Category Archives: Music

Bad first songs

OK, “bad” is hyperbole in most cases here, but go with me.

A bad opener is a much rarer beast than the bad last song, at least among albums that are any good. Most artists seem to be better at recognising the best place to start than the best place to end. Nonetheless, missteps happen; some of the records I’d count among my very favourite have opening tracks that don’t quite get things rolling.

Asked to name a favourite band, I’d plump for the Beatles. Asked to pick some favourite songs, or albums, the Beatles would figure highly. But – controversial opinion alert – they weren’t always the best judges of how to get start their albums off.

Revolver has been the consensus “best” Beatles album for about 20 years, and it’s probably true that it contains the highest concentration of fantastic songs on any Beatles record. While the album is such a monolith in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that I can’t imagine any other song plausibly taking its place, Taxman has always felt like one of its weakest tracks for me. It’s full of interesting bits – the jerky, stop-start rhythm, McCartney’s bass playing and guitar solo – yet it never quite coheres into a song I find myself compelled to listen to. And while acknowledging that a 95% top rate of tax is pretty eye-watering, it’s not like the Beatles were short of cash at the time, so I can’t bring myself to care all that much for Harrison’s plight.

It wasn’t just Revolver, though. Sure, the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does important work in establishing the concept of the album as a whole, but it doesn’t much flatter the band. By the middle of their career, the Beatles had lost some of the dynamism and power captured in their early recordings (I’m talking strictly as players here), and there is, as Ian MacDonald observed, something about their attempts at heavy rock in the second half of their career that calls to mind a middleweight puffing themselves up in an attempt to pass for a heavyweight. Magical Mystery Tour‘s opening title song, meanwhile, is similarly unsatisfying, partly because its lyrical idea is so shopworn, and partly because there’s not much melodic development.

But let’s leave the Beatles so I can put the boot into another one of my very favourites, Joni Mitchell.

For the Roses is a pivotal and somewhat underrated album, one that is very close to my heart. It’s certainly a transitional piece (it came out between Blue and Court and Spark and shares characteristics with both), but it has a character of its own, and four or five songs that are genuine career high points. Yet its opener, Banquet, is one of Mitchell’s least successful songs: a shrill, irritating melody and a series of overwrought metaphors. I nearly always skip it. Like Taxman, which feels weak as soon as Eleanor Rigby starts, Banquet is shown up by the brilliant second track, Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

Many people would argue that Rainy Day Women gets Blonde on Blonde off to a shaky start. Me, I’m always happy to hear it. For me, the weakest Dylan openers are Desire‘s misbegotten and botched Hurricane and Nashville Skyline‘s godawful version of Girl from the North Country, a duet with Johnny Cash that brings out the worst in both singers. I’d actually prefer the album to start with Nashville Skyline Rag, which is hardly earth-shattering, but is a great deal of fun. Mel nominated Oh Mercy‘s Political World, too – I don’t know the album that well but it’s sure no Where Teardrops Fall.

Any discussion of good albums with bad first songs has to include R.E.M.’s Out of Time and its opener, Radio Song, which features a cameo from KRS One. While it has a certain goofy charm, I don’t think I could argue with anyone who suggested that the album would be better if it started with its second track, Losing My Religion. I asked my colleagues Sara and Nick to give me a couple of suggestions for bad opening songs on good albums: they both said Radio Song. So there you go. It’s unanimous.

Steely Dan’s seventies records have maybe five lacklustre songs between them, but would anyone object too strenuously if I cited Katy Lied‘s opener Black Friday as probably the album’s weakest track? Its shuffle groove is just a bit pedestrian. I almost always start listening from track two, the wonderful Bad Sneakers.

Among lesser known but, to me, very important albums, the two albums that Belly released in the 1990s, Star and King, both start with tracks I’ve never much cared for. Puberty, which begins King, just sounds messy and unfinished, and Someone to Die For, from Star, while explicable from the point of view of having what’s ultimately a slightly weird and creepy album begin with something weird and creepy, has always felt too obvious an attempt at spookiness to me; what’s so compelling about Star is that even its pop songs are a bit off-kilter. Track two, Angel, just sounds like a much more natural opener, and more representative of the band generally.

Of course, some bands have a knack of aceing it. But that’s another post.

 

 

 

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Home at Last – Yo Zushi

My friend and long-time musical compadre (seriously, we’ve got something like 18 years behind us now) Yo Zushi has released a new single, Home at Last, with a new album (King of the Road) to follow shortly.

Home at Last was recorded around two years ago, I think, at One Cat in Camberwell, with Jon Clayton engineering. It was the last song we cut during that day at the studio, but at this point I can’t remember what else we did during that session. I can remember that I played drums on the live take, and that Dan McKean played piano. I then took the basic tracks home and did what I do, adding electric, acoustic and bass guitars, while Yo worked up a vocal arrangement.

