My Bloody Valentine, Soon (1990)

MBVGlider

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Title: Soon
Description: EP track, Glider; album track, Loveless
Label: Creation
Release date: 1990; 1991
First heard: 1990

In the 1970s, Queen would guarantee by way of a recurring sleeve note that “no synthesisers were used” in the making of their records. I always read this as a snotty form of dinosaurial purism. But Kevin Shields, the big brain and dextrous fingers of My Bloody Valentine, might have revived the very same badge of honour in the 1980s and 90s. For he, too, was proud to have created his band’s distinct sound using guitars, played live. Except with a spot of glissando.

My Bloody Valentine were just two Irishmen and two English women who walked into a bar and made some noise, and yet they were legend. The story of the band’s diffident second album Loveless is a fable well told, the hard facts of its recording as distorted as the sounds heard within it. How much it actually cost – beyond the band’s future patronage at Creation – becomes less relevant with every passing year. As with Brian May’s, time cannot wither My Bloody Valentine’s sound, because it emerged from places unidentified between the plectrum and the magnetic tape that enshrined it, and as such has never faded from vitality and relevance.

If Loveless reminds us of that awkward transition from the 80s into the 90s – and it was recorded as one decade metamorphosed into the other – it is little more than bald historical statute: that is when we first heard it. But if Soon encapsulates its era with that nod to what we used to call “indie-dance” – MBV’s own fuzzy mutation of the shuffle beat, buried deep in the miasma – there endeth its bondage to fashion.

I interviewed the whole band on the eve of release of Loveless for an NME cover story in their manager’s front room in Streatham. As a devotee of their squall since Isn’t Anything I was proud to do so, even if the on-paper results were tongue-tied and sensation-free. (It was just around the corner from where I lived at the time, which was handy.) This is a band whose music speaks for itself; at least, it speaks with more clarity than the mere mortals who make it. But let us lose ourselves in these seven minutes of mystery and see what comes out in the wash.

“The vaguest music ever to get into the charts,” according to a lecture given by Professor Brian Eno at the New York Museum Of Modern Art in 1990, Soon is the track most like and yet most unlike My Bloody Valentine at that particular equinox, a band whose kind of magic seemed unbottleable then.

You should listen to Soon in the context of Loveless. (It was previously chucked out on the Glider EP in April 1990 to appease a panicked Alan McGee as far as I can tell, while its parents shuttled like refugees between 18 studios around London until the autumn of 1991). It begins with the end: the dying, eddying embers of previous track What You Want.

Like everything My Bloody Valentine did from one end of Loveless to the other (and Soon lies at the other end), it sounds as if it were hewn from interference insomnia and something gaseous. “That” drum pattern, unlike its equivalent on a record by, say, the Mock Turtles or the Milltown Brothers, seems to work against the rest of the song rather than with it. It emerges from a near-militaristic snare doodle that may in fact have been affected by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig using sticks on a skin and then sampled and looped into the mix by Shield. (Ó Cíosóig only plays live on two tracks, which is two more than bassist Deb Googe and guitarist Bilinda Butcher.)

I won’t tie myself up in knots locating each instrument in this sonic equivalent of one of those pantomimic equations scrawled madly across a huge blackboard in films about genius. If in doubt, it’s a guitar, treated at the point of purchase using the tremelo arm of fable, then treated again a bit afterwards using some supernatural combination of pre-amp equalisers, whatever they may be. But the real treat is for our ears. To understand precisely how Shields did it would be to let light in upon magic. And there’s light here in abundance: bright, blinding, infinite, and liable to leave an imprint.

It’s not an unconventional song. It has a beat, an intro, singing, riffs. In the first sequence, a spellbinding repeat pattern throbs with ecstasy and wine, and we’re in good, happy company. And then, at 44 seconds, where there was harmony, Shields brings the first note of discord. Out of this comes Bilinda Butcher’s indistinct, woozy dream-state vocal – her lovely singing voice always a fourth “instrument” in Shields’ vision – and a narcotic state of grace is achieved. Verse? Chorus? Both and neither. Do not let the funky beat confuse you. This is a night at the opera.

