Althea & Donna, Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

AltheaDonnaUptownTopRankingArtist: Althea & Donna
Title: Uptown Top Ranking
Description: single; album track, Uptown Top Ranking
Label: Lightning Records
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977

There’s no point in being coy about it: I once sang Uptown Top Ranking, the number one one-hit of Jamaican teens Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, in the appropriate patois and ting, onstage at no less than London’s famous 100 Club as part of a particularly memorable Karaoke Circus night. It is fair to say that my interpretation, as heartfelt and affectionate as it was, lacked a certain amount of pop and style, and was no match for the carefree unselfconsciousness of the irresistible original.

Inaccurately billing the artists as “Althia” & Donna on the original sleeve and label, Lightning was a subsidiary of Warner Bros, although the post-colonial plunder of Jamaica’s rich seam of musical ore really did help to broadcast it around it around the world, and it’s accepted now that reggae fed into punk, leading to the UK ska revival of the early 80s. Uptown Top Ranking might have seemed like a pop novelty to some in 1977 when it bogled up to the toppermost of the poppermost – two slightly cocky teens boasting of being “hip and ting” and threatening to give lecherous men a heart attack with their ’alter back (the “halter back” being a vest held up by a single strap, if you’re not fashion-inclined) – but its jerky charm is not withered by age. It feels now like an authentic explosion of youthful attitude.

Typically, it was John Peel who championed the track, and the duo, just as he did a few years later with Musical Youth, whose Pass The Dutchie was also a knee-high number one smasheroo. Although his patronage of reggae is more readily emblemised by dope-cloud dub, it’s to the great man’s credit that he was also a reggae pop-picker. As mentioned elsewhere, I was the right age circa post-punk and 2-Tone – and in the right ie. wrong place, geographically ie. Northampton – to find the West Indian influence effortlessly alluring. I can’t to this day confidently translate every romantically coloquialised couplet in Uptown Top Ranking, but you get the picture.

See me ’pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting

The protagonists’ focus on couture is paramount to the song’s trajectory. To the clothes hanger bearing “pants” (the “hot” variety we might presume) and that cardiac-risky “‘alter back”, we may add a “khaki suit”.

Meanwhile, the addition of a “likkle bass”

make me wine up me waist

Which, as any student of patois will tell you, refers to a form of dancing normally done by women, which involves gyrating the mid-section of body. Nothing to do with a glass of pinot. There are site-specific coordinates, too, which work best if you don’t look them up.

Drivin’ through Constant Spring
Them check sey me come from cosmo spring

Constant Spring is a residential district of Kingston, Jamaica, and I know this because I looked it up and that’s all its Wikipedia entry reveals other than the fact that it’s mentioned in Uptown Top Ranking. Cosmo spring? No idea. All I know now, as someone who’s not only looked up the lyric but learned it, off by heart, and sung it to a clubful of people through amplification, is that when I first heard it, in 1977, I made no effort whatsoever to understand it. I was transported by the order of its syllables, and you could just about sing along to the title, and to the manifesto line, “No pop, no style, something something roots.” It was sufficient.

Since we know for historical fact that the 1970s were a troubled decade, sexually, not least in Television Centre, where the 17- and 18-year-old Forrest and Reid performed their hit for Top Of The Pops that February, it’s reassuring to find that the pair seem so strident; their musical youthfulness appears to have escaped without patronisation or worse. That appearance, backed by a turtlenecked Top Of The Pops Orchestra who I suspect were largely non-Caribbean, survives as an organic little gem. Nothing about the packaging of the girls or their records (they followed up with an LP and further singles for Virgin’s Front Line, but none charted) seems exploitative, even in retrospect.

Althea and Donna get a writing credit along with Errol Thompson, one half of The Mighty Two with producer Joe Gibbs (the peak of whose endless studio CV must surely be Two Sevens Clash), so we might assume the young women had some input into the lyric. Let’s hope so. (The b-side of the UK issue, Calico Suit, is credited only to The Mighty Two.) Although the TOTP rendition is robbed of its roots, the vocal keeps it real, but you must return to the original recording to savour the full effect, from lazy opening rimshot to that teasing fade. But until you’ve actually learned precisely when to go “Ow!” (as in: “Watch how we chuck it and ting” “Ow!”), you’re a reggae weekender.

Ow!

