Massive Attack, Unfinished Sympathy (1991)

Unfinishedsympathy

Artist: Massive (Massive Attack)
Title: Unfinished Sympathy
Description: single; track, Blue Lines
Label: Wild Bunch
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

Heyyy hey hey-hey

Always good fun: a partial list of songs withdrawn from air by the BBC during the Gulf War in 1990-91

Abba Waterloo
The Bangles Walk Like An Egyptian
The Beatles Back In The USSR
Kate Bush Army Dreamers
Cher Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
The Cure Killing an Arab
Cutting Crew I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight
Jose Feliciano Light My Fire
Roberta Flack Killing Me Softly
Elton John Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Lulu Boom Bang A Bang
Rick Nelson Fools Rush In
Queen Flash
Bruce Springsteen I’m On Fire
Stevie Wonder Heaven Help Us All

Indeed. Massive Attack had bigger problems during the blackout. They were forced to foreshorten their name to “Massive” to avoid the BBC shit-list of unpatriotic words while the Scud missiles and the B-52s exchanged fire. Bristol’s trailblazing trip-hop faculty made a rare concession to wood-panelled elite institutions and avoided ending up on the infamous list of 67 titles deemed unsuitable for life during wartime. Radio silence, especially on wonderful Radio 1, was unthinkable. Somerset and Avon’s co-operative of collectivist cool reasoned that it was better to be heard than unheard while the bombs dropped.

That said, Unfinished Sympathy wasn’t released until after the war, in February 1991. (Desert Shield shocked and awed from August 1990 to January 1991, and Desert Storm was over in February, so just in time for culture to resume.) But the question remains: how can you have a day without a night? You can’t. Just as you can’t have silence without a noise, or peace without a war. When I think of Massive Attack, I imagine dusk and all its subtleties, illusions and possibilities. It’s where they live, in that twilight zone between day and night. In the shadows. At the back of the hall. Under cover of darkness. Blue Lines, the debut, was a finished symphony, a new kind of dance record from an old set of heads on young shoulders with ready foreshortened names: 3D, Daddy G and Mushroom. (Thinking about it, Mushroom ought to have been banned during the Gulf, too.)

Into every dream home a little darkness. The world seemed ready for the heady aromatic moan of trip hop when it found a shape and was given a name at the dawn of the 90s. Run on inventive studio beats at a leisurely speed, cloudy with the fug of war and wearing a late-nite philosophical hat, it was post-rave comedown music that mixed drum and bass with a multi-media appetite for reconstruction. Robert Del Naja – 3D – is a graffiti artist and a contemporary of Banksy’s (whatever happened to him?), and there’s a sense of Massive Attack being less a band and more of an initiative, possibly council-funded, certainly artistic. Bristol is a bohemian port city which has seen everything pass through at one time or another.

An impatiently tapped hi-hat, some rogue warm-up scratching, a resonant bass drum, a typically relaxed count-in (“two … three”), someone nattering in the background and then the first epochal movement falls into step. The hi-hat is suddenly and all at once augmented by a rattling chorus of trebly cymbals and bells, then, over deeply cinematic chords, the first heyyy hey hey-hey – a distress signal as much as a chorale, trapped in the middle distance. I always assumed it to be sung by Shara Nelson, but it’s a sample of a high male voice from John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, possibly bassist Ralphe Armstrong. You see, it’s wrong to make assumptions about this record.

The string section sounds so parodically luxurious you start to wonder if it’s actually the work of synths, but Massive Attack were convinced to travel down the M4 and record the strings at Abbey Road with arranger Wil Malone, blowing their budget in the process. The core beat is expertly extracted and spun out of the brief percussive opening of an instrumental recording by bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, Parade Strut (featured on his score to the 1974 blaxploitation film Willie Dynamite). Magpie eyes are always hungry for a prize.

Shara Nelson makes herself felt at 30 seconds.

I know that I’ve been mad in love before

As well as the siren of this remarkable record, Nelson is also one of five songwriters credited, along with the three chaps and co-producer Jonathan “Jonny Dollar” Sharp. The germ of the song was hers. She means it when she sings of the “curiousness of your potential kiss” that has got her “mind and body aching.” While she channels the great soul singers of the past, she also luxuriates in echo and space that didn’t come as standard in the studios of the 60s. The gentleman about whom she is aching, is a book that she has opened – “and now I’ve got to know much more.” It’s easy to be distracted by the studio hardware and the collection-tin percussion and the melodramatic orchestration: the heart of the matter is a protagonist on the cusp of a love that may consume us all. There are two gulfs at play here.

