- Out on the Weekend – Neil Young
- Grand Fraud – Weird War
- Feel Good by Numbers – The GO! Team
- Sister Mamie – Yusef Lateef
- Thoughts and Words – The Byrds
- Think – Rolling Stones
- Help Me Girl – Eric Burdon & The Animals
- All Summer Long – The Beach Boys
- Good to Me – Otis Redding
- Vonal Declosion – Stereolab
- Bag of Jewels – Lou Donaldson
- Elfin Orphan – Scene Creamers
- New Rose – The Damned
- Looking at You – MC5
- Wash in the Rain – The Bees
- Roadrunner – The Modern Lovers
- Marquee Moon – Television
- Reptilia – The Strokes
- Deeper Into Movies – Yo La Tengo
- Goin' Back – The Byrds
2004 – A terrible year for music: debut albums by Razorlight, Kasabian, The Killers, Keane. Snow Patrol are milking last year’s record for all its worth, Bloc Party have come into being, and the release of their sophomore LP seems to have dashed any hope I had that The Libertines might split up.
Music is no different to any other art-form. Just as bad novels, bad movies and bad paintings find a market, so do bad songs. And just as it requires a deeper reading to appreciate good literature, good cinema or good art, so it is with music. One more than likely accepts that Earnest Hemmingway is a better novelist than John Grisham (no disrespect to John Grisham), or that the movies of Stanley Kubrick are generally superior to those of Steven Spielberg (no disrespect to Steven Spielberg), and that Andy Warhol is a more original and interesting artist than Damien Hirst… so why doubt it when I tell you that Franz Ferdinand are nothing more than a pale imitation of Talking Heads? That’s not say it matters if to your ears The Libertines are the same thing as The Strokes. Just be aware that there’s more to music than the ability to write vaguely catchy tunes coupled with propensity for hard drugs.
The problem with contemporary rock music is that the music itself is often deemed to be less important than a band’s image or a musician’s personality. Rock and roll has never been a purely auditory phenomenon by any means, but there was a time when groups actually put some effort into what they were doing, learnt their craft, paid their dues. When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger appeared before court on drug related charges in 1967, the Rolling Stones had released no less than SEVEN albums. Even if we allow that Richards, Jones and Jagger were probably getting high well before that, they’d still existed as a drug free unit long enough to establish themselves as viable artists. With a lot of bands these days you get the feeling they’d rather not bother recording any music at all.
For the mainstream act the situation is quite different. More often than not they’re in it for the fame and adulation alone, in complete cahoots with their record company who probably take an even more cynical view about the whole business than they do. Together, they work to divest their product of anything approaching artistic integrity. To ensure that the unsuspecting listener doesn’t call out the cheap pop tune for the superficial drivel it often is, all aural distractions are erased. Everything is invested into the melody, which is typically conveyed via the vocal component of the song. Frequencies are equalised, textures are compressed, rhythm instruments are buried deep within the mix. You may struggle to identify the characteristic sound of any specific instrument whatsoever. The idea is to create something that is completely benign. Why? Because the music industry doesn’t consider that their art should demand anything of its audience other than slavish devotion. As far as they’re concerned, popular music serves much the same purpose as sport.
It’s mid-March. Myself, the Guy Who Used to Own a Pager, the Former Cohabitant from Brighton and his friend Charlie (also from Brighton) are leaving Monterey in an open topped Chrysler Sebring. We all have monstrous hangovers after an evening spent drinking more than we intended to when we got talking to some of the locals at the London Bridge Pub down on Fisherman’s Wharf. Checking out of our motel was a mission in itself. No sooner had we managed it, we had to get one of cleaners to let us back into our room after realising we’d left something of value in there. I then had to deal with booking flights from Las Vegas to San Francisco (in person, from a travel agent). Finally, we paused to pick up supplies in a wonderfully spacious and air-conditioned supermarket before pushing on along the Cabrillo Highway to begin the coastal drive south.
What to listen to. How about Harvest by Neil Young? I’ve owned this album for almost a year, but it goes without saying I’ve never listened to in anything resembling my present environment. Out on the Weekend kicks in and it becomes rapidly apparent that Big Sur was designed with country rock specifically in mind.
In the autumn of 2003, the former cohabitant from Brighton had put the word out that he intended to spend some time travelling around the USofA. 2003 represented something of a financial nadir for me, and I received his proposition – for I was invited – with a restrained avidity. Although now working a steady job, I was still recovering from the economic damage travelling around Asia had inflicted upon me, and I’d not been employed long enough to justify a prolonged leave of absence. On the other hand, my new-found tenure gave me a modicum of financial security, and if I could somehow borrow against that then maybe I could join my good friend for at least part of his planned odyssey.
I applied for a credit card offering 0% interest for the first six months, working on the premise that my employer paid an annual bonus at the end of April and the supposition that this would about cover it, made arrangements to meet the former cohabitant on a specific date at a specific place, and then opened it up to a few friends who I thought might be interested.
It was a close call. My credit card application took longer to process than I’d anticipated. This was compounded by an ineptitude on my part that saw me defer the matter in the first instance, for no particular reason other than I would forget, remember at importune moments, and then forget again. Less than three weeks prior to our intended departure – the guy who used to own a pager had climbed on board – I booked two return tickets at £240 a head leaving from Gatwick Airport and only slightly soured by the condition of transfer, which sounds cheap, and was, but not ridiculously so. The first decade of the new millennium was a good time to be taking holidays and it’s quite possible that if I’d been more on the ball I could have found an even cheaper deal.
I’m in Haight-Ashbury browsing through records in Amoeba Music with the guy who used to own a pager, who’s off enquiring about lap steel guitars. I’m looking for If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em by Weird War because I’ve not been able to find a copy in London. I am successful. Just as Out on the Weekend is the first song off of Harvest, Grand Fraud is the first song (proper) on If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em. I find that such incipient energy is often transferable when compiling playlists.
Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team hadn’t been released at this juncture, but I didn’t want to overload the front end of my compilation with tunes exclusively related to my two week vacation. My lady friend, the guy who passed out in Debenhams and I went to see The Go! Team play at The Spitz (supported by Field Music) in October. The song Feel Good by Numbers reminds me of something Vincent Guaraldi might have composed for the Charlie Brown TV Specials of the 1970s. It’s an instrumental track which why is I’ve followed it up with a bit of jazz, although the tone of Sister Mamie by Yusef Lateef is very different: a hard-bop groove with eastern textures. Sister Mamie recalls our return to Lynton, North Devon, in the August, but it’s the only tune that does. The dye had been indelibly cast a year earlier and I will forever associate that place with the Rolling Stones' albums Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet, and very little else.
We’ve not long left San Francisco, by way of an unplanned detour through downtown Oakland, and the guys from Brighton are flicking through their collection of CDs. We are driving to Yosemite National Park on the first leg of a four day road trip that will take us from San Francisco all the way to Las Vegas (the long way around). After mildly enjoying Donovan’s greatest hits, it materialises that the guys from Brighton have with them Younger than Yesterday by The Byrds. I’ve played this record a lot, but I’m not tired of it. The song Thoughts and Words now replaces Have you Seen her Face as my favourite – both are Chris Hillman penned tunes. We will listen to the album again on the final leg of our journey: the drive from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas.
Turns out I’ve not given Aftermath by the Rolling Stones the attention it deserves. Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane and Under My Thumb all made it onto my ‘Best of the Rolling Stones’ MiniDisc compilation, but I’d left it at that. My loss, because there’s at least Think to (re)consider. I’d imagined that a golden age era Stones’ album would be more suited to driving through California, but there’s something about Aftermath that seems to suit the mood – an innocence perhaps, or a particular type of sound. Whatever it is, it sits very nicely alongside Eric Burdon’s Help Me Girl, which was released the same year (1966 – although what we're really listening to is The Very Best of Eric Burdon & The Animals).
Coruscations of light bounce upward off the Pacific Ocean blue. Neil Young’s Harvest has drawn to a close. What’s next? The Beach Boys of course. All Summer Long. It may only be March but it feels like July. The guy who used to own pager, who has had to do all of the driving on account of being the only one of us with a driving licence, thinks the song's hilarious.
Having exhausted my parents’ supply of 1960s and '70s rock and roll, as well as my father’s jazz, I’ve made a start on my mother’s limited supply of Atlantic Soul. (I never really understood why my parents decided to abandon their record collection. They only ended up replacing records with CDs, and the sound quality will have only suffered.) It’s The Soul Album by Otis Redding that’s caught my eye. It could well be that I’ve recently watched the film Catholic Boys for the hundredth time, which features the Otis Redding track I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, although that’s not on this album. My favourite track on The Soul Album is Good to Me, a similarly slow and rather plaintive tune. Within a year I will have purchased a copy of Otis Blue.
Margerine Eclipse [sic] is the first Stereolab album that’s not quite lived up to my much heightened expectations. Let it be known that there was never any question that something from it wouldn’t feature on my annual compendium, and it’s a very good record by anyone else’s standards, but I sense that the premature death of groop member Mary Hansen in late 2002 has, understandably, taken its toll.
The quintet Lou Donaldson brought together to record Midnight Creeper in 1968 is quite something: Blue Mitchell on cornet, Lonnie Smith on the organ, George Benson on guitar, Idris Muhammad on drums, and the man himself playing alto sax. It’s another one of my father’s records, although ‘funkier’ than most of the jazz he used to own. Jazz-funk is a mysterious genre looked down upon by some, but the calibre of the musicians that have indulged speaks for itself: Donald Byrd, Grant Green, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis – even Miles Davis to some extent.
For a brief moment, Weird War became Scene Creamers, subsequently reverting back to their original name when an obscure French graffiti collective claimed legal ownership. Rather ironically, the album released under the Scene Creamers name is one of Weird War’s best (and if you google ‘Scene Creamers’ those Gaelic scribblers are nowhere to be seen). Released in January 2003, whilst I was still bumming about Southeast Asia, I Suck on That Emotion should have more rightly featured on the previous year’s compendium, but I didn’t get hold of it until late in the year and continued to listen to it well into 2004. [Incidentally, Ian Svenonius dedicated to me his performance of Elfin Orphan at the Highbury Garage after I requested he play it in return for the beer I bought him. (He’d actually wanted Grenadine, but it was off.) I hadn’t meant to hold him to ransom but the barman had insisted he pay for his drink, despite the fact that Scene Creamers/Weird War were headlining, and Ian didn’t have any cash on his person.]
The origins of punk have been attributed to myriad sources. Did it start with the Velvet Underground, MC5, The Stooges, The Sonics, The Seeds, The Monks, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Dr. Feelgood, You Really Got Me by The Kinks, Seven and Seven Is by Love, or Louie Louie by The Kingsmen? No, it started with jazz. More specifically, it started with bepop.
The precursor to bepop was swing and big band jazz, which was driven by the individual, a bandleader or arranger: Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman. Early rock and roll was similarly individualistic: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley. Bepop was interested in advanced harmonics, rhythmic intricacies, modal chords, with less emphasis on melody. There was no longer any need for a large orchestra and so the role of bandleader became diminished. The beat combos that resulted – quintets and quartets mostly – were therefore more democratic. It was customary for each musical component to contribute not just towards melodic elements but to also improvise a solo. The nominal leader of these combos might even write a piece with a specific instrument, or even musician, in mind. The song was no longer the sum of its parts but a grouping together of singular strands, recorded live, be it in the studio or in a club or concert hall, where it is left to the musician to regulate the volume of their instrument. There’s no technical Svengali sat in a control room, twiddling knobs, deciding what sound should predominate, emphasising melody and/or dampening rhythm. All sound is equal.
Despite not being literally recorded live, punk aspires to very much the same thing. The idea is to allow the timbre of each musical constituent to flourish in an attempt replicate a ‘live’ experience. Less emphasis might be placed on a song’s vocal. The bass line is as likely to carry a melody as the lead guitar. Traditional hierarchies are disposed of. This is music following the path of least resistance, a communion between the artist and the listener.
New Rose by The Damned was purportedly recorded in a day. Released in October 1976, it has the dubious honour of being British punk’s first ever record – ‘dubious’ because I imagine that sort of thing brings with it a certain amount of pressure. Fortunately, New Rose does not disappoint. I borrowed it from the friend who crashed to the floor in Debenhams, who owned the ‘greatest hits’ compilation album The Light at the End of the Tunnel.
My first go at MC5 had not been a great success. I purchased Teen Age Lust in about 1998/99 only to find the sound quality wanting. The album is a live recording of a gig they played in 1970, which goes some way towards explaining it. I was careful not to make the same mistake twice and opted against buying MC5’s seminal debut, Kick Out the Jams, also recorded live, and instead purchased Back in the USA, which they cut in GM Studios, Detroit. My opinion of MC5 improved immediately and I was able to appreciate why some have claimed them to be a progenitor of punk.
I can’t recall how I came by Wash in the Rain by The Bees but it would be a while yet before I picked up their album. It’s quite possible that I heard it on the radio and then bought it as a 7” single, but I can’t be sure of this. I’ve acquired a lot of music this way, where I’ve not known enough about a band to chance it on an actual album but I’ve been desirous of owing a particular song. My uncertainty stems from the fact that singles are not really a thing anymore, and all mine are stashed away somewhere. It’s far too much bother to manually recalibrate my record player to play at 45 rpm, so I never do.
It’s Friday night in San Francisco and we’ve ended up back at Delirium, the same club we went to on Tuesday. That evening they played an eclectic mix of classic rock, garage, new wave, heavy metal, punk and indie – ‘a rock & roll party for the 20th century’. Tonight they’ll just be spinning punk and new wave. I get talking to the DJ and put in a request for Terry Waite Sez by The Fall – I have no idea why that tune – which he fulfils. Between that and The Sex Pistols, The Stooges, The Cramps and The Clash, something catches my ear. I consult the DJ to find out what it was: Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers.
Proto-punk: designation after the fact. The Modern Lovers took their cue from The Velvet Underground, so how’s that supposed to work? The Modern Lovers was the first album I bought once I got back to Blighty (although I bought the wrong version: The Original Modern Lovers, produced by Kim Fowley and not John Cale). If this was indeed punk then it was my sort of punk. My problem with punk is that it’s quite shouty. I can’t listen to the Sex Pistol because of Jonny Rotten’s voice, and when I’ve made forays in other directions I’ve come up against the same problem. I really wanted to like Holiday in Cambodia by The Dead Kennedys, for example, but just couldn’t get past the vocals. It’s the same with The Ramones, although I must confess to being disappointed with them generally. Towards The Clash I remain ambivalent. And then there’s the clothing. I don’t really go in for all that ripped denim, heavy leather and graphic sloganeering.
I suppose this is why I’ve always erred towards new wave. Whether Television qualifies as new wave is debatable – post-punk at least, which almost amounts to the same thing. I knew Marquee Moon was a great tune and took myself to Richmond Library to follow up on my interest. Unfortunately, the album Marquee Moon left me slightly cold. As with Big Star’s Third (aka Sister Lovers) its reputation may have adversely preceded it.
A guy I worked with complained that the first single off of The Strokes’ second album sounded a bit like the theme tune to the children’s television show Rainbow. I could see where he was coming from and shared in his disappointment. The second single, Reptilia, was an improvement, but I still had no intention of buying The Strokes’ new LP. In the end it was my lady friend who decided that Room on Fire was worth a punt, and so I decided that I may as well include Reptilia on this compilation.
In June our landlord decided he wanted to sell up. Putting aside the rigmarole of having to find a new place to live – as well the loss of the Royal Oak as our local – it wasn’t such a bad thing: Douglas Bader House had always been a dark and isolated tenement with too little furniture. We found a flat in Isleworth with a metal staircase leading up to it, which lent it a certain frisson. Down the road was St. John’s Stores, around the corner Isleworth Train Station, and The Red Lion just a few minutes’ walk away. We were better off.
Yo La Tengo released the album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One as far back as 1997, which was before I had even heard of them. I’ve long since forgotten what it was that brought them to my attention – maybe The Pastels? – but theirs is another album loaned from Richmond library. It’s a great piece work covering a number of stylistic variations; I find the ‘noise pop’ of Deeper into Movies of particular interest.
The last record I purchased before our move was The Notorious Byrd Brothers, also the last Byrds’ album that David Crosby contributed towards. Crosby was a bit of a burk really. He fell for the whole trippy hippy thing in a big way, much to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman’s chagrin, who were by now exploring more traditional forms of American music: bluegrass, country and western, Appalachian folk. They also wanted to record the Goffin-King composition Goin’ Back, which Crosby thought was somehow beneath them. He had this smutty song called Triad knocking about and wanted to cut that instead, so McGuinn and Hillman booted him out of the band.
Intended as a celebration of my trip to The States, these last two tracks were not present on the original MiniDisc version of Feel Good By Numbers. I appended them after making the transition to MP3, partly because they were discovered too early for inclusion on the following year’s compendium but also because they raise the overall quality of this compilation. I hope that you concur.