Monthly Archives: January 2017

Write Here, Write Now: 30 – Rainy Days and Mondays

The Carpenters – Rainy Days and Mondays. It’s Monday and it’s been raining, so this song comes up on my radar.

Apart from Beethoven, there wasn’t much in the way of recorded music in our house, growing up in the seventies in rural Worcestershire. A few cassettes – Beach Boys, Bread, Bay City Rollers, The Wombles and The Carpenters – got played and replayed – well, not the Bread album, but the others, in particular the Beach Boys and The Carpenters. Cheerful pop songs with weird lines about ‘Sloop John B’ and optimistic ones about singing and being on top of the world – easy to sing along to  – without needing to understand the words, when you’re under 10.

Then later, The Carpenters were very uncool, as I got into heavy rock and adolescence. the epitome of easy listening – manufactured music with no grit, I thought – what they play on Radio 2.

And then, as is always the case, the wheel turns, and with Sonic Youth dedicating a song to Karen Carpenter and her drumming skills brought to the fore, re-evaluation was in order. But I think I had heard the songs too often as a child to be able to hear them with fresh ears. It was enough that prejudice against them was dissolved – I didn’t need to listen to them again.

However, listening to the song tonight, apart from a slight aversion to the harmonica, which puts me in mind of the worst sentimentalisms of Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick (That’s What Friends are For), the parping saxophone and the wall of strings, and possibly the backing vocals, I quite like it. I know that doesn’t leave much in the way of the music, but the subdued drums, the piano and organ fills and the bass gently upholding Karen’s voice are pretty fine. And even the bits that initially turn me off, are intrinsic to the song -they just need a bit of adjusting to.

And then there are Karen’s vocals themselves. Is there a tradition of happy songs with themes of mental desperation? The Beatles ‘Help’, Leonard Cohen ‘Diamonds in The Mine’. Is this perversity, black humour, a cry for help, manic rejection of the emotional state, an attempt to smile through the tears, a coping mechanism? Possibly all of these, but in this case, it doesn’t sound like that.

Here, the quality of the singing possibly masks the true feelings underneath. It’s not easy to say if there’s a tone of wistfulness, of resignation, of studied neutral self-observation. They are all there, but most of all, there seems to be an acceptance, a living with depression, a recognition and as importantly, a description painted for others, of its cycles of highs and lows. I’m like this, I cannot do anything about its passage through my life, but I can express what it’s like – elegantly, sincerely and without self-pity.

When I think back to those early years of mine, listening to songs like Ticket to Ride and this one, I don’t think I had any idea of the pain and sadness behind such apparently upbeat songs. And now, decades later, I’m listening to the same songs, but with different ears, picking up on the backing rhythms,the pauses, the dynamics in the song – which were always there but not heard.

“Talking to myself and feeling old”. Yep. I know that feeling.

Write Here, Write Now: 29 – Martin Martin

Mouth Music – Martin Martin. What a lot of Ms.

In doing this series of blogs, I want to select music that sparks something in me – passion, memories, curiosity, exploration – not just another track for the sake of it. Mouth Music is definitely a group that inspired a lot of joy for me and a good number of memories as well.

The first and eponymous album mixes celtic and electronic music in a delightfully sparse and infectious way, sometimes a capella, and sometimes with no voices at all as with Martin Martin. Electronic and highly vibrating guitar notes float around a beat, both automated and manual with synth swathes oozing in the background, before a series of notes run down the scale, several times – a progression not unlike the lovely one in yesterday’s song from Billy Bragg. Then abruptly this stops, leaving the repeated drum machine beat and the central part marked by pipes, before the plucked strings and electronic notes start again.

Not described very well or proficiently, but the impression of the music, which brings together actual instrument play and synthesized sounds works because I have the drumming and regular organic bass pulse getting me swaying as the plucked strings make my head bob and the droning pipes soak the whole sound. It’s not the melody which has the magic, more the contrasting tones and feels of the sounds – the low, droning unfocused beats against the stark upper register staccato – neither seeking to play the same song, but mirroring each other’s sounds, so both are separately heard and, more importantly, felt driving different rhythms in head and body.

There’s something about music – its linear quality – that gives a sense of progression. Obviously because every performance is an event in time, so there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Classically, the initial theme, the development and the climax. With much-known and loved pieces, the sense of anticipation adds to the enjoyment, as I described in the Beethoven 7th blog – you know what’s coming, so, even as you listen to one part of the music, part of you is anticipating and even prehearing the ‘good’ bit – the riff, etc. And then the build-up to the good bit becomes Pavlovian – a meringue of goodiness that leads to the sticky goo of the melt down craved. Such passages become even more delightful an experience than the actual peak.

