The M M & M 1000 – part 56

Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Just 8 parts to go after this one – seven eighths through, fraction fans.

DISTRACTIONS – Time Goes By So Slow / Pillow Fight (Factory 1979)
After this, their only single for Factory, the band signed for a major – Island – and after one LP disbanded. A common story at the time. Time Goes By So Slow is high quality jangly indie pop that came out at a time when most indie releases were industrial gloom, proto-electronica or spiky and angular. This is simply a great pop song.

CHAMBERS BROTHERS – Time Has Come Today / Dinah (Columbia 1968)
The Chambers Brothers were one of the very first exponents of psychedelic soul and also one of the first multi-racial soul acts. They were eclipsed on both counts by Sly & the Family Stone, but deserve to be better known – especially for this, their classic signature tune.

BOOKER T & THE MGs – Time Is Tight / Johnny I Love You (Stax 1969)
Readers of a certain age will recognise this as the tune that heralded the chart run down on Radio One on Sunday evenings back in the seventies. Whatever happened to DJ Tom Brown? Like all the best MGs tunes, Time Is Tight hangs a stellar organ melody over a skin-tight funky rhythm.

BLUE NILE – Tinseltown In the Rain / Heatwave (Linn 1984)
The Blue Nile’s love song to Glasgow is still as heart wrenching a quarter of a decade on. Paul Buchanan’s voice might not have the depth of timbre that Sinatra’s has, but he is the best purveyor of that certain kind of inner turmoil and melancholy since the great man recorded his classic weepie concept albums for Capitol in the fifties.

KINKS – Tired of Waiting For You / Come On Now (Pye 1965)
After inventing heavy metal with their previous couple of releases, you could argue a case that the Kinks invented folk-rock with this one, although Dylan, the Byrds and particular the Searchers (Needles and Pins) would have as great a claim.

YO LA TENGO – Tom Courtney / The Biosexual Boogie (Matador 1995)
THE FAMILY CAT – Tom Verlaine / Gabriel’s Wings (Bad Girl 1989)

Two tributes to Toms by bands gazing wistfully across the Atlantic for inspiration. Yo La Tengo look to Swinging London and the world of the fashionable and famous artists who came to symbolise it such as Julie Christie. The Family Cat look to New York a decade later, and in particular to Television. Both pay musical tribute to their influences without slavishly trying to ape the sound of either sixties British pop or NYC art-punk.

LONNIE JOHNSON – Tomorrow Night / What a Woman (King 1948)
Of all the country blues artists who emerged during the recording boom of the mid twenties, Lonnie Johnson was totally unique. He could play the blues, he could play jazz (and did so with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington) and he also made some scintillating instrumental guitar discs, both solo and with Eddie Lang (who was billed as Blind Willie Dunn in order to placate a country that was totally adverse to racial mixing, even on records). Twenty years on and approaching his fifties, he recorded this beautiful piano ballad for King records that showed that he had a voice to match his guitar abilities. It was a hit too, selling a purported three million copies.

MARVIN GAYE – Too Busy Thinking About My Baby / Wherever I Lay My Hat (Tamla 1969)
Not a bad couple of songs to pair up. The B side is probably better known as an eighties Paul Young ballad. If you know that, but not the original, you might be surprised at the snappy tempo. But it’s much more in tune with the song’s sentiments of a restless, commitment-phobic wanderer.

FALL – Totally Wired / Putta Block (Rough Trade 1980)
Drug songs are probably not the first thing that spring to mind when thinking about the Fall, but they did a number in their early days (see also Rowche Rumble and No Xmas for John Quays). While the others rail at the sellers, manufacturers and users of downers, this is almost a celebration of uppers – twitchy and hyped up.

LORI & THE CHAMELEONS – Touch / Love on the Ganges (Zoo 1979)
They only made a couple of 45s, but the trio of Bill Drummond, David Balfe and Lori Lartey developed a theme of writing mini stories set in exotic locations (in this case Japan and India) with Lori playing the ingénue caught up in political intrigue or love affairs with mysterious and exciting strangers.

BETH ORTON – Touch Me With Your Love / Pedestal / Galaxy of Emptiness (Heavenly 1997)
For a while she was the singer of choice for dance acts wanting a touch of English folkiness as opposed to urban divas. Hence her work with William Orbit, the Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper. Her own career began by mixing dance influences with more straightforward singer-songwriter stuff. Touch Me With Your Love is a ballad that works as well in the chill-out room as it does as a beautiful folk-tinged song of reminiscence. For me, it’s one of very few songs whose video actually enhances it – a deliciously simple and evocative monochrome film of Beth’s journey from a cafe to home via bus and tube on a wet and atmospheric late night in London.

