Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land (1944)

WoodyGThisLand67

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This land was made for you and me.

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

Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding (1982)

Shipbuilding

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

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

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

Well I ask you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Dub Foundation, Free Satpal Ram (1998)

ADFRafi'sRevenge

Artist: Asian Dub Foundation
Title: Free Satpal Ram
Description: single; album track, Rafi’s Revenge
Label: FFRR
Release date: 1998
First heard: 1998

Kicking up a fuss because it could happen to us …

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs. I would go further than Edwin Collins in A Girl Like You and say that there are not enough protest singers, either. In Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, he dissected 33 such songs. But the problem with a protest song is that sometimes the protest is more admirable than the song, or vice versa. I have to be in a very forgiving mood to listen to Give Peace A Chance, but its message speaks to me. Likewise The War Song. Conversely, I love Another Brick In The Wall, but I’m note sure protesting against boarding schools is quite as vital as, say, railing against the tactics of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. And so it goes.

Free Satpal Ram is for me the very definition of a classic protest song. Its message is crystal clear and the song is robust, catchy and energising. It’s impossible to hear it and ignore its plea. (Whereas, for instance, David Cameron was able to listen to Eton Rifles and miss the point, or ignore it, entirely.) Whether or not Free Nelson Mandela – a comparably effective union of medium and message – led directly to the freeing of Nelson Mandela is immaterial, and an irrelevant test of the song. You cannot always measure the crackling of social synapses. But Free Satpal Ram was ingrained into the campaign of the same name, and, it being a local issue with national implications, there’s an argument that ADF actually freed Satpal Ram.

Asian Dub Foundation were the band of the moment in the late 90s, perhaps by dint of the very fact that they weren’t really as easily pigeonholed as “a band”. They were, and remain, more of an amorphous collective, their own arts council, an umbrella beneath which creativity and activism can coexist. But in 1998, with the release of their unassailably coherent second album, when even the NME had become re-politicised in the wake of Tony Blair’s first and second betrayals, the hour was theirs. Their ethnicity itself was political as institutionalised racism became a big issue and lessons that ought to have been learned in the riot-torn 80s proved anything but. Indeed, although Satpal Ram is by definition a single-issue song, the lyrics contextualise with the élan of a score-draw.

Birmingham six
Bridgewater four
Crown prosecution, totting up the score
Kings Cross two
Guildford four, Winston Silcott, how many more?

One more. Satpal Ram was arrested in 1986 after an altercation in a Birmingham restaurant after a group of white men abused the staff over the choice of music playing. Ram was attacked with a broken glass by one of the men, whom he stabbed in self-defence with a knife. Ram was convicted of murder and went to prison, despite what was later identified as misinformation from his QC about the self-defence defence, as it were, and the lack of an interpreter in court to translate for Bengali witnesses. But enough of my dry interpretation of the facts.

Out on the town
Thought they had something to prove
Self defence, only offence
Had to protect himself from all the murdering fools

It’s rap, by definition, but this song is firmly in the English folk ballad tradition. It tells a story, it delivers the news.

Cutting remarks on account of his race
A plate to his chest and a glass to his face
An Asian fights back, can’t afford to be meek
With your back against the wall you can’t turn the other cheek

It helps if you sympathise with the plight of the defendant, of course, but listening to this recording – and I can only imagine the visceral, inclusive power of hearing it performed live – might just turn your head. If anger is an energy, it powers this three-minute-44-seconds of righteous fire. It begins, quietly, with what sounds to my untrained ears like an Eastern, Bhangra-style stringed instrument, looped presumably by turntablist Pandit G, although it’s arguably anathema to single out individuals from an autonomous collective. (All songs on the Mercury-nominated Rafi’s Revenge – the title a reference, by the way, to a Bollywood playback singer – are credited to Dr Das, Pandit G, Deeder Zaman, Sanjay Tailor and Steve “Chandrasonic” Savale.) When the thudding, metallic beat kicks in, nirvana is instantly sealed.

There’s a less subtle, even more hobnailed remix by Russell Simmons on disc two of ADF collection Time Freeze, but it seems only fair to induct the original, whose mix is credited to Brendan Lynch and Primal Scream. The protest in the lyric (“Self defence is no offence!”) would be stirring and true enough with an acoustically strummed backing, but beefed up with industrial beats, scratching, dub effects and hardcore electric guitar, the meeting of mind and matter is literally impossible to walk away from. The break at two-minutes-eleven where the sound drops out rebuilds from a rumbling threat through the aforequoted rap, then an echobox frenzy, before hitting full throttle again. The arrangement is masterful and subtle. No blunt instrument, this.

