Category Archives: Music

Borders (Cruel Expectations) – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Six months ago, I wrote about the Spirited Away EP by James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, in which I play guitar.

Since that EP’s release in June, we’ve also released an album, Borders (Cruel Expectations), but I didn’t post about it at the time. At this remove, I can’t remember exactly why, but I suspect I felt like I’d been plugging my stuff too frequently, as I’d also put out a single and an EP with Mel during lockdown. But Borders deserves a plug or two, and it’s way overdue, so here goes.

It’s the third James McKean and the Blueberry Moon record, and it’s quite unlike the others. Previously, the band had been James, me and whoever we could rope in to help for live shows and recording. The songs on the first two albums were tracked at my dad’s house, my flat, James’s flat or One Cat studio, with a revolving cast of musicians. James and I were pretty creative with production; arrangements feature violins, double bass, pedal steel and touches of keyboard, as well as guitars, drums and electric bass. The downside was, though, it was hard to replicate some of the arrangements in a live setting and there was a noticeably different feel from song to song – inevitable when some of the tracks were recorded one instrument at a time by James and me, while others were tracked by a full band playing live in a studio. It’s amazing, frankly, the records are as coherent as they are, much of which is due to James’s talent for sequencing (and an excellent mastering job from Ben Zushi Rhodes on No Peace for the Wicked).

For his third album, James wanted to do something a bit different. These time, we set out to record all the songs live, with all the interaction between musicians that entails, and to retain the same band on everything. Jon Clayton, from the band Hurtling, was the recording engineer. The rhythm section was Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) on drums and Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union) on bass. Singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic.

James’s vocals were overdubbed, as were occasional keyboard parts. Chris, Jono, Matt and I all pitched in with harmonies, as did Mel and singer/songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Basia Bartz from Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band played violin on two songs. But basically, it’s more of a rock album than a singer-songwriter record, especially compared to the previous two.

As I’ve written previously, progress on final mixes was slow until I was furloughed last April. Borders was the first project I finished during that period, and we released the record at the end of July last year.

I’m really proud of it, as I am of every album I’ve worked on with James. He’s an excellent singer and writer, and he covers a pretty wide stylistic territory. This album has hints of country, gospel and soul, as is usual for James. But there are also songs that suggest the Clash (on Home on High, there’s some of that London Calling swagger in Jono’s drumming), Haircut 100 (In the Twinkling of an Eye has Heywardian major sevenths and brass) and the Smiths (some Marr-esque jangle on Wine Dark Seas).

Borders has some of James’s best songs, and it was so cool getting to mix the songs and become really familiar with all the details in the other guys’ playing – stuff that you don’t quite get to hear in reheasal. They’re all really fine musicians, and I miss playing with them so much. I’m hoping we’ll get to reconvene in the summer when, hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is over and music venues (the ones that survive lockdown) are able to reopen.

Things are pretty worrying here right now. Transmission, hospitalisation and fatality rates got scarily high just after Christmas, and while they’ve receded a bit, they’ve not gone down all that much. Not enough. Mel and I are fortunate – we both work from home, so we just leave the house to buy food and to go for walks a few times a week. And happily, my mum and my dad have both had a first dose of the vaccine now. But life still feels on hold, plans are all provisional.

In the meantime, working on music (writing music, recording music, making plans about what do to do with the music I’ve recorded) is one of the things keeping me sane. There are a few things going on, which I’ll be able to say more about soon, I hope. Borders is out now, though, available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and it’s a fine piece of work, if I say so myself.

Solid State Logik 1 – The KLF

At least one good thing has already happened in 2021: the KLF have released Solid State Logik 1, which brings together their commercially best-known singles as the KLF, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and, of course, the Timelords, to streaming sites.

For the uninitiated, the KLF may be pop’s greatest-ever pranksters and provocateurs. In the late 1970s, Bill Drummond was a fixture in the Liverpool punk scene, playing guitar in the band Big in Japan. A pretty short-lived group with only a single, an EP and various compilation appearances to their name, Big in Japan are nonetheless legendary for the people who passed through their ranks. As well as Drummond, that includes Jayne Casey (Pink Military/Pink Industry), Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds), Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes to Hollywood), David Balfe (the Teardrop Explodes) and Clive Langer (notable producer of Elvis Costello, Madness and others). Drummond later worked in A&R and as manager of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen.

In 1982, he began managing an ambitious new band called Brilliant. Formed by former Killing Joke bassist Youth, the group were savaged by the British music press and failed to make much of a splash commercially. However, it was through Drummond’s involvement with Brilliant that he began working with the group’s guitarist, Jimmy Cauty.

