Artist: Glen Campbell
Title: Wichita Lineman
Description: single; album track, Wichita Lineman
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1990s
I am a lineman for the county …
My musical education continues. I hope it always will. But if you drew up a graph, with Musical Knowledge Gleaned on one axis, and Time on the other, it would start twitching upwards in a meaningful way at around 1969-70, when, aged four going on five, I really started to take notice of songs on the radio: Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime, Gimme Dat Ding by the Pipkins, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes by Edison Lighthouse, My Sweet Lord, Wandrin’ Star, Sugar Sugar by the Archies, Hugo Montenegro’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I have even earlier memories of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days from 1968. What you think I’m going to say next is that Wichita Lineman got into my system around this time.
It didn’t. At least, I wasn’t aware of it doing so, even though it was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the one that had Wichita in it, and the other one. Wichita Lineman didn’t enter my internal playlist until the mid-90s, when I was working at Q magazine. Indeed, if you really did map that graph of my musical education, the years 1993-97 would see a sharp rise, as the experience behind the desk as features editor and then editor broadened my mind and my sense of history like no other office I’ve worked in, and I remain grateful. Staff who were ahead of me included the likes of Bill Prince, John Bauldie, Adrian Deevoy, Paul Du Noyer and John Aizlewood – if not older in age, wiser in miles on the clock – and I used these clever, seasoned gentlemen as my yardsticks, and gladly took steers from any of them.
Although my arrival at Q coincided with a changing of the cultural guard and the Britpop explosion – which I think explained part of my indie-shorted usefulness to the august rock monthly – it was still a safe house for classic rock and pop, and wore its anti-ageism as a badge of honour. As such, I threw myself backwards into history and topped up my degree. I remember Bill Prince interviewing Jimmy Webb – I’m guessing it was around the time of his Ten Easy Pieces LP – and even the act of sub-editing the copy, and providing a sidebar, blurb and headline matured my understanding of a man whom I only really knew for writing Up, Up And Away (another hit that must have seeped into my consciousness in my first few years of sentience).
Result: hello, Wichita Lineman! It wasn’t exactly like hearing a song that was almost as old as me for the first time. It is, after all, a certified classic, and will have been playing somewhere in the background for most of my life. But in that instant of seeking it out and making sense of its creation, everything fell into place. (I’d been in a postgraduate comedy production in the late 80s where I played a simple farmboy from Wichita, but the connection eluded me even then.) Webb was driving down a long, straight road in his native Oklahoma and saw a lineman up a telegraph pole and was struck by the loneliness of the job. The lyric flowed from there. It seems such an original observation and setting, perhaps it’s little wonder the song reverberates still.
It’s a song that feels like a story and yet, broken down, the lyric is quite spare. (Unlike this ramblin’ essay.) But what imagery it fixes in your mind’s eye. There he is, the lineman “for the county” (not even terminology we use in this country, or county, thus already romantic), and he “drives the main road, searchin’ in the sun for another overload.” This is overall-wearing detail about a work detail. But how soon its high-viz practicality is punctured by sentiment: “I hear you singin’ in the wire.” Is it as creepy as it first seems? Surely he’s the flower-power prototype for Mark E Smith’s Stasi-like “telephone thing, listenin’ in.” And yet, the Wichita Lineman who’s “still on the line” and “can hear you through the whine” is clearly lovestruck. And it’s lonely up that pole.
The weather’s looking rotten, too. It may not look like rain, but if it snows “that stretch down South won’t ever stand the strain.” But the strain isn’t in a length of telegraph wire, no more than the “overload” is about his job description. It’s the lineman himself who’s close to collapse.