Taking in not just racism, miscarriage of justice, police brutality and direct action, Free Satpal Ram also finds time to have a pop at the Freemasons and the CPS. Better fix up your brain, indeed.

Satpal Ram was released from prison in June 2002 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling.

The Clash, Groovy Times (1979)

ClashCostofLivingEP

Artist: The Clash
Title: Groovy Times
Description: Track, The Cost Of Living EP
Label: CBS
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

NEW
EXTRA POWER
INTENSIFIED
WAKING UP THE DEAD

I don’t mind being quoted when I cite The Clash as “Britain’s greatest ever rock’n’roll group”. For me, they are. On points, they even see off The Smiths; and their finite output of five studio albums* over six productive, metamorphosing years out-toughs any historic claim by the Rolling Stones. (When, on their B-side to White Riot, they declare, “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones … in 1977”, lines are drawn and battle comes down.) How much do I like The Clash? I can even put up with Sides 5 and 6 of Sandinista!

As established elsewhere, I was too young for punk’s year zero, but this just made the whole scene all the more attractive to me while I fumbled my pubescent way towards its heart of darkness in 1979, making healthy mistakes along the way. I was fascinated by the Clash – their clothes, their songtitles, the stencils, the picture sleeves of their singles. I remember seeing the cover of English Civil War reprinted in Smash Hits, with its still from Animal Farm, and wondering what it sounded like. In May of that year, I took the plunge, purchasing The Cost Of Living EP, figuring it was good pocket money value at four tracks. Although I Fought The Law dominated, I was quickly indoctrinated by the other three songs, originals, which were like no other band I’d heard before.

To this day, I still rate the urgent, “Hello, Cleveland” stomp of Gates Of The West and the expansive, London-centrically exotic Capital Radio (officially Capital Radio Two, as it was a re-recording, although I wasn’t to know at 14) over more iconic Clash sides like Guns Of Brixton, Clash City Rockers, even (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. They were always a sharp singles outfit, but there was something secret about these B-sides, in particular Groovy Times.

There’s content in all of Joe Strummer’s lyrics. But this one beguiled me at first listen. Its “see-through shields”, the dead that had to be picked up “out of the broken glass”, and those lorries bringing “the bacon in” – what vivid dystopian scenes he wove. Who was “the nervous triggerman”? Was he the same man as the “king of early-evening ITV”? (I’ve read since that the latter was Bill Grundy.) And what happens when they put you in “a dog suit” (those words almost barked by a hoarse but in-character Strummer), “like from 1964”? When we learn that “the housewives are all singing”, we feel a sneer against conformity and control. Even the Biblical prediction that these Groovy Times “have come to pass … forever more”, sends shivers down the spine.

As a hardened, cynical, better-read adult I can see my way through the imagery – poetic, questioning, reactionary, blackly comic – but it’s the melodic sweetness of the backing vocals, the rather nifty, treated mouth organ (credited to “Bob Jones” ie. Mick), and the Mamas & The Papas-like chant of the chorus, not to mention the acoustically picked solo, that add a discordant lightness to the dark. It’s odd to pick out such a little-known song to represent the entire output of such a magnificent, hitmaking band, but there’s not much that’s unique about The Clash that isn’t in Groovy Times. For one, I can’t think of a more definitive Strummer vocal performance (“Hey, Groovy!”), those words spat out with such righteous fury and agitated saliva. And Topper Headon is all over that kit, with inventive fills a-go-go. This is not a song, and thus not a band, afraid of sounding palatable. (“Have you seen these charts?” whoops Strummer on Capital Radio.)

The Clash felt dangerous to me in 1979. Theirs was strong meat. While I was comfortable calling in the whole of the Undertones’ catalogue, and that of 999, I never felt fully qualified – perhaps politically? – to allow The Clash into my young life. My friend Craig had London Calling, so I had no need to invest. I purchased it years later on CD, although by then I’d picked up a vinyl copy of Sandinista! at a record fair and weighed it lovingly in my hands, more than ready to go around the world with a band who’d so comprehensively broken out of punk. My appreciation of what they did has strengthened with the years.

I entered discussions with Virgin about writing another music biography after Billy Bragg’s and we put some thoughts together about a definitive tome on The Clash. But I didn’t have the history with them and though my heart was in it, my boots weren’t.

