Monday, 16 March 2015


'cause there's this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow
And I play it on repeat 

Music has always played an irreplaceable role in my life. I always knew it would be valuable arsenal and it has unceasingly proved itself to be so, although even I could not begin to imagine the level of significance or literal life-saving potential of particular vibrations inflicted on the ear drum. 

Throughout this unchartered journey, music has been omnipresent; even in its absence. During the long days of silence, it quietly lingered, serving as a painful and terrifying reminder of the brightness of a previous life, a collection of memories from a period of endless elation since extinguished. As the notes continued to crawl back into my senseless life, so it brought a return of emotion, empathy, a reintroduction to dance, a deflowering of the senses and the narrow possibility of being able to form new memories from out of the darkness in conjunction with a fresh soundtrack. 

Following the inevitable period of forced nostalgia, my musical preferences then swayed towards sounds and genres as far removed from previous inclinations as audiologically possible. 'Is this the time for a trance awakening?' I pondered, manically driving down the M5 listening to Deadmau5, ideas of a life of stimulating sounds without lyrical significance or communicative guitar unravelling from my chaotic mind. 

Needless to say, as with many of my thoughts, schemes and plans for survival during this time, they were soon disregarded with as much indifference as I bestowed upon each waking morning. 

New albums came and went with a similar ebb and flow, nothing touching the sides or grabbing me by the balls as had previously been the case. Perhaps music, my faithful companion, would always walk alongside me but never again guide me to the earth rattling summit of yesteryear. 

I was unforeseeably fortunate; beyond the possibilities of any existence...the joy of a thousand universes chose to cross my path. Music was there to accentuate the vibrations simulated by my other senses as a new tide washed in at the break of the year. Through the limitless medium of love and emotion, I was teleported back to the summer haze of a 17 year old; a blissful whirlwind of teenage bedroom walls, seas never previously sailed, stolen kisses and a once familiar world given a shining lick of technicolor paint. Such experiences require soundtracks, and it was certainly a surprise to me that my world began shaking and spinning to the masterful notes of Arctic Monkey's AM. 

Fitting in many ways, perhaps most notably because during my chronological seventeenth year within this dimension, I spent hours swooning over the Arctic Monkeys as a revelation of musical greatness; an encouraging contemporary presence in the league of important musicians, the majority of which for me were long since passed or disbanded. 

Funny then, that in 2015, as an exciting and stimulating world exposed itself to me, with all the wonder of not just having access to the portal into a second wave of teenage kicks, but a magical creature to share them with, that the Arctic Monkeys would be the record spinning in the corner while the madness unfolded. 

Everything about their album AM is perfect. Everything from the binary artwork; a simplistic masterpiece which offers an ideal visual representation of what lies within; nothing at all unnecessary, with the musical and lyrical content of an album that has been downloaded directly from the cosmos.

Opening with 'Do I Wanna Know?', you are instantly taken into the seedy, sexy world of Alex Turner's late night philanderings, roaming the streets in a pent up rage of sexual dissatisfaction and unquenchable lust. The perfect soundtrack to nocturnal nights and the collision of two souls;

'Do I wanna know if this feeling flows both ways?' 



Don't stop. 

As the beautifully haunting and paranoid album continues to unravel its glittering threads, the predatory leers continue with 'R U Mine?'. A desperate lurch at love in a world where romanticism is dripping down the walls in an alloyed mess with creativity and self-respect. The addictive and blistering riff accompanies me daily, summoned either through the nearest speaker system or the fret board of my accomplice's Fender. The tangled loop of Alex Turner's resulting despair at being unable to answer the burning question 'R U Mine?' paves the way for the album's continued sinful throws of horny, bleary and frightful thoughts. As it soars on, the songs stay true to the Arctic Monkey's early material, yet a sleeker, more self-lacerating style is born, carried with the swagger and maturity of a band circling the peak of their creative mountain. As AM continues to surpass sweaty night clubs to the early hours, the newly leathered-up Arctic Monkeys bring their fresh take on the classic rock image and sound into a new era. 

Jumping forward to the closing track; 'I Wanna Be Yours' is a painstakingly awaited response to the question of the opening two songs. A brilliantly modern use of prevalent commercialism, ironically stolen from 1982, to express the deepest love. A hypnotic monologue of lasting devotion, a battle cry for people to love each other more than their cars and domestic items. An absolutely perfect way to end the album; three minutes and four seconds of bliss that can only be followed by awestruck silence and a lustful kiss. Personally, there is currently no other song which conjures such joyful thoughts or so effectively encapsulates this golden period. 