It’s a great song (one of the best Yo’s ever written, I think, and he’s written some doozies) and I absolutely love the way the recording turned out. There’s a bandcamp link at the bottom of the post, and it’s also available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music and all the other usuals. The cover features Yo and his friend Jazzman John Clarke, a performance poet well known in London, who sadly passed away last week. I only met Jazzman a few times, but he was a lovely man with music and rhythm inside him.

Yo will be playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston on Sunday 16th September, and I’ll be supporting, in what is for me a rare solo show. Nowadays I mainly play as part of a duo with Melanie (something we’ve been doing increasingly often, and dare I say, are now getting pretty good at), so this will be something different, by virtue of being something old-school.

Under the Boardwalk – Tom Tom Club

Still hot. Here’s a song for a summer’s day.

The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense may be the greatest concert movie ever made. It’s just so much fun. I don’t think I’ve seen any band have such an obviously brilliant time on stage as the late-period expanded line-up of Talking Heads – a 9-person group, black and white, male and female. Not even Sly & the Family Stone before Sly’s drug use got heavy. When, at the end of Burning Down the House, David Byrne and Alex Weir begin running on the spot together while playing their guitars, it’s such a perfect little moment of childlike enthusiasm that it makes me a little misty. It’s so great that music can feel so good, be so uplifting. The joy is infectious; unlikely fans of band and film included the 65-year-old Pauline Kael, grande dame of American film critics, who called it “close to perfection”.

By the time of Stop Making Sense, Tom Tom Club – the band formed by Talking Heads’ husband-and-wife rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth to tap into the same kind playful joy as Stop Making Sense – had already put out their first two albums, including their beloved debut, with its even more beloved singles, Wordy Rappinghood and Genius of Love.

As great as both of those are, though, I’d never heard the rest of the album until a couple of summers ago when Mel and I were having breakfast in the Soul Café in Liverpool. They were playing some really cool music (I mean, really cool) – great disco and soul and rare-groove stuff – and then they started playing what sounded like Tom Tom Club covering Under the Boardwalk.

It was Tom Tom Club covering Under the Boardwalk, and really, this band and this song are a very good match. Tom Tom Club were founded on the idea of music as an inclusive exercise (that’s why they called themselves Tom Tom Club, says Weymouth – the idea being that anyone could join), and music doesn’t get more inclusive or more fun than Under the Boardwalk.

The drum sound from that first Tom Tom Club album (and that of Genius of Love specifically) is so frequently sampled that it’s now just an ever-present part of pop culture; whenever you hear Mariah Carey’s Fantasy, Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack or Ice Cube’s Bop Gun, you’re hearing Chris Frantz. It’s an instantly addictive combination of sound and groove. Under the Boardwalk marries that loping beat and Tina Weymouth’s unaffectedly childlike vocal to even a better song than Wordy Rappinghood or Genius of Love. No wonder this became the first version of Under the Boardwalk to reach the UK Top 40 singles chart.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits

We’re suffering through a heatwave over much of the UK at the moment. OK, I’m suffering through it. I find genuine heat in the UK tough to take. We’re not set up for it, with our non-air conditioned houses and public transport. In London at least, the heat lingers late into the night. It’s not the daytime temperatures I can’t take; it’s the nights where it never gets below 20 degrees. We’ve now had nearly two months of this and I’m about to turn into Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

But however much I hate it right at this moment, I know it could be worse. It’s not yet at 2003 levels, when we had the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK (38.5°C). That summer, having just taken my finals and waiting to graduate and figure out what the hell to do next, I was working as a labourer in the maintenance department of Westminster Cathedral and listening to Tom Waits’s mid- 1970s records. So despite Waits’s music being self-evidently best heard at night, I associate those Waits records with bright sunshine, hot pavements and torrents of sweat running down my back as I weed pavements, move office furniture and scrub bricks.

James McKean had got me into Waits 18 months previously via Small Change, so I was well familiar with that already. The records that really had my attention in the summer of 2003 were The Heart of Saturday Night and the new-to-me Nighthawks at the Diner. Nighthawks I’ve written about before here. It’s spotty, and the more song-based material can feel a little underwritten at times, but at its best it’s tremendous fun, and the looseness of the set gives Waits the opportunity to just explore the furthest reaches of his drunken-beatnik persona. The best tracks, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission) are hilarious, riveting – full of dazzling wordplay, indelible imagery and surreal juxtapositions. Sure, Waits wasn’t inventing anything with this style of music or lyric writing, but he had become an expert practitioner of it, and he’s so charismatic that there’s a lot of joy in just hearing him do his thing. It’s never just about the writing with Waits; it’s just as much about the delivery, and the delivery is brilliant:

Well, it was a nickel after two. Yeah, it was a nickel after two
And in the cobalt steel-blue dream smoke
Why, it was the radio that groaned out the hit parade.
And the chalk squeaked and the floorboards creaked
And an Olympia sign winked through a torn yellow shade.
Old Jack Chance himself leaning up against a Wurlitzer,
Man, he was eyeballing out a five-ball combination shot.
Impossible, you say? Hard to believe?
Perhaps out of the realm of possibility?
Naaaah.

