The Doors, The End (1967)

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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.

 

 

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Lana Del Rey, Radio (2012)

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Artist: Lana Del Rey
Title: Radio
Description: track, Born To Die
Label: Interscope/Polydor
Release date: 2012
First heard: 2012

Motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin

I still appreciate accredited lyrics and have done since the Smash Hits revolution of my early teens. When a freckly contemporary of Weston Favell Upper School called Stuart Skelton first introduced a copy of the pop mag into the playground, I was slap-bang smitten. This particular issue was dated June 14-27, 1979, which meant the fortnightly glossy publication was not yet six months out of the traps (and nor did I know that among its staff were a handful of young, witty men who would in my future employ me to do what they were already doing). It had Donna Summer on the cover and tantalising promise of the words to Up The Junction, Are ‘Friends’ Electric, Ring My Bell and Masquerade within. To my knowledge, I didn’t miss an issue until the late 80s and only then because I had by then fixed my sights on the inky music press and brooked no argument from Black Type and Bev Hillier.

Within that first year of plighting my troth to Smash Hits it was with deep existential horror that the magazine confessed that the lyrics it had printed to Duchess by the Strangers (a single I’d bought) had been procured by listening with the head pressed against a speaker rather than sourced from the record company. I still distinctly remember the phrase “Dutch of the terrace” when my own ears told me it was “Duchess the terrace.” I’d like to say I never trusted them again. But I did.

We live now in an age of one-click, one-swipe everything. Ironically, this guarantees neither quality nor veracity. You’re as likely to encounter bluffed, phonetic, inaccurate lyrics on a lyric site as verse-chorus poetry directly sent directly down the pipe from a song’s copyright owners. I resent that. If I wanted poorly transcribed lyrics I’d transcribe them poorly myself. Which brings me to Radio by Lana Del Rey and Lana Del Rey in general.

I took a flyer on this cinematic-seeming new artiste in 2012, ignoring the nagging voice in my head that told me I was too old for this type of thing: a willowy young woman with an apparently fake ID and Hollywood-esque backstory – take your pick from a buffet of waitressing, teenage dyspepsia, pseudonyms, Catholicism, the Bronx, a hippy uncle and aunt, a degree in metaphysics – and a fabulously smoky, sneering vocal style. I wasn’t interested in her CV, but I liked her style. The singles – and there were a gluttonous, Thriller-approaching six –  from her second album Born to Die cast their net and I took the shiny bait. Whether she was real or fake, Del Rey’s record felt raw and ambitious and fiercely grown-up behind that varnished Lolita outer shell (“swinging in the backyard/Pull up in your fast car”). And in one track, Radio, she sang so sweetly and melodically about “motherfuckin’ dreams on Ritalin” (hence: not a single). These were word combinations that interested me.

Well, guess what? She wasn’t singing that at all. After closer examination and with no Smash Hits to consult, I became convinced she wasn’t even swearing in that stanza from the song’s knockout chorus. I’m a grown man. I’m not impressed by strong language from the start per se, but I respect the commercial self-harm of building in a bad swear – not least if it discounts putting out a seventh single from an album that only contains 12 tracks. Anyhoo, here’s the apparently definitive couplet, which is only marginally less poetic than my misheard version:

Now my life is sweet like cinnamon
Like a fucking dream I’m living in
Baby love me ’cause I’m playing on the radio

Be honest. It’s the syncopated, rhetorical question, “How do ya like me now?” that tips the chorus into invincibility. Del Rey is a natural wordsmith. She bullseyes again with, “Lick me up and take me like a vitamin,” which is an original come-on, steeped in the modern world of snowflake millennials. Then she’s claiming her body’s “sweet like sugar-venom, oh yeah.” This is beat poetry, man. The blank look of a blank generation she wears on the album’s sleeve sort of dares you to reflect it back. She isn’t going to be the first to blink in a stare-off. She’s a kohl-eyed JFK. She’s a poolside Svengali. Her name’s the name of a bar or a rodeo or a turnpike.

Songwriters are involved throughout the LP, sourced from as far apart as Lincolnshire, Warrington, Palo Alto and New Jersey – not to mention where genial Jim Irvin, former music journalist, editor and frontman of Furniture, hails from in London – but Del Rey’s family surname Grant is a constant. This is her truth, even if it isn’t true.

The arrangement is strewn around gossamer ambience and deep echo, combined with crunching beats, and it’s simultaneously chilly and warm. How do they achieve that? No matter. She sings, “Now I’m in LA and it’s paradise,” and your spider-sense tingles: has this apparently non-fictional character found peace beneath the chlorine? So soon?