While my concept of time and space continues to be meddled with, it is bizarrely fitting that this adoration comes two years after AM's release date. Almost ten years too late to be the album that would sit securely in the hands of my seventeen year old prototype, and yet a divinely conceived soundscape for this journey. An album that slots comfortably and deservedly into the pantheon of records that I have chosen to carry through this life and have on regular rotation. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Unrelenting Genius of Pete Doherty and Babyshambles

Back to blogging. It's been a while since I've written anything, but then I have no desire to force out words over music that doesn't get my pulse racing, and it has indeed been a while since an album has emerged from the murky, unreliable undercurrent of the 21st century music industry and, to my utmost pleasure, unapologetically smashed me around the face. As I stroll through life, I often try to make sense of myself via the medium of song. If I find life particularly taxing at any given moment, the chances are that I'm lacking the solace; the private empathetic and inspirational weapon that I inject into my ear drums and utilise as a survival technique to deal with anything that comes my way. Fortunately for me then that Babyshambles' latest offering; Sequel to the Prequel, came about just at the crucial moment that I could use Mr Doherty's special brand of gentlemanly, intellectual punk-poetry to wistfully strut around to.

Sequel to the Prequel has it all. It generously delivers everything that we've learnt to expect from a Babyshambles album; great riffs, tattoo-ably brilliant lyrics, raw attitude and the kind of swagger that, with a few exceptions, we have not really been treated to since the heady rock n' roll golden ages of yesteryear. With this album comes the poignant reminder that music like this does not come along every day, and when listening to Sequel to the Prequel for the first time, it was a joyous end to a musical drought that I didn't even realise was raging. Pete Doherty has once again proven himself to be the ring master of it all; a remorseless hunter of hedonism and a loveable rogue with a lifeblood of creativity pulsing through every (other) vein. Time and time again the world has been guilty of questioning whether he has taken things too far this time; 'has the genius dried up?' a thousand ignorant journalists ask in futile rhetoric, and the answer is of course; no. His lifestyle breeds inspiration and creativity, and thankfully his unique talent to act as the satellite for these moonstruck thoughts and experiences means that we all get to revel in his exploits.

The album is fantastic. There's not a great deal to say apart from; listen to it yourself. Listen to it as you walk through the crisp autumn air, listen to it on buses, play it unreasonably loud from park benches, listen to it in the dark, put it on when you're lying in bed alone, put it on when you're lying in bed together. It's got it all. The ballsy opener of Fireman is an old school punk anthem, unexpected and sloppy but in that unique and loveable Babyshambles way. While the lead single Nothing Comes to Nothing isn't them at their best, it still has it's own merit and is a prime example of Pete's hopeless romantic side, full of longing and self-contradiction; 'nothing ever comes to nothing without my baby/nothing's ever good for nothing with that lady'. 

Personally, it's track three and onward that has elbowed this album into becoming a permanent tool in my enduring arsenal.  Every song that follows has it's own excellent cocktail to bring to the party; often reminiscent of their older works but in a great way; a way that quenches your thirst and adds to the hunger for more Babyshambles, not in a way that so many bands have done recently by churning out what sounds like an alternative take on their one (off) masterpiece. Songs like New Park and Maybeline are so undeniably born of this band and yet so satisfyingly fresh that twenty-five or so listens later I'm still getting kicks off every note. The obligatory 'Shambles interlude - Sequel to the Prequel - actually manifests into a full on piece of artistry which left me feeling a fool for dismissing it as another Pentonville. 

While it's hard not to discuss every song, I shall attempt not to in respect of my own loathing for those awful reviews which dissect albums like insects in a Petrie dish instead of appreciating them as they were intended; a fifty-ish minute experience built for your sensual pleasure. A special mention must go out to my three favourite tracks however (at least, my three favourites at this incredibly specific moment at 8.49pm on Monday 16th September 2013); Dr No where the band once again bring their unique reggae inspired sound to the forefront, Penguins which contains some of the most outstandingly simple and yet undeniably perfect lyrics I've heard for a long while; 'I really don't like your boyfriend's face/and I'm going to try and take his place', and finally; Minefield. I would go as far as to rate Minefield as the best song of 2013. Seriously. The guitar is so deeply sexual, the lyrics so penetrating, the eruption of the song so volcanic - all I want to do when I listen to this song is lose my shit in a sweaty club, safe in the knowledge that nothing outside of that moment in space and time will ever matter. 

Listen to it. 

When one reaches the end of the deluxe version to find a typically endearing Doherty cover of the Velvet Underground's After Hours, it is hard to want any more from life. After Hours has, for many years, been a fantastic song, and while the lyrics are so dreamily spot-on, encapsulating a feeling and a moment in time that is all so perfect - this version injects a little more joy to the occasion, not leaving you feeling quite so dirty about never wanting to see the day again. Although still a little dirty, obviously. 