Cause he be stretching out long tawny fingers
Out across a cool green felt in a provocative golden gate,
He got a full-table railshot that’s no sweat.
And I leaned up against my banister,
I wandered over to the Wurlitzer and I punched A2…

The bridge between the rather earnest songs on Closing Time and this cinematic piece of scene setting is of course The Heart of Saturday Night. Waits’s second album saw him partner with Bones Howe for the first time and dive deeply into jazz. Closing Time has its virtues, and its share of strong material, but it didn’t represent Waits in his totality, the Tom Waits who loved Kerouac and Lord Buckley and who’d already debuted Diamonds on My Windshield as a poem was hardly evident at all.

Jerry Yester had produced Closing Time, but David Geffen (owner of Waits’s record label, Asylum) didn’t think Yester was the man to take on the next one, and that Waits needed someone with a deeper grounding in jazz. Geffen was friends with Bones Howe, who’d been making jazz records since the 1950s with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and had even edited recordings of Kerouac reading his poetry.

Howe assembled some heavy-duty players for what would become The Heart of Saturday Night – pianist Mike Melvoin had worked with Sinatra, Peggy Lee and the Beach Boys; tragic drummer Jim Gordon The Byrds, Derek & the Dominoes, Joe Cocker and George Harrison; bassist Jim Hughart played with Joe Pass, Duke Ellington and Chet Baker. Those were just the core players: the sessions also featured Arthur Richards, Tom Scott and Oscar Brashear.

From the off, Saturday Night is a more authentically jazzy record than Closing Time. Opener New Coat of Paint sees Waits finding his way towards the vocal style he’d become known for: more hoarse, and half an octave lower than on his debut, but not quite the full-on Louis Armstrong rasp he’d develop over the next two albums. The song itself has a New Orleansy quality that has as much R&B in it as jazz. Tracks two and four, San Diego Serenade and Shiver Me Timbers, are a slight return to Waits as San Diego folksinger, although his character sketches are more sure-footed than they’d been before.

It’s the third and fifth tracks, though, that really serve notice that The Heart of Saturday Night is an evolution from his debut. Semi Suite, a woozy late-night shuffle with a sleepy horn riff, sees Waits’s delivery get overtly jazz-influenced for the first time on record (check how he plays with the melody during the line “his trou-sers are hang-ing on the chair”), while Diamonds on My Wind is a poem Waits had written a few years earlier recited over a walking bass line from Jim Hughart and an agile, uptempo shuffle from Jim Gordon.

Side one ends with the title track. It’s sometimes hard to hear The Heart of Saturday Night with fresh ears, so often (and so poorly) has it been covered in the last 15 years or so. It remains a lovely, touchingly optimistic song, though. In his twenties, Waits often appeared to want to be older, so this simple and rather naive exploration of the great American Saturday night (which feels much more like a small-town experience than an LA one) stands out all the more.

Side two is, if anything, even better. Fumbling with the Blues, as Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns points out, sounds like a standard of the St James Infirmary school, but it’s also another piece of Waitsian self-mythology: he’s “a pool-shooting shimmy-shyster”, known by name to all the bartenders. Please Call Me, Baby is the album’s great ballad. While it’s always a risk to read Waits’s lyrics as autobiographical, it does seem to have had as its genesis a row between Waits and a former girlfriend who took an extra shift at work without telling Waits she’d be late home, which led to him waiting up all night worrying. What makes the song great, though, is how Waits takes that feeling and universalises it.

Tom Waits’s 1970s records have a way of taking mundane features of city life and making them sound impossibly cool, bohemian and exciting. Depot, Depot, built on the laziest of shuffle-feel horn riffs, manages to do this even for a bus station. I loved, still love, the playfulness of Waits’ delivery, the pleasure he takes in the sounds of the words. Drunk on the Moon and The Ghosts of Saturday Night are like two sides of the same coin. Drunk on the Moon is a postcard from the middle of a night’s revelries. The moment in the middle of the song when the band just takes off in double time is one of the album’s loveliest passages.