And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
But it’s not a poem, and Webb’s not just a wordsmith. He’s not the singer either. Glen Campbell, whom I associated in childhood with True Grit, which I’d seen on the television, brings the song to heartbroken life and a country authenticity to the sound pictures. The ex-session man – a member of LA’s amorphous Wrecking Crew – and touring Beach Boy was more than just a hick from Arkansas with a guitar on his back. He wrote, and he joined bands, and he appeared on the TV, and he had his first big hit with a pacifist anthem by Buffy Saint-Marie even though he thought draft-dodgers should be hung, possibly from a telegraph wire. His vocal is coffee-smooth – perhaps sipped from a flask – and conveys the plaintive in our lineman’s lament for lost love in such a sincere and moving way you could never see him as a telegraphic stalker. He means it, man. And the held note at the end of “still on the liiiiiiiiine” seems to echo around the wide open plains, as if the shot is panning back, wider and wider, until he’s a speck on a stick.
The string arrangement, by Campbell talisman and fellow Wrecking Crewer Al De Lory, does some daring wire work, too. After a descending guitar twang and patted intro beat, there they swirl, filling the Kansas sky with sun, while violins and a keyboard (played by Webb?) get to work on the pre-digital approximation of a telegraph’s bleeps and whines. Invention permeates.
It’s a downhome, nice-and-simple, over-easy slice of life which finds symbolism in the horny hands of the working man and creates something almost space-age out of its allotted instruments. And it’s sung by Campbell like it matters. I read on Wikipedia that my friend Stuart Maconie called it the “greatest pop song ever composed” in one of his books, which I don’t have to hand, and I think his tribute is contained in the word “composed”. Wichita Lineman doesn’t feel written, or knocked out to order, it’s a novella that’s been inspired by real life and if it’s a little bit country, it feels more local than that.
It’s county music.
Title: Song 2
Description: single; album track, Blur
Release date: 1997
First heard: 1997
It would be nice to write an essay about Song 2 that was as short as Song 2 – that is, two minutes and one second. (Never underestimate that last second.) However, there is so much to say about it. I reviewed its parent album, the band’s difficult fifth, the self-redefining Blur, across a double-page spread for Q, the magazine of which I was, incredibly, the editor, at the beginning of 1997. (By the end of 1997, I would no longer be its editor, by my own hand. It was a self-redefining year for me, too.) This is what I wrote (it seems so long ago, it’s almost of historic interest):
“The weirdest tracks on 1991’s debut album Leisure were Repetition and Sing. Either would sit comfortably on Blur, if they were re-recorded through a sieve first.”
That is accurate, I think. Although no offence to ever-resourceful producer Stephen Street, whose work herein is sympathetic and empowering. I go on to declare opener Beetlebum as “safe”, a “slightly menacing Free As A Bird“. However, here’s where the review, which is typically Q, gets going:
“Song 2 is where the going gets tough. A clipped two minutes, it’s fuzzy, it’s DIY, it goes ‘Wee-hoo!’, and the guitar grumbles, straight out of The Fall circa This Nation’s Saving Grace. It is as addictive and heady as any Charmless Man or Sunday Sunday, if considerably less likely to chart.”
So, I was prescient and tuned-in enough in early 1997 to know a key track when I heard it – and I think my phonetic expression of Damon Albarn’s abandoned exclamation (“Wee-hoo”) is close enough – but you’ll have spotted that I was not wily enough to identify Song 2 as Blur’s biggest hit. We didn’t know the lyrics then, either. We do now.
I got my head checked
By a jumbo jet
It wasn’t easy
But nothing is, no
The Blur album was a wiping of the Etch-A-Sketch, a bonfire of Britpop’s vanities, a rethink, not to mention a bound manifesto which echoed New Labour’s that year, except in terms of crowd-pleasing. Which is why Song 2 is so glorious. Yes, it foregrounds Graham Coxon’s guitar technique, something he told me as far back as 1994 he was studiously “unlearning”, and replaces the ironic bounce of Country House with something more abrasive and headbanging (“When I feel heavy metal“), and no it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense in broad daylight (“I got my head done, when I was young”), but it’s two minutes and one second of maximum joy. You’re invited to think: there was no Song 1.