That doesn’t really happen with Martin Martin, in that there isn’t really one peak that it builds to, and the song is rather circular – put it on repeat, and the end fade merges neatly with the start, like a compact musical Finnegans Wake. What this does, then, for me, is to take all the different elements I hear and, although literally sequential, in my head I am hearing them all at once – so even when the sparse drumming is reliably beating away and the electronic notes are tintinabulating, I am accompanying them with the memory and anticipation of the string descent and the drone of the pipes – an eternal, virtual jam.

Mouth Music played at Glastonbury several times in the early nineties, and they were always a highlight for me – in the middle of a hot midsummer’s day in Somerset, the grass turning to straw, a few musicians on a stage a few metres in front of me could turn the sky into an echo chamber of wondrous sounds. It really was the music of the spheres for me.

Write Here, Write Now: 28 – The Saturday Boy

Billy Bragg – The Saturday Boy. It’s no longer Saturday, but it’s the blog for Saturday, so I guess that counts.

I’d intended to play  a Billy Bragg song tonight – something political, like Between the Wars or Which Side Are you On? But when it came to it, the track I chose from Back to Basics was one that I love for its musicality and for its deft, perceptive and poignant lyrics. Back to Basics was a great album – ideal, like Sandinista for the cheapskate in me, for being a double (triple) album with a fixed low price – a bargain with so many songs, something must appeal. In the end, pretty much all of them did, although it was the more personal ones, like The Man in the Iron Mask that really had an impact.

Underlying the poetry of his words, the guitar playing and trumpet have their own magic. The opening downward chord progression of the guitar has a swing and the same rhythmic pull as Pachelbel’s Canon. The guitar pulls the words up and down the scale (‘…party to which I was never invited’), and then lets rip at the end of each verse, with or without the trumpet voluntary soaring above the lowdown tones of Billy’s guitar and voice. The juxtaposition works so well – everyday romance converted into purest poetry.. And more than that, it conjures up something so essentially English – the sound of the suburb escaping out into the green and pleasant land.

The words, then. Oh yes – the painful memories of youthful romantic inexperience and stumbling fumblings, misunderstandings and hoped for encounters leading nowhere.

The joy of the early lines is familiar – elation at being with the one you fancy, that they want to be with you. And the little details – about laughing at my jokes, the rain clearing the streets – intimately convey the prompts toward affection. But then ‘I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh’ – social exposure and the dawning realization that it is not to be – crushing disappointment and humiliation. And then the final hindsight stanza – I was so much younger then, etc – with trumpet coda to summarize the bittersweet synthesized memories.

Billy’s voice – rough, yet tender, English-accented, flat vowels, natural and unaffected – so different from other singers in the charts at the time, but a thing of beauty in itself.

The long lines sung without a pause contain many quotable phrases. ‘I lied to myself about the chances I wasted’. ‘I hide my humble hopes now’. – Just those two lines show deep self-examination and understanding. I can think back to where different choices in life might have taken me, what I might have done differently, with more confidence, more willingness to explore, open myself up to people and experiences. Years later, how has ambition been blunted, simplified, domesticated?

Saturday boy is now Sunday dad – better get some sleep before I start helping the next generation prepare themselves for the peaks and troughs ahead of them in adolescence and young adulthood…

Write Here, Write Now: 27 – Fever

The Cramps – Fever. A gentle little cover from the Cramps tonight. Gentle, but infectious. I light up when I hear it calling.

Though I like it when The Cramps go crazy with something like The Crusher or Goo Goo Muck, there’s something delightfully decadent about this soft-voiced cover of the Peggy Lee classic. The steady guitar riff and clipped drum beat throughout the song gives it an insistent intensity while the lead guitar is the loose cannon on board – off making random noises in the background, only vaguely and occasionally connecting with the other instruments – until it whites out in feedback at the end. And then there’s an occasional organ flourish from Alex Chilton.

Lux Interior’s voice may be soft, but it lingers in the ear, with sudden loud “FeVER!”s accompanied by a thump on the drums and then giving the song a bit of Elvis sneer in the second half, slowly building to a climax before petering out. It’s those “FeVER!”s  that makes the song for me – the metronomic rhythm pattering along monotonously lulls the listener into semi -consciousness, but Lux startles that away – quiet, quiet, bang!

Mind you the more I listen to it, the more I like the drum fills and the lead guitar interludes,sometimes chiming, sometimes screeching, sometimes feedbacking.

