Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

NickCaveTenderprey

Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.

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

TheW

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

OK, let’s get this done. While I recognise and laud the pioneering importance of Public Enemy and could listen to them any day of the week, and appreciate the ways in which Dr Dre, Kanye West and Jay-Z progressed the narrative of hip-hop, if forced to choose, I would have to name the Wu-Tang Clan as my all-time favourite rap group. Sometimes I think they are my favourite group, full stop. I have time for all five of their 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 ForeverBells Of War, but I still unfashionably hold The W from “the year Two-G” above both predecessors, as there’s not a duff track on it. From such august company as Intro (Shaolin Finger Jab)/Chamber Music, Careful (Click, Click) and their only Top 40 hit in the UK, Gravel Pit, rises Let My Niggas Live, featuring Nas.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and if you 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.