After Brilliant’s demise, Drummond and Cauty started making sample-heavy, hip-hop-influenced records in a South London squat under the name the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (the JAMs), scoring an underground hit with the Beatles-sampling All You Need is Love. They had the audacity to marry their Beatles lift with Samantha Fox samples and children singing Ring a Ring o’ Roses, with Drummond yelling in a hoarse Scottish accent about the ravages of AIDS. “Subversive” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Plus, of course, there were all the allusions to the Illuminatus! Trilogy – the duo’s name being only the most obvious.

Drummond and Cauty followed it with two more epochal singles. Whitney Joins the JAMs repeated the All You Need is Love formula, this time fusing the chorus of I Wanna Dance With Somebody with samples from Mission: Impossible, over which Drummond beseeched Houston to save popular music by hooking up with the JAMs. His repeated bellows of “Whitney! Whitney!” are among the most joyous sounds in popular music.

The other landmark record was of course Doctorin’ the Tardis, which Drummond and Cauty released under the name the Timelords. A mash-up avant la lettre, which sutured together the Doctor Who theme, Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Part II and the Sweet’s Block Buster, it reached number one in the UK, and was followed by The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), a book in which the pair sort-of revealed how they did it. “Sort-of” because it’s wise never to take anything Drummond and Cauty say in public entirely at face value. They’ve always been in love with the power of self-mythology, and seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Doctorin’ the Tardis is a record whose joke may only bear only a few repeats, but it rightly begins Solid State Logik 1, as it was the base from which the duo launched the KLF, their most famous guise.

The KLF was initially a vehicle for sample- and rap-free pure dance music, reflecting the acid house movement of the late 1980s. Along the way, though, the pair acquired pop ambitions for their experiments in dance music. 3am Eternal, Last Train to Trancentral and What Time is Love were all duly issued in their “stadium house” incarnations, with rap verses by Ricardo da Force, sampled crowd noises, an increasing refinement of and concentration on their instrumental hooks and a panoply of vocal chants (“Justified!”, “Mu Mu”, etc.) drawn from their previous records as the JAMs. They promoted the singles in videos and on Top of the Pops dressed in hooded robes, King Boy D (Drummond) and Rockman Rock (Jimmy Cauty) reborn as high priests of an Illuminatus cult.

The stadium house trilogy, plus America: What Time is Love, It’s Grim Up North (released under the revived Justified Ancients of Mu Mu sobriquet) and Justified and Ancient, with its lead vocal by a perplexed but up-for-it Tammy Wynette, is the early 1990s’ best run of pop singles in any genre, in any country, no questions, no arguments, no exceptions. On one level, they’re pop music as pure event and spectacle – one put together on a shoestring (that train set in the video for Last Train to Trancentral!) – but they were put togther by people with an evident love of euphoric pop and a wide frame of reference, so they absolutely work simply as pop music, without the visuals. Drummond and Cauty never condescended to their audience, they never sniggered at the music they played or at anyone who liked it, which is how they managed to combine their roles as pranksters and pop stars without ever acting like they were in any way above it all.

In May 1992, a few months after an appearance at the BRIT Awards during which the band played a hardcore punk version of 3am Eternal with Extreme Noise Terror, Drummond fired blanks into the audience, and the band dumped a dead sheep at the after-party (with the message “I died for ewe”), Drummond and Cauty retired from music and deleted their catalogue. They then burned a million quid in royalties on the Scottish island of Jura. Since then, hearing their music on anything other than YouTube has been somewhat tricky, or at least expensive.

My sincere recommendation, then, is that you enjoy Solid State Logik 1 while you can – there are no physical releases, and you can’t buy the tracks from iTunes. The KLF could pull their music down any day, and they just might. Solid State Logik 1 is only a sampler of their work (it contains no Pure Trance mixes of the stadium house trilogy, no B-sides like the sombre, anti-war America No More, and no Whitney Joins the JAMs or All You Need is Love – sample clearance may preclude the latter two getting a new official release), but further volumes are promised, so we await with interest.

The Rites of Mu on the Isle of Mu (oh fine, the Isle of Jura), midsummer solstice, 1991

So long, 2020

And here we are, then. It feels naive to feel too optimistic, as we look back at the horror show of 2020 and forward into 2021. The vaccine roll-out gives some reason to be hopeful, but you don’t have to look at the Twitter feeds of too many public health specialists, epidemiologists or healthcare workers to see that things might get a whole lot worse before they start to get better.

All I can say to you is that I wish you and everyone you know good health and peace of mind. You’re not alone.

Below are links to some of my favourite pieces from 2020. I’ve tended to post in fits and starts this year, my mind often not on blogging but on the various crises tha have befallen us, as well as on my own less-than-ideal work situation. Now I’ve got steady work again, I may be able to get back to more regular posting. I’m minded to do another one or two I’ve Never Heard posts, though, and they tend to take a week or more to pull together.

Anyway, stay safe, and I’ll see you in 2021.

Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 – Tim Buckley

Reverb, echo and delay revisited

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

Peter Green

Gillian Welch, living in the now

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at 25

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA

BTW, I released a couple of things this year. Do check them out if you get the chance.