Like a soul without a mind
In a body without a heart
I’m missing every part

There’s more nattering over the end section, as if someone has left the talkback on in the studio, while the various parts of a strange arrangement recede like a film set being dismantled, and it actually finishes in a squall of echo and a ball of confusion. It is track six on Blue Lines, with its queue of guests, the feral input of Tricky, the earth-mother Zen of Neneh Cherry and the faltering tones of Horace Andy, but if one piece were to represent, it’s Unfinished Sympathy. It never bores us, but neither does it get to a chorus.

Unwitting future suppliers of the heyy hey hey-hey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sang these words in 1976, not knowing how pertinent they would sound in 1990-91, or beyond: “We’re planetary citizens of the human race and we want to make the world a better place. Love is the answer to all the wars, when we love one another, we can open doors.”

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Blind Boys Of Alabama, Way Down In The Hole (2001)

BlindBoysAlbamaSpiritOfTheCentury

Artist: Blind Boys Of Alabama
Title: Way Down In The Hole
Description: album track, Spirit Of The Century; … And All The Pieces Matter (compilation)
Label: Real World; Nonesuch
Release date: 2001
First heard: 2006

When you walk through the garden …

There is, of course, nothing to stop a cover version from making The 143. It’s all about the version. I’m toying with Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s Hurt for a place, as I believe it amplifies what’s moving about the original, for self-evident, contextual reasons. Blind Boys Of Alabama’s rendition of Tom Waits’ devilish Way Down In The Hole is embedded in popular folklore forever as the first incarnation to be used as the theme tune to HBO’s little-known cops-and-drug-dealers saga The Wire and that is why it’s included here. (All five versions are on the expansive, dialogue-grouted Wire soundtrack album – Waits’, the Neville Brothers’, DoMaJe’s and Steve Earle’s – and all have both merit and Proustian allure, but this here just about inches it.)

The original appears on Franks Wild Years (no apostrophe, sub-editors, except for the title track, which isn’t even on this album) This means I’ll have first heard it the late 80s sometime, when Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law turned me on to Waits and got me exploring. I’ll be honest, it never leapt out of that lengthy, operatic album’s tracklist for me – I was more about Hang On St Christopher, Innocent When You Dream and whichever version of Straight To The Top (and to be even more honest, I was more about his other LPs which weren’t staged as plays) – but the minute I heard the tune resurrected on Episode One of The Wire, hunched over the DVD pre-Christmas 2006 on my laptop and not knowing quite what I was getting into, and instantly half-identified it, the voodoo magic made itself known.

I have sung – if that’s not too strong a word – Way Down In The Hole at Karaoke Circus (the live-band jamboree that gave both comedians and civilians the chance to knock out pre-chosen toons with a well-versed backing band and sometimes orchestra), onstage at the 100 Club. It was my first go of many over the years, and I chose to “do” Waits’ version, as he was easier to impersonate. It also meant I learned the lyrics, which are typically sincere and twisted at the same time (“Well you don’t have to worry/If you hold on to Jesus’ hand/We’ll all be safe from Satan/When the thunder rolls/Just gotta help me keep the devil/Way down in the hole”). As with so  many of Waits’ songs, he sounds “in character,” so all is never as it seems.

I first heard the Blind Boys Of Alabama, who have now been going for seven decades (never mind The Butler – they really do have a firsthand story to tell about black history), on one of Andy Kershaw’s Radio 1 shows. Their contemporary take on gospel was probably still a little rootsy and rarefied even for my missionary tastes in the 80s and 90s, but many barriers have come down since then. (Anything bracketed under “World Music” seemed forbidding at the time, as if a passing interest might be considered an insult to indigenous people everywhere. This may sound daft now, but it’s how it felt.) Anyway, I logged their name.

As The 143 is all about the song, it’s not necessary to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of an artist’s back catalogue to justify the inclusion of one track. The Blind Boys have done many interpretations in their rich, rough and ready vocal style – harmonised with what sounds like ESP, maybe engendered by the blindness of some key members – and their cover of Way Down In The Hole almost feels like a reclamation. Yes, it’s more conventionally “soulful” than Waits’, but it also takes out some of his smoke-throated mischief, which is why both versions complement each other. While we’re at it, the Neville Brothers inject some funky Creole dirt, thus making theirs another valid argument for the song, while Baltimore locals DoMaJe bring the female R&B and Earle takes it a little bit country. All the pieces matter.