The album ends with The Ghosts of Saturday Night, another spoken-word piece, pointing the way to similar works on Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change. Like so many of Waits’s mid-1970s songs, it’s set in a late-night eatery. The difference is that this time it’s the one he himself had worked in, Napoleone’s Pizza House in San Diego (Napoleone’s would appear again in I Can’t Wait to Get off Work from Small Change, in which Waits namechecks the owners, Joe Sardo and Sal Crivello). Waits’s eye for detail, and his ability to conjure a living, breathing city from just a few characters, is hugely impressive:

A cab combs the snake, tryin’ to rake in that last night’s fare
And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers
Paws his inside peacoat pocket for a welcome 25 cents
And the last bent butt from a package of Kents
As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
Her rhinestone-studded moniker says “Irene”
As she wipes the wisps of dishwater blonde from her eyes.
The Texaco beacon burns on.
The steel-belted attendant with a Ring and Valve Special cryin’
“Fill ‘er up and check that oil.
You know it could be your distributor and it could be your coil.”

It’s easy to look at this song and Diamonds on My Windshield and recognise in them the ideas that Waits would pursue further in the next few years. But The Heart of Saturday Night is more than just a signpost towards achievements to come. Taken on its own terms, it’s one of the strongest collections of songs that Waits ever put out. Perhaps with the exception of Shiver Me Timbers, there’s not a weak song on it. Indeed, there was a time I’d have pointed to it as my favourite album by anyone ever. If you’re a Waits agnostic, it’s definitely a record to check out. It’s great in its own right, and it’s a good way into his mid-seventies work.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Paul Simon @ Hyde Park, 15/07/18

30 degrees in the shade it may have been, World Cup Final day it may have been, part of a festival sponsored by Barclaycard it may have been, but Paul Simon at Hyde Park was billed as his last ever UK show, so there was never any question about whether I’d be going.

I bring this up every time I write about him, but Paul Simon was my first favourite musician, when I was unbelievably young. Like, five or six. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child may be a matter best left to a psychologist, but whatever it says about me, Simon is my guy and I’d never previously seen him play live, so this was it. Last-chance saloon.

I rounded up a special posse for the occasion: Mel, of course; my mum, who is responsible for my three-decades-and-counting love of Paul’s music; and late addition Sara, who took the plunge on a ticket the week before.

BST Hyde Park is a series of one-day gigs over two weekends, with three stages, so there was a lot of music going on, but given the heat we decided not to get there too early, pitching up just in time to watch some of Shawn Colvin’s set on the second stage. She was playing solo with just a guitar and had only a smallish crowd of maybe a few hundred. She’s always had an audience here in the UK, but seldom any hits; Sunny Came Home was the only song I knew among the songs I heard. She was in slightly wobbly voice but went down well with the fans. We skipped the last couple of songs to make sure we got to the main stage for Bonnie Raitt.

Bonnie is a force of nature. 68 years old, her voice is still note-perfect and her slide-guitar playing no less fiery than it was in the 1970s. She also benefitted from the most cohesive and forceful sound mix of any act I saw on the day, with every note was clearly audible (we’ll return to this). Her set, which included a couple of unexpected covers (INXS’s Need You Tonight, Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House) as well as more obvious choices (Skip James’s Devil Got My Woman, Mose Alison’s Everybody Crying Mercy), was mostly blues-centric, with only Nick of Time showcasing her impressive ballad singing. While Nick of Time was great (and very moving), it did make me wish she’s brought things down still further by singing I Can’t Make You Love Me or Love Has No Pride. Still, she did give us a playful version of Something to Talk About that sounded perfect in the afternoon sunshine.

James Taylor was up next on the main stage, and it was during his set that the main drawback of the all-day-gig-in-hot-weather set-up became apparent.

Taylor plays quietly, his music requires an attentive audience and too many audience members preferred to talk rather than listen. With the area nearest the stage out of bounds to those who hadn’t forked out for premium tickets, it was hard to hear Taylor’s song introductions and even hard at times the songs themselves. He played well, if a little less sure-footedly than Bonnie Raitt, and his set included everything you’d want to hear if, like me, you’re only really familiar with his earliest records (Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, You’ve Got a Friend, Sweet Baby James – all present and correct), but alas, even those songs failed to completely silence those audience members who’d paid £85 to carry out conversations they could have had for free down the pub.

This became a bigger problem (for me, anyway) when Paul Simon came on stage. Maybe it was me, but I feel sure something was technically awry with the sound, rather than it being that it was simply too quiet. “Too quiet” was the symptom, not the problem in itself (although, looking at Twitter, “too quiet” has been a common cry at all Simon’s UK shows). Five or six songs in, a chant of “louder, louder” began in the crowd, but only in the left-hand side of the general-admission area. I feel like there was a problem with the house-right line array, as the horns kept coming through distorted, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to clear up and the overall sound became stronger and more present. Whatever its cause, the low volume of Simon’s set meant we were more affected than we would otherwise have been by the yakkers. And boy, do some people love to yak.