A new year’s wish (one among many)

I’ve never been a hard-gigging, road-warrior kind of guy. I’m not, in truth, the most natural live performer (I know, shocking, right?), and have always preferred rehearsing, recording and writing to playing live.

But I’ve also been a musician playing solo, in duos and in bands for over 25 years, so I know as well as anyone else what a live performance can be at its best, what it can mean to both musician and audience. The adrenaline of a set that goes well – those rare occasions when you’re so in the zone you’re no longer consciously performing, you’re just a conduit, allowing something powerful to pass through you – that’s a hell of a thing, no question. It’s not easily replaced.

In the UK, live music stopped abruptly back in March, and barely restarted over the summer. Not everywhere has been equally affected, of course, and some musicians have been able to find ways to function that work for them – low-volume home rehearsals, outdoor rehearsals and gigs for small audiences, live streams and so on. But for a band like the one I’m in, which is more or less a rock band and therefore reliant on amplification, and whose members live miles away from each other in a densely populated city with neighbours all around, and where public transport is a Petri dish, it’s not been possible.

Things are once again dire here – as bad as back in April and May. To complain about missing the opportunity to play live shows and rehearse with my friends seems tone deaf, I know. Nonetheless, I do miss having live performance and the attendant rehearsals as a part of my life. Maybe, as Joni Mitchell put it, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. We all have many wishes for 2021, and the main one is of course that we can somehow get through the next few months until the vaccine is rolled out widely, but a return to playing live shows, and the survival of the venues that host them, is high among mine.

I hope you’re all keeping safe and well.

Homegrown – Neil Young

For some reason, I missed Homegrown when it was released in the summer. I think I felt like I’d had enough new music by singer-songwriter icons for a while after Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways came out, and figured I’d get back to it sooner or later. It took six months, but I finally sat down with it for the first time on Friday.

My reaction is, I have to admit, one of mild disappointment. It’s not fair to the music to judge it against the myth that has become attached to it, but Homegrown has built up a legend as a great lost masterpiece, something too emotionally powerful to have been released while its author was still in the thick of the events it describes. Even Young himself has talked it up as “the missing link between Harvest, Comes a Time, Old Ways and Harvest Moon“.

Leaving aside the fact that Old Ways doesn’t really belong in that list (I think it’s trying to do a different thing, something more country qua country, rather than country rock), I find it hard to hear Homegrown as fitting in that lineage. It seems truer to place it as a part of the run of smashed, bummer albums that included Time Fades Away (recorded on tour Feb-Apr ’73), Tonight’s the Night (recorded Aug-Sep ’73) and On the Beach (recorded Feb-Apr ’74). It’s more acoustic than On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night, less defiant and more tenderly wounded, but it doesn’t have the smoothness implied by Young’s sales pitch for the record.

What I will say for Homegrown is that it starts and ends well. Separate Ways, the opening track, is a little sketchy (Levon Helm sounds like he’s hearing the song for the first time; Tim Drummond’s timing is off for a substantial chunk of the song), but it’s a really fine piece of writing, with a couple of killer changes.

The four-song run that finished the album, meanwhile, is killer. White Line has something of the devastating simplicity of Neil masterpieces like Heart of Gold and Don’t Let it Bring You Down, and for me is only a narrow notch below both of those. Vacancy spits fire like an outtake from Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, although Karl Himmel’s drum fills are several orders of complexity above anything Ralph Molina ever attempted. The delicate, childlike Little Wing is another heart-sore ballad, in this case one that surfaced in 1980 on Hawks and Doves. Young’s chunky acoustic rhythm guitar is one of my favourite sounds in recorded music, so this one is made for me, as is Star of Bethlehem, which adds Drummond and Himmel, as well a guesting Emmylou Harris on harmonies and Ben Keith on Dobro.

It’s not all at that level, sadly. We can discount Florida, a shaggy-dog spoken word interlude in which Young talks about rescuing a baby after its parents are killed in a freak hang-gliding accident, but the first side of the record just doesn’t grab me other than Separate Ways and Kansas. I’ve never really felt that warmly towards Love is a Rose, which first appeared on Decade and was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt, while Homegrown is a lightweight goof that doesn’t have the desperation that underpins, say, Roll Another Number for the Road from Tonight’s the Night. Mexico is a sketch, albeit a pretty one. Try is just meh.

As I say, no record could live up to the expectations that big Neil Young fans had for Homegrown. Off the back of reading Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, I expected it to be epochal. Instead it feels to me like a 7/10 record with a couple of songs that would get full marks or something close.

Worth hearing for Separate Ways, Vacancy, White Line, Little Wing and Star of Bethlehem, but don’t expect it to be at the level of On the Beach quality wise, or stylistically of a piece with Harvest or Comes a Time.