I almost chose To Here Knows When as the ultimate My Bloody Valentine track – this album’s fourth: in essence the sound of an analgesic working on a headache for five minutes and 31 beautiful seconds – or the dolphin call of I Only Said, which never fails to alleviate symptoms of angst with its afternoon’s delights. In many ways, you could argue for the 49-minute entirety of Loveless as My Bloody Valentine’s greatest song. But Soon puts a tin hat on the record, unafraid of shape and form, a battler after mainstream acceptance. Shields and MBV always operated outside the tent, pitching in, and never bestrode the world like Queen. Too vaporous to handle. Too shrouded in mystery. Too much. Too Jung. But their place in history is now assured. The comeback and the third album in 2013 proved that they can still do whatever it is that they did.

Soon fades for about 20 seconds. But instead of knobs being turned, it is the sound of an idea being dissembled. It will rock you.

James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.

XTC, Making Plans For Nigel (1979)

XTCMakingPlansForNigel

Artist: XTC
Title: Making Plans For Nigel
Description: single; album track, Drums and Wires
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Not yet proficient, I was nonetheless convinced around the turn of the decade that drums were my instrument. The components of rhythm caught my ear in the music I listened to and seeing a drummer hunched over a kit caught my eye. Although the desire to mime playing the guitar is instinctive to all of us, learning notes and chords never really had any pull for me.

Whereas hitting things …

I vividly recall seeing a documentary about XTC in the studio around this time: four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry. I was instantly taken by Terry – Terry Chambers – whose inventive proficiency was mesmerising at a time when I had only the vaguest idea of how a drum kit might be assembled around a drummer. I guessed that the band must have been laying down their Black Sea album in the summer of 1980, which was mostly achieved in London’s Townhouse Studios, which had the famous “stone room” for an exceptional live drum sound. (I’ve since discovered that the film was XTC at the Manor, shown on BBC2 in October 1980, in which the band decamp to the Manor in Oxfordshire to record Towers of London. It’s on YouTube. “The drum sound I like, on a record, tends to be in a very ‘live’ area,” explains 25-year-old producer Steve Lillywhite. “The actual sound is more bright and lively.”)

I was already a fan of the band from Top Of The Pops, but had only belatedly taken their previous LP Drums and Wires out of the Northampton record library, and taped it. The connection I’d formed with the bright and lively Chambers gave me extra purchase with their sound. And if ever a pop song is beat-driven, it’s Colin Moulding’s Making Plans For Nigel.

It opens the album with that mighty Chambers rhythm, treated by Steve Lilywhite to give it a space-age resonance as it rumbles almost musically around the available space from the floor tom through the mounted toms, a luxuriously sucked hi-hat attracting attention away from the featherlight snare. It’s BIG without being caps-lock. In my imagination it goes unaccompanied on forever before Dave Gregory’s sci-fi guitar and Moulding’s underfloor bass come in, but in reality it’s only a bar. Such is the impression it makes.

The single came in a limited-edition board-game sleeve, which I never owned, and neither did anyone I know. I found one, already sold, on eBay, but there’s no photo of it unfolded. It adds to the myth of a single that was much more inventive and content-led than most New Wave of that time, its arrangement spare and meticulous, the punctuating canine yelp “Oh-woo” adding abandon to the social comment and the ker-ash! of Chambers’ cymbals close to the sound of breaking glass, which I love. It speaks of jobs for life, the dying days of British industry, the allure of conformism, and parental control. Nigel, so acutely named for that era, is “not outspoken”, but he “loves to speak and he loves to be spoken to.” He is ordinary, he is normal, he is no agitator or subversive, and yet, as his Mum and Dad coo over the fact that “if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy in his world,” we suspect the worst. (The Undertones would subsequently create their own Nigels – Jimmy, Terry, Kevin – achieving similar pathos through Beano comedy.)

But we never hear from Nigel. We have no idea what goes on in his world (a line bent into a tragic lament by Andy Partridge, and curved away in cold echo by Lilywhite). Steeped in studio drama, Nigel is a song in the saddest key of life, a Play For Today in which the titular character has no lines. Does he have “a future in British Steel”? Does British Steel have a future in British Steel? This is pop to turn over in your brain long after the needle’s come off the record. Life may begin at the hop, but it ends in a future that’s as good as sealed.