In conclusion, there is no disappointment to be found within the rich, expansive lands of Sequel to the Prequel. There are wonders and surprises to be found in every song, with every listen. Like all the best lyricists, Pete's words are layered in such a way that you can find a new favourite line for each hour of the day, and then some. In my wildest desires a more perfect soundtrack to these uncertain autumn months could not have fallen into my hands, and the fact that it was delivered by the majestic Doherty - a man who once told me I had powerful eyes as he smoked my menthol cigarette in a dark Camden doorway - makes it all the more delicious. I now anticipate the arrival of this audio in it's most attractive twelve inch physical format, when I shall revel in discovering it all over again.

Turn off those lights. Here's Minefield;

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Sugar Man (and other lost treasures)

And you can keep your symbols of success,
Then I’ll persue my own happiness.
And you can keep your clocks and routines,
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams.
Maybe today, I’ll slip away.

A long time has passed since I last dedicated an afternoon to writing this blog, and it is in no way due to a lack of things to write about. Music is usually the one thing that gets me to sit down and splurge my thoughts on to the nearest keyboard, however recently there have been a number of things going on in my life which have prevented me from doing so. Over the past year one thing that I was afforded the brilliant opportunity to do was work in a record shop; a pleasure which in light of recent developments with HMV/Fopp may not be an opportunity much longer. While I have much to say on the subject, and feel that the physical high-street music emporium is long to be of prime importance, I do not have the intention of discussing that here; at least not today. Instead, I wish to comment that during my term working there I was reminded that new, brilliant and innovative music is constantly there for the taking – if one only wishes to seek it out. I have also enjoyed thoroughly submerging myself in the works of incredible musicians whose masterpieces have decorated the shelves of record shops and loving households for numerous years and decades, but I had regretfully not totally appreciated before for one reason or another; most probably because I was busy overplaying whoever else I happened to be consumed by at the time. I am now very pleased to say that my record collection has grown to include wonderful albums by outstanding musical talents new and old, including Tame Impala, The Black Angels, Neil Young, Joy Division, Band of Skulls, Kraftwerk and Tycho to name but a few. I feel incredibly fortunate that these will now permanently hold their place in my collection and life’s soundtrack.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the reason I find myself sitting here today is due to the - until recently - untapped genius of Sitxo Rodriguez. For those of you who have been lucky enough to watch the heartening documentary ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ which was released late last year, you will appreciate how one can feel so inspired by the wonderful story of discovery and quiet appreciation for the elusive musician. However, if you have not had the pleasure of watching this enlightening film then it makes no odds, for the music itself is a standalone masterpiece. When you listen to the simple, transcendent music that was recorded between 1969-1970 in Detroit, it is hard to imagine that it hasn’t been invading your consciousness frequently for years, and provides much the same familiarity as listening to a Dylan album or something of equal exposure. The lyrics are so direct and still so relevant forty years on,  it’s easy to see why South Africa adopted the songs as anthems for their fight for freedom against apartheid. Very occasionally I feel that one has the pleasure of stumbling across an album or piece of music so brilliant and natural that it is hard to imagine that it ever needed to be written – for that would mean that at one time it was not in existence – but you instead feel as though it has always been out there somewhere, and that someone merely had the fortune and talent to successfully download it from the cosmos. Rodriguez's music slips into that category.

His songs, born out of 60s America, are psychedelic masterpieces drenched in colour and inspired by life, love, poverty and rebellion .While the music itself was somehow sucked into a black hole, what's more intriguing is that its maker - a shadowy figure known as Rodriguez - was, for many years, lost too. Rediscovered decades later working on a Detroit building site, unaware that his songs had become not only cult classics, but for the people of South Africa, a beacon of revolution. It’s a magical listen, filled with tales of bad drugs, lost love, and itchy-footed songs about life in late 60s inner-city America; as demonstrated by the Dylan-esque Establishment Blues;

Gun sales are soaring
Housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer
Smoking causes cancer

However, the music sank without trace, thanks, in part, to some of Rodriguez’s more idiosyncratic behaviour; like performing at an industry showcase with his back to the audience throughout. As his music career became a memory, Rodriguez’s legend was growing on the other side of the world. In South Africa he had become a major word-of-mouth success by some odd chance of a young girl taking his LP with her from America to visit her boyfriend, and caught on particularly amongst young people who identified with its counter-cultural themes. But Rodriguez was such an enigma not even his label knew where to find him, and his demise became the subject of vast intrigue. Some rumours said he’d died of a heroin overdose or burned himself to death on stage, and for a long time this looked to mark the end of the mysterious tale. But the tide began to turn in the 90s, when a group of fans and journalists set out to get to the bottom of the mystery. After many dead ends, Rodriguez was found alive, well and free in Detroit, ending years of speculation. Rodriguez himself had no idea about his fame in South Africa (the album had gone multi-platinum, yet he had seen no royalties), and a triumphant South African tour followed, filling huge venues across the country. It is now thanks to the worldwide success of the film ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ that he is at last receiving some of the appreciation he deserves; and will subsequently be found playing at Glastonbury festival this summer.