But enough about them. They don’t get to ruin the last-ever UK gig by Paul Simon.

The man himself, 76 years old, sometimes sounded rather frail, with his voice taking a few songs to warm up, but when he’d got into his stride he sounded vocally strong, and all the way through it was thrilling to watch him play his superlative songs.

He began with America (“strange times,” he observed, before adding, “Don’t give up”), and then the drummer played the iconic intro lick of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, prompting large sections of the crowd to sing along with the choruses. He then pulled out The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland‘s opening track, on which his bass player, Bakithi Kumalo, was especially impressive. This was followed by the delicate Dazzling Blue from So Beautiful or So What, which featured lovely harmonies from yMusic flautist Alex Sopp, who was one of the band’s MVPs.

Graceland‘s zydeco-flavoured That Was Your Mother was followed by another track from So Beautiful or So What, Rewrite, which, with its intricate layers of guitar and (I think) a kora part rearranged for prepared piano, showcased a lot of what’s best about the quietly experimental recent Simon records. He then went backwards into his catalogue for a couple of crowd-pleasers: Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, which once again had the crowd singing along (they were in quite agile singing voice, hitting the high note in “goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona” rather more easily than Simon did).

Simon then showcased the excellent yMusic ensemble, bringing them to the front of the stage for a three-song run that took in Rene & Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War (the title of which he explained was a caption in a photo book owned by Joan Baez), Can’t Run But and Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song he described as having gotten away from him and that he now felt he was “repossessing”. I guess there won’t be one final Simon & Garfunkel gig, then.

Next up was Wristband, from his current album Stranger to Stranger, and for me one of the highlights of the set. Double bass-led, the song feels like something Donald Fagen from Steely Dan might write: a vignette about a musician getting locked out of a venue and trying to convince the doorman that he’s headlining the show: “I said, wristband? I don’t need no wristband. My axe is on the bandstand, and my band is on the floor!” The last verse, though, shifts from a woe-is-me plaint by an ageing star locked out of his own gig to a more general comment on inequality, showing Simon’s not lost the knack of bridging the personal and the political*.

Wristband was followed by two songs from Rhythm of the Saints, Spirit Voice and The Obvious Child. The former, with mixes samba percussion and West African guitar, is one of Simon’s loveliest songs, and the band did brilliantly to play such a subtle, gentle song for such a huge audience and not inflate it.

Questions for the Angels from So Beautiful or So What was similarly intimate. It’s another lovely song, one that wrestles with some profound questions. It’s a song that acknowledges the plight of so many around us, that believes that things can get better and is wise enough to know what we and all of our problems are when measured against the infinite span of time and existence. Heavy stuff for a sunny afternoon, and perhaps Simon knew it, as he switched to more uptempo rhythm-driven songs for the remainder of the set: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and an ecstatically received You Can Call Me Al. During the latter, the whole crowd bellowed along with the horn riff and sung along with the choruses. As we walked down Park Lane an hour later, a goodly number were still singing that horn riff.

But of course, that was not the end of the gig. Simon played two substantial encores. The first consisted of Late in the Evening, Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland. All three were great, but Still Crazy was quite a moment for me, as it’s always been one of my favourites, and as he played it I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that not only was I finally getting to see the man himself sing it, but that it was the only time I ever would.

The second encore prompted similar thoughts. Simon came back on stage with his acoustic guitar and sang Homeward Bound. During the song, the video screens that had previously only shown close-ups of Simon and his band showed a montage of images from his career, starting with a picture of Widnes railway station, where Simon began the song more than 50 years ago. As the final image (one from the mid-1980s I think, when Simon was in his mid-40s) faded and the screen showed Simon alone on stage, it was impossible not to reflect on his advancing years. Whether this effect had been intended or not, I don’t know, but it certainly added a layer to a song that was already carrying a lot of significance, what with the whole tour bearing its name.

Simon briefly lightened the mood with the deathless Kodachrome (do the millennials in the audience even know what Kodachrome is, asked Sara on the way back to the station), then returned to the weighty. The Boxer. It says a lot about the depth of Simon’s catalogue that as I did a mental inventory of the songs he’d played to try to work out what would be in the encores, The Boxer never once occurred to me. The Boxer. A song any songwriter would dine out on for the rest of their careers, and I’d forgotten about it.

I guess this is because however great The Boxer is, it’s not American Tune. I heard American Tune first (the live version from Greatest Hits Etc.) and it’s always been my push-comes-to-shove favourite Paul Simon song. It was magical, and would have brought tears to my eyes even if the US wasn’t currently being governed by a cabal of the criminal and the unhinged.