The other songs on Drums and Wires are much more choppy and perverse and staccato. I liked them, but I was truly moved by Nigel and didn’t feel that way again until the end of Side Two, and another epic studio sweep, the closer Complicated Game. Its infinite echo chamber finds Partridge tearing his heart out and raging against the dying of the light (“I said, God, it really doesn’t matter where you put your world/Someone else will come along and move it/And it’s always been the same/It’s just a complicated game”). Because of the fabled sleeve of Nigel, I linked the two bookends together, Nigel’s parents’ “helping hand” perhaps touching fingertips with Partridge’s powerless God in mockery of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. In the creation of Nigel, the complicated game was life, the universe and everything. Not bad for four young blokes in shirts from Swindon called Andy, Colin, Dave and Terry playing guitars, drums and wires on the Goldhawk Road.

Following Partridge’s dramatic breakdown and the band’s withdrawal from touring (which saw the gig-hungry Chambers bail out), the studio-only XTC found sanctification by connoisseurs of intelligent, pastoral pop and English folkedelia. Gravitas was theirs. I can’t claim to have kept up with their every move, but enjoyed Oranges and Lemons at the end of the decade which incidentally saw British Steel privatised, and wished them well. The compilation Fossil Fuel in 1996 cemented my appreciation, although it was hearing Nigel again that made me happiest in my work.

I was assembling and hitting my own secondhand drum kit by 1981, but never as elegantly as Terry did.

Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix), 1987

Eric B & Rakim Paid In Full (4th & Broadway) 1987

Artist: Eric B & Rakim
Title: Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness – The Coldcut Remix)
Description: single
Label: 4th & B’way
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987

This is a journey into sound …

Christmas, 2005. Amid the more expected and doable selections on the first Pop edition of the karaoke videogame SingStarLove Machine by Girls Aloud, It’s Not Unusual by Tom Jones, Let Me Entertain You by Robbie Williams – sits Paid In Full by Eric B & Rakim, unloved and literally unsung. In a doomed attempt to gain some middle-aged cred with the kids at a seasonal family gathering when the PS2 was warmed up, I selected it and sang, or rapped, along with what will always be one of my most beloved and best known hip-hop tracks, right to the bitter end. In my own mind, in that magic moment, or moments, I was Rakim, thinking of a masterplan with nothing but sweat inside my hand.

Rapping along with rappers ain’t easy. But we all do it, don’t we? And by “we” I mean we who find the rhythm and metre of predominantly black American men slotting idioms and street argot into beat-poetic couplets as if off the tops of their heads but usually read and memorised like any other lyric utterly intoxicating. It’s a fool’s errand. The best raps cannot be reproduced, even by another rapper. Like poetry and jazz – and it is like both – hip-hop is not a karaoke form.

Those lyrics oozed by the artist formerly known as William Michael Griffin Jr. before he joined the Nation Of Gods and Men and was reborn as Rakim Allah were actually not that complex during he and Eric Barrier’s first flush of dual-control genius. The Long Island rhymer leans on childlike constructions and throughout his and Eric B’s curricular first and second albums Paid In Full and Follow The Leader, he sidesteps cuss words, lewd allusions and armed threat. (On the second LP’S rampantly self-descriptive Lyrics Of Fury, he warns of being “rated R”, but this refers to his name and certainly not to scenes of a sexual nature; even when calls himself an “MC-murderer … servin’ a death wish,” he’s talking about, well, talking.) Rolling Stone noted his “novelist’s eye for detail.”

The first Eric B & Rakim tune to which I bore awestruck witness was the definitively James Brown-indebted I Know You Got Soul during my late-80s studio-flat exile when I taped almost everything off John Peel and Tackhead would hand-segue on the same TDK cassette into the Pastels then the Very Things then Scott La Rock then The Wedding Present. A golden age of enlightenment for the mind-broadening constituency. I feel certain I paid for the hundred-dollar 12-inch Paid In Full on an educated whim. Even if I had heard the album version, Coldcut’s Seven Minutes Of Madness remix was a ticket to another world. A journey into sound, indeed.