Rockabilly – a very stylish music, exuding cool. I never saw The Cramps live, but I can imagine their fans artfully clothed and made up, lots of leather, greased hair or punked and spiked, slamming on the dancefloor. I was 17 when I got a copy of Off The Bone and Smell of Female on cassette – great theatrical overwrought performances – went very well in my mind with the Rocky Horror Picture Show, sitting on the louche side of goth. A timid teenager, I’d have loved to join what I’d imagine were the wild antics in the Cramps scene, though I might have found them overwhelming.

These days, the chance of throwing myself around to great music are rare, although I do like to throw my weary limbs around in a bit of dad dancing with my young kids. They are not yet at an age to find this embarrassing, so I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts. Maybe with a bit of Cramps – this is probably one I could get away with, though other songs of theirs might be more lively, there’s heat in this one.

What a lovely way to burn.

Write Here, Write Now: 26 – Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)

The Communards – Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).  A song more different from yesterday’s might be hard to imagine – from Robert Plant’s swagger to Jimi Somerville and Sarah Jane Morris’s tender pining.

It’s really more than a duet as Richard Coles’ piano playing is a third player in this threesome. Halfway through bass and some percussion joins the party, but for the most part, it’s the emoting of the three main players that makes this song.

Stating with the piano and then Morris’s first verse, at first it feels like a sad and smokey torch song. But then Somerville starts singing at a higher pitch, subverting the traditional male -female voice types and it becomes a delicious subversion, the two singers relishing their exchange and interplay, singing not to each other, but with each other, exchanging intimacies of what they would each do with their dream bloke.

Upon which Coles leaps in with a lively burst of piano sole accompanied by bouncing double bass. The singers match the lively rhythm, there’s a spring in their voices and the song picks up in pitch and corresponding optimism – slowing to warm humour in Morris’s voice, rough falsetto in Somerville’s, before singing at the same time and with improvised lines and finally collapsing in an orgasmic heap at the end – a bit Danny and Sandy singing Summer Loving (Julian and Sandy, maybe?).

Somerville’s voice is extraordinary – he soars, coos, coasts on a note, pushes the emphasis, paces the lines, trills and yells but never screeches his words. And at his deepest, he seems to just reach down to the high points of Morris’s range – (Some day we’ll meet, indeed). She offers an able support and counterpart voice, strong, but not outshining the lead.

It was the mid eighties when I bought the album, on the strength of the singles, and it was often on the turntable – great fun for dancing around to and trying to sing to (I had more flexible vocal cords then). At a single sex school, homosexuality was much in the news, with section 28 and AIDS, but it was something that happened to other people. Humour aimed at camp people, including (especially) fellow students, was acceptable, and there were very few out gay role models. Neil Tennant, George Michael, even to an extent Boy George were not publicly acknowledged as being gay. There was a certain stigma, and to suggest that somebody in the public eye could be – they might be quite effeminate, but remaining in the closet and avoiding direct reference to personal preferences, it was possible to think that few people were actually ‘really’ gay. It’s difficult to think of such a climate now, when a spectrum of sexuality is broadly accepted and metrosexuality has ‘allowed’ men to get in touch with their feminine side.

At some point in the eighties, possibly 84 or 85, there was a big Gay Pride march in London, ending up in a park south of the river. The Conservative government (and media)’s attacks on gay men and women had brought out a strong counterreaction and solidarity was expressed by marching with and partying with those out and proud. Plus there was a very good line up at the free open air concert at the end. The whole event was a real eye-opener  – so many different sub-genres – clones, bears, leather queens, drag acts – and all done in a friendly, open, inclusive, welcoming way – in some ways a glimpse and precursor of the way society in the UK has evolved. The binary idea of – you are either this or that (straight or gay, black or white) was smashed -here was a world in which sexuality was not a tense encounter between the sexes, but much freer.

I had a long journey to go (still have) in developing a mature understanding of gender relations and relationships, but the Communards and this song in particular are a reminder for me of a time of awakening. Sometimes it’s good to go back.

Write Here, Write Now: 25 – No Quarter

Led Zeppelin – No Quarter. I chose this because 25 is a quarter of 100 – I like numbers. It was almost going to be a song by Latin Quarter – something with renewed relevance for the current political scene, like ‘Modern Times’ or ‘America for Beginners’, but I listened to them once and they bored me – political treatises with so-so music. It all seemed so much more impressive 32 years ago. How times fly.

No Quarter is, of course, a decade older than that, but doesn’t seem to have aged as badly. Led Zep were among the suite of 70s rock bands I was introduced to by my best friend who lived across the fields in the village where I grew up – his older sisters had a fine collection and we would spend afternoons listening to their latest acquisition (as well as the NWOBHM ones he bought). Led Zep II and IV in particular made impressions on me – hearing them now, every now and then I catch a melody, a beat, a vocal line that sends me back to those days lying on the carpet, looking out of the window at pale green, misty hills in the distance, absorbing the music, without really understanding what I was listening to.