I go back nearly all the way with Blur, and considered them acquaintances at the height of pre-Britpop when Camden was Mecca and my hair was way too long for the scene. I gave Leisure a lukewarm review in the NME and Damon Albarn was still quoting it back at me a decade in pop later. The great coming-together for me and Blur came when Parklife had lift-off and Q, where I’d just touched down, needed these new cover stars explaining. It was my mission and I chose to accept it, sitting down with all four of them and getting their life stories down in definitive fashion, and stowing away at the media-blackout gig they played for their old music teacher at Colchester Sixth Form College with a 17-piece school orchestra. A year later, I sent myself to Paris to present them with their first Q Award. I saw them live a lot, each time a bigger venue, in clubs, in festival tents, on festival stages, at palaces, arenas and stadiums. I watched Damon cry on the Pyramid at Glastonbury ’09.
Oddly, I never think of Blur as one of my favourite bands, but they must be. You might think my long and varied relationship with them as fan and journalist would sift out something a bit more subtle, surprising or obscure from their vast back catalogue of experimental pop than Song 2, the one that broke them in a recalcitrant America and became ubiquitous on videogame and TV episode alike and still resounds around stadia when any number of US sports teams score a home run or touchdown. But no matter which gaudy, commercial, plastic-cup context it finds itself played in, it still sounds like a giant, cosmic safety valve, from which hisses and squeals all of a four-piece band’s pent-up emotion up to that point. Overuse cannot destroy it.
Alex’s bass complains like a toothache, Dave’s drums typically stick-shift between nimble and knuckleheaded, Graham’s lo-fi guitar lets magic in upon light and Damon just Janovs his way out of there, tired of big words.
Imagine if Song 2 was the only remaining trace of Blur after some terrible cataclysm. Archaeologists would get the picture.
Now, for that last second:
Artist: Nancy Sinatra
Title: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
Description: single; album track, Boots
Release date: 1966
First heard: circa 1970s
In his fourth volume of memoir The North Face Of Soho, Clive James makes this astute observation about legendary lyricist Johnny Mercer and in particular his words for One For My Baby, written with Harold Arlen, “which today still sets my standards for the way a colloquial phrase can be multiplied in its energy by how it sits on a row of musical notes.”
Though originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s The Limit, it was popularised by Frank Sinatra, who was a man who really knew how to sit a phrase on a row of notes. In fact, it ran in the family.
Sometime in the mid-90s when I was working at Q, Albums Editor John Aizlewood gifted me four of Nancy Sinatra’s seven solo Reprise albums, released we must assume for the first time on the new-fangled Compact Disc. My familiarity with Ms Sinatra’s catalogue was limited to three songs* so I eagerly immersed myself in Boots, How Does That Grab You? (on whose sleeve she is dressed in boots, a nice jumper and – whoops – no trousers), Nancy In London (where of course she is perched at the back of a London double decker) and Sugar (a thumb hooked suggestively in the waistband of a pink bikini in some pampas grass), all four of which came out within two years.
*The three songs, by the way, were John Barry’s theme song for You Only Live Twice, Somethin’ Stupid with her dad, and These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, which I owned by way of the Full Metal Jacket soundtrack. Kubrick’s film had cemented the song and the Vietnam war in my mind, although I hadn’t known then that Boots had actually been adopted by US soldiers on the ground. In my ignorance, I thought the cruel fade at two minutes 26 seconds – when the song gets going, the song gets going – was imposed upon it by the compilers of the soundtrack. Wrong. It fades at that very moment in the original single edit. It was designed to do that. Planned. Choreographed. Just as Nancy asks her boots if they’re ready and instructs them to “start walkin'”, the tempo changes, the horns blast, the world does the twist and the volume reduces. It may be the cruelest ten seconds in pop.
It’s like there’s a party starting but you’re not invited. It’s happening behind this door that’s just about to close in your face. Maybe this adds to the intrigue? It certainly speaks of a commanding level of self-confidence – that this record has already done quite enough. The coda is just a coda. Get over it. Singles in the 60s faded out before they outstayed their welcome.