I’ve realised that Lana Del Rey is for Christmas as well as for life. How do ya like me now?

 

 

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 …

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.

The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)

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Artist: The Waterboys
Title: The Whole Of The Moon
Description: single; album track, This Is The Sea
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

Unicorns and cannonballs, palaces and piers …

Mike Scott had heard the Big Music, and he’d never be the same. I am loath to be so vague, but I don’t know who introduced me to the Waterboys during my college years. But their sizeable strain of rock moved me in a powerful way in the middle of a decade that was often characterised by scale. Drums went off like cannons in so much 80s music. Brass emphasised that which had already been expressed in foot-high capital letters. Male voices in particular strained hard for operatic grandeur. Producers stretched every overblown gesture to fill the widest screen.

Trumpets, towers and tenements, wide oceans full of tears …

Inadvertently or otherwise, the Waterboys coined the name of their own genre – The Big Music – on their second blood-stirring album, A Pagan Place. In characteristically arse-about-tit style, I got into their third album This Is The Sea first, then their second, then their first. So for me, their music got smaller, as This Is The Sea is the pinnacle of their bid for windswept magnitude. Ironically, they were never as big as their music sounded, and only got big when their music got more intimate. Arguably their signature tune, The Whole Of The Moon only managed number 26 on its first release (“too high, too far, too soon” indeed). Not that I cared as I attempted to apply the rubric of the song’s roof-raising lyric to whichever student relationship was falling apart around me at the time. It’s a pretty compelling device, with the narrator comparing his own feeble efforts at dealing with the complexities of the world around him with the cosmic equivalent of some estimable maiden. To whit: “I pictured a rainbow, you held it in your hands.” And again, “I had flashes, but you saw the plan.” And again, “I saw the crescent, you saw the whole of the moon.” Who wouldn’t insert themselves and their unmanageable partner into this plan? (Or which self-pitying man wouldn’t?)

Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves …

It seems dimwitted to say it, but this is the Big Music writ large. It’s not just session man Chris Whitten’s gloriously elephantine drums, or the heavenward, multi-tracked trumpet of Roddy Lorimer, or Anthony Thistlethwaite’s unapologetic sax, or Karl Wallinger’s synth, which hits a spot somewhere between the fairground and Van Halen, it’s the sentiment. Scott could be delivering this sermon from a mount. It’s not about some of the moon, no more than the album’s title track is about sea. I’m never sure how I feel about literal sound effects in serious songs, but when he testifies, possibly in a biblical hailstorm, “You climbed on a ladder, with the wind in your sails, you came like a comet …” the thundercrack of what we must assume is a comet proves pretty persuasive. (Naturally, as a young, romantically precarious twentysomething, the double entendre of a woman “coming like a comet” was not lost on me.)

Every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars …

And just when you’re getting the hang of this I’m-rubbish-you’re-amazing love declaration (“I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon”), the lyric dovetails into Gandalf’s shopping list. There’s something so fundamentally uncool about those scimitars and scarves, those unicorns and cannonballs (this was decades before Game Of Thrones), you’d have to have a heart of granite not to want to embark on a shopping spree.

It’s hard to think of a riper fruit than The Whole Of The Moon. I might once have argued you have to be in the mood for its overstatement and bombast, but this is a song that takes you by the lapels, orders you a drink and puts you in its mood. This erudite poet of the seas is so knocked out by the completion of the lunar object he gives up and just shouts, “Hey, yeah!” at one juncture. That Scott and fellow travellers put the brakes on after This Is The Sea and decamped to Spiddal to make Irish folk music – entering their “raggle-taggle” phase and lining up with the Hothouse Flowers et al – is a natural wind-down. Where can you fly to next when you’ve been to the whole of the moon on the back of a comet?

I didn’t know what Brigadoon was when I first entered this song in 1985-86 at the urging of someone I’ve misplaced. I subsequently found out and another jigsaw piece slotted into place.

 

The The, Uncertain Smile (1983)

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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.