America, A Horse With No Name (1971)

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Artist: America
Title: A Horse With No Name
Description: single; album track, America
Label: Warner Brothers
Release date: 1971; 1972
First heard: 1970s

There’s a strong imperative to enshrine this classic afternoon delight right now, because it’s been purloined and pillaged for use in a TV commercial for a make of car. It’s not a refusenik pose to say that I have no idea which make of car it’s advertising. Partly, I usually fast-forward through the ads; mostly, I don’t much care about makes of car. In any case, it’s something to do with a driver singing along to A Horse With No Name by America in his car, which is stuck in traffic, but he doesn’t care. I think we are supposed to divine that he doesn’t care because he’s in this particular vehicle. But surely it’s because he’s listening to A Horse With No Name, a song that can only soothe the savage breast.

My appreciation of the song is sincere, although I sense that some people consider it a bit of a joke. Written by Harrogate-born Dewey Bunnell, I’ve discovered that the other two members of the band – which famously comprised the sons of American fathers and British mothers united by the USAF base at Ruislip – didn’t much like it either, which is presumably why it was initially left off their debut LP. I have certainly made quips about Bunnell’s lyric, to whit: if I’d been through the desert on a horse with no name, one thing I’d definitely have done is name it. On paper, a line like, “There were plants and birds and rocks and things,” is lazy in the extreme – no matter what Bunnell was or wasn’t smoking – but perhaps it accurately reflects the frazzled state of the horse rider’s mind. Suitably fried in the desert sun, you might well complain that “the heat was hot.” it’s not the meaning but the rhythm of the line “there ain’t no-one for to give you no pain” that makes it so memorable. It’s a song, for singing in traffic, not a university lecture.

In any case, the lyric evokes. I didn’t even think to examine it after those first, osmotic hearings. I was right there with him, on that unchristened nag, traversing the hot sand. And I was bereft when he had to let his steed go after nine days, thus facing almost certain death by dehydration and heat stroke, unless he could land him a bird with one of those rocks or things. Its innocence is what’s beautiful about this song, which sold a million, pushed the album to the Billboard heights, landed them a best new artist Grammy, and made America massive in the land of their fathers, with hit albums throughout the 70s over there and over here, even enjoying a commercial renaissance as a duo in the 80s. And then, in 2010, A Horse With No Name was used in a Season Three episode of Breaking Bad, providing its title, Caballo sin nombre.

It was already cool to me.

Sometimes, literal is just the ticket. That this song about a horse should be made motile by a clip-clopping beat is perfect. (Ray Cooper provides the on-the-nose percussion to augment session man Kim Haworth’s drums.) The texture is acoustic guitar and plenty of it, unhindered in Cliff-linked staff producer Ian Hamwell’s production by kitchen sink. I believe the first guitar we hear is the 12-string of Gerry Beckley.

It’s Crosby, Stills & Nash. It’s Neil Young. It’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. (Many apparently thought they were listening to a new Young track at the time.) It’s what the 60s sounded like when the 70s came calling. This verdant period, with the compass set to point West and Laurel Canyon a sort of Mecca, is often dismissed as the limp, malleable epicentre of “soft rock”, but rock – and things – can’t always be hard. The sound of three young men harmonising can be as lilting and elevating as birdsong. (All songbirds can sing; but not all young men can – it deserves a round of applause.)

Bunnell sings the lead although he resists being described as the lead singer, and as if to prove why, when fellow Americans Beckley and bassist Dan Peet (sadly no longer with us, as of 2011) throw their vocal weight behind him for the first course of la-la-las, and then the second chorus, the lift is palpable. It’s a sad song, whether taken literally – in which case, a man loses his horse, gets sunburnt and finds himself in the sea – or cosmically – whereby man is clearly adrift from nature and royally screwing up the planet, running its rivers dry and self-servingly wearing out God’s creatures and this ride is a retreat back to Eden. And the melancholy tone of metaphysical ennui is exquisitely described by these uncorrupted voices. And the somersaulting strings in the bridge are actually like rain. Clever, that.

America always felt they ground their own unique blend out of the West Coast harmonies of C, S, N & Y and the British Invasion nod/wink of the Beatles – having a pretty good biodiverse claim on the Transatlantic middle – but I grew up thinking they were simply Americans, from America, writing and recording in America (the album America was, of course, recorded in London and part-written in Puddletown, Dorset), and it was always fine by me. There’s nothing British about Ventura Highway with its sunshine and chewed grass and “alligator lizards”.

Sometimes, as in Hollywood movies, America wins.

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.