What is so fascinating about his story is that it represents all the other untapped talent that exists out there; and this is what inspired me to write this today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Rodriguez is the most talented musician and his artistic outputs will change your life (although they may well); it is much more understated and far-reaching than that. But if such brilliant music can remain buried for over forty years then this has huge implications for all the other amazing music that is out there just waiting to be discovered. There is endless hope that we shall be blessed with rich musical talent for eternity, and that in itself is an incredibly heart-warming and uplifting thought.

I Wonder:

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Musically Crippled and Tongue-Tied

Following the acknowledgement that I hadn’t written on this blog for quite some time, I was faced with the dilemma of where to place the blame for this act of negligence. Was I bored of writing? No. Were my days totally full to the brim with more important, unavoidable tasks? Certainly not. Had my growing cereal addition finally got the better of me? Not yet. As this pointless stream of consciousness continued, the conundrum of my lost words playing heavily on my mind, I suddenly became all too aware of the answer as it filled the air around me.

From out of my speakers, the familiar sound of The Smiths.

Morrissey has quite literally, ruined me. Having long been aware of The Smiths and the hype that surrounds them, for years I had never really been bothered enough to give them a listen, sticking it on my musical ‘to-do’ list, along with getting into Janis Joplin and  listening to the Pink Floyd albums that no one talks of. Perhaps it was through intuition that I knew it would be dangerous for me and so avoided them for so long, in the same way that some people choose never to smoke crack, i.e.with good reason. But all I can say is thank god I did put it off until the age of 23. If Morrissey had worked his wicked magic on me at the age of say, 16, my life would probably be considerably worse and less enriched right now. I would have had seven less years of musical enjoyment; I would’ve never gone to gigs, made friends, read books or eaten Indian food.

What I’m trying to say is; since properly getting turned on to The Smiths about six months ago, my interest in any other artists has all but diminished, along with the desire to write about music. What more is there to say?! The Smiths are music. Why even bother making more music? We’ve got all we need. We can just listen to that now. What’s the point?!

Of course I’m exaggerating (kind of), but once you realise how incredible The Smiths and Morrissey are, it’s really impossible to imagine how you could ever feel the same about any other band ever again, or even get real enjoyment from other music. Now, I am all too aware of my very strong tendency to slip into intense periods of irrational and unhealthy fanaticism about musicians or bands, but this is different. I knew things were getting serious when I found myself apologising to friends for my repetitive music choices, and often favouring silence if I couldn’t listen to The Smiths, or even silence in preference to lying to myself that I would make another music choice when it was obviously an impossibility. Managing to ween myself off temporarily with Morrissey’s solo efforts - an act as effective as giving methadone to a heroin addict - I was soon back on the hard stuff. Even my inexpressive musical equipment was beginning to look jaded at their thankless task of playing the same six albums over and over again. My faceless ipod looking me in the eyes as if to say MUST WE LISTEN TO STRANGEWAYS ONE MORE TIME?!! WHAT ABOUT THE BEATLES?! YOU USED TO LIKE THEM

At the epicentre of this unhealthy obsession, we find Morrissey. A man for whom my love grows greater each and every day. Sporting a quiff, hearing aid and NHS glasses, he's a man who defies all the norms of what is required of a ‘cool’ frontman;  yet these signifiers of the 'anti-cool' are pulled off so impeccably, that he consequently became a style icon like no other. His obsession with the kitchen-sink reality of England, cult film stars and figures from sixties British popular culture influenced much of the visual imagery associated with the band, and made Morrissey an even greater antithesis of the typical frontman.

Amongst the many reasons why he is so worthy of such adoration, is the simple fact that no one else has ever spun lyrics which even vaguely compare to the lines of Morrissey’s crafting.

And the people who are weaker than you or I,
They take what they want from life.

His subject matter, phrasing, depth of suggestion and ability to capture a feeling, thought or emotion effortlessly is unprecedented, and the perfectly balanced dance between wit and darkness is his alone. Not only that, but to have successfully remained an enigma and subject of such intrigue after thirty years in the public eye is an amazing, rare achievement. His decision to give nothing away has made him the most intriguing character; using his time with the press not to hand out every little detail of his life like cheap flyers - as so many do - but to discuss animal rights, condemn the monarchy, highlight the idiocy and irrelevance of politicians, and other such incredibly important things which need to be said by someone in the public eye. Naturally such assertions have also ensured that he's accrued his fair share of haters, but then all the best people are those that piss others off for one reason or another.

No wonder people from every demographic can be found hurling themselves at Morrissey during any live performance, for it does feel like he understands. For every possible occurrence that could happen in life, Morrissey has already written the soundtrack and the lyric that will not only sum up exactly how you feel, but make you feel incredibly grateful to have felt that way; be it good or bad.