These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ is the very height of musical expertise, of knowing what goes where and how. Ex-serviceman Lee Hazelwood had given tips to Phil Spector before Reprise lassoed his studio acumen and tasked him with rebooting the career of Nancy, who was about to get dropped from her Daddy’s label after five years of nada in the US charts. A Svengali of pop Hazelwood may have been – he lowered her voice and instructed her to think lewd thoughts while singing, all of which matched her new short-skirted, bottle-blonde, Carnaby Street image – but like the man in the James Brown song, it wouldn’t mean nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl. Boots is all about her interpretation of that swaggering lyric. Some of the higher female pop voices of the time, many of them more admired than Nancy’s, lack her screw-you attitude. Maybe five years of failure on your father’s tab gives you that.
It’s dark material indeed when she dissuades this ungrateful cad of the notion that he’ll “never get burnt.” Ha! She’s found a brand new box of matches that says otherwise. If you want to hear a singer go “Ha!” with all the contempt of someone taken for a ride, take a seat. As gleefully repeated in all his obituaries in 2007, Hazelwood instructed Nancy to sing “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers.” Like Frank eventually, she proved a good actor.
Billy Strange needs saluting, the arranger of this dirty, defiant warning shot across the patriarchy’s bows, which credits five guitarists (including Strange himself). Between him and Hazelwood, rows of musical notes were slotted together with sparkling orginality, not least the descending scale played by double-bassist Chuck Berghofer that puts us all in the mood at the start. While Nancy does her thing, you’re mainly hearing gossamer strummed guitars and a brushed beat, with a brass section politely underpinning in the background, barely noticed. Sultry doesn’t quite cover it.
After this, it was hits, hits, hits all the way for the rest of the 60s. How does that grab you?
Artist: The Eagles
Title: Hotel California
Description: single; album track, Hotel California
Release date: 1977; 1976
First heard: 1994
Such a lovely place …
I’d been aware of the Eagles and their importance to drivers of imaginary open-topped cars, having long ago absorbed Hotel California by osmosis without ever sitting down and giving it much thought, but it wasn’t until 1994 when, as features editor, I was tasked at Q magazine with “tidying up” some raw copy by the legendary Tom Hibbert, that they truly entered my life like God might. In Tom’s turn, this elusive sprite of a man had been tasked with writing a brief history of America’s once-biggest rock band and he’d done so in a style we’ll kindly call “inimitable”. It was a barrel of fun, but it was not a history of the Eagles. I reached for the office copy of what must have been the Omnibus book of the Eagles and digested it.
It was the Eagles’ story that sold them to me. Although I was agnostic at best about classic 70s West-coast FM rock, since joining Q in 1993 I’d moved the parameters of cool to take in all sorts of modern adult-oriented music like Sheryl Crow, Crowded House and Aimee Mann, and willingly submitted to a slow-train-comin’ appreciation of Peter Frampton, The Carpenters, Jimmy Webb and other artists of yore interviewed on equal terms by the magazine. We had no interview with Glenn Frey or Don Henley to mark the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over reunion, hence the Hibbert “think-piece”. By the time I’d edited it, it was only just recognisable as his, I’m ashamed to say, save for a few choice wisecracks, but it did read as a potted biography of the band, about whom I was now an overnight expert. I knew when Timothy B Schmit had joined (after they’d toured Hotel California and former Poco bandmate Randy Meisner had quit), and I knew how Bernie Leadon had handed in his notice (by pouring beer over Frey’s head).
Opening the gates to their music was only a matter of time. Come the end of the century, I’d invested in a greatest hits to tide me over and a number of individual albums, and it was Hotel California – and its archetypal title track, which is bigger than all of us – that hooked me in.
I never really thought of it as – tut! – “white reggae”, although there’s little mistaking the offbeat rhythm or the laid-back chukka-chukka guitar, and Henley certainly adopts a Jamaican twang when he almost sings, “de Hotel California” (Don Felder’s instrumental demo was working-titled Mexican Reggae). But we quibble over scattergories. What I’m hearing in these six-and-a-half minutes is drama, simple as that. It’s Felder’s tune, but it’s a workout without the words, and Henley and Frey’s lyrics could easily be the treatment to a short film.
If you’ve visited LA – and I clocked up most of my hours there as a music journalist, usually tailing some rock band or other and ordering jugs of frozen Margueritas on a record company tab – you’ll know how difficult it is not to hear it in your head, especially if you drive at night, or at the magic hour when the photo of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the sleeve was taken. That’s how these new kids in town apparently came up with their evocation of life in the fast lane.
