The M M & M 1000 – part 49

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

FAIRPORT CONVENTION – Si Tu Dois Partir / Genesis Hall (Island 6064 1969)
In the period between the end of the sixties and punk, for the serious prog-rock, metal and folk-rock fan, the 45rpm seven inch single became a bit of a joke. Some bands (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) didn’t bother with them at all. For others, a hit single and a Top of the Pops appearance was a bit of a lark, not to be taken too seriously. Fairport’s cover of a Dylan song, in French, with chairback and milk bottle percussion (with an accident when one fell off the table and smashed left in the final mix) was a surprise hit. It’s not a comedy record, just light-hearted and gleeful.

LEE MORGAN – The Sidewinder / Part 2 (Blue Note 1911 1964)
Jazz artists, too, weren’t generally interested in singles. Most that were released were edits of album tracks aimed squarely at jukeboxes. The ten minute “The Sidewinder” by jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan has become one of the best known post-bop standards, with its funky rhythm and catchilly repetitive central riff. In some ways, it’s one of the foundation stones of jazz-funk, acid jazz, fusion and the rest.

PRINCE – Sign ө the Times / La La La La He He He He (Paisley Park 28399 1987)
Stepping back from his tales of sex and Corvettes, Prince unleashed this unassuming little song that dug into the underbelly of the brash and flash eighties for which he himself was part of a symbolic triumvirate of pop stars, along with Jacko and Madonna, who came to represent the ‘me’ decade. The flipside – AIDS, poverty, the still real threat of nuclear catastrophe (remember Ronnie “let’s bomb Russia” Reagan was still president) were marked out, almost without comment. It’s still his most forceful and thoughtful song.

STEVIE WONDER – Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours / I’m More Than Happy (Tamla 54196 1970)
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” represents the end of phase one of Stevie Wonder’s career when he was still just a cog (albeit a vital one) in the Motown hit factory. As his 21st birthday loomed, he held out for a new contract that would give him unprecedented artistic control – something almost unheard of at Motown – and would pave way for his classic period when he would fuse soul, pop, gospel, electronic music and funk into his own unique and brilliant vision.

TORI AMOS – Silent All These Years / Me and a Gun (East West YZ618 1991)
Out of the flood of singer-songwriters who’ve emerged over the last two decades, Tori Amos remains a singular talent, and the two sides of this single go a long way to explaining why. The first, a lush, beautifully orchestrated, literate piano ballad. The second, a chilling a capella recounting a harrowing rape experience.

CARTER FAMILY – Single Girl, Married Girl / Storms are on the Ocean (Victor 20937 1927)
This proto-feminist tune comparing the lots of the wed and unwed woman has become one of the best-loved, and oft-covered Carter Family tunes. With good reason.

NIRVANA – Sliver / Dive (Sub Pop 72 1990)
NIRVANA – Smells Like Teen Spirit / Even In His Youth (Geffen 19050)

Only a year separates these singles. The first a dipped toe into melodic pop rock, albeit with a lyric recalling a pre-school Kurt being shipped off to his grandparents’, and despite TV and ice cream, just wanting to be in his own home. The second a Pixies parody, and last minute addition to Nevermind, that made him a reluctant global icon.

BEACH BOYS – Sloop John B / You’re So Good To Me (Capitol 5602 1966)
Added to Pet Sounds at Capitol’s insistence, “Sloop John B” doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album, but as a single works just fine. A strange choice of song for a 45, it’s actually a Bahamian song about a wild party that took place on the Nassau waterfront the night that the John B was sunk and was originally entitled “The Wreck of the John B”

ULTRAVOX! – Slow Motion / Dislocation (Island 6454 1978)
Another classic from the Foxx era, and an inspiration from everyone from Gary Numan to Duran Duran. Don’t let that put you off, though.

THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH – Smiling Faces Sometimes / You Got the Love I Need (Gordy 7108 1971)
Less a band, more Norman Whitfield’s own experimental lab rats. The man was even more of a control freak than his boss Berry Gordy, and wanting a group a little less combative and more malleable than the Temptations he ended up with the Undisputed Truth. Many songs would be road tested by the Truth before being handed to the Tempts, but they did at least have one major hit they could truly call their own – this dark, paranoid masterpiece.

PLATTERS – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes / No Matter What You Are (Mercury 71383 1958)
SABRES OF PARADISE – Smokebelch II (entry) / Smokebelch II (exit) (Sabres of Paradise 9 1993)
HOWLIN’ WOLF – Smokestack Lightning / You Can’t Be Beat (Chess 1618 1956)
ROBINS – Smokey Joe’s Café / Just Like a Fool (Spark 122 1955)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the smoking section. The first a 1933 show tune by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach about blind love, turned into an unparalleled piece of weepy melodrama by the rich tenor of the Platters’ Tony Williams. The Sabres of Paradise’s classic come-down instrumental has graced a million TV soundtracks, but still sounds fresh and sober. Wolf growls and howls his way through a typically apocalyptic blues, whilst the Robins encounter a problem when trying to hit on the girlfriend of a large and borderline psychotic café owner.