Neil Young, some time in 1974

Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) – Deodato

You could argue that if Creed Taylor hadn’t introduced the music of Brazil to American and European audiences in the early sixties by releasing the work of Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto on Verve, the jazz label he worked for as a producer, someone else would have done it. But who knows? Maybe most of us would never have heard bossa nova. Maybe it would have stayed a Brazilian phenomenon, perhaps one eventually crushed by the right-wing military government that had taken control of the country in 1964, in a coup backed by the American government.

But Creed Taylor did introduce this music to a wide audience, and it caught on fast. Jazz musicians implicitly recognised the music’s kinship to their own, and they adopted its tunes and forged partnerships with its practitioners. One of those who benefitted from this process of cross-fertilisation was Brazilian pianist and producer Eumir Deodato, who moved to New York in 1967 and was hired by Taylor to write arrangements for the signings to his new label, CTI, a list that included Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

In 1973, Deodato was given the chance to record his first solo album for CTI. Prelude brought together some of the heaviest, hippest players in what had come to be known as jazz fusion, or simply fusion – a combination of jazz, rock and R&B played by musicians who, to paraphrase fusion pioneer Larry Coryell, had grown up immersed in jazz, but who also loved the Rolling Stones.

Fusion was codified when Miles Davis (did he love the Stones? Somehow, I don’t see it) formed his first electric band in 1968, enlisting guitarist John McLaughlin and – over the course of the next few years – no fewer than four electric keyboard players, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Larry Young and Herbie Hancock, to play on Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

The most obvious distinguishing markers of fusion were its sounds, textures and rhythms. Fusion groups largely dropped the swung “and-a-one, and-a-two” ride cymbal pattern common to virtually all jazz thitherto, instead adopting a two-and-four backbeat and straight eights from rock and R&B – Miles Davis had, prior to recording Filles de Kilimanjaro, been listening extensively to James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Amplified keyboards and guitars – even Davis’s trumpet – could be distorted, or given trippy reverb, echo and delay effects.

The purists screamed, of course. But there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Fusion was a hit. Helped by his new wife, Betty Mabry, who was plugged in to the New York counterculture, Davis was soon playing in front of thousands at rock venues and sharing stages with The Band, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix in front of hundreds of thousands at major festivals. His collaborators formed bands of their own, all successful: Weather Report (Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter), Return to Forever (Chick Corea) and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin).

This was the era and milieu in Deodato’s Prelude became CTI’s biggest-selling record on the back of an honest-to-God pop hit. His version of the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, released only a few years after 2001: A Space Odyssey had made the music instantly recognisable to a wide audience, reached the top ten in both the UK and US.

Ok, so, the single edit cut out Deodato’s and guitarist John Tropea’s time, no changes soloing (Tropea a dead ringer for McLaughlin on In a Silent Way), but even in its single edit Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) miraculously avoids being merely cheesy through the quality of its musicianship. Perhaps recording Also Sprach Zarathustra was a cynical piece of hit-chasing, perhaps it was merely a goof, but this is not any old group of jazz pros goofing around: this is Ron Carter and Stanley Clarke on double and electric bass, Billy Cobham on drums and the great Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira on tambourine. It was received by most of its audience, I think, as a sort of loungey-funky instrumental, rather than the jazz piece it truly is when listened to unedited, but I still give a lot of credit to the pop fans who heard this and dug it. There’s a lot to dig, especially Cobham.

Deodato combined work as a bandleader with his successful career as a producer and arranger throughout the seventies and eighties, working with people like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, and shepherding Kool & the Gang as they went from a hard-funk party band to a vocal-led post-disco pop group.

Bruce Swedien RIP

Bruce Swedien, who died on Monday at the age of 86, is straight-up one of the greatest to ever move a fader or hang a microphone.

He’s best known, of course, for his work alongside Quincy Jones recording Michael Jackson, but his career stretches back to 1950s Minneapolis, where he ran the recording studio owned by the Schmitt Music Company while still in his teens. He did well enough to buy it from them not long after, recording artists including Tommy Dorsey there. In 1957, he moved to Chicago to work for RCA Victor and then Universal (at the invitation of the legendary Bill Putnam), working with numerous jazz legends in the process, among them Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, with whom he forged a partnership that would endure for the rest of his career.

In the 1960s, he moved into pop and rock ‘n’ roll, recording Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as collaborating with Q on his soundtrack work. In the 1970s, he recorded the Brothers Johnson and Chi-Lites, and did his most enduring work with George Benson and Jackson.

I understand that many are queasy talking about Jackson’s music, in the light of 2019’s Leaving Neverland. Swedien’s legacy being tarnished through no fault of his own is of course nothing compared to what happened to Wade Robson and James Safechuck. But almost no music is made by a single individual, and those records by Jackson are the product of extraordinary labour by a whole team of vastly talented individuals, most of whom are blameless.