The Blind Boys’ take is quite dainty, with a tickled bossa nova drum beat, and minimal blues guitar. I can’t confidently identify who sings the lead, but it’s going to be Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore or Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, and when whoever it is sings, “he’ll saa-a-ave your soul” it’s as though he’s testifying. If Waits is closer to the Devil – and the hole – the Blind Boys are surely closer to the Lord. There’s age in this vocal, a sandpaper quality that brings heft to “the fire and the fury”. The high-pitched guitar solo is serpentine and precise, and there’s no point in denying it, the whole evocative kaboodle brings the opening-credits imagery of The Wire flooding back: the helicopter going overhead, the view from behind wire mesh of an SUV going by, the coin going into a payphone, the dancing soundwaves of wiretap equipment, the CCTV eye smashed by a flung brick.

The track’s foreshortened to a minute and a half for TV – that guitar solo lasts a measly bar – so it’s a treat to hear it at its full three minutes. I’ve not yet heard it in situ on 2001’s Grammy-winning Spirit Of The Century album among the more traditional gospel tunes, but you’ve got to hand it to them for making Tom Waits fit, and for making his song their own.

10cc, I’m Not In Love (1975)

10ccI'mNotInLove

Artist: 10cc
Title: I’m Not In Love
Description: single; album track, The Original Soundtrack
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1975

10cc are one of those bands who soundtracked my youth without me really ever acknowledging them or knowingly parting with pocket money for any of their hit singles or parent albums. I guess this is partly because my first spurt in singles buying occurred towards the end of that decade, by which time it was “punk” or nothing. (We’d previously requested certain seven-inches “for the house”, which we kids thought of as “ours” and were wire-racked alongside Mum and Dad’s, under the wooden unit beneath the “music centre”. 10cc were not among these. (I remember In Dulci Jubilo by Mike Oldfield – backed by On Horseback – from around the mid-70s; also Under The Moon Of Love by Showaddywaddy; The First Cut Is The Deepest by Rod Stewart, which was nominally Mum’s; also Lay Your Love by Racey, which proves how unselfconscious I was in 1978 before punk stole my soul.)

Nevertheless, I’m Not In Love is a key song of the mid-decade, and one with a personal fascination for me that I’ll get to. A number one hit – the band’s second, after Rubber Bullets in 1971 – and ubiquitous on the airwaves at the time (we had Radio 1 on as a default in the house), it is only in retrospect that I appreciate what a technical triumph it was, pushing back the boundaries of studio technique as much as their heroes the Beatles had done. In adult life, I have come to respect Gouldman, Stewart, Godley and Creme as the witty and intelligent hitmakers they were, and a Best Of 10cc is, I find, an absolute essential. I don’t know their albums at all, not even The Original Soundtrack, which contains I’m Not In Love, by all accounts the song that clinched their $1 million contract with Mercury.

I now know – thanks to the constant repackaging of the pop and rock past by BBC4 – that its haunting choral effect was achieved in 1974 at the band’s own Strawberry Studios with each layer of voice recorded separately (all four band members are involved), until they had 256. Although the effect can now be reproduced at the click of a mouse – I can probably do it on this laptop – the sheer depth and richness of the choir is unique. This and a heartbeat of a drum line form the bed, upon which an unintrusive keyboard is added, and then that halting, delicate vocal from … is it Eric Stewart or Graham Gouldman? I know the whispered interlude was supplied by a receptionist at the studio, and it’s this passage (“Be quiet, big boys don’t cry”) that seals it forever into my heart.

Here’s why. As anyone who’s read Where Did It All Go Right? will know, I experienced an existential epiphany in 1975 when, aged 10, I saw The Poseidon Adventure at the cinema and looked mortality in the face for the first time. The mother of all disaster movies – my first – haunted me, and has remained a perpetual favourite. Somehow, in my mind, it and I’m Not In Love are intertwined. I saw the film at the very end of May, and the song was at number one a week later. A raw, full-blooded display of emotion in any case, it meant more to me as I imagined the female voice to be that of Shelley Winters’ character Belle Rosen, perhaps reassuring Eric Shea’s Robin at a moment of grisly, mortal, smudge-faced tension in the bowels of the SS Poseidon. I can almost see her, in the film, shushing him by touching his boyish lips, like a reassuring mom. It’s oddly disappointing that she doesn’t actually say, “Be quite, big boys don’t cry” in the film.

I love the way a song can become imprinted on a time and a place for all time. I am in love with this for all of the technical and musical reasons stated, but it goes that extra Proustian mile thanks to a random series of events and that’s the alchemy of cheap, potent pop music.