Eric B and Rakim are, one gathers, divided on the merits of the remix, but it was a club and chart hit, and for many defines the song. It showcases not just the innate, unforced chemistry of B and Rakim, but the knob-twiddling intuition of our very own desk jockeys Matt Black and Jonathan Moore (whose incredible work with The Fall on Telephone Thing gave focus to the first ever NME cover story I was commissioned to write in 1990 but that’s another tale).

New colour, new dimensions, new values …

That unerring sampled beat thunks and hissssssses from the Soul Searchers’ Ashley’s Roachclip. You should seek out the original online – but you have to listen about three and a half minutes in before you hear the clean break that supplied it, and that’s an example of the sixth sense of sublime sampling, a facet of musical arrangement every bit as legitimate as writing or creating a rhythm or riff of your own when it’s done this well. Meanwhile a dismembered bongo rattles around in the loop, not to mention that tiny bit of mid-70s flute also mined from Ashley’s Roachclip. However, these are but entrées to the main course: the inspired combination of the swaggering bass from Dennis Edwards’ Don’t Look Any Further and Ofra Haza’s aromatic Yemenite aria Im Nin’alu. Other ephemeral delights flit in and out of Coldcut’s cut – Humphrey Bogart, a JB count-in – but what I particularly love is the cheeky way they transplant in bits of I Know You Got Soul, notably the instruction “pump up the volume”, which mere months later led off another pioneering act of British plunderphonia from M|A|R|R|S. There was a lot of transatlantic grooveshare going on during this period of detente and all benefited.)

A lot of great hip-hop is about the infrastructure, but without that beat poetry, it’s simply world-class mechanics. In these verses is the skilled communication of Rakim confirmed.

Search for a nine to five, if I strive
Then maybe I’ll stay alive
So I walk up the street whistlin’ this
Feelin’ out of place ’cuz, man, do I miss

A pen and a paper, a stereo, a tape of
Me and Eric B, and a nice big plate of
Fish, which is my favorite dish
But without no money it’s still a wish …

A nice big plate of fish, which is my favourite dish? He’s the Edward Lear of hip-hop. At the end of these seven minutes of madness – which evolve through as many movements as a classical symphony and whose introduction of new colours and new dimensions is, ironically, as controlled as the safe landing of a 747 – you’re left with the frankly endearing image from the five-minute mark of Eric B and Rakim agreeing to go back to their respective girlfriends to beg forgiveness for working such long hours.

You go to your girl house and I’ll go to mine
’Cause my girl is definitely mad
’Cause it took us too long to do this album

And they outta here. As were the kids I tried to impress at the Christmas family gathering with my mad verbal skills. They wanted Blink-182 putting back on.

The Waterboys, The Whole Of The Moon (1985)

WaterboysThisIs

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.

 

Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978)

BlondieHOGChrys

Artist: Blondie
Title: Heart Of Glass
Description: single; album track, Parallel Lines
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass …

The plain paper sleeve with the record company logo doesn’t quite do justice to the delights contained therein. But this was 1978, which was just before punk in Northampton, and the picture sleeve revolution was still in its pupal stage. (Although punk “exploded” in 1976 in London after the Sex Pistols swore on a local news magazine programme, and thereafter in other major cities that were plugged into the zeitgeist, it didn’t arrive in the provinces until two years later, and I didn’t latch onto it until 1979.)

When Heart Of Glass – underwhelmingly the third single from Blondie’s third album – was purchased “for the house” in 1978, I must have been aware that it was a cool record by a cool band with a cool singer, but how it slotted into “punk” was probably too nuanced for my 13-year-old brain. That it was essentially a disco record (working-titled The Disco Song when first demoed in 1975) didn’t seem that important to my young ears, suddenly pricked on a regular basis by so many noises coming out of the radio in Mum and Dad’s “music centre”, whose built-in space-age cassette deck was pressed into service every Sunday in order to cherry-pick the Top 40. The essentially American schism between rock and disco held no sway at 6, Winsford Way.