Off the Wall and Thriller, in particular, are wondrous sonic achievements, and for all Jackson’s own artistry, they are what they are because of the contributions of Quincy Jones, of songwriter Rod Temperton, and of gifted musicians such as drummer John JR Robinson, guitarist Steve Lukather and pianist Greg Phillanganes. And, bringing everything together, the audio engineering and mixing of Bruce Swedien himself.

If you can’t listen to Jackson anymore (and if so, I understand; I don’t either*), try the work Swedien did around the same time on George Benson’s Give Me the NIght. Throughout that album, Swedien and Jones employ the arrangement style they developed for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. The drums, meanwhile, have a glorious, irrepressible energy that just leaps out of the speakers because Swedien, more than almost any other engineer, refused to rely on compression to make his drum tracks fit inside the mix. He always retained the belief that the transient energy of uncompressed percussion was where the excitement in music lived. If you compress that, you start to suck the life out of it. He was unrepentant, and would pretty much write off modern mix topologies as bad – or at least amateur – engineering. “Compression is for kids,” as he was fond of saying.

That philosophy is immediately apparent when listening to any of the records he recorded or produced, whether they’re big band, or pop, or R&B, from the fifties through to the nineties, when he began to slow down. Swedien stood among the very best, an artist and an artisan, a genius of microphone and mixing desk.

*I’m not going to get into any debates about “cancel culture”. Too many people take bad-faith positions to make it worth the time. I understand and have some sympathy with the idea that one should be able to separate the art from the artist. If you can, I don’t have a problem with that. I read, watch and listen to plenty of art by creators who didn’t lead morally pure lives. I think probably most of us do, even if unwittingly, because we simply don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. But I simply can’t feel the way now about Thriller and Off the Wall as I did when I heard them as a child, and that’s despite knowing about and wanting to celebrate the achievements of Bruce Swedien and the extraordinary musicians who played on those records. Maybe one day I’ll feel differently, but right now that’s how it is.

I’ve Never Heard… Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen

A couple of years ago, I began an occasional series of posts about mega-selling albums I’d never actually listened to properly, in full, as albums. It’s easy, when you know big singles from those records, to imagine you have a handle on the whole thing. Easy, but often wrong. So, every now and again, I sit down with a multi-platinum monster that I have contrived never to have listened to all the way through until now. So pull on your best blue jeans and white tee, and stuff a red baseball cap in your back pocket – we’re going to get to grips with Born in the USA…

I’m not a big Bruce Springsteen guy.

I didn’t hear him at the right age. I think that’s the thing. As I was growing up in the UK, from the late eighties to the late 1990s, Springsteen was a star, of course, but he wasn’t inescapable. George Michael was inescapable. Annie Lennox was inescapable. Mick Hucknall was inescapable. Oasis were inescapable. Bruce was a guy who had a bunch of songs I knew, but that to me all seemed unconnected to each other. Some of them I really liked. But some of them sounded bombastic and overwrought. Some sounded cheesy. Some sounded like Meat Loaf. I didn’t really have a handle on the guy’s story or the shape of his career.

I remember hearing Born to Run in full at university or shortly thereafter and being pretty underwhelmed by it. The saxophone (never my favourite instrument) was a mark against it, but that high, tinkling piano and the band that sounded on the brink of falling apart all the time? These didn’t appeal much either. More fundamentally, though, I couldn’t connect with the stories Springsteen was telling. The desperate romanticism of the title track and Thunder Road seemed the height of uncool. I was too cynical for them.

He seemed a thoroughly decent guy – true to himself, true to his values, true to his music, true to his fans. All admirable things that I was in favour of. But, scared off by Born to Run, I never investigated the Springsteen catalogue properly, and was happy to take him song by song. Some of which, as I said, I liked very much.

Last week, my friend Yo Zushi sent me a demo of a new song he’d written, saying he felt like it was a Springsteen kind of thing and asking if I’d work on it with him. I thought he was right about the song’s Bruciness, and so for research purposes I listened to some of Springsteen’s songs, paying particular attention to his guitar tone. He’s a Tele player, obviously. I knew that. But I wanted to hear a bunch of different records to zero in further. What pickups? Big amps or small? Pedals or amp overdrive? That kind of stuff. When I started to track some parts, I wanted whatever I put down to sound right.

Looking for answers and tonal inspiration, I put on Born in the USA and stayed for the whole thing, realising that I was unwittingly researching one of these I’ve Never Heard posts.

*

The title track will need no introduction. It’s the only possible starting point for the album. Whatever Bruce Springsteen had been up to this point in his career – and it’s worth remembering that Born in the USA was the sequel to the lonesome, home-recorded, lo-fi Nebraska – this was something new and different: huge sounding, even compared to The River, aggressively martial and, via Roy Bittan’s synthesiser (a CS-80?), thoroughly contemporary in its day.