I suppose rural Worcestershire was a good location to be hearing (what could be considered) a local band’s mix of rock, blues, folk etc – possible to imagine Robert Plant or John Bonham not living too far away, and something of their environment seeping into their songs – not that I knew it at the time.

Houses of the Holy was not an album I was particularly familiar with and No Quarter I probably first heard on the soundtrack to the Song Remains The Same soundtrack. It doesn’t really rock like Black Dog or get all folky like Ramble On. All that ‘organ’ music, and piano solos, singing about Thor – it’s prog, really, isn’t it?

It’s one of the songs on Remasters that I would listen to inattentively, maybe enjoying parts of it, but losing attention when the musicians zone out and Plant sings gently into the mike until it faded out and something easier on the ear like Kashmir would start up.

Listening to it now, I like the way Bonham lazily swings the beat along, almost like he feels the inertia of the song but tries to get it moving through the 4 (?) parts of it. The song does seem to stop about three times, as if it can’t really carry its own weight without getting out of breath. Maybe it’s an allusion to quarters, maybe it’s John Paul Jones composing a piano concerto in 4 movements, I don’t know, but once I get used to the kind of inhalation and exhalation of the rhythm, it feels more natural. I guess you could dance to anything if you grew familiar enough with it.

Starting as it means to go on with electric piano, underpinned with regular spaced bass notes, the drums and fuzz guitar then break in and the bass gets more continuous. Washes of electric piano continue, even as the drums and guitar pause for the first of the verses, Plant singing with what sounds like quiet, tired effort, before they impatiently push back in (enough with the bright and true steel, already…).

About halfway through, the acoustic piano comes tinkling in, with woozy electric piano still going strong underneath, then joined by more drum rolls, noodley guitar – and what sounds like a police siren. Drums and guitar stop to let Plant mournfully sing another verse, before all the different instruments and melodies of the song come together at the end for a staggered grooving, layered climax – led by fuzzy guitar and oozing bass and beaten towards the finishing line by Bonham’s deliberately sloppy drums as Plant duets with himself.

All in all, it leaves me a bit tired and thinking the drumming is the best bit about this slow drag of a song and it doesn’t really hang together so much as flop into place. A brave experimentation, maybe, but the winds of Thor are blowing cold and my feet are icy. Time for bed.

Write Here, Write Now: 24 – Please Please Me

The Beatles – Please Please Me. I think this could easily be my favourite Beatles song.

It is so dynamic and fast, a band firing on all cylinders, sounding as if they are loaded on speed – and it’s all done in just over 2 minutes. Mouth organ, bass, guitars, drums, lead and harmonizing vocals – at full tilt, but fitting in alongside each other so tightly, not a step out of place.

Having spent years believing in the progression of the band towards more complex, layered records, hearing a recording of this sing at their first (Washington?) concert in the US made me realize how they arrived in the national and international music scene fully formed, having done their 10,000 hours in Hamburg. The film ‘Backbeat’ using modern alternative rock musicians (Greg Dulli, Mike Mills, Dave Grohl, Thurston Moore, Don Fleming, and Dave Pirner) to play the early Beatles songs really got it right in capturing the frantic propulsive sound that comes across in Please Please Me.

Bass notes, two bars of mouth organ, then straight into the first verse, underpinned all the way by very fast bass notes – I couldn’t help noticing my knees vibrating back and forth in synchronicity. How did Lennon manage to sing so clearly, so tunefully, with such volume, and at such a pace, and with McCartney keeping pace all the way? Was this the session when Lennon ended up going hoarse singing Twist and Shout? They were seemingly unstoppable. And then Harrison punctuating every line of the first two verses with a neat guitar riff, Starr filling in with falling down the stairs drums, before ending the song with two strong rat-a-tat-tats. There’s even more in the song than that, but it rattles along like a freight train, I just can’t keep up.

Listening to the words, it’s as glorious a call to action as ‘Teenage Kicks’. As provocative as ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ – from the wordplay in the title onwards. The rhyming of each verse couplet ‘my girl/try girl’, ‘way love/say love’ and particularly ‘sound complaining/always rain in my heart’ ‘pleasing with you/reason with you’ – whip smart and to the point.

Who wouldn’t want to be in that band, pouring out such fantastic music at the beginning of their fame? And with that little thought, enough from this compact little tribute to a compact song.