Blondie were quite the package, whose sex appeal to a 13-year-old slotted in with Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Legs & Co. It is with infinite sadness that I accept that 13 year-olds today are already mainlining hardcore porn; for my generation, a lot more was left to the imagination, and Debbie Harry’s come-hither eyes, forces’-sweetheart looks and diaphanous dresses were the height of confused arousal. The blokes in their black suits and skinny ties looked aspirational, too, with their New York states of mind, and the sleeve of Parallel Lines was something you had to own. (I didn’t own it – we hadn’t really moved into LP ownership at that age – but you always knew someone who did.) They were a supreme singles band. But Heart Of Glass shines harder for many reasons.

One of the reasons is Clem Burke. I have retrospectively learned to appreciate the sheer craft of this most imaginative of timekeepers – able to twirl his sticks and keep the beat, but capable of what are disparagingly called “fills” that light up the room. Listen to Heart Of Glass through to its protacted fade and you will hear variation upon variation rattled out across snare and tom toms in a way that mocks the metronome of dance music. (He is said to have disapproved of the song initially.)

In the hands of hitmaking producer Mike Chapman, who’d co-authored so much dazzling British glam with Nicky Chinn, the whole of the stompy, poppy, bubblegummy Parallel Lines lifts off, but examine the way he runs Blondie’s brash new wave through a car wash and wax: a bubbling Roland CR-78 backbeat that ought to have been anathema to the CBGB gang paves the way for the intro, for which the individual components are neatly arranged in perspective. The smell of repetition really is on them. Bass, guitar, that Moroder-like pulsing synth, Burke’s whooshing hi-hat, the whole thing pre-programmed to shift key but in hybridising the synthesised and the organic it’s alive with personality and possibility. Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.

Blondie were apparently mainlining Kraftwerk during the recording, putting them well ahead of the pack in terms of the New Romantic regeneration, but it was never the song’s technical specs, nor its pioneering place in pop history, that took it to number one.

I went to CBGB in the early 90s. I’m glad I did. But it was dirty in there. Blondie did well to sell out.

The Ronettes, Be My Baby (1963)

ronettes17

Artist: The Ronettes
Title: Be My Baby
Description: single; album track, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica
Label: Philles Records
Release date: 1963; 1964
First heard: circa 1969

For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three …

In Pop Goes The Soundtrack, the second episode of Neil Brand’s tremendous BBC4 series Sound Of Cinema, key proponent of the jukebox score Martin Scorsese remembers synching up the pre-credits sequence of his first classic movie, Mean Streets, to a classic pop tune from his childhood. Harvey Keitel’s troubled Charlie wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, gets up, passes the crucifix on his apartment wall to lean into the mirror and see if he recognises himself. He fails, then falls back onto his bed with a distant police siren wailing. As his head hits the pillow, the song strikes up with another start: bap, bap-bap, pow! bap, bap-bap pow!

“The first beats of Be My Baby just emerged,” Marty explains, “and they’re with me all the time.” Even when he’s on set, he reveals, he taps out those three bass drum beats on his right knee and the almighty crack of the snare on his left (“It’s just what I do, it’s become part of my DNA”).

Do it now. bap, bap-bap, pow!

The song itself accompanies an establishing montage of home-movie footage, both real and staged, wherein Charlie poses for the cine camera with assorted “guys from the neighbourhood”. The streets don’t look so mean with that glorious, teetering wedding cake of a pop song serenading them. My guess is that Be My Baby permeated my consciousness via pop radio in the late 60s and early 70s, but it won’t have been until I finally caught Mean Streets on video in the early 80s that the power of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound hit me … and it felt like a kiss. It was, you might say, Scorsese’s firsthand experience of the song as a man on the cusp of his twenties in Queens (Spector, his peer, grew up in the neighbouring Bronx) that provided my own secondhand equivalent in the cleans streets of Northampton. You have to cherish these connections. There is, as I hope we have established, no wrong way to arrive at an appreciation of great pop music.

Spector went to Hollywood, of course, and it is the cinematic drama of his best productions that earn their top billing. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Da Doo Ron Ron, River Deep Mountain High, even the less archetypal My Sweet Lord – these nuggets were embedded into my childhood. Designed to work on radio and jukebox alike, these sonic overstatements came jam-packed. Why use one piano in the studio when you could use three?