Positioned at the start of album, Born in the USA is part clarion call, part thesis statement and part provocation (an artist updating their sound this dramatically must know that some fans won’t like it, but Springsteen didn’t shrink from showing his hand early). That the song was widely misunderstood by people who didn’t listen to the verses and mistook the chorus’s roar of defiance for ra-ra jingoism is well known. Trump and some of his supporters were doing it only a month ago. Thirty-five years on, though, it remains very powerful. Roy Bittan’s synthesiser riff is attention grabbing, but mix engineer Bob Clearmountain wisely lets it become a background element for much of the song, clearing space for Springsteen’s extraordinary vocal.

A little of Bruce in vein-bulging mode usually goes a long way for me, but in this case the song lives or dies by his ability to exist within the gargantuan arrangement and not be drowned out by it. The truly desperate edge to his voice – the raggedness that gets more noticeable as the song progresses, and which wasn’t smoothed away via edits and punch-ins – is key to how he communicates the lyrics’ meaning. Even if you can’t hear the words (and Springsteen’s enunciation is not the clearest), you can hear from the tone of voice they’re delivered in how angry the singer is, how many times he’s been down, and how he refuses to stay there. The song isn’t without hope (he signs off “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”, after all), but this guy has been given bum deal after bum deal, and we’re going to hear about it.

Cover Me is loosely disguised disco rock, with drummer Max Weinberg playing four on the floor on his kick drum. The main guitar riff has a definite R&B feel, too. In contrast to Born in the USA, where the backing is (if you listen hard and try not be to be distracted by the size and shininess of it all), a bit ragged and lurches in tempo every time Weinberg plays a fill, the performance by the band here is tight, if a little clenched. But that feels natural to the song – it wouldn’t feel right if it were too smooth. The star of the show is, once again, Springsteen. His vocal is well judged – he sounds like the same guy singing Born in the USA, but it’s dialled down a wide notch or two. Most impressive, though, is the lead guitar, which on the basis of the liner notes and some of the live performances I’ve watched on YouTube is played by Bruce himself. I note, approvingly, the pinch harmonics in the solo halfway through the song, and string bends more in tune than some big-name lead guitarists who play a lot faster and flashier than the Boss.

Next come a couple of lower-key tracks, both of which hark back to music of earlier eras. Darlington County is a raucous Stonesy singalong (apparently, he often plays a few bars of Honky Tonk Women before the first verse), with Clarence Clemons firmly in Bobby Keys territory on saxophone. Working on a Highway, meanwhile, is a rockabilly revival. Both songs feel deliberately minor after Born in the USA and Cover Me, a way to let off some steam and tension, and Darlington County does its job fine. I daresay its fun live. Working on the Highway is a different matter. It seems to be about a guy who runs away with an underage girl, is caught by the police and her brothers, and is sent to prison. Of course, to tell a story is not to condone the events that occur in that story. But in the context of an uptempo party song, the lyric is pretty gross, as the music works to obscure what’s happening, and Springsteen’s not really interrogating the actions of this guy. It almost feels like you’re meant to feel bad for him, like Chuck Berry on No Particular Place to Go. Statch-rape party songs just aren’t OK. A clanging, awful misstep.

Downbound Train feels more substantial, and presents no such problems. It was recorded during what fans call the Electric Nebraska sessions, during which Springsteen and the E Street Band tried to get workable versions of the songs he had been demoing at home on his new Teac Portastudio. The most famous product of those sessions was Born in the USA itself. Downbound Train went well enough that Springsteen put the recording to one side along with Born in the USA once he decided to release the Portastudio versions of what would become Nebraska. Downbeat and minor key, it’s played empathetically by the band, who mostly drop out for the long third verse in which Bruce runs to the house in the wood only to find his lover no longer there – or dreams he does, at least.

Side one ends with I’m On Fire, which is even better. Like Working on the Highway, it has a rockabilly feel, with Max Weinberg playing pattering sixteenths with brushes and a snare cross-stick on the backbeats, with no cymbals or tom fills. Unlike Working on the Highway, though, it doesn’t feel retro – Bittan’s synthesiser and the palm-muted electric guitar (Springsteen, I assume, but it could be Steven Van Zandt; as far as I know Nils Lofgren isn’t on the recordings) are very 1980s touches, and in fact remind me of an American answer to Avalon-era Roxy Music, which shares something of its quietly passionate mood and atmosphere. It’s one of the best songs on the record.

No Surrender immediately reestablishes the signature Born in the USA sound at the start of side two – we’re back in the world of big guitars, bigger drums and arena-sized gestures. The brisk tempo partially obscures the fact that for large stretches the melody is the same note over and over again, but not enough to keep the track from wearing thin for me somewhere during the second verse. The middle eight works a similar formula, compounding the problem. Not a dead loss by any means, but one of the record’s weaker songs.

