote (it seems so long ago, it’s almost of historic interest):

“The weirdest tracks on 1991’s debut album Leisure were Repetition and Sing. Either would sit comfortably on Blur, if they were re-recorded through a sieve first.”

That is accurate, I think. Although no offence to ever-resourceful producer Stephen Street, whose work herein is sympathetic and empowering. I go on to declare opener Beetlebum as “safe”, a “slightly menacing Free As A Bird“. However, here’s where the review, which is typically Q, gets going:

Song 2 is where the going gets tough. A clipped two minutes, it’s fuzzy, it’s DIY, it goes ‘Wee-hoo!’, and the guitar grumbles, straight out of The Fall circa This Nation’s Saving Grace. It is as addictive and heady as any Charmless Man or Sunday Sunday, if considerably less likely to chart.”

So, I was prescient and tuned-in enough in early 1997 to know a key track when I heard it – and I think my phonetic expression of Damon Albarn’s abandoned exclamation (“Wee-hoo”) is close enough – but you’ll have spotted that I was not wily enough to identify Song 2 as Blur’s biggest hit. We didn’t know the lyrics then, either. We do now.

I got my head checked
By a jumbo jet
It wasn’t easy
But nothing is, no
Woo Hoo

The Blur album was a wiping of the Etch-A-Sketch, a bonfire of Britpop’s vanities, a rethink, not to mention a bound manifesto which echoed New Labour’s that year, except in terms of crowd-pleasing. Which is why Song 2 is so glorious. Yes, it foregrounds Graham Coxon’s guitar technique, something he told me as far back as 1994 he was studiously “unlearning”, and replaces the ironic bounce of Country House with something more abrasive and headbanging (“When I feel heavy metal“), and no it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in broad daylight (“I got my head done, when I was young”), but it’s two minutes and one second of maximum joy. You’re invited to think: there was no Song 1.

Woo Hoo

I go back nearly all the way with Blur, and considered them acquaintances at the height of pre-Britpop when Camden was Mecca and my hair was way too long for the scene. I gave Leisure a lukewarm review in the NME and Damon Albarn was still quoting it back at me a decade in pop later. The great coming-together for me and Blur came when Parklife had lift-off and Q, where I’d just touched down, needed these new cover stars explaining. It was my mission and I chose to accept it, sitting down with all four of them and getting their life stories down in definitive fashion, and stowing away at the media-blackout gig they played for their old music teacher at Colchester Sixth Form College with a 17-piece school orchestra. A year later, I sent myself to Paris to present them with their first Q Award. I saw them live a lot, each time a bigger venue, in clubs, in festival tents, on festival stages, at palaces, arenas and stadiums. I watched Damon cry on the Pyramid at Glastonbury ’09.

Oddly, I never think of Blur as one of my favourite bands, but they must be. You might think my long and varied relationship with them as fan and journalist would sift out something a bit more subtle, surprising or obscure from their vast back catalogue of experimental pop than Song 2, the one that broke them in a recalcitrant America and became ubiquitous on videogame and TV episode alike and still resounds around stadia when any number of US sports teams score a home run or touchdown. But no matter which gaudy, commercial, plastic-cup context it finds itself played in, it still sounds like a giant, cosmic safety valve, from which hisses and squeals all of a four-piece band’s pent-up emotion up to that point. Overuse cannot destroy it.

Yeah, yeah

Alex’s bass complains like a toothache, Dave’s drums typically stick-shift between nimble and knuckleheaded, Graham’s lo-fi guitar lets magic in upon light and Damon just Janovs his way out of there, tired of big words.

Yeah, yeah

Imagine if Song 2 was the only remaining trace of Blur after some terrible cataclysm. Archaeologists would get the picture.

Now, for that last second:

Oh yeah

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Cud, Rich And Strange (1992)

Cud-Rich--StrangeSQ

Artist: Cud
Title: Rich And Strange
Description: single; album track, Asquarius
Label: A&M
Release date: 1992
First heard: 1992

Holy Moses, here we go again …

OK, here’s the timeline.

