Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Today’s episode puts the Ns to bed.
BOB SEGER – Night Moves / Ship of Fools (Capitol 4369 1976)
Back when I was in my early teens, Radio One closed down for the evening, broadcasting Radio Two (then a horrendous mix of pre-rock schlock and brass band music, it seemed) until Peel popped up with his two hourly fix of decent tunes. Sundays were the worst though. The only hope for finding any decent non-chart music being the notoriously dodgy signal from Radio Luxembourg. Even so, I dilligently had my hand held mic on hand to tape any tunes that I liked. “Night Moves” was a song that I loved back then, and I eventually captured it on tape. The quiet bridge section of the track on my recording was full of the bleed from other radio stations. For me, it actually added to the song. Bob sounded like a lonely soul, stranded in a Motel room in Nowheresville accompanied by the sounds from other rooms, folk desperately masking their solitude with turned up TV or radio. It doesn’t quite sound the same in crisp, clean digital. My tape is long lost, but if I listen hard enough, I still imagine I can hear those ghosts from the past.
JAPAN – Night Porter / Ain’t That Peculiar (Virgin 554 1982)
NAMES – Night Shift / I Wish I Could Speak Your Language (Factory 29 1981)
These two songs continue with that lonely, nocturnal feel. Night porters, night watchmen – they seem like outsiders and observers of life, fundamentally detached from the world. It’s something I’ve always been drawn to, be it the classic sleeve of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, or some of the classic crime fiction of Raymond Chandler (in particular his short story “I’ll Be Waiting” about a hotel detective). “Night Porter” is musically rich and lush, but Sylvian creates a broken centre at the heart of it. Belgian miserablists the Names were typical of the era’s long-raincoat brigade. “Night Shift” has an uninspired metronomic rhythm, but it does have a bucket load of atmosphere.
COMMODORES – Nightshift / I Keep Running (Motown 1773 1984)
Another “Nightshift”! The eighties were hardly a golden age at Motown, and by 1984 Lionel Richie was long gone, singing insipid ballads to blind sculptresses. He was replaced by a bloke from UK also-rans Heatwave. Against the odds, the band came up with an absolute classic. “Nightshift” is a tribute to the recently deceased Marvin Gaye, that eerily sounds just like him. It’s a hugely emotional ballad of the type they used to do back in the old days before soul got submerged by slickness.
? & THE MYSTERIANS – 96 Tears / Midnight Hour (Cameo 428 1966)
Most of the garage bands that followed the British Invasion took the trusty template of guitar/bass/drums. The Mysterians opted for using an organ that sounded like a fairground Wurlitzer for their lead instrument. It could have sounded ridiculous, but ? had the snotty Jaggeresque misanthropy down to a T.
PHOTEK – Ni Ten Ichi Ryu / Fifth Column (Science 2 1997)
Pure coincidence that I posted the video of this yesterday. It’s one of the finest examples of the more arty side of drum and bass. There’s barely any bass on it, save the natural timbre of the percussion, and the only melodic elements are some metallic clashes and the occasional call of a reed flute. All its energy comes from the drumming. The beats are programmed, but somehow still sound organic – even ancient.
PRODIGY – No Good / mixes (XL 51 1994)
I kind of lost interest in the Prodigy when they unleashed Keith ‘Krusty the Clown’ Flint as lead vocalist on Fat of the Land. I much prefer the old skool rave monsters that they used to do. “No Good” was arguably the last of these, a ridiculously uptempo piece of hardcore with sped up vocals that probably laid the foundation for that unique West of Scotland phenomenon Happy Hardcore that still blasts from ned motors to this day.
WALKER BROTHERS – No Regrets / Remember Me (GTO 42 1975)
The mid seventies Walker Brothers reunion was driven purely by financial motives. After years of doing albums of hideous country-rock schlock, Scott was still not allowed to write his own songs (although he has hinted that he had nothing to offer at the time, anyway), but at least the material was better. His take on Tom Rush’s fatalistic ballad of a dead relationship showed that he’d lost nothing in the five years since his last half-good record (Till The Band Comes In). To the surprise of everyone, they had a huge hit on their hands. It proved to be a false dawn, and by the third reunion album, sales were poor, and the record company was in its death throes. GTO being no longer interested in what the trio were up to, they took the opportunity to experiment. That proved to be the rebirth of Scott as the avant-garde giant he is today, although it still took nearly two decades before he unleashed his masterpiece, Tilt.
MALCOLM X – No Sell Out / instrumental (Tommy Boy 840 1984)
Not exactly your average pop star, Malcolm Little aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Keith Leblanc took elements of his speeches, Steinski-style, and weaved them into a cool electro tune. What could have turned out to be a bit crass was in fact an inspirational three minute introduction to the life and thoughts of the man, with plenty of quotable soundbites.
BESSIE SMITH – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out / Take it Right Back (Columbia 14451 1929)
Along with “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”, this was one of the iconic songs of the Depression. Strangely, it was recorded in July 1929 when nobody but a few doom-mongers thought the party would ever end. Three months later it must have seemed like an act of prophecy. Bessie Smith was a woman who took no bullshit from anyone, and that’s reflected in most of her songs where she lets you know exactly who’s boss. Here, though, she exudes a real anguish and hurt. You totally believe in the despair.
GRACE – Not Over Yet / mixes (Perfecto 104 1995)
The song is a perfectly serviceable piece of pop-trance, with a great, catchy chorus sung well by Dominique Atkins, but no more remarkable than that. When remixed by BT, though, it was turned into an epic thirteen minute monster, full of soaring synths, neo-romantic piano and just about anything else he could think to chuck in. Epic house was about as fashionable as a Yes triple album, and a short lived phenomenon. A pity, actually. When done well, it combined elements of dance , prog and even the avant-garde. When done badly it was interminable, of course.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION – Now Be Thankful / Sir B Mackenzie’s Daughter’s Lament … (Island 6089 1970)
“Now Be Thankful” is a kind of rustic hymn, and certainly the best known Fairport song post-Sandy Denny. It holds a record (or at least used to) for the longest song title ever issued on a single, the snappily titled “Sir B. McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers’ Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe, In The Year Of Our Lord 1727, On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie”.
MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS – Nowhere To Run / Motoring (Gordy 7039 1965)
Classic era Motown at its most energetic and urgent. As was often the case, “Nowhere to Run” is a love song comprised of a stack of metaphors – in this instance comparing it to being a cornered criminal on the run. You can tell Martha Reeves really liked this one – she pulls out all the stops, and gives the best vocal performance of her recording career. Quite brilliant.
IKE & TINA TURNER – Nutbush City Limits / Help Him (United Artists 298 1973)
As one of the many claimants to the title ‘inventor of rock ‘n’ roll’, Ike Turner had more to back it up than most. Twenty years on, his wife Tina proved to be his match with her semi-autobiographical rocker “Nutbush City Limits”. With a brilliantly simple dirty guitar riff, thumping beats, and most of all, Tina’s astonishingly gutsy delivery, the tune is granite-tough. It was also one of the first records to feature a synth solo in the wailing, slightly deranged bridge.