If you have never experienced The Smiths fixation, then you would be justified in your confusion over the negative, almost resentful way that I have described it here. But while it can be crippling, intense and socially awkward, it is also wonderful; and comfort can be found in knowing that at the age of 23, I have probably found the best band I will ever hear - and that's okay - because their music is now mine to enjoy, forever.

Here is Panic.

Listen at your peril.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Nostalgic Mumblings of a Homesick Time-Traveller

Whilst finishing up the last few pages of ‘John’ by Cynthia Lennon, the latest in a long line of books that I have read in the hope that people’s words and memories can successfully – if temporarily – transport me back to the glorious 1960s, I reached the conclusion that; I am old. While this may not be true if one is measuring the abstract concept of time in the conventional way, as by that dubious yardstick I would be deemed a mere twenty-three years old, I am talking more in the musical sense.

Nostalgia is a weird, wonderful, troubling and powerful thing, and a curse that I struggle with a lot. There are times where I have found myself almost crippled by the desire to exist at a time when people, society, music and attitudes were more similar to my own interests and ideals. Of course, whether such a time ever really existed is uncertain, and I’m not denying that much of my personal torment has been caused by peering through the glorious rose-tinted glasses of hindsight.

I noted the other day, as I was reading through various definitions and tales of nostalgia in attempt to sooth my own raging bout, that the first synonym that appeared for nostalgic was homesick. I like this. This allows me to believe that I am actually from another time and that I should be turning twenty-four not in 2012, but in 1969, having spent the previous five years of my adult life submerged in the colourful, liberating, experimental and optimistic cultural waves that were crashing around everyone like a tsunami of awakening. However, by some misfortune, I have ended up far away from home in the complicated, digitalised world of the 21st Century, struggling to find the portal which will deliver me safely back to the part of myself which cavorts and frolics there as we speak.

I’m sure I am not the only one who has been lost to the complex voids of time travel, and if my geographical navigational skills are anything to go by, it is hardly surprising that I find myself so far from home, a bit confused and entirely unsure as to what I came here for in the first place.

There is a great deal of evidence to support the strength of my age-related epiphany, not least to be found in the music that I listen to and repeatedly praise and obsess about on a daily basis. While the majority of my musical intake comes courtesy of a record collection, my hope being that somewhere between the needle and the vinyl there will be room for me to slip back to the homeland, even by other more 21st Century means of listening to music the majority would be pre-1995. This therefore leads me to believe that I have the listening habits of someone between the ages of thirty-five and seventy.

This is why I feel old before my time. I spend my days thinking to myself that all this popular music is rubbish, just insignificant churning shod; noise pumped out to the useless farting masses. Now, obviously music is subjective, and if it brings joy to people/morons then there's not much I can do about it. I'd never wish shit music didn't exist. It can be a useful tool in determining whether someone is a vibrant, interesting person or y'know; a JLS fan.

Now, obviously I am not saying that good, new music doesn’t exist, and indeed it can be found in abundance if one only looks under the right mossy rock. Nor do I not love many things about my life and the wonderful people I have met here in 2012. Where possible, I deal with my homesickness by spending time with other people who may also feel like they too have been born in a time that is not entirely their own, strong in the knowledge that if we all want it badly enough time can be transcended. Besides, it is only through our acceptance of time as a concrete a notion which suggests that we cannot in fact choose to exist in any moment we so desire. Time is irrelevant after all, not linear.

In the meantime, I continue to submerge myself in words written by those lucky people who know for certain that they existed at the time to which I feel such a connection. Cynthia Lennon, Pamela Des Barres, Patti Boyd, Mick Rock, Pauline Butcher, Nick Kent, Elliot Tiber and Cameron Crowe – thank you for providing the mind raft for such a vivid and sensual journey back through time.

Fortunately for me, alongside the realisation that I am old comes the brilliant awareness that I am also incredibly young. While the homesickness for a previous age lingers within me, rearing its head sometimes more powerfully than others, I am confident that at some point I will find myself back at the moment in which I belong. And in the meantime, I might as well enjoy the holiday for all it’s worth.

A song to transport you...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

80s Cool

Pronunciation: /eɪtis kuːl/
In reference to something fashionably attractive or impressive within the decade beginning 1st January 1980 and ending 31st December 1989 inclusively, or that which exists in a different time but bares many of the same attributes. Commonly judged with a lower expectation of ‘cool’ than that which appears in other decades, however definitely brilliant in its own way.
i.e.           Wow, doesn’t Boy George look so cool in that long t-shirt and waistcoat combo?

I speak about 80s cool in this manner, because it certainly is a thing. Its own thing. A brilliant thing, but a very different thing to the central idea of cool that one draws upon when discussing say, Grace Slick, Nico, Jim Morrison or Brett Anderson. Primarily because they exist outside of the realms of that magical anomaly of a decade.