1985 Cud form around various art courses at Leeds Polytechnic
1990 Cud’s second proper album Leggy Mambo, on Imaginary, reaches me at the NME. I love it
16 October 1991 I see Cud live for the first time and meet them afterwards at Manchester International II
27 May 1992 I see Cud for the second time live at Wakefield Rooftop Gardens and sit in for AWOL drummer Steve Godwin for Rich And Strange at the soundcheck (photographic evidence is taken of this momentous occasion)
June 1992 I see Cud live at Glastonbury
July 1992 As features editor of NME, I commission Cud’s first and only NME cover story (but do not write it)
1995 Cud split
2006 Cud re-form
2003-2011 I develop a happy if inaccurate reputation for being the only DJ on 6 Music who plays Cud (although I do play them a lot)
11 November 2012 Cud invite me to sit it on the drums again at Brixton Academy to play Rich And Strange when they support Carter USM and the Neds, this time to an actual audience of fans. It is one of the greatest moments of my life

Now, can I separate my love of this song and this band from my own personal history with both? Yes, is the resounding answer. (And in any case, when was The 143 not personal?) I will state for the record that, as the timeline indicates, I fell for Cud’s crazy, toe-tapping pop-rock music before meeting them as tremendous people. And I’d already identified Rich And Strange as a high watermark of their already prolific canon based on a promo cassette of it, which will have arrived from A&M Records in the NME mailbag in early 1992. They hooked me in with their music, these voluble art-rockers, and then landed me with their personalities. But what is a great band if not the sum of its own members’ personalities? Cud stood out then, and stand out now, because they created their own cool, rather than follow a signposted footpath. In Carl Puttnam, they had a singer who could sing and a frontman who could front, but did neither job as per the standardised job description.

In the more finely-tuned and less accidental third LP Asquarius, with a major label behind them and the marketing and formatting that once came with that pre-digital patronage, Cud skirted briefly with the mainstream, and they had the hooks and the ideas to live there, but they were, and are, a fringe proposition with their comic timing and their awful shirts, and it suits them, as much as the shirts did, or do. That bassist William Potter, the band’s own Boswell and apparent treasurer, is a comic artist, and Puttnam a painter (his daubing forms the sleeve of Rich And Strange), feeds into not just their sleeves but their attitude: pop as art.

Rich And Strange, whose intricately syncopated drum signatures I will now take to my grave, is a tight, bright, almost claustrophobically self-contained glam racket. It creates a kitchen-sink drama in which Puttnam bellows of lonely tigers in a basement and hurtling “flushed and brash” into “some crazy scheme”. In the words of Tom Waits, what’s he building in there? Our protagonist seems to be looking for love (“a kiss is too much”) and wounded by loss (“you must remember when you loved me like a friend”), but remains upbeat (“I’m never fed up”), wearing his self-awareness like a belt buckle: “I’m fat but I know where it’s at.” (If crueler observers ever thought of Carl as “fat” in the early 90s, it just goes to show how goalposts move.) Mike Dunphy’s guitar comes in starbursts during the verse then scales the heights of melodrama come the chorus, while Godwin’s line of duty never falters and Potter’s bass throbs away.

Having learned and played the drums to this song (don’t know if I mentioned it), I can report that it’s never off the splash cymbals, and that may explain the sheer, crashing, underlined joy it exudes. It is deceptively rich, albeit explicitly strange. A rare Top 30 hit during Cud’s commercial purple patch, the charts were a more interesting place with them in them.

Because Cud don’t fit into any movement (at Select, we gamely shoehorned them into what wasn’t called our 1993 Britpop issue, and I rated Puttnam four out of five in a concurrent sidebar rating indie’s frontfolk for “star quality”, stating, “Cud’s affable, frizzy-haired, chest-beating vocal acrobat minted ’70s retro chic and now carries Crimplenist mantle with much elan”), they are oft forgotten when matters epochal are discussed. But these four men lured to Leeds from Essex, Northumberland, Derbyshire and Surrey (all but one still trading as the Cud Band) boot-stomped a significant footnote into history. They’re one of my favourites, hope they’re one of yours.