Simon finished with The Sound of Silence – an apt choice to end his last UK performance with the song that started his career, but for me it was almost an afterthought after American Tune.

Pop music has given us few more significant figures than Paul Simon, and few whose careers are more worthy of emulation. He never got lazy as an artist, always pushing himself to learn more, expand his musical vocabulary, try new things. His attention to detail and dedication to his craft is evident in every bar of music he’s ever recorded, and was just as evident on stage on Sunday. I feel privileged to have been there, and while there were things that could have been handled better (the sound, the lack of seating/shaded areas), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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*Here’s that final verse from Wristband:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can’t afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you’ll never get a wristband

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

Songs that mention dates

Happy Bobby Goldsboro Day, everyone!

Why is it Bobby Goldsboro day? Because it’s 30 June. That is, it’s the last day of June – the date mentioned in Goldsboro’s 1973 hit Summer (The First Time), in which the narrator recalls his first sexual experience, with a 31-year-old woman he met at the age of 17.

It was a hot afternoon
Last day of June
And the sun was a demon
The clouds were afraid
110 in the shade
And the pavement was steaming

Songs that mention (even circuitously, as in this example) exact dates are actually pretty rare. I’ve been racking my brains all week, discounting songs about holidays (New Year’s Eve, Christmas Day, Independence Day, etc.), and I could only come up with the following:

Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations
It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember

September – Earth, Wind &Fire
Do you remember
The 21st night of September?

Hilly Fields – Nick Nicely
Yeah, 1892 – lines are still on you
Hilly Fields
Yeah, 18th of July – someone in the sky
Hilly Fields

Cosmic Charlie – Grateful Dead
Hung up waitin for a windy day
Kite on ice since the first of February

Town with No Cheer – Tom Waits
This tiny Victorian rhubarb
Kept the watering hole open for 65 years
Now it’s boilin’ in a miserable March 21st

Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay

Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
Now the first of December was covered with snow
Yes, and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston

April 14th Part 1 – Gillian Welch
Hey, hey
It was the 14th day of April

Clothes Line Saga – Bob Dylan & The Band
Then they started to take back their clothes
Hang ’em on the line
It was January the 30th
And everybody was feelin’ fine

Isis – Bob Dylan
I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long*

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down – The Band
By May 10th
Richmond had fell
it’s a time I remember oh so well

Friday Night, August 14th – Funkadelic
Friday night, August the fourteenth
Old lady luck smiled down on me

Anybody got any more? Leave a comment!

5th May, Cinco de Mayo, is a holiday in Mexico, so maybe this shouldn’t count. Oh well.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

I’ve Never Heard… The Wall by Pink Floyd

Here’s a new regular feature. I was a little surprised to look down a list of the biggest-selling albums ever and realise that there was a good number I’d never really heard. Most of these records are such a pervasive part of our culture, and their songs are on the radio so often, I’ve never felt the need to sit down and listen to the albums those songs originally came from.

Last time, we looked at the Eagles’ Hotel California. Let’s see what we quietly desperate Brits were up to while the heads on the West Coast were getting mellow.

While considering myself something of a Pink Floyd fan, I’ve always avoided the band’s last two albums with Roger Waters at the helm, The Wall and The Final Cut. The latter’s reputation for impenetrable bleakness proceeds it, while The Wall is a concept album with more than a hint of the theatrical about it, and that’s never really been my thing. Frankly even after having my opinion on Floyd turned around by hearing Dark Side of the Moon properly, I still scorned The Wall.

Presumably The Final Cut is a still more gruelling experience than The Wall, but I can’t imagine there’s a darker album that’s racked up anything like The Wall‘s sales. At 80 minutes long, it’s a punishing listen. I went been through it all four times in 48 hours, and frankly, it left me in a rather odd mood.

It begins with the band at its most aggressive. In the Flesh?, rather than beginning the story of Pink, the album’s anti-hero, seems to address the band’s audience, although whether the narrator is Pink or Waters (or whether there’s a meaningful distinction to be made at this point in the record), is up for debate:

Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise

Roger Waters’ strained, cracking voice (the dominant one on the album, with David Gilmour getting comparatively few lead vocals and Richard Wright none at all) is accompanied by a heavy riff in 6/8 time that sounds oddly like Queen – grandiose and stadium ready – but without Queen’s warmth or exuberance.