Joy Division, She’s Lost Control (1979)

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Artist: Joy Division
Title: She’s Lost Control
Description: album track, Unknown Pleasures; b-side, Atmosphere
Label: Factory
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

How important were Joy Division to me? Vital. I was just getting into punk, which was really new wave or post-punk, in 1979, aged 13 going on 14, and my mind was both alive to possibilities and a closed shop to anything that I didn’t consider – or which wasn’t handed down to me as – “punk”. This was a both confusing and confirming point at which to be exposed to Joy Division, who had grown out of Manchester’s punk scene and discovered a new seam, all of their own. I didn’t live in Manchester, so I hadn’t seen them on Granada Reports or What’s On. I saw them for the first time on September 15 along with anyone outside of Lancashire, Merseyside and Cheshire: on a national BBC2 youth magazine show called Something Else, playing Transmission. You’ve seen the clip. They talk these days of “game-changers” – they talk of them way too much, actually – but this was, well, something else.

Because of the seismic cultural impact of that appearance – this haunted-looking young man Ian Curtis, who’d been on the cover of the NME at the start of the year (I’d just started buying it, my first grown-up comic), throwing shapes that had no geometric name, and repeating this mantra, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio“, while three other men, who looked like they’d just clocked off as juniors in an office, one of them with a beard, created this low, menacing industrial rumble around him – I have been tempted to name Transmission as the pinnacle of this short-lived band’s career. It is difficult to beat for a national TV debut. But then they came back on and did She’s Lost Control.

It’s weird to watch the clips again now, as I remember the appearance in black and white. It’s conceivable that I watched the show on the portable TV upstairs if Mum and Dad had been watching the news at the same time, but then again, it might just be that Joy Division, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan – and indeed, Kevin Cummins’ Manchester – will always exist in black and white. They certainly looked at home in grey shirts. But it was the one at the back, flop-fringed Stephen Morris, whose work on She’s Lost Control proved the real revelation for the budding teenage drummer, which I was at that time (I’d talk Mum and Dad into buying me a secondhand snare and cymbal off a kid at school called … Steve Morris), as he used synthesised drum pads, or “syndrums”, to create that double-handclap and space-age boink signature, and the BBC cameras allowed me a good, close look at him doing it. I was mesmerised, by his dilligence behind the kit, and by the sound he made. I was less interested in guitars, which is why I won’t have noticed that the song’s riff is played on the bass, by the man with the beard. It’s radical in so many ways.

The lyric, though, is its killer. We didn’t know then but know now that Curits was not well, and under enormous pressure at home. Within nine months, he would be dead by his own hand, sealing Joy Division’s legend forever and making their next few releases, notably and most painfully Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere, whose b-side was She’s Lost Control – eerily posthumous. (When the austerely packaged offcuts double Still came out in 1981, I was so excited to hear new material, I got my friend Dave to play me The Only Mistake down the phone, as he got hold of the LP first. That was another contender for their entry in The 143.) In death, Joy Division became a chart act, and as New Order, they emerged a pop group to rival any other in this country. But the strict Joy Division canon comprises Unknown Pleasures and Closer. And while I am a sucker for the funereal grandeur of the latter, it’s the first album that grips the throat and warms the blood (even if Peter Hook thinks it sounds like Pink Floyd and – ironically – feels that the post-punk Joe Meek, Martin Hannett, had “coloured in” their black and white sound).

Back to the lyric of She’s Lost Control. Like “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance“, it has a mantra, the title, which appears as every other line, emphasised as “she’s lost control again,” in case you didn’t get the grinding, terrifying repetition of this female protagonist’s seizures. The details Curtis adds evoke the mundanity of the symptoms of mental and physical decline: “Confusion in her eyes that says it all … she’s clinging to the nearest passer by … she gave away the secrets of her past … and a voice that told her when and where to act.” The man, ill himself, is a poet of the cracks in the human psyche. There but for the grace of some delicate chemical equilibrium, go we all: “And she turned around and took me by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost control again.'” As fellow Salfordian John Cooper Clarke intones in Beasley Street, “disaster movie stuff.”

It seems quite clear that it’s the singer himself who has “screamed out kicking on his side” and “lost control again.” He certainly expressed himself in many different ways and walked upon the edge of no escape.

Ian Curtis may not have been here for long, but his artistry and suffering cast a long shadow. View those Something Else clips, even if, like me, you think you’ve seen them enough times. Look deep into his wild, raw insomniac’s eyes and hear his cry for help.

And don’t forget to give thanks to Sumner, Hook, Morris and Hannett, without whom, we might not have known that young man’s genius.