The brilliant thing about 80s cool is that it had the ability to absorb and overcome even those incredibly cool characters that strutted confidently out of the 70s, calm and unsuspecting of the reinvention that this decade would involuntarily be causing them. I call upon David Bowie as exhibit a) in this argument.

Perhaps the coolest man to ever walk the planet, a pioneer. A man who, by 1979, had securely held the world in his hands for over seven years… whatever he wore, however he cut his hair, whichever style he chose to adopt into his music, the rest would eagerly follow. Sure, it is worth acknowledging that in holding out until 1983, Bowie did stay strong for longer than most, but once the 80s cool had penetrated his Godlike mind, there was simply no turning back.

1983’s Let’s Dance album is great. The title track is incredible, and there are no words to describe how brilliant and fresh it sounds when one has the rare pleasure of hearing it on a night out. However, what makes the album so brilliant as an example of 80s cool is that from the very opening chords of the first track; Modern Love one can initially tell that we are a world (and a decade) away from the effortlessly cool albums such as Station to Station or Low. The Serious Moonlight tour which followed in a whirlwind of inflatable globes and egos, Blues Brothers-esque dancers, confetti and dry ice served as further evidence in the trial of Bowie’s subjection to this powerful disease, and while he certainly was not alone; the effects for the King of Cool were devastating. By 1988 after two disappointing albums and typically 80s style stadium tours, he decided it was a good idea to front a hard rock band called Tin Machine who need no further explanation than what can be deducted from this photograph;

Fortunately for Bowie, once enough time had passed for the 80s to become a shadowy memory, he was once again restored to his pedestal and those who love him dearly began to aggressively repress the knowledge and memories which stem from this dark period.

Meanwhile, the curse affected others in different ways. While some, like Bowie, had already proved themselves and were thus able to easily shake off the virus by the mid-1990s, others owed their entire career and success to riding this wave, and are subsequently doomed to be associated with this phenomenon for as long as the human race survives. Rick Astley, Phil Collins, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw, Dire Straits, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Sade, Huey Lewis and The News, Culture Club. I’m looking at you.

It is no coincidence that the majority of the aforementioned crusaders of 80s cool performed at the Live Aid concerts on 13th July 1985, as this happened in the midst of the decade and as a result, documents all of our favourite 80s cool offenders at the absolute peak of their crimes. A sea of mullets, hoards of backstage cocaine, synthesisers everywhere you look, shoulder pads, back combed hair, bright make-up and a generous helping of Princess Diana – this was 80s excess at its best. With his bid to raise money for Ethiopian famine, Bob Geldof not only managed to raise £150 million, but he also facilitated the most accurate and detailed documentary proof of the 80s cool epidemic that was sweeping mercilessly across western culture.

In reeling off a list of those characters who I consider innately woven into the fabric of the 80s cool phenomenon, I in no way mean to imply that this is necessarily a bad thing. For example; Duran Duran, Dire Straits and Spandau Ballet are all brilliant and still heavily featured and loved over twenty years since the end of the decade to which they owe so much. I say owe, because while these three bands in particular are amazing, they are undeniably a product of their time, and would have certainly never reached the dizzying heights that they did were it not for the 80s backdrop – a time when the parameters of what is considered cool were very much off kilter.

By the very nature of this decade, even arguably the coolest band of the time were by all other standards, pretty uncool. Their frontman - a tee-total, celibate, vegetarian – hardly evokes images of a tortured soul of rock n’ roll excess, which had previously provided the blueprint for what is deemed cool within the music industry. How typical of this decade that it’s coolest musical output should be so far removed from what every other generation has considered the height of cool. The genius of The Smith’s music however, is certainly not capped by the potential of its inhabited decade, as it still stands as incredible and defiant over much of the music made before or since. Not only that, but in causing people to completely rethink the guitar as an instrument for understated yet beautiful expression, Johnny Marr successfully paved the way for the Britpop explosion of 1990s (an entire movement dedicated to cool Britannia) and provided the guidelines for what we now know as indie music.

The Smiths ability to stand out from the rest of the 80s offerings as something other was no coincidence. Their deviation away from pomp and excess, both in terms of music, behaviour and image, was all part of Morrissey’s plan from the get-go. The name The Smiths was intentionally as far removed from the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or Spandau Ballet as conceivably possible, both of which the frontman considered insanely pretentious. Meanwhile, the plain clothes and signature quiff haircut offered a stark visual contrast to the extravagant high-fashion of the new romantics that they so desperately wanted to distance themselves from.

While 80s nostalgia lives on and fond glances are cast back to a time when bright colours and excess became the new beige, one cannot help but be thankful that decades and the trends which define them are confined to the obligatory ten years. Eventually we found ourselves out the other side, riding the wave of The Stone Roses’ 1989 release into an era where the style/substance balance would be re-established and affordable pills and stripped-down music brought satisfaction to youth culture in a way that high-priced cocaine and shoulder pads never could.