An unplanned meeting during my NME years with Mick Jones in Hamburg was regrettable (he had some beef with the paper that was nothing to do with me but he treated me with a sneer nonetheless.) More fruitfully, I met Strummer in 1999 for Q magazine and he did not disappoint. Proclaiming his insomniac love for the defunct Collins & Maconie’s Movie Club (we were the kings of early-morning ITV!), teasing the security guards at the corporate office where we met with a block of hash and threatening to set off the sprinklers by lighting a roll-up, he insisted we repair to the nearby Irish pub for our chat, where we threw out the plan of him answering readers’ questions and instead jawed about Burma. (He took away the questions so that he could answer them properly, and, true to his word, sent them back to us by post.) He was a year younger then than I am now, but boy did he look good. When he came to pass in 2002, I was so stunned that morning I went into 6 Music just to sit in the same room as Gideon Coe, a bigger Clash fan than I.

A reader from Oslo asked: “Are you still as cool as your photo?”
Strummer replied: “No-one is.”

I had a title for the Clash book I never wrote: The Housewives Are All Singing.

* I don’t include Cut The Crap. Who does?

Gang Of Four, 5.45 (1979)

Entertainment!

Artist: Gang Of Four
Title: 5.45
Description: album track, Entertainment!
Label: EMI
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1980

Libraries gave me power.

I suspect I first heard this song in 1980, and not in its year of release, as I know for a fact that I borrowed it from Northampton Record Library, an Aladdin’s cave for audiophiles I first tapped into around this time, and which granted me access to a whole range of exciting vinyl long-players, which I hungrily and methodically borrowed from this glorious, state-run, municipal resource: XTC’s Drums & Wires, In The Flat Field by Bauhaus, the Psychedelic Furs’ eponymous debut, The Crack by the Ruts, so many thrilling new wave platters, each one stamped out at a desk, just like a book, except with records, you took the disc out of the sleeve and compared its scuffs and scratches to a card wherein any such imperfections and blemishes would be logged in biro. (A bit like the illustration of a rental van with the scratches drawn in – although I couldn’t have known this at 15.)

Through this route did I come upon Entertainment!, whose most-likely-to single, At Home He’s A Tourist, had crossed my radar via its lyrics in Smash Hits the year previously, but which – as is now legend – had been denied its Top Of The Pops shot because the band refused to amend the lyric about “the rubbers you find” and had thus failed to breach the Top 40. Never mind. Gang Of Four were a band designed to exist outside of the mainstream. I might not have fully understood their Situationist influences or Marxist politics at 15, but I sure liked the idea of what they were saying about consumerism and war and whatever linked guns to butter.

And I sure loved the way they were saying it, with their minimalist arrangements, atonal duets and all that white space which ran through their white funk. Having been intoxicated at the right age by the guttural, inclement fury of punk rock, it was head-turning indeed to hear the elements in Gang Of Four’s sound so clearly separated and slotted back together: the twanging bass, the precise drums, the sparing guitar, and of course, Jon King and Andy Gill’s arresting vocal symbiosis, perhaps never bettered than on Ether, in which King croons about digging “at the root of the problem” and “father’s contradictions” and Gill simultaneously barks out “H-block! Long Kesh!”

Entertainment! turned out to be my favourite album of all time. I loved it in 1980 when I taped it and played the cassette until the magnetic coating was worn off. I loved it again in the mid-80s when, as a student, I finally purchased the LP I’d previously been loaned by the public sector. And I loved it all over again on CD soon after. It literally never fails to excite me. I never saw Gang Of Four the first time around (and have never seen them in revived form), so the music’s hold on me is purely aural. And intellectual and political, obviously. And I think the reason that 5.45 always rises to the top is that it rose to the top 33 years ago. And lodged there.

It may not have the urgency of Damaged Goods, nor the squalling audacity of Anthrax, nor the sensual throb of Tourist, but 5.45 has a simplicity and directness that’s almost a capella. And it has a melodica; perhaps the most effective and beautiful use of that remedial wind instrument in all of post-punk. Of course it begins – as so many of my favourite songs do – with a bare drum beat, typically unshowy and literal from Hugo Burnham, and easy for an aspiring teenage drummer to copy with two rulers on a stool, as I diligently did. Then that polite, wheezy melodica from King. And when Dave Allen’s bass grumbles in, the shooting match begins.

King wonders aloud, “How can I sit and eat my tea with all that blood flowing from the television?” Even as a kid, I understood this. I was not one for the news at that age, but mainly because it all looked so grey and severe at the end of the 70s. When King paints pictures of dead men lying “flat on their backs” (echoing the “beetle on its back” from Anthrax), assassination “down on the street”, and a “blood war” on a “bourgeois state”, it’s no leap to the footage of “guerilla war struggle” that will have filtered into my brain in that decade from unknown zones in Argentina, Nicaragua, Brazil and Guatemala and, closer to home, Northern Ireland (whose troubles were more specifically addressed in Ether). This was vivid stuff. And he said “eat my tea.”