Spector’s Gold Star was a palace of excess. That the eights beats that kick off the Ronettes’ definitive two-and-a-half minutes should be big enough to open a movie tells all. Of course there are castanets over the arrangements, which is already pea-soup with percussion; an echo chamber wraps a vacuum of loneliness around Ronnie Spector’s plea, “So won’t you say you love me? I’ll make you so proud of me”; eleven warm bodies provide backing vocals (including Sonny and Cher, and Ronnie augmenting herself); a full orchestra is wheeled in for the first time, the names of its anonymous virtuosos listed nowhere. They say Hal Blaine (bap, bap-bap, pow!) is one of the most recorded drummers in history. A cast of thousands, indeed, and let’s not forget Ellie Greenwich (also a backing singer) and Jeff Barry, who co-wrote the thing with Spector.

But the casting vote goes to another native New Yorker, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett, aged 20 in 1963 and not yet married to the mob. Her life was not a bed of roses, especially as Mrs Spector, but she survived, and look where he is how. And in any case, her promise on Be My Baby to give three kisses for every one hypothetically provided by her prospective “baby” is one of the high watermarks of all recorded pop.

Pow!

New Order, Regret (1993)

NORegret

Artist: New Order
Title: Regret
Description: single; album track, Republic
Label: London
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Look at me, I’m not you

In the immediate aftermath of Ian Curtis’s untimely death, for Joy Division to not just carry on but fundamentally reinvent themselves under a new banner and ultimately alter the face of British alternative pop, seemed, in that cruel summer of 1980, a mission impossible. The term “regroup” doesn’t cover it. As New Order (the name itself a manifesto), they shuffled Bernard Sumner to the front, added Gillian Gilbert at the back, recorded two existing Joy Division songs in the new formation, Ceremony and In A Lonely Place, and produced an LP that looked and sounded and felt like Joy Division minus Curtis and plus extra synth. As relieved as the discerning were to have them back in business, and so soon, Movement was robbed of sunlight by the Joy Division memorial Still, and it all felt a bit like a holding pattern. Then they went to New York, and the next ten years were about bringing it all back home.

Between the rule-rewriting Temptation in 1982 and the final long-player before the band’s first split, Republic, in 1993, New Order really did bestride the twin worlds of pop and dance like four blushing Colossi. They even outlived Factory. Regret, the majestic lead-off single and a hit all over the shop, was number one in Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play charts and Modern Rock Tracks, which just about says all that you need to know about New Order. Is it dance? Is it rock? Does it – to deploy the cliché – sound better in a club? Or in a barn? Or in a field? The answer is that it sounds better anywhere and everywhere. (I listened to it a lot, alone, in a one-room studio flat in Streatham in South London and it worked for me.) If New Order started out as three young men and one young woman with “weight on their shoulders”, they ended their first ten-year stretch on top of the world, looking down – you might say – on Creation.

That osmotic blend of guitar and synth which falteringly paints in the sky before it starts, as if touching up one of Peter Saville’s oddly sincere stock library photographs on the packaging, can surely, mathematically, never be bettered. Building on a fine repertoire of previous New Order and Pet Shop Boys hits, Stephen Hague sets a template of sleek, slick vistas and bevelled sophistication. It’s oysters without grit, a city skyline without TV aerials, a billboard panorama without imperfections, a sound so deep and wide and tall it bleeds off the edges of most pop music’s expectations and resets the aspect ratio. Barney’s guitar still maintains its trademark melancholy but the overriding theme is celebration. (Hey, it’s a song called Regret that speaks of wounded hearts, complete strangers and being upset, you see, almost all the time. That kind of celebration.)

Blue Monday may have history on its side, True Faith the video, Fine Time the Balaeric cool, and World In Motion a rare sense of fun, but Regret is the crowning achievement of a little band who could. A good deal of Joy Division’s eternal appeal lies in the struggle – the quest to hew magic out of limited virtuosity – but mastering their instruments did not rob them of their personality. It is found not just in Barney’s non-classical voice, distanced and chorused in the mix, but in the idiomatic nature of his lyrics: “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known … I would like a place I could call my own, have a conversation on the telephone … I was upset you see, almost all the time”. It’s amazing how much soul there is in his childlike delivery and in these storybook couplets. (This is a man who, on Every Little Counts, on Brotherhood, actually sang, “Every second counts/When I am with you/I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo.”)