Happy Mondays, Mad Cyril (1988)

Happymondaysbummedcover

Artist: Happy Mondays
Title: Mad Cyril
Description: album track, Bummed
Label: Factory
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1989

I like that. Turn it up

As a journalist I was locked out of the Happy Mondays love-in somewhat during their Madchester reign in the late 80s and early 90s. Never really in the gang. Right haircut, wrong time. Not from the North like my NME compatriots Stuart Maconie and James Brown, nor an iconoclastic rottweiler like Steven Wells, who was deployed to go in for the kill when the clock struck “knock ’em down”, I remained a fan throughout. By the time I arrived at Select in 1993, where the Mondays were as good as a “house band”, again I found myself in a long queue behind Miranda Sawyer (who had perhaps the closest geographical affiliation of all and yet nobly sought the inconvenient truth for the famous “difficult fourth album” cover story), editor Andrew Harrison, and other embedded feature writers like Andrew Perry. I watched from the sidelines as Shaun Ryder, Bez, Horse, Cow and crew were mingled with and written about in the scallydelic, draw-sucking, lolloping gait of the era.

I finally pulled my numbered ticket from the deli-counter dispenser in 1997, by which time Shaun was the leader of Black Grape, an incarnation way more successful off the blocks than anybody could have hoped. For their underwhelming second album, Stupid, Stupid, Stupid, I got to hang out in a locked municipal park in West London for the photos and back at a hotel posh enough to have Chris Eubank’s tank (registration: “KO 1”) parked up on the kerb outside and to serve mushy peas in a ramekin. We spoke of many things, most memorably his new domestic bliss in southern Ireland with new partner Oriole Leitch, their passionate relationship summed up by a story he related that ended with a Pot Noodle being tipped over “her favourite Buddha” (which sat in the fireplace, “facing the right way and everything”). He was good company and he loved those mushy peas. Now I knew why all of those journalists who’d gone before me since 1987 had been so reluctant to come home.

It is with the luxury of hindsight that we may elevate the magnificent musical output of the Happy Mondays – whose loose-fit gang mentality and garrulous sociability made them so alluring to be around – to the podium. For me, Martin Hannett’s Bummed and Osborne and Oakenfold’s chart-cracking follow-up Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, are among the cornerstone recordings of the glorious, terraces-pacifying “white men dancing” epoch. (It was the Southern fop Danny Kelly who identified Ecstasy’s greatest achievement in the 1990 Granada documentary Celebration: The Sound Of The North as its ability to make white men dance. I was in the background on that, too, while Maconie walked purposefully past me, taking the Lancastrian lead.)

I select Mad Cyril from a number of contenders to marker-flag the Mondays’ apex. They also captured the hooded-top/blue-Rizla zeitgeist with Hallelujah, WFL, Lazyitis, Step On, 24 Hour Party People and Kinky Afro (“Son, I’m thirty, I only went with your mother ’cos she’s dirty”) but if a single four-and-a-half minutes seal in amber what made this Salford Family Stone the greatest rock’n’roll band in Britain for a brief period, it’s the dizzying charge of Mad Cyril, with its taped-off-the-telly dialogue samples, that crashing rhythm from Gary Whelan and those migraine synth bursts from Paul Davis, or possibly sonic overlord Hannett himself (it’s impossible to know who’s responsible for what individual sound in a madhouse Hannett production, usually committed to tape in the early hours).

It’s easy to imagine the Mondays bonging out to Performance on video in some rented room near Whalley Range. Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s fabled meditation on fatal fame and identity theft has it all for the new-lad cinephile stoner: gangsters, nostalgia, cars, violence, Jagger, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Big Audio Dynamite raided it first, for the quickstep E=MC2 in 1985, but there’s plenty of Cockney banter to go round, herein such muffled, isolated gems as the opening mission statement, “We’ve been courteous!”, the definitive, “I need a Bohemian atmosphere,” and the sinister shopping list, “It’s a right pisshole … long hair, beatniks, druggers, freeloaders.”

Amid these Carnaby-Street cinematic conundrums, Ryder does what he always does and does best: testify and swear. Are you ready? Let’s go. “Although our music and our drugs stayed the same,” he reasons, “Although our interests and our music stayed the same, we went together, fuckers from the well, we smoked together and we slipped down in hell.” This beat poetry from the back-bar Bukowski or – according to the late, kingmaking Tony Wilson – the Wine Lodge Yeats, gives vital shape to what is otherwise a near formless barrage of noise.

Subsequent Mondays classics cleave more conventionally to the baggy beat and summon sleaze and summertime from a slower, more sophisticated groove. Their older cousin in the attic plays with madness, a half-cut, Kit-Kat-wrapper cacophony from inside a padded room. And a right old performance. Turn it up.

No longer the big draw, but a hero to most, Shaun Ryder has settled into a self-parodic dotage made thrilling by his very survival and we should salute him. Not all the beatniks, druggers and freeloaders made it.

It was Mad Cyril …