Repetition is a weapon in the Gang Of Four’s best work – honestly, it’s like The Teletubbies, except with Sandinistas – and so it proves with the mantra, “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is a new personality.” King and Gill sound like they cannot stop singing this until a ceasefire is called, at which we can all get back to the fried egg we have for our “tea”. And it’s called 5.45 – “quarter to six” – could it be any clearer if it was titled After Noah & Nelly?

I wrote recently about how literate pop music was in the 70s and 80s. Gang Of Four may have not quite made it into the charts, but their debut LP did much to rouse me from my apolitical slumber, aged 14 going on 15. Let’s not post-rationalise; it did not “politicise” me on the spot (I wouldn’t become a Neo-Marxist until I’d left school), but from Entertainment!‘s attention-demanding sleeve, with its “red” Indian and its “white” cowboy shaking hands (“He is glad the Indian is fooled – now he can exploit him”), to the unequivocal chants of “H-Block torture!”, it provided a running buffet of food for thought.

I shall remain forever grateful to Gill, King, Allen and Burnham for the factory reset they gifted me. (And I owe a lifelong debt to Northampton Library and its recordings wing, the sort of place the new government in 1979 would have considered surplus to requirements – glad those days are behind us, right?)

The Smiths, Rusholme Ruffians (1985)

Meatismurder

Artist: The Smiths
Title: Rusholme Ruffians
Description: album track, Meat Is Murder
Label: WEA
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.”

What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.
That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

I wrote those opening paragraphs for an assessment of the Smiths’ second studio album Meat Is Murder for a special Q supplement about ten years ago. The album, my abiding favourite, was released on Valentine’s Day in 1985; on that day, the Smiths were aged 23, 21, 20 and 21, Morrissey the eldest. Having left school in 1976 to sign on, he was getting on a bit, but the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to many of those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of incorrectly saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It’s no slight to call the Smiths a student band. For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s draughty, Soviet-style halls of residence and rented rooms in equivalents of Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of something called “top-up fees”, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. (That’s all gone now, of course. I will forever give thanks that this band released an album for each of my four years in higher education.)

The Meat Is Murder tour would take them from university gigs into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens (I saw them for the first and only time at Brixton Academy, one of the best gigs I ever experienced). The LP and tour scored a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency: vegetarianism; republicanism; activism (Moz had attended an anti-Abortion Act march in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration”); pacifism (the Vietnam-themed cover); even an opener decrying the education system. But within it, run on a skiffle theme, is what remains for me the Smiths’ finest hour: the gloriously alliterative Rusholme Ruffians. (I had never heard of Rusholme; a band educating me there from the Top 40, a theme I often warm to.) As a keen student of Moz’s lyrics, which are closer to poetry than even Dylan’s in my opinion, I never tire of reciting these:

Last night of the fair
By the big wheel generator
A boy is stabbed
And his money is grabbed
And the air hangs heavy like a dulling wine

It’s one of the few songs I can confidently sing from one end to the other without pause, deviation or hesitation. It’s not to in any way discount the unique contribution of Marr, Rourke and Joyce, who combine like stars in a constellation to create the most breathtaking, head-spinning whizz round that fair, from whirling waltzer and the top of the parachutes to the lonely walk home, but Ruffians is Morrissey’s ultimate triumph: descriptive, evocative, fast, funny, fleet of foot and ripe with imagery (“dulling wine”, “the grease in the hair”, “a tremulous heart”, the name scratched on a arm “with a fountain pen”). Alan Bennett couldn’t have set the scene any more eloquently or viscerally.

As with the rest of the perfectly ordered album – and I even like the title track, that’s how much I like it, give me a fountain pen and I’ll roll up my sleeve and prove it – it’s crunchily produced, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums). On the whole, it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. You will have you own favourite track. But I have mine.

It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

Wu-Tang Clan, Let My N****s Live (2000)

TheW

Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Title: Let My Niggas Live
Description: album track, The W
Label: Loud/Columbia
Release date: 2000
First heard: 2000

OK, let’s get this done. While I recognise and laud the pioneering importance of Public Enemy and could listen to them any day of the week, and appreciate the ways in which Dr Dre, Kanye West and Jay-Z progressed the narrative of hip-hop, if forced to choose, I would have to name the Wu-Tang Clan as my all-time favourite rap group. Sometimes I think they are my favourite group, full stop. I have time for all five of their albums, including the later ones, which I realise makes me way too forgiving, but the self-proclaimed “Beatles of hip-hop” never fail to ignite my imagination and worry my feet. Like all the best white rap fans, I shamefully forgive them indiscretions I would not forgive a non-black artist. Sometimes great art comes from difficult places. Sometimes the struggle manifests itself in ways that are not totally palatable.