The 80s provided lots of great music; that is undeniable. I would hate not to mention The Cure, or indeed to overlook the entire fascinating movement of dark synth and gothic to which we owe so much wonderful music. The very nature of the outlandish decade meant that extremes never seemed that extreme, and the ability to shock with appearance was greatly reduced. The Cure are yet another band that greatly owe the success of their image to the time in which they lived; for in what other decade would a chubby goth in big white trainers be placed at the height of cool? A justified question, yet in it’s very asking, serves to demonstrate exactly what made the 80s such a fantastic decade.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Cover Songs : Walking The Tightrope

A song is anything that can walk by itself – Bob Dylan

In order to create a good song, a song that connects with others and somehow manages to tap into the common consciousness of a moment and become worthy of adoption by the populace as a theme tune to their lives, it is usually necessary for the songwriter to give a little of their soul to the cause. In writing a song, the writer is offering the chance for others to have a small window into their innermost core, they are laying themselves bare for scrutiny, for rejection, and making a gamble as to whether others can tap into whatever emotion they have chosen to make public.

As a result of all these factors and emotional investments, the act of covering someone else’s song is therefore something that should not be taken lightly, and goes a little way to explaining why cover versions can often sound cheap and lifeless. It is one thing for an artist or band to take a song and inject their own twist on the emotions and words originally presented, bringing to the table a whole new wealth of experience and delivering the piece and it’s history to a whole new genre and audience, but when we see (as we so often do), songs which are covered purely for financial gain and an easy ‘hit’, it is somewhat disheartening to see someone’s personal efforts cheapened and churned out like a soulless business transaction. You can almost picture the sterile business meeting that has occurred among the big-wigs of the record label, propositioning a new talentless artist with a masterpiece of yesteryear with little or no regard for the piece of art as personal property, no consideration for the life events, emotions or people who played a part in the original inspiration of the song. No thought for the moment in time where those words and ideas were first scratched upon paper and set free like a caged bird to find their own way in the world.

Putting a song out there for public consumption must be a great yet terrifying act of faith, and in doing so one must hope that their brainchild is treated with respect. It is a shame therefore, that often the songwriter loses all ownership of their work and it is often down to the people in suits to decide where, and being sung from whose mouths, these fragments of themselves will end up.

With these thoughts in mind, I have been compiling a list of cover versions which I believe do the original songs (and their writers) justice, and others for which the motives and the finished piece sound more as though they have taken a piece of genius and aggressively stamped all over it, reducing it to a mere one-dimensional version of it’s original self. However, that is not to say that a cover version does not have the potential to completely outshine the original and provide it with something that it was previously lacking, as though the second set of hands it falls into are able to have a strange insight into what the original required in order to take it to a whole new level. On these occasions, it is as though a number of factors have been brought into perfect alignment, serving to demonstrate a global level of understanding between human beings; that people from different eras and backgrounds can somehow work together to make something incredible.

Below I give mention to six songs; three of them being brilliant covers, and three not so great. In compiling this collection I was pleasantly surprised to note that I found it much easier to think of the positive examples (possibly due to the choice to ignore anything related to the X Factor as they are too big an offender to even begin discussing, or because one probably represses the memory of hearing a song they know and love being absolutely disrespected). Also, it is worth mentioning that while Bob Dylan’s work does not appear in this list, his incredible song writing has ensured for a number of brilliant (and not so) covers over the last forty years, however it is simply that there is not one song in particular that I could decide upon to discuss below.

Three brilliant cover versions;

Placebo – Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush)
As one notes when observing a great songwriter like Kate Bush, the potential for a brilliant cover version is already heightened due to the quality and malleability of the original piece. Placebo’s version of Running Up That Hill is incredible, adding a whole new dark and brooding twist to the song, with Brian Molko’s delivery of the line ‘make a deal with God’ sounding more like he is making a pact with the devil. The thunderous electrical take on the piano and drums ensure this cover sounds a lot more downbeat than the original, a lot more pained, as though a fresh input of suffering is being filtered through each and every note in the struggle to understand the person that the protagonist has fallen in love with, but the fact that they are of a different gender makes this empathy so difficult.

The White Stripes – Jolene (Dolly Parton)
It is always great when a cover version completely surpasses its original genre, as this is the most likely way for a song to reach an entirely new audience. The White Stripes are quite the masters at the art of brilliant cover versions, partly due to the respect with which they treat the original, and because of Jack White’s desire to nod to various influences in a respectful manner. It is always amazing when a cover manages to bring light and excitement to a song which perhaps, would have otherwise gone unappreciated by many people due to the nature and genre of the original. What The White Stripes have achieved here, is getting a new generation of music lovers singing a country song from 1974 at the top of their lungs, indulging in the heartfelt pain of a wife singing to her husband’s mistress not to steal him from her.