Quite apart from the sheer theatre of the intro riff being played right through – by Felder, Frey and possibly Joe Walsh – and then, after a gap, played through again, Hotel California oozes confidence in so many other ways. We know the Eagles rehearsed hard and expected military precision from themselves onstage and in-studio, and although this made them seem supremely unfashionable and patrician come the end of the 70s, such professionalism and attention to detail can be enjoyed by the unselfconscious. This song is hand-tooled. The arrangement, under Bill Szymczyk – a former Navy sonar engineer, no less – is considered and panoramic. The whump-whump tom-tom beat that kicks it all off is typically prosaic. Fabled as the nadir of soft-rock noodlery, it’s not exactly a virtuosity exhibition; the beat is kept, guitars complement one another, the words coming out of Henley’s mouth are legible and po-faced, and sweetly harmonised by Frey and Meisner. But what words!
That “dark desert highway”, the “cool wind” in your hair, so far, so generic. Then the “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air,” which is a weed reference I think I might’ve taken a wild guess at, even before Wikipedia, and then, “up ahead in the distance,” that “shimmering light.” It’s evocative stuff, but there’s darkness on the edge of this town, too. “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night …” it’s a horror story! The mission bell, it could be Heaven or Hell, a lit candle, voices down the corridor …
Umpteen theories abound as to what exactly the Hotel California is a metaphor for. It can’t just be a hotel in California, right? We soon meet this sad woman, “Tiffany-twisted” with “the Mercedes bends” – a pun, incidentally, that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would have been proud of – and then those courtyard groovers, some dancing to remember, some dancing to forget. It’s Elysian stuff. This Captain bloke, the wine, some “spirit” they haven’t had since 1969. How did this intoxicating picaresque, this cinematic allegory, this nightmare vision of the American Dream, ever get filed away under “boring” or “middle of the road”?
There seems to be some kind of torture chamber under this particular establishment, either literal, or figurative, with prisoners and a master and mirrored ceilings, and a feast where “steely knives” are plunged into an unkillable “beast”, relayed over the most delicate reprise of the song’s intro. It may not be Throbbing Gristle. But neither is it REO Speedwagon.
And if there’s a denouement as blood-chilling as this elsewhere in the annals of AOR, I’d like to hear it.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”
And then the solo. Two minutes of it. But we need some time to mull over that last line, don’t we? The night man? A passage back? Programmed? To receive? You can never leave? Who were these high-lit, hairy men from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Florida (ie places not California) and did they have steely knives in their cowboy boots?
For the first time in my hitherto musically bigoted life, I danced to remember.
Artist: The Clash
Title: Groovy Times
Description: Track, The Cost Of Living EP
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979
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 (six if you’re forgiving enough to include Cut The Crap) 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 just three years away from death, 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, and it felt right.
A Q 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.
Artist: The Smiths
Title: Rusholme Ruffians
Description: album track, Meat Is Murder
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.
Artist: The Temptations
Title: It’s Growing
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.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Title: Tell Me That It Isn’t True
Description: album track, Nashville Skyline
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1995
In 2013, I recognised that I was playing with the big boys. Any subjective 143 best-songs-limited-to-one-entry-per-artist might include the Beatles, the Stones, Roxy Music, David Bowie, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Kevin Coyne, Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. And some of these giants indeed turned up before we hit the finishing line. The truth is: I don’t have an intimate relationship with Dylan. I am patently not a disciple of his music. But neither do I have a problem with him, as some do. I like his honking voice. He’s self-evidently a keystone artist of the 60s and his influence is unfathomable. Without him, folk music may never have turned into rock music. And, like Bowie, who wrote a song for – and about him – his staying power and ability to change hats has never been in doubt.
But I don’t have a snap answer to the question, “What’s the greatest Bob Dylan album?” or its woollier twin, “What’s your favourite Bob Dylan album?” (I have stock answers to the same question with the Beatles and the Stones substituted, but not Dylan.) When I worked at Q magazine between 1993 and 1997 and passed the big three-oh, I acted accordingly, and opened myself up to all sorts of “classic” music.