Let’s stop a minute to discuss sound. Dark Side of the Moon remains to this day a hi-fi buff’s demo record. Alan Parsons’ production and engineering work is among the most impressive accomplishments in popular music. The Wall is a very different sounding beast. By this time, the band was working with Bob Ezrin, who’d made his rep producing mainly hard rock and metal acts, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Aerosmith and the Babys among them. He gave Pink Floyd a bigger, colder and less intimate sound than they’d had before, with a huge, undamped kick drum. It’s an arena-sized sound for a band that knew they’d be recreating the songs in arenas. Some sources claim The Wall was one of the earliest digitally recorded albums, but this isn’t something I’ve been able to confirm. Either way, the sound of the record is an integral part of the experience, and given the enormous dynamic range of the material, its natural home would seem to be CD and other digital formats, even as it arrived in stores a couple of years too early for them.

The album continues with The Thin Ice. The song, split vocally between Gilmour and Waters, again sounds like a prelude to the main story. We’ve not yet met Pink’s overbearing mother, but what other persona could Waters be adopting?

At this point, we do finally meet our protagonist, Pink, and the rest of side one tells us the story of his early years: the death of his father during the war (Another Brick in the Wall Part 1), his schooling (The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Another Brick in the Wall Part 2) and his suffocating relationship with his mother (Mother). About Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, though I should say that I find it a more powerful experience in the context of The Wall than on the radio; I never really felt the depth of Waters’s fury when he and Gilmour yell in unison “Hey! Teacher!” – the anger is palpable.

Anger may be The Wall‘s defining emotion, but Mother ends the first side on a note on a note more of dread than rage. The knotty structure of shifting time signatures defeated Nick Mason, so Toto’s Jeff Porcaro was brought in as a sub, and he aced it, as you’d expect, but the complex rhythmic structures only work because they’re part of a composition that’s harmonically and linguistically simple; otherwise they’d just be showy. Here, as elsewhere on side one, Waters makes effective use of straightforward, childlike language to tell the child Pink’s story:

Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Oh, Mother, should I build a wall?

Mother seems to me to be the heart of side one, the song that really sets up the story, and it’s followed at the start of side two by another one of the album’s key texts. Goodbye Blue Sky, while very pretty, is also extremely ominous. At this point in the story, we assume, Pink is no longer a child, yet he’s unable to let go of his memories of the Blitz, of life under constant threat: “The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on.”*

The rest of side two tells of Pink’s growing alienation and psychological disintegration, with One of My Turns and Don’t Leave Me Now the centrepieces of the suite. One of My Turns features Waters’ most ragged (deliberately so, I think) vocal performance, by turns darkly hilarious (“Would you like to learn to fly? Would you? Would you like to see me try?”) and profoundly despairing, as when his voice drops in pitch and intensity over the course of the final phrase “Why are you running away?”

This leads into one of the album’s most troubling songs, Don’t Leave Me Now. Over an extremely unconventional harmonic structure (Eaug |D♭maj7 | B♭7 |G Gaug), Waters’ strangulated vocal is that of a man at the end of his rope, while what he’s actually saying is horrifying. He gives two reasons for needing his departing wife: “to put through the shredder in front of my friends” and “to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”. Until this point, our sympathy has been with Pink, even as he turned into a macho swaggering cock on Young Lust. After Don’t Leave Me Now, whatever sympathy we have for him is tainted, even if we read the beating he alludes to as metaphorical rather than physical.

By the end of side two, Pink’s wall is complete (Goodbye Cruel World), and side three begins with the beautiful Hey You. The song is credited solely to Waters, but Hey You’s arrangement seems to have come mostly from Gilmour – the unconventional use of a modified Nashville tuning (in which the lowest four strings are replaced by strings an octave higher, and in this case a low E two octaves higher) suggests the input of a guitarist, while the sinuous fretless bass playing is credited to Gilmour. Gilmour takes the lead vocal for the first half of the song, too, with Waters taking over as the intensity increases when Pink realises he can’t escape the wall he’s built for himself. One of the song’s strongest musical touches is the way the opening four notes of the Another Brick in the Wall melody reappear two minutes in as a heavy riff under Gilmour’s lead guitar.

Nobody Home goes some way to humanising this new version of Pink. Alone and despondent, he produces an inventory of all the things his success has bought him, and how none of it matters as he’s still alone.

I’ve got the obligatory Hendrix perm
And the inevitable pinhole burns,
All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.
I’ve got nicotine stains on my fingers,
I’ve got a silver spoon on a chain.
Got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains.
I’ve got wild staring eyes
And I’ve got a strong urge to fly,
But I got nowhere to fly to.
Ooh, babe, when I pick up the phone
There’s still nobody home.

Waters’ voice is a strange instrument, brittle and somewhat stiff, with a papery top end that sounded like that of an old man even when he was in his twenties, but on Nobody Home, singing near the bottom of his register until the end of the second verse, over a backing of piano and orchestra, his performance is hugely effective, and I can’t imagine any other singer, however accomplished, doing better.