More soon

The M M & M 1000 – part 42

Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. The rest of the Ps and Qs.

MAYTALS – Pressure Drop / Smoke Screen (Trojan 7709 1969)
I first came across this song as a Clash B side. Good though that version is, the original’s still the best – an urgent slice of late period ska.

JACKSON BROWNE – The Pretender / Daddy’s Tune (Asylum 45339 1976)
Browne gets lumped in with all the other seventies California confessional singer/songwriters, but he’s always had a bit more to him than most of his peers. “The Pretender” has all the soft rock harmonies and string arrangements present and correct, but has a vein of deep disillusion running through it, a theme common throughout its parent album. “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” on that record has a real personal resonance with me.

FELT – Primitive Painters / Cathedral (Cherry Red 89 1985)
Lawrence Hayward’s mumbled baritone is something I can only put up with in small doses before its emotionless lethargy gets tiresome. But “Primitive Painters” is an epic classic with Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal cameo providing welcome contrast.

KITCHENS OF DISTINCTION – Prize / Concede / Innocent (One Little Indian 12 1988)
In a just world they would have been feted and all their recent clones dismissed as the poor facsimiles they are. “Prize” wasn’t the band’s first single, but it was their first great, perhaps defining, statement. It documents one of those pub nights when a couple still in the early stages of their relationship seem to accidentally hit each other’s sensitive spots, as the beer kicks in, emotions get raised and Patrick FitzGerald’s protagonist gets angrier and angrier at being quizzed about previous partners. The music follows the course of the night from gentle, slightly downbeat beginnings, to a foggy, bleary-eyed fury. Magnificent.

TRANSA – Prophase / Interphase (Hook 9 1996)
The Aberdeen based Webster brothers made trance without cheese. It’s probably the most maligned (save happy hardcore) and formulaic (ditto) genre of dance music, but they proved that there was room for artistry within its tightly defined parameters. Indeed, if they’d slowed the tempos and used less generic rhythms, they’d probably be a hugely respected electronica act. Their debut single “Prophase” had all the duo’s trademarks fully formed – the lush, sweeping, slightly melancholy melodies and the panoramic, epic scope of the music. “Prophase” is a huge dose of aural serotonin.

TEMPTATIONS – Psychedelic Shack / That’s the Way Love Is (Gordy 7096 1969)
“Psychedelic Shack” is one of the greatest of the Whitfield / Temptations collaborations. All the psychedelic funk mayhem and massive basslines were present and correct, but the singers were still fully integrated in the sound. One of the things often overlooked about this era of the band’s history is how the five Tempts swapped lead lines seamlessly with no individual standing out as the main lead. This was a technique in direct contrast to any of their peers’. It’ was a huge influence on a lot of rap collectives.

SONICS – Psycho / Maintaining My Cool (Jerden 811 1966)
TALKING HEADS – Psychokiller / acoustic version (Sire 1013 1977)
COUNT FIVE – Psychotic Reaction / They’re Gonna Get You (Double Shot 104 1966)

Maintaining my cool? Something that Jerry Roslie seldom did on record. Imagine Little Richard with anger management issues fronting a hyped up, over-enthusiastic rock and roll band and you might come close to the insane sound of Seattle’s Sonics. “Psycho” is raucous, dumb and effortlessly brilliant. Where Roslie’s psychopath is uncontrolled mayhem, David Byrne’s is all nervous twitching and sweaty menace. Tina Weymouth’s brilliantly simple bassline is like a pounding inside his head that won’t let go – pushing and pushing at Byrne’s self-control. Even though the final unravelling doesn’t happen, you’re left with a feeling that it’s only a matter of time before it does with horrific consequences. The Count Five’s psychosis is more chemically induced than the others. Like many of their contemporaries, the band were in thrall to the Yardbirds. “Psychotic Reaction” crosses a bludgeoning fuzz guitar and harmonica tune with a double speed middle eight that really does let loose into the realms of madness. One of the very best sixties punk tunes.

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD – Public Image / Cowboy Song (Virgin 228 1978)
When I first heard this it was jaw-on-floor time. The first 30 seconds are amazing. First Wobble’s bass booms out, and then the drums come in bathed in echo. Levene joins in with an eastern sounding buzz-saw guitar before Lydon enters with an almost operatic tenor, wobbly and almost unhinged, and a long way from the snotty sneer he used on the Pistols’ records. Two minutes 58 of vitriol and sonic adventure. In comparison, the Pistols’ records seemed lumpen and pedestrian. They were a bunch of combustible personalities and it couldn’t last long – but at least it lasted long enough to make Metal Box, one of the greatest, most adventurous albums ever issued.

DELGADOS – Pull the Wires From the Wall / Mauron Chanson (Chemikal Underground 23 1998)
A John Peel Festive Fifty number one if memory serves, and deservedly so. The song that lifted the Delgados above the ranks of twee indie also-rans and turned them into cult heroes. Sadly, mainstream success always eluded them. One of those baffling injustices in pop history.