Our office was almost on top of the flagship HMV on London’s busy Oxford Street, and – in full-time employment, with pension and shares scheme, remember – I would often avail myself of the 3-for-2 offers on non-chart CDs. My intention was to fill the gaps in my record collection with important LPs with which I was not acquainted. I remember snapping up a couple of Dylan standards during that consumer flurry – Freewheelin’, Blood On The Tracks, Desire – and gave them a few spins. But if I’m honest, I never really truly got beyond the hits.
The permanent office CD collection at Q was motley. We had a battered CD single of Showgirl by the Auteurs (that went on a lot when the lagers came in), an album by Jackie Leven, something by Strangelove, and Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. I found myself putting this on more than once during the working day, but it was not a single that grabbed me – the more familiar, singalong likes of Lay Lady Lay or the Johnny Cash duet on Girl From The North Country – but track three, side two, Tell Me That It Isn’t True.
Due to a rare lapse in journalistic instinct, I know for a fact that I took my touchstone track Tell Me That It Isn’t True to be Nashville Skyline Rag, which is track two, side one. Not 100% sure why. But when I’d left Q – and left full-time employment; the shares were almost sarcastic – and invested in my own copy, I jumped ahead to Skyline Rag and was deeply disappointed. Not a Proustian peep. However, as soon as I picked up the first line, “I have heard rumours …” followed by that resonant Dobro (I’ve looked this up; don’t finger-wag me if I’m wrong, guitar freaks, it could be Pete Drake’s pedal steel …), I was back in love.
Historically, the 1969 album – a number one hit in the UK – was an evolution from the acoustic-leaning John Wesley Harding, also recorded in Nashville, and showcased a new, smoother “crooning” style of vocal from Dylan. As I’ve picked up on his albums in the wrong order, I don’t hear them chronologically, but I shared an office with a man who not only did, he did so religiously. He was John Bauldie, one of the UK’s foremost Dylanologists and Q’s part-time production guru. (As editor, I once took John out for a lunchtime pint to encourage him to apply for the full-time post, but he was happier with the freedom to pursue his Dylanology when he wasn’t at his post. You had to respect that.)
The dedicated publisher, editor and chief scribe of Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, John – or “the Great Bauldini” as Danny Kelly playfully christened him – was our font of all Dylan knowledge. A lovably grumpy soul, capable of long-running feuds where Dylan was concerned, we all admired him, which is why we so affectionately but constantly took the rise out of him, stuck in his ways and reliably mistaking a techno record for the noise of the fax machine for comic effect.
So, this song reminds me of working at Q, and working with the legendary John Bauldie, who was cruelly killed in a helicopter crash in 1996, which was a bad day at the office for all of us. It’s only right that a Dylan tune should help us remember, and remember fondly.
It’s a lovely, lilting lament from a spurned lover to another (“They say that you’re planning to put me down … they say that you’ve been seen with some other man”), less than three minutes long but lifted by an enthusiastic drum part from Kenneth Buttrey, twinkling with all those guitars, enhanced with a bit of honky tonk piano and made airborne by Dylan’s almost cheekily accessible vocal. He doesn’t know it, but he’s prefiguring the life’s work of David Gedge, with his imagination running paranoid riot (“I know that some other man is holding you tight/It hurts me all over/It doesn’t seem right”).
Why have I illustrated above with the back sleeve of the CD of Nashville Skyline? Because I’m pretty sure the inner booklet had been lost in the ravages of office life and the CD sat in a coverless jewel case. I recognise the back more than the front as a result. It’s such quirks that make our lifelong relationship with music more vivid.
There is another song I associate with Dylan and John Bauldie in The 143, recorded by another artist. See if you can guess what it is, and tell me that it isn’t true.
Artist: Wu-Tang Clan
Title: Let My N****s Live
Description: album track, The W
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 first five albums, and can let them off the next three, 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 three-million-selling 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – a number 83 smash in the UK – 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 Forever – Bells 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 were listening on CD, you’ll be familiar with the 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.