Bobby Jean is interpreted by many as a farewell to the departing Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band after sessions for the album wrapped. It’s musically lighter and more wistful than much of the album, with a high-register piano riff from Roy Bittan that feels a little ABBA-ish. Born in the USA doesn’t give too many moments in the spotlight to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but both are featured on Bobby Jean – Federici has a prominent synth-organ part, and Clemons gets a long solo in the outro, which adds a celebratory note to the coda of a song that wears its melancholy lightly, but is still ultimately a lament for something lost.

I’m Goin’ Down, the sixth single from the album (there were seven in total), feels like side two’s answer to Darlington County – a fun, uptempo romp about sexual frustration within an established relationship. Not one to take particularly seriously. Musically, its strongest moment is the third verse after Clemons’s King Curtis-ish solo, in which bassist Gary Tallent drops out, leaving the song to be carried by the palm-muted electric guitar and Max Weinberg’s enormo-drums. Federici’s on good form on Hammond organ – nothing too showy, but adding variety and interest throughout.

Glory Days is a goof, but one with a long cultural reach. Unlike Dancing in the Dark and Born in the USA, it seldom gets UK radio airplay, yet it was one of the four songs I knew off the album before listening to it properly for this piece. Possibly the first time was at his Superbowl performance in 2009, though it rang a bell even then.

With its rinky-dink organ, recalling vintage rock’n’roll hits like Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, and its outro mugging between Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, it’s precisely the kind of thing that felt irredeemably cheesy to me in my twenties. But as well as being musically so good humoured and infectious that not going with it makes you feel like a curmudgeon, it’s a pretty sharp piece of storytelling. Comparing the romanticised heroes of Springsteen’s Born to Run-era songs and the baseball player and single mother of Glory Days reveals quite how much is going on here. As the song says, viewed at a distance the glory days of these people may not amount to all that much, and evenings spent comforting yourself with nostalgia may be boring for those around you, but Springsteen – or his narrator within the song – doesn’t put them down for looking back fondly on their youth; he’s guilty of doing the same thing himself in the final verse. I could perhaps have done with twenty seconds less of the Bruce-and-Little-Stevie schtick at the end, but that’s a minor gripe.

Dancing in the Dark is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting, brilliantly arranged and expertly mixed by Bob Clearmountain. The uber-steady tempo (noticeably more mechanised than the live-feeling backing tracks of the other songs) suggests the drums were cut to a click track, heavily edited or sequenced, or perhaps some combination of all three, which gives the song its dance-pop feel, but the guitar and Springsteen’s vocal imbue a lot of energy, as does the sheer size of the backbeat. I’m not sure if there’s a bass guitar on it or if all the low end comes from the prominent eighth-note synth that plays throughout the song; it’s certainly the dominant low-register instrument in the mix.

Bittan’s the focal point of the arrangement – that instantly recognisable synth melody in the intro – but what impresses me most is Springsteen’s vocal. He’s mush-mouthed as always, but his choices about when to give the big lines a bit extra (“wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and when to underplay others (his reading of the line “I just know that there is”, for example) is unerring throughout. I’m not qualified to say if it’s his best song (I’ve not heard them all; that’s why we’re here), but it has to be in the conversation.

My Hometown ends the record on a subdued, affecting note. Springsteen’s voice is out front and exposed for the whole first verse, with only Bittan’s synthesiser and a simple bass drum and tambourine rhythm from Weinberg. The rest of the band come in for the second verse, but the sound is still contained and, at least by the standards of Born in the USA, intimate. As the arrangement becomes bigger, the focus of the lyrics moves from a child being taught the values of hometown pride and community by his father to increasing racial tensions and economic decline. The song ends with the singer taking his own child out to show him his hometown, probably before the family leave it forever.

It’s the kind of song that I suspect Springsteen fans treasure most about Bruce’s work. Empathy and compassion pour out of every note. He points no fingers, but it’s clear that he’s angry about the hollowing-out of communities like this by economic factors far beyond the control of people who live in such places. He’s clear-eyed about the consequences, too. It doesn’t matter how much you love your home and your neighbours – if there’s nowhere to work, people will have to move on, never to return.

So for all its shiny surfaces, Born in the USA is an album that begins with a disillusioned army veteran’s roar of wounded defiance and ends with a family man preparing to pull out of town in search of a better life for his young son. I suspect the vast majority of the millions upon millions of people who’ve bought and loved the record understood what was being said within its 12 songs; only the wilfully deaf could fail to. So I don’t think it’s a fair criticism of Bob Clearmountain’s gigantic mix that it obscured the message of the songs, as some have argued.

What is, perhaps, a fair criticism is that such a big sound is a hard listen over the course of 47 minutes. It’s so huge, so bright and so loud.