MUDHONEY – Touch Me I’m Sick / Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More (Sub Pop 1988)
Grunge as nature intended, before it became a byword for long haired types in plaid shirts incessantly moaning about their lot in life.

NEW ORDER – Touched by the Hand of God / Touched by the Hand of Dub (Factory 1988)
New Order’s parody of the pompous bluster of U2 or latter-day Simple Minds doesn’t really succeed musically as it sounds more like the Pet Shop Boys. Not that it matters, ’cause it’s a top tune. Its satirical nature is more evident in the video which sees the band dressed in leather adopting all sorts of clichéd rock poses.

KRAFTWERK – Tour de France / mixes (EMI 1983)
Now I don’t know if there’s an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most remixed and remodelled song, but this must be up there. There were the 1983 mixes and remixes, more appearing over the next 20 years and then the various single versions in 2003, not to mention four different takes on Tour de France Soundtracks. Even for a band renowned for retooling and modernising their back catalogue, it’s a bit obsessive.

More soon

M M & M’s 100 from the noughties – 2004

ARCADE FIRE – Funeral (Rough Trade)
It built a following slowly, largely by word of mouth, before the journo hype machine jumped on the bandwagon. A prime target for the hipster “I never really liked them anyway” brigade, but it still sounds terrific to me. Less said about the follow up the better, though.

BLUE NILE – High (Sanctuary)
They pop up every decade, stick out an album that still uses a palette of sound that could come from their eighties heyday and promptly burrow away back into hibernation. As a fully paid up fan, I guess we wouldn’t have it any other way. High is far from perfect, but when it does hit the spot, it does so in a way that no other band can. And I could listen to Mr Buchanan singing his grocery list quite happily. Time for a follow up Paul?

FENNESZ – Venice (Touch)
My personal favourite of Christian Fennesz’s records. The ten minute section of “Transit”, with David Sylvian, and “The Point Of It All” is about as close to perfection as any music I’ve heard.

LISA GERRARD & PATRICK CASSIDY – Immortal Memory (4AD)
It sounds like a requiem suite, with nods to Arvo Pärt and Gorecki. Slow, stately and stunningly beautiful.

MURCOF – Utopia (Leaf)
On paper, a slightly ragbag collection of remixes and three new tracks. But it hangs together as well as any of Corona’s studio albums and gets played round these parts as often.

PAN AMERICAN – Quiet City (Kranky)
Another missive from Mark Nelson of quiet wonder with David Max Crawford’s trumpet and flugelhorn adding a yearning element that reminds me of Miles’s Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud.

PAN SONIC – Kesto (Blast First)
Nearly four hours of music that ranges from the ear-splitting to the ambient (the uncharacteristically reflective hour-long drone piece “Säteily”). It covers all bases of the duo’s sound, and some new ones too.

MAX RICHTER – The Blue Notebooks (130701)
The notebooks in question were written by Franz Kafka and the recording is peppered with extracts read by actress Tilda Swinton. Pianist Richter is accompanied by a string quartet on an album whose mood is as reflective and yet slightly disturbing as Kafka’s writings.

TOM WAITS – Real Gone (Anti)
Real Gone is unusual in ol’ Tom’s canon in that it’s largely an album recorded with a standard guitar, bass, drums rock ‘n’ roll line-up. The absence of pump organs and the like doesn’t make the music any more conventional. The surrealism is intact, but there is also a harsher side, with an uncharacteristically angry side of the laconic Waits coming through.

WILCO – A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Just as good as its predecessor, with pop, country and experimental wig outs rubbing shoulders perfectly happily.

The M M & M 1000 – part 15

Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Today’s installment wraps up the Ds.

WAY OUT WEST – Domination / mixes (Deconstruction 34282 1996)
The single that followed this one, “The Gift”, was Way Out West’s first big hit, but “Domination” is the more exciting record – a big, punchy deep house monster with a scary fifties sci-fi voice over.

BLUE OYSTER CULT – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper / Tattoo Vampire (Columbia 10384 1976)
Even when metal was at its most unfashionable around the time of punk, BOC were one of the bands it was deemed OK to like – even though they sometimes sounded like any other airbrushed AOR band. “The Reaper” shows both sides of the group – the glossy vocal harmonies and the biker-rock rhythm. The seven inch edit issued over here a few years later does the track no favours – the brilliant centre-piece guitar solo was entirely cut to bring the song down to a radio-friendly length by some cloth-eared editor.