M|A|R|R|S – Pump Up The Volume / Anitina (4AD 707 1987)
At the time 4AD seemed the least likely label to score an international number one with a relentless, sample-heavy bass groove. That’s just what happened with this one-off collaboration between Colourbox and AR Kane. It was the record that pushed dance culture overground and helped pave the way for the mainstream success of acid, house and techno and all of the genres that came later. Its massive sales seemed to have a strange effect on its makers. The Young brothers dissolved Colourbox and, as far as I know, never made another record.

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN – The Puppet / Do It Clean (Korova 11 1980)
For some reason, the band (McCulloch in particular) loathe “The Puppet”. It was conspicuous by its absence when the band’s albums were reissued with bonus tracks. Quite why mystifies me. It’s a great song, with an immensely powerful vocal.

JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE – Purple Haze / 51st Anniversary (Track 604001 1967)
Single number two, and the one that proved that Hendrix’s talent stretched way beyond his guitar playing. The opening riff is one of the greatest in rock, and the song combines a liquid rhythm with a granite-hard wall of sound.

SEEDS – Pushin’ Too Hard / Try to Understand (GNP 372 1966)
Sadly Sky Saxon returned to his home planet this year, but he left behind some of the finest examples of sixties punk. “Pushin’ Too Hard” sounds like a snotty teenage whining about how everything’s SO UNFAIR, but drives along full of dirt and spunk. They kinda lost me when they started singing about flower children and the like, but the heads down rock primitive stuff still excites.

ASSOCIATES – Q Quarters / Kissed (Situation 2 4 1981)
I haven’t the foggiest what it’s about, but for once the Associates reined in their hyperactivity for a few minutes to do something dark and sinister. It was just one of a string of extraordinary singles that were released during 1981 and collected on the Fourth Drawer Down compilation.

MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS – Quicksand / Darling, I Hum Our Song (Gordy 7025 1963)
While I like “Dancing in the Street” as much as anyone with a functioning pair of ears, the Vandellas tunes that really blow me away are the ones where they turn up the tempo and the drama – especially “Heatwave”, “Nowhere to Run” and this one. And the bit I like most about “Quicksand” is that amazing, almost bird-like backing line that the Vandellas do. You know, the woo-woo-woo-woo-oooo bit.

ULTRAVOX! – Quiet Men / Cross Fade (Island 6459 1978)
I really wish they’d changed their name when John Foxx departed. OK, they did drop the exclamation mark. “Quiet Men” from the band’s third (and effectively, for me, final) album was typical of a record that had dropped the synth-punk for a more Kraftwerk / Neu! inspired Euromanticism.

More soon

Song of the day: ULTRAVOX! – Just For A Moment (1978)

Through the eighties, Ultravox had a succession of slick synth-pop hits that continue to be mainstays of oldies radio stations. They were unfashionable at the time, and little has changed over the years. The three albums that they made for Island with John Foxx – prior to Midge Ure, Chrysalis Records and pop stardom – are still relatively little known. Yet they were massively influential, and have stood the test of time far better than the eighties material.

Over twenty months between February 1977 and October 1978, Ultravox!, Ha Ha Ha and Systems Of Romance appeared in rapid succession. Each fused Bowie/Eno type electronics with a punk spirit to create something utterly unique. Unfortunately for the band, musical sophistication was not on the agenda in 1977 and they only ever received a lukewarm press. By the third album, though, the world was catching up. Magazine and Wire both proved that using keyboards didn’t necessarilly turn you into ELP, and acts like Cabaret Voltaire, the Normal and Suicide were applying punk techniques to electronic music. Ultravox’s time seemed to have come. Instead, Island dropped the group in January 1979, and two months later both singer Foxx and guitarist Robin Simon left. The group went on to have much commercial success with Midge Ure, but musically they’d become conservative and safe.

“Just For The Moment” was the track that brought the curtain down on the Foxx era. The last track on Systems Of Romance, it maintained the group’s tradition of ending an album on a sombre, downtempo note – just as “My Sex” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” has done on their previous records. There is just a synthesised bass pulse, like a heartbeat, simple synth chords and a brief piano bridge. Foxx sounds dislocated, almost robotic, during the verses: “Listening to the music the machines make / I let my heart break / Just for a moment“. It’s just a glimpse of emotion behind the cybernetic facade. The chorus is passionate, almost anthemic – but also contradictory “We’ll never leave here – ever / Let’s stay in here forever / And when the streets are quiet / We’ll walk out in the silence” (how can you do that if you’re staying in forever?). Minor quibble – it’s a great song, even if “Vienna” uses the same basic structure.

All three Island era albums were reissued last year with bonus tracks, and at mid-price. All are unreservedly recommended. They are just as good as more feted albums from the era like Metal Box, Real Life, Chairs Missing and even Low and Heroes.