It was tracked at two of New York’s marquee studios, the Hit Factory and the Power Station, venues at which a lot of big-selling records have been recorded. The plan was always for a really hyped, modern drum sound, which Springsteen had been after for his music since Darkness on the Edge of Town, at least. The Power Station, particularly, was almost the headquarters of the mid-1980s gated-reverb drum sound, in which explosively reverberant room mikes are triggered by the close snare drum mike. The result is a drum mix that blows the snare drum up to giant size but allows for a measure of close control over everything else.

In expert hands like those of Bob Clearmountain, the results could be dazzling. And I should say, I love a lot of Clearmountain’s work. His mixes on Roxy Music’s Avalon are truly mind-blowing to me, and when he’s in less subtle mode, he can be great, too: his work on Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, the Pretenders’ Get Close and Hall and Oates’s Big Bam Boom (appropriate title, that) is really fine. But even among these, Born in the USA stands out as sonically aggressive mixes. It’s not just the brute volume; the mix is also somewhat brittle and trebly. I’m On Fire and My Hometown offer much-needed sonic contrast but I could have lived with a nine- or ten-song version of the record, cutting Working on the Highway and one or two out of No Surrender, Darlington County and I’m Goin’ Down, largely just because it’s hard to listen to the whole thing without ear fatigue.

All of that said, Born in the USA sold somewhere between 20 and 30 million units (we can never be sure of sales figures for records released before the introduction of SoundScan), suggesting that not that many people share my, ultimately pretty small, reservations about it. Springsteen’s concerts are still peppered with its songs today, even its more minor tracks like Darlington County, No Surrender and, alas, Working on the Highway. Ultimately, I may prefer Fables of the Reconstruction, Rain Dogs, Tim, New Day Rising or the Doghouse Cassette from 1985 – music that’s smaller in scale, and not always playing to the back row of an arena – but it’s impossible to listen to Born in the USA and not be impressed by how Springsteen managed to create music so thoroughly contemporary while not compromising his songwriting vision at all.

“Like Friendly Wine”: California Stars – Wilco

Sometime around 1996, Nora Guthrie contacted Barking-born singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and asked him if he’d be interested in going through her father Woody’s archive of unused lyrics to see if any could be turned into completed songs. Despite initial reservations (this is Bob Dylan’s gig, thought Bragg, or Steve Earle’s or Springsteen’s or someone), Bragg agreed to take on the challenge.

However, he felt that as an Englishman, he couldn’t do the work of creating new Woody Guthrie songs on his own, and he contacted Wilco to ask if they wanted to collaborate with him. Wilco were hot off the success of Being There, and were still principally an alt. country band, with occasional West Coast influences. Not Okies, admittedly, but undoubtedly with more American soil on their boots than Bragg, however long he had been touring the US and making connections.

As documented in Kim Hopkins’s feature-length documentary, Man in the Sand, the sessions for Mermaid Avenue became fractious towards the end. There were some disputes over writing credits, and Jeff Tweedy wanted final say over the mix of the record, which Bragg felt was a bit much given Tweedy’s status as invitee to the project. A quote Tweedy gave to Greg Kot is revealing:

“I enjoyed working with Billy. He had a good sense of humor, the ability to laugh at himself. And at the same time, I was always suspect of him, as being somewhat full of [expletive]. I never did understand why we were recording songs about brown-shirted fascists clobbering people in the streets of Italy during the ’30s. […] For Jay [Bennett], it was an atrocity that some of Billy’s mixes would make the record. Instead of balancing instruments and allowing it to be an environment where it sounds like a singer and a band, his was very much a vocal solo mix, with a very far-away, easily palatable band. So squishy and soft and perfect. To me, the recordings we did for Volume 1 were very raw, almost crappy sounding. Whereas his didn’t sound crappy, they sounded chintzy. This faux glitz was on them, and to us that was antithetical to the idea behind the record.”

Bragg and Tweedy’s uneasy compromise was that Bragg would give Wilco the tapes to produce their own mixes, and Bragg and his long-term producer, who glories in the name Grant Showbiz, would mix it too. If Bragg preferred their own mixes of Bragg’s songs, those would be the mixes used on the record.

Once both parties had created their mixes, Bragg felt that he and Grant Showbiz had put together a great mix of Wilco’s California Stars, too, and he wanted that to be used on the album, rather than Wilco’s. The finished record does not indicate which mix was used for California Stars, but whichever it was, the song still stands as a highlight, along with Bragg’s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Ingrid Bergman, Birds & Ships (for which Bragg brought in Natalie Merchant to sing the lead vocal) and Another Man’s Done Gone, which Bragg wrote, Bennett arranged for piano and Tweedy sang. If the songs written by Tweedy and Jay Bennett aren’t quite up to the level of Bragg’s (which could just be a personal-taste thing, or perhaps Wilco had bled themselves a bit dry working on Being There), California Stars stands up alongside any of Tweedy’s work, and quickly became a fan favourite that they still play at just about every gig.

It’s a lovely song, with a weary lope. At the same time that