THE JAM – Down in a Tube Station at Midnight / So Sad About Us / The Night (Polydor 8 1978)
For the first year or so of their recording career, the Jam were little more than a Who tribute act on amphetamines. This song and its parent album All Mod Cons changed that for good. The mindless violence and racist thugs that it portrays were all too familiar in that era, and Weller brilliantly captures the fear and pointlessness of these kinds of unprovoked, random attacks.

PETULA CLARK – Downtown / You Better Love Me (Pye 15722 1964)
BLUE NILE – The Downtown Lights / The Wires Are Down (Linn 3 1989)
TOM WAITS – Downtown Train / Tango ‘Til They’re Sore (Island 260 1985)

In popular song, downtown is a semi-mythical place where the tribulations of the working week are cast aside in favour of bright lights, music and dancing. No song better encapsulates this carefree joy than Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. Tom Waits shares the sentiment, injecting a little rumpled melancholy for good measure. Paul Buchanan’s protagonist, though, is more of an observer than a reveller, and gives the feeling that the bright lights, music and dancing offer merely some temporary solace that helps to hold together a creaking relationship in the short term.

PROPAGANDA – Dr Mabuse / Femme Fatale (ZTT 2 1984)
Eighties audio excess really reached its zenith with Trevor Horn’s huge sounding productions for Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Propaganda. “Dr Mabuse” is a ten minute dramatic monster, telling tales of the evil deeds of Norbert Jacques’ villainous master of telepathy and hypnosis.

SUICIDE – Dream Baby Dream / Radiation (Island 6543 1979)
Suicide had more in common with acts like the Cramps and the Misfits than they did with the Human League or Cabaret Voltaire. Despite their use of keyboards and electronics instead of guitars, they were at heart a rockabilly band. “Dream Baby Dream” is like the soundtrack to some relentless, sexual nightmare.

PJ HARVEY – Dress / Water / Dry (Too Pure 5 1991)
It’s hard to walk in the dress, it’s not easy / I’m spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit tree”. Genius.

RAY POLLARD – The Drifter / Let Him Go (United Artists 916 1965)
This is a fairly obscure one. Ray Pollard was a soul singer who was once a member of a group called the Wanderers. He didn’t exactly uproot many trees during his recording career, but “The Drifter” became a big favourite on the Northern Soul scene. It’s a big, bold ballad telling the tale of a character who wanders, purposeless, from town to town following the death of his beloved. Pollard had a pleading, soulful voice slightly redolent of the great Levi Stubbs. He deserved to be better known, and this song in particular should have been massive. Sadly, he died in 2005 aged 74.

BRAN VAN 3000 – Drinkin’ in LA / mixes (Capitol 811 1997)
Are they still going? This Canadian collective had a massive hit with this and then seemed to slip from the radar just as quickly, at least in this country. “Drinkin’ in LA” is a brilliant song about confusion, rootlessness and homesickness that owes a lot to Blue Lines era Massive Attack.

STICK McGHEE – Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-o-dee / Blues Mixture (Atlantic 873 1949)
Stick McGhee was blues legend Brownie’s little brother. The original recording of “Drinkin’ Wine…” was cut for the tiny Harlem label in 1946. Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun heard the track and tried to license it, but the masters could not be found. He had no idea who Stick was, so he phoned the only blues musician that he knew in New York – Brownie McGhee. It so happened that Brownie’s brother was with him, and Ertegun arranged for Stick to make a new recording of the tune for Atlantic. It went on to become one of the biggest rhythm and blues hits of the pre-rock era.

BABES IN TOYLAND – Dust Cake Boy / Spit to See the Shine (Treehouse 17 1989)
I saw Babes in Toyland live on several occasions, and it never ceased to amaze me how THAT voice came out of the slight figure of Kat Bjelland. In their prime, Babes in Toyland were one of the most exciting bands around. There was something slightly ramshackle about them, and yet they had a furious energy that few could match. Kat sounds a little peeved on “Dust Cake Boy”. Just a tad.

ELMORE JAMES – Dust My Broom / Catfish Blues (Trumpet 146 1952)
For me, Elmore was the champ of the electric blues artists. Howlin’ Wolf was wild, Hooker was dark, Muddy was boisterous; Elmore had a lazy elegance about him in both his singing and playing – unpolished and unhurried, but pure class.