The whole of Republic is a showpiece. But Regret is pure cinema. I saw New Order on a boiling hot afternoon at Reading that year and entered a higher state of consciousness when I heard the riff to Regret, one I am physically unable to resist miming. I cannot play the guitar. This is important.

Adele, Rolling In The Deep (2011)

Adele21

Artist: Adele
Title: Rolling In The Deep
Description: single; album track, 21
Label: XL
Release date: 2011
First heard: 2011

The romantic, disenfranchised outsider I once fancied myself as – in my early 20s, I might add – would no doubt be horrified by a choice of song by one of the biggest artists on the planet; a song from an album that – at time of writing in 2013 – has currently sold around 26 million copies worldwide; a song that in itself has sold well over 10 million copies; a song that is surely playing somewhere right now. But what can you do in the face of such blinding preeminence? To deny a place for Rolling In The Deep would be an act of pure snobbery. Adele is brilliant. Adele, the romantic, franchised insider, is in her 20s.

To say I’ve always liked Adele – her voice, her look, her manner – implies that I was in some way ahead of the pack. I wasn’t. I heard Chasing Pavements in January 2008 when everybody else did. (I prefer Hometown Glory, which had been her debut, but I don’t recall hearing it, even though it went Top 20.) It seems immaterial now but in April 2008 I mischievously posted a picture of Adele and a picture of Duffy on my blog and asked the simple question: “Adele or Duffy?” It drew 67 comments and the debate ranged from “Adele all the way” to “I liked Mercy,” passing through “Neither … Awful cod-soul”. And many mischievously voted for Laura Marling. Ha ha. Hey, I liked Mercy, too, but it seemed like a pertinent either-or for the times.

Either or, Adele won the war. While there are comparably successful female solo artists in the world today, they all seem to have to work so much harder to maintain their position. For Adele, it’s effortless. She sings; the world listens. She’s risen to record-breaking superstar status without touring her backside off, or selling her soul, or – at the time of writing in 2013 – losing a pound in weight, or showing her cleavage, or inviting Hello into her beautiful kitchen. It’s easy to admire her. But she’s not in The 143 because I admire her. Even if she hadn’t co-written Rolling In The Deep and had just sung it, it would be similarly honoured. That she did co-write it – the lyric, as per most of 21, was inspired by a break-up – makes it all the more personal. When she sings, “We could’ve had it a-a-a-aaall“, a young woman who seemingly does have it all, it gets you right there. Where it’s supposed to get you.

To praise her pipes is hardly to go out on a limb. But I love the smokiness in her voice; the cracks; the scratches; the way she pulls back from total vocal acrobatics; always patting her heart. She’s in a fine tradition and it’s not of “cod-soul”. She means it, man. And while her intonation on the poetic Hometown Glory (“short skirts, shorts and shades”) is pure North London, here, she’s gospel, rolling in the deep South, you might say, testifying to the “depths of your despair” and the “scars of love” that make her “breathless.” She can pull this shit off. Though produced by her enabling co-writer Paul Epworth (who also seems to have played a lot of the instruments), Rolling In The Deep nestles between tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, and even though the bulk of those sessions was scrapped, I like to think some of the dirt rubbed off. Allow me that.

Let us praise the arrangement: that understated guitar strum intro; the impact of that ragged bass drum; the pure drama of the sucked hi-hat before it all kicks off. And at one minute (“We could’ve had it all”), we’re into the exquisite but again never showy vocal layering: the lines the backing choir picks out are in clipped parenthesis (“You’re gonna wish you … never had met me … tears are gonna fall … rolling in the deep”), and yet they somehow push Adele’s more drawn-out, emotional crooning side of stage, where she must suffer in isolation. It’s a clever trick. (Seven backing singers are credited on the sleeve; power to them.)

With some songs in The 143, I enjoy the challenge of selling an entry, making it sing for those who aren’t familiar with it. Rolling In The Deep is so familiar, I suspect many treat it as wallpaper. But while many more fashionable items come and go on my iPod, I have found myself returning again and again and again to 19 and 21, and regard them both as landmark albums of the early 21st century. Adele can get more and more successful if she likes. It won’t put me off. Knocking points off her for being popular would be like denying Elvis, or Vivaldi, or Spielberg, or Leonardo Da Vinci. It can’t always be about obscurity and showing off, although both have their place, believe me.