I wholeheartedly salute Danny Kelly for turning me onto the Wu-Tang Clan in the mid-90s when he was my boss at Q magazine. So enamoured was he by their martial-arts stylings and cinematic sample beds, I checked them out in turn and found treasures untold in their 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which seemed to have no peers. (It’s since been stamped as a “landmark”, its influence felt everywhere.)

Sampling soul, funk, jazz and dubbed dialogue from Kung Fu movies, the Wu-Tang sound remains fairly constant across their recorded output (and of course spills into the innumerable solo spin-offs, some great, some not so great), but this magnificent track, from Millennial third album The W, continues to sum up what makes, or made, them masters of the universe. I’d been drawn into the fold by Bring Da Ruckus, C.R.E.A.M., Protect Ya Neck and – from the too-sprawling double Wu-Tang ForeverBells Of War, but I still unfashionably hold The W from “the year Two-G” above both predecessors, as there’s not a duff track on it. From such august company as Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)/Chamber Music, Careful (Click, Click) and their only Top 40 hit in the UK, Gravel Pit, rises Let My Niggas Live, featuring Nas.

I enjoy unearthing the obscure samples in hip-hop and dance records, and cursory research tells me that the arresting opening dialogue comes from the 1977 prison movie Short Eyes (“Someday I’m gon’ be walking down the street, minding my own business, and BANG!, I’m gon’ be shot by some pig who’s gon’ swear it was a mistake”), and that the track itself is constructed around a riff from Roy Budd’s soundtrack to Diamonds, a 1975 heist thriller with Richard Roundtree. Little wonder, then, that it has a grimy 70s New York state-of-mind feel. If you seek out the two-minute, jazzy Budd cue (The Thief) you’ll find that it’s been slowed right down, hence the low-riding boom of the bass, like a ship’s horn.

Over a typically blunt-languid, RZA-laid, tambourine-rattling beat, the Chef Raekwon, Inspectah Deck and guest star Nas respond in verse to a repeated chorus that’s so simple you can actually learn it (as I have done, for singing along to when I’m in the car alone) and an insistent chant of “Let my niggas live”. You will want to let them live by the end of it. Strange that a track of theirs that does not feature Method Man on vocals should lodge itself in my pantheon, as his drooling baritone is my favourite among the tag-team rapping, followed by Ghostface Killah’s. But I think it’s the vocal rhythm that grabs me.

Let my niggas live
We show and prove, get paper, catch me in the caper on ’shrooms yo
Let my niggas live
We real niggas that’s God-body, challenge anything, make major moves
Let my niggas live
We giants, live off the land lions, post with iron, no pryin’ rules
Let my niggas live
Let my niggas live
Handle your bid and kill no kids

I love the strict morality of the code: kill no kids. As ever with the densest of rap lyrics, it’s a mining job to glean the full meaning. But what fun to have a crack at it. There’s braggadocio here – of course there is, they’re a clan, they’re a crew, they’re Staten Island, they’re Shaolin, they’re devout Five Percenters, they have something to prove – but it’s backed by philosophy and religion. There’s violence here (Glocks that are “spittin'”, Barettas “poppin'” and “slugs in the wall”), as there is violence in their early lives (“the streets raised us … I obey hood laws”) and in their lives as stars, what with all those rap feuds and everything, but for me, it does not rule their oeuvre. There is sexual aggression too (“pee on bitches that famous”), which I can’t in all honesty condone, other that to say it’s part of their worldview and you either take it or leave it. I take it as part of the semi-fiction that they have built around them: a show. They use words I would never use. They are not me. I am not them. Also, many religions, for all I know including the Islamic-based Nation of Gods and Earths, theirs, enshrine patriarchy. Such problems run deep.

Let My Niggas Live – and I don’t believe I’ve ever typed “that word” so many times in the space of one hour, I certainly wouldn’t say the title out loud – lacks the impish humour for which I also hold the Clan dear, but its “rigorous moves” glower, rumble and stalk to create a soundtrack to a film about a world I do not know, and that, I guess, is the allure.

Oh, and if you’re listening on CD there’s a brief “skit” at the end of it that heralds the next track, the grief-driven I Can’t Go To Sleep. Never could get into the skits, but they come with the territory.