More soon

Review of the Year Part 2 – Gigs

First up, I’ve been asked whether I would consider publishing readers’ top tens / twenties of the year. It sounded like an interesting idea, so if you’re interested in contributing, then the address is up there in the top left corner. If you have a blog / website / MySpace page and want it mentioned, then I’d be happy to. Get listing!

OK, 2008. Gig wise it was a bit of a damp squib, more due, I think, to my lack of pennies than a lack of things going on. Having said that, I’d be hard pressed to think of much that happened in Glasgow that I was really narked at missing. A few things here and there that it would have been nice to been at, but nothing to get me crouched in a corner wailing.

My top ten includes four sets from ATP (the Explosions one) which was the nearest thing I had to a holiday this year. :(

Here goes:

10. A HAWK AND A HACKSAW (ATP, Minehead, 17th May)
9. SILVER JEWS (ATP, Minehead, 18th May)
8. WORLD’S END GIRLFRIEND (ATP, Minehead, 17th May)

Of these, I’d only seen World’s End Girlfriend before. On that occasion he was on his own with just a laptop and guitar. This time, with drummer in tow, it was a much more muscular experience. A mixture of self-sampling, laptop clicking and noise-rock. A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s Balkan folk was thoroughly enjoyable – so much so that I missed Saul Williams because I was having so much fun. The Silver Jews are a band I’ve never really got on record. Live, they made much more sense, even though it’s something they don’t do that often (play live that is).

7.MICHIYO YAGI (Stereo, Glasgow, 15th Feb)
Michiyo Yagi’s solo koto performance at the Instal after-hours do at Stereo was one of the unexpected highlights of this year’s event. Partly atonal and droney, partly imbued with a classical beauty, it was a revelation.

6.THE BLUE NILE (Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 9th Jul)
Despite the lack of new material (one as yet unreleased song) and the fact that the set list was almost identical to the Paul Buchanan solo-billed shows of a couple of years ago, a Blue Nile gig is still a Blue Nile gig. They still do melancholy, heartbreak and rain-swept loneliness like no other band. They seem to exist in their own unhurried time bubble, untouched by trends, changes or innovation. The music evolves, but without any perceptible outside influence.

5.RED SNAPPER (Oran Mor, Glasgow, 29th Nov)
Stripped down to basics, this was Red Snapper at their extrovert best. Eschewing vocals, and downtempo moments, it was a set of blistering jazz-funk aimed as much at the feet as it was the head. The new songs aired indicated that the time away has left them reinvigorated and at the very peak of their powers.

4.BRUCE McCLURE (CCA, Glasgow, 7th Dec)
Still fresh in my mind, although my ears have stopped ringing, Bruce McClure’s set at Kill Your Timid Notion was a brutal audio-visual treat. Flickering and morphing shapes provided by three trashed projectors was accompanied by a soundtrack of extreme noise, through which heard or imagined melodies emerged and were gobbled up in an ocean of intense drone.

3.TINDERSTICKS (City Halls, Glasgow, 5th Oct)
Their set may have concentrated largely on the latest album which is a very good record, but not their best, but that didn’t matter. I’ve never seen the band so at ease with themselves, their music and the audience. The loss of three founding members seems to have given them a new togetherness, and the result was a stunning performance.

2.THE NATIONAL (ATP, Minehead, 17th May)
The National are a band who aren’t particularly innovative, but through an unbeatable combination of great musicianship and memorable songs, never disappoint live. They are everything that so many groups aspire to be but aren’t. They just have an instinctive knack of getting everything right. Much is down to singer Matt Berninger whose awkward, anti-charisma is coupled with a fantastic baritone that brings the songs alive.

1.MARGINAL CONSORT (Arches, Glasgow, 17th Feb)
This was one of the most remarkable live experiences of my life, not just of this year. Marginal Consort are four unassuming, middle aged Japanese guys who sit behind tables situated in the four corners of the room with the audience wandering around in the middle. With a bewildering array of household objects, modified instruments, blocks of wood and all sorts of other ephemera, they go on an improvised musical journey that can last for hours. At Instal, it was a three hour trip. Each responding to what his (unseen) colleagues are up to, the music evolves in all sorts of directions through the performance. Sometimes settling into trance-like grooves, sometimes descending into atonal dissonance, but never staying in any place for longer than is necessary, the music changes not just through time, but through space as the audience wander around and get a different mix of  sound. The last few seconds consisted of an aquarium water pump bubbling away into silence. And then there was an eruption from the audience quite unlike anything you usually get from the reserved intelligentsia that inhabit these events. It showed the possibilities of improvised music that I’ve seen no other musicians reach – creating new sounds that were, for all their strangeness, unquestionably musical. An amazing experience.