I still like Mercy, by the way.

The Temptations, It’s Growing (1965)

the-temptationsItsGrowing

Artist: The Temptations
Title: It’s Growing
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1965
First heard: circa 1997

When I say that I first heard It’s Growing, a gem-like exhibition match from the Temptations’ David Ruffin-dominated purple patch between 1964 and 1967, in 1997, it’s entirely plausible that I heard it without identifying it at any stage via the infectious medium of radio between its release in the year I was born and the year I started to really sit down and take stock of the Temptations’ vocal genius. For some reason, I hooked into a fulsome Temptations greatest-hits around that time, when I had literally given up my day job and set about researching and writing my first book, Still Suitable For Miners. (There was something about immersing myself in Billy Bragg that called for a more Catholic listening palette, from classic soul, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Phil Ochs, to militant modern folkies Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan, and the guvnor, Woody Guthrie.) In the acknowledgements of the book, I give thanks to the Temptations, along with Clipper tea and my asthma medication!

The music of whichever magical combination of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, “Al” Bryant, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards applies has remained a constant restorative balm. The two distinct phases of the Temptations’ career showcase the God-given songwriting and studio skills of Smokey Robinson, Bobby Rodgers and Ronnie White, then Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It’s Growing – which rises to the top for me because of its audaciously clanky piano intro and a frankly ill-advised but unique production decision involving a pair of claves – comes from the first phase, written by Smokey and fellow Miracle Pete Moore and laid down by Robinson.

There are better known songs, some simply thrilling – Get Ready, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, I Know I’m Losing You – others a bit schmaltzy for my tastes – My Girl, Just My Imagination – but this one starts better than any other song that rolled off Berry Gordy’s production line during that golden era, except perhaps Baby Love. That disarmingly simple, high-pitched piano signature, not a riff but a warm-up and picked out, it seems, on a pub upright by the Funk Brothers’ Earl Van Dyke (probably), topped by a rolling drum fill of the type that was sampled forever after from the 80s on, again probably Benny Benjamin or Uriel Jones. It fills my heart with gladness each time it comes on. The plangent brass helps.

The Temps are on fine vocal form, naturally, and if the verses weren’t the greatest they were ever given to wrap their ascendingly variegated tonsils around (“Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow-covered hill” is a bit lazy with its double use of the word “snow”; “like the size of a fish that a man claims broke his reel” doesn’t even rhyme), the plain-speaking chorus is lovely: “My love for you just grows and grows … and where it’s going to stop, nobody knows.”

As for the ridiculously intrusive “clack” of those claves towards the climax of the song, it must have seemed like a whizzo idea at the time to pitch it so high in the mix. On headphones, it’s like a really precise woodpecker tapping the side of your skull; not the effect imagined by Smokey and Moore, we must assume. I used to love it when my colleague at Q, John Aizlewood, dismissed pretty much all music from the 50s and 60s because “it wasn’t produced properly.” I concede the claves decision in It’s Growing to his case for the prosecution, and yet, I love it so, “clack” and all.

Musically, it’s of a type with Dock Of The Bay (not yet written in 1965) – and Just My Imagination, less surprisingly – and has the same lazy gait as the later Otis classic, but no less soul. The age of the singer-songwriter had yet to take hold and it was no crime against authenticity for a gifted, chemically-balanced vocal group to translate the songs of an industrial writing unit. Any snobbery about artists who don’t write their own songs can be shot down with the word “Motown.” The fleet-footed ingenuity of musicians like Robinson, and later Barrett and Strong, runs through these classic pop songs without subtracting from the deft broadcasting skills of these angelic frontmen and women. The Temps line-up may have mutated (it’s growing) in the ensuing years – indeed, I think I’m right in saying that only Otis Williams survives in the current touring incarnation – but the body of work bespeaks longevity and immortality.

If you had to strip their output down to, say, half a dozen tunes, to the more obvious My Girl, Get Ready, Just My Imagination, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and Ball Of Confusion, I’d say the missing jigsaw piece was It’s Growing.