Vera and Bring the Boys Home return us to the themes of side one. Pink (and, of course, Waters, whose father died at Anzio) remains haunted by the war, what it did to those who fought, and what it did to those left behind. In that context, Vera Lynn carries huge metaphorical weight, not just for Pink (and Waters) but for anyone of the same generation. Younger listeners, I suppose, cannot hear this song quite the same way as those for whom hearing Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again was part of a foundational shared cultural experience, but nonetheless I find it very moving.

Side three ends with Comfortably Numb, about which you probably don’t need to be told. More than just one of The Wall‘s most famous tracks (in the UK, the most well known is Another Brick in the Wall Part 2, which was a number-one single, but I can’t speak for other countries), it’s one of the band’s most iconic songs, with Gilmour’s guitar solos justly held up as some of the best in rock music history.

Side four sees Pink completely unravel and imagine himself as a fascist dictator and his concert as a huge rally. It begins with The Show Must Go On (the first line of which is “Must the show go on?”), the sense that something is wrong heightened by the incongruous Beach Boys-style backing vocals that are actually out of tune with the track. Then we get a horrifying reprise of In the Flesh (without its question mark), in which Pink is now an Oswald Mosley-like Blackshirt, railing against gays, Jews and black people and screaming how they should all be shot. It’s extremely unsettling.

Run Like Hell begins with one of Gilmour’s most exciting riffs, a series of triads with delay played over a D pedal tone. The song maybe never quite lives up to its riff, but it’s narratively essential, as it’s here that the crowd at the gig become a rioting mob, chasing after the “riff-raff” inventoried by Pink during In the Flesh. Waiting for the Worms switches back to Pink’s POV as he barks orders and hatred through a megaphone, while also restating the album’s most recognisable musical leitmotif: the grinding 4-note E minor riff from Hey You, itself the opening notes of the melody from Another Brick in the Wall.

At this point, Pink puts himself on trial, and is found guilty by the judge, who orders that the wall be torn down, and the album ends with a sprachgesang-ing Waters over the dance-band style melody we heard right at the start of the album, before the heavy riff of In the Flesh? crashed in.

So, what of the quality of the album itself? Of course, its sheer scale, musically and thematically, is impressive, and among concept albums it’s notable for its sheer dedication to its own premise. Everything here advances the story in some way, and the way it’s programmed into four suites, with its crossfades and segues, is both elegantly designed and technically accomplished.

Not all the music, though, is to my taste. While I’d concede its narrative importance, the track Young Lust is a low point – Pink Floyd were not a band made for louche Stonesy R&B, and Gilmour’s growled vocal is unintentionally comic, I think. He just doesn’t convince. The Happiest Days of Our Lives, while containing some cool bass playing from Waters, doesn’t add much to the album’s critique of the education system, and the dwelling on the beatings doled out by wives to their schoolmaster husbands is juvenile.

My bigger problem with the album, though, is that it seems to be telling two stories, both of which work well on their own terms, but don’t quite fit together. I find myself completely won over by the story of the young Pink, never quite able to process the loss of his father and brutalised by a harsh education system. I buy that an overprotective mother could damage her son still further trying to compensate for the loss of a husband and father from family life. As the child grows up and finds a void within him, it seems psychologically reasonable that he’d look to fill it with things, while finding it hard to relate to other people emotionally, eventually building a protective barrier around the parts of his psyche that are most damaged. All of that seems to me psychologically realistic, well handled by Waters’ songs and successfully brought to life by the band.

What doesn’t quite work for me (thematically, rather than musically), is the jump from that to Pink’s hallucinating that he’s a fascist dictator. It doesn’t seem outlandish that someone in Pink’s position might harbour a fascination with the enemy his father died fighting, but in terms of him imagining himself their leader, it feels like a chunk of the story has been missed out along the way. Side four feels cut off from the rest of the album’s themes, even as the music is successful on its own terms. Of course, it was Waters’ misgivings about his relationship to his fans, his profound estrangement from them on the 1977 In the Flesh tour, that led to the creation of The Wall in the first place, but it feels to me like in the process of writing The Wall the early-years material took on a life of its own, and ended up becoming the more compelling part of the story.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. The Wall is still a massive achievement. That it took me until the age of 36 to hear it is partly a reflection of my own taste, partly a function of the band’s unfashionability for much of my adult life, and partly to do with its reputation as dark and misanthropic in a way I didn’t feel like I wanted in my life. Now I’ve heard it, I can’t say I’ll come back to it often, but it’s pretty radically altered my perspective on the band and Waters in particular. Which is exactly what I was hoping for.

*I haven’t mentioned the Alan Parker movie adaptation of The Wall, as we already had enough to get through, but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t say at this point that Gerald Scarfe’s animation work is extremely impressive throughout, and his visualisation of Goodbye Blue Sky is one of the most haunting moments in the film.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.