Johnny Cash – Hurt (Nine Inch Nails)
Johnny Cash’s take on the 1995 song by Nine Inch Nails has got to be one of the finest examples of how songs have the potential to be approached from an entirely different angle, thus giving the words and sentiments entirely new perspective and meaning. For example, hearing the words “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”, sung by a thirty year old has an incredibly different effect than by a man of seventy one with severe health problems and – in hindsight – only several months to live. The power and emotion behind Johnny Cash’s performance in this song is so potent it can reduce you to tears; the fact that he wasn’t the one to actually write the words seems entirely irrelevant, for what he brings to the table is so much more. The great genius of this song also lies in the fact it was somewhat unknown in its original state, particularly in the UK, and Johnny Cash has taken what was otherwise a far from outstanding song and made it into four minutes of utter magic, and an ode to the vulnerability and mortality of human existence.

(During the research for this piece I also discovered that Leona Lewis recorded a cover of this song in a vain attempt at Christmas number one last year. While I hope I never hear it, this goes to demonstrate the thoughtlessness and lack of respect that can so often exist when it comes to selecting a song to cover. What on earth could a twenty-six year old who’s been handed the world on a plate ever bring to this song?)

Three questionable cover versions;

Mark Ronson ft. Daniel Merriweather – Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (The Smiths)
An incredibly insulting cover, particularly when one considers that Daniel Merriweather is on record as saying he was entirely unfamiliar with the original song and that he was ‘never a Smiths fan’; so why does he feel he has the right to ruin it for everyone else? A prime example of a song which has been covered, and in the act of doing so, any emotion or weight that the original carried has been duly compressed into a flat piece of ‘sound’ for consumption by the iTunes generation. The concept of bringing disco vibes to a song by The Smiths should surely have been shot down at the first hurdle (and as I have mentioned before, a change of genre is brilliant when covering…if it works, which this explicitly does not). One must surely hope that if Morrissey had been given any say in the matter, he would have prevented it from happening and released a tirade of insults on Mark Ronson and his one-man quest to cover every song ever written (on the subject of which, what was Valerie all about? It wasn’t even a good song in the first place).

David Bowie – Across The Universe (The Beatles)
Perhaps an odd choice, but I chose this example because it demonstrates how, even when a number of great things come together on paper and it looks as though something good could come of it, the reality is often very different. Now you could argue that the fault here lies in an attempt of covering a song by The Beatles (which is obviously never a good idea), however as a huge fan of both them and David Bowie, upon first sitting down to listen to this song I was guilty of anticipating something wonderful - particularly when one considers John Lennon is actually featured on Bowie’s version, and it was done entirely with his blessing. However, what ensues is actually an absolute atrocity, and I warn you now; never listen to this version. Much to my dismay, it not only provides an incredibly unpleasant listening experience, but it has also ruined the original for me. The effects are that far-reaching. It’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is so offensive about this song, but what it does demonstrate is that the volatile nature of covering another man’s art means that some kind of unfathomable alignment needs to occur for it to pay off, and even when every other factor is seemingly in place, success is far from guaranteed.

Ed Sheeran – Skinny Love (Bon Iver)
Now, without this blog turning into a hate campaign against Ed Sheeran, I simply had to include this example as it best represents the crime of covering another’s song but leaving absolutely no trace or stamp of personality on it, thus rendering the whole experience utterly pointless. Therefore, what Ed Sheeran has chosen to do with his cover, is inflict a lot of unpleasantness on others for no real purpose. Bon Iver’s original from 2007 is a truly magical song, and it is incredibly insulting to hear Ed Sheeran dilute it to a level of disposable trash, with the usual jerky guitar and croaky voice that we have heard a million times from his like before.

One of the cover songs’ most wonderful qualities is also its downfall. While, when done correctly, a cover version could inspire the listener to hunt down the original and thus open the possibility of discovering a new band, artist or album that they would have otherwise been unaware of, they also have the ability to lead people to believe the version they hear is the only one in existence. Imagine a whole new generation being brought up to think that Hallelujah is a song by Alexandra Burke. I just hope that any one with a vague amount of interest in music will have done their homework and learnt that such things are simply untrue.

To return to the Bob Dylan quote at the beginning of this entry; “a song is anything that can walk by itself”, this illustrates that a good song has the power to head out into the world and carve it’s own journey, have it’s own experiences and take on a life of it’s own apart from that of the original creator. I believe that good songs are not written, but they are given as a gift to the songwriter, that the person in question was at the right place at the right time and were subsequently able to channel something from the universe in order to convert an emotion or experience into musical format. While this maybe an incredibly romanticised way to view the whole thing, it does mean that anyone who chooses to cover a song should not take the decision lightly for it is a huge responsibility, and to abuse the song’s trust is simply criminal.

Here is Johnny Cash with Hurt: 

My Zimbio