Billy Bragg, Tank Park Salute (1991)

BillyBraggDon'tTryThisAtHome

Artist: Billy Bragg
Title: Tank Park Salute
Description: album track, Don’t Try This At Home
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book

I have not cried to that many songs in my lifetime. When I have, it’s likely I’ve been sad about something else and the song has induced tears that were already desperate to get out of their ducts. It’s stirring and miraculous that a series of chords and the deft rearrangement of the English language can do this.

I’ve willingly and perhaps even self-indulgently massaged my own doom and gloom downwards with doomy and gloomy music, especially during my difficult teenage years, and I still have a soft spot for melancholy and infinite sadness. Trust by The Cure is as good as on standby on my iPod for when clouds are gathering, the dry leaves are on the move, the darkness is drawing in, or if I just feel like being windswept and interesting on a deserted train platform. (It goes, “I love you more than I can say, why won’t you just believe?”, a chest-beating declamatory cry for help that has not literally applied to where I find myself in life for quite some time and yet it feels so cathartic to have Robert Smith wail it between my ears.)

I once sat in my office at home and put Tank Park Salute on repeat, almost unable to stop listening to it, and it brought me to tears. I can’t quite contextualise it. It was about seven or eight years ago. It guess I might have been feeling my mortality – and it’s definitely a song about mortality – and I had moved outside of London for the first time in my adult life and may have been experiencing a profound sense of disconnect, but I don’t recall any kind of slough of despond. I cried, in a private way, because the song is really, really sad, and moving. And it got me right here.

My relationship with Billy Bragg, as it well documented, began as a remote one, between artist and listener, then became professional when I had found my calling at the NME and we became artist and journalist. But out of that, through turning artist and biographer, we became friends. Man to man. We remain so. However, I have never stopped being a listener. I love the way his delivery has developed over the decades, and I ought to feel hard pressed to select one song to sum up my appreciation of Billy’s 30 years in rock’n’roll, but Tank Park Salute makes it easy. Its position within the brightly colour-coded Don’t Try This At Home, the forced “pop album” intended to shower Billy with chart success and mainstream acceptance (it didn’t), feels more poignant with every listen. Not that the album lacks depth or content among the hooks and breeze; just that the deep, personal near-existential melancholy of this delicate, haunting requiem seems courageously at odds.

It is essentially the point of view of an 18-year-old boy remembering his childhood while dealing with the debilitating illness and death of his father – namely Dennis Bragg, a tank driver in the war, who died of lung cancer in 1976, aged 52. Because Dennis was housebound for almost 18 months after being diagnosed, Billy described the period to me as “being in slow motion”, and hence, one assumes, the references in the lyric to “darkness” at “the top of the stairs” where once Dad had left the light on.

Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way. It’s not a new observation that his voice has matured, and Tank Park Salute was hardly the first time he demonstrated its halting delicacy, but the personal subject matter and the simple arrangement provide the perfect showcase for its emotional range.

It’s a very clever structure, sung to his father from three points in time: he regresses to childhood (“kiss me goodnight, and say my prayers”), then jump-cuts to the funeral (“I accepted the commiserations of all your friends and your relations”), and ends in the present day (“I offer up to you this tribute”), where “photographs of a sunny day” fill the adult narrator with nostalgia for childhood. The three ages of man, if you like (and there’s no doubt that his father’s early passing made the 18-year-old a man).

You don’t have to have lost a parent at an early age to feel the pain. You just need to have a parent, or to have had one. Or, let’s push the boat out, be one. Billy’s compassion lies at the heart of his politics (“socialism of the heart”), so to draw a line in the sand between his protest songs and his personal songs is reductive; blood pumps through them all. There’s some great pop on Don’t Try This At Home, too (You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, North Sea Bubble, Sexuality).

But Bernie was right: sad songs say so much.

Got something in my eye.