Gig: THE BLUE NILE – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 9/7/08

Most bands still active after more than a quarter of a century will have slumped into self-parody and irrelevance as they release yet another LP that is, if they’re lucky, touted as their best since the last one that was actually any good, but is more likely to be ignored and forgotten within a month of its appearance.

The Blue Nile’s debut album came out in 1983 – the year that Thatcher won a landslide on the back of the Falkands war and set about ripping up the social fabric of the country. Some of you weren’t even born then! Since the appearance of Walk Across The Rooftops, the hardest working band in showbusiness (irony division) have come up with three more. It’s a source of both amusement and frustration to the group’s fans, but looking at it from a broader perspective, it’s a catalogue with very little fat on it. Over the course of that quarter century, the band’s music hasn’t really changed. It’s still lush, nostalgic, synth-swept melancholy with islands of rousing hope. And it still has the capacity to raise goose-bumps, particularly as many of these songs have become woven into the fabric of listeners’ lives over the years, so each is imbued with an extra layer of uniquely personal references. They stay with you for life, and become a part of it.

There’s seldom much surprising about a Blue Nile show (bar the fact that it’s actually happening). It’s too easy to slip into the cliches applied to hundreds of other shows in hundreds of other reviews – the grandeur, the melancholy, the moments of heartbreak, Paul Buchanan’s vulnerable yet hopeful vocals. They are like the records, really, but bigger and punchier. The crowd stomp and cheer and quip between songs, but each sits alone with their own emotional reactions during them. The one exception is the mass singalong to “Tinseltown in the Rain”, a kind of unofficial Glasgow city anthem.

Of course it was brilliant. In some ways, though, it was disappointing – not because of what was on offer, but what wasn’t. In other words, those desperately sought, near-mythical beasts, new songs. When Paul Buchanan played a trio of solo-billed shows at the same venue almost exactly two years go, there were two. Tonight? One of those, “The Runaround Girl”, was played. And that was it. What we did get was a hour and a half set skewed towards the first two albums which included a rare outing for “Family Life”. And an encore of “Strangers in the Night” which was equal parts cheese and high romance.

This was the first of three nights at the RCH. Perhaps the next two will see the unveiling of a raft of new material! Perhaps not. I think I’ll have a few more grey hairs before album five sees the light of day.

Song of the day: BLUE NILE – Family Life (1996)

Some years ago I did a compilation tape for a friend. Musically, we didn’t have an enormous amount in common, so I was quite pleased that the songs I’d chosen met with her approval. One, though, was singled out for some harsh criticism – “that really miserable song about families and Christmas”.

A lot of tracks I’ve chosen to write about here have been pretty downbeat. I probably listen to emotionally ‘up’ or neutral music as much as I do introspective, depressing stuff. But I couldn’t deny that many of my favourite tracks are pretty bleak.

The Blue Nile’s first two albums are lauded for their clean, funk-tinged, melancholy pop. The third, Peace At Last, split opinion a little. It revealed more Gospel and R&B influences than its predecessors, and admittedly it was a little more uneven. But at its best it was as good as anything that the band had done and, if anything, Paul Buchanan’s vocals were stronger and more mature. It was around this time that people began to speak of him as a Scottish Sinatra – high praise indeed.

“Family Life”, the miserable one about families and Christmas, is a stunning song. It has a lush melancholy, but is as emotionally raw as anything you are likely to hear. The allusions to being a child witness of domestic violence are all the more powerful for being evasive – like the memory is too painful to confront head on. Buchanan’s vocal leaves little doubt as to how hard it is, though, as it cracks with emotion. The pleas to “make us happy sometimes” and to “wipe the tears from her face” are devastating. The song gets me every time I hear it, and I had an upbringing free from any trauma. I shudder to think how it would affect people who went through stuff like that.

Starlight do you know me
Please, don’t look at me now I’m falling apart
Silver on the window
Like the bike I once had at home in the yard
Jesus love let me down and I know where you are
It might lead somewhere

Gather me in snowfall
And the cars going by the north and the south
Flowers on the table
And the coffee gets cold like the milk in my mouth
Sailing on no honeymoon
Just separate chairs in separate rooms
Jesus, please make us happy sometimes
No more shout, no more fight
Family life

Tomorrow will be Christmas
We’ll be singing old songs and light up the tree
God and all the mercy
And say all your prayers for little old me
Jesus, you wipe the tears from her face
And the sound of his voice
Family life

Jesus, I go to sleep and I pray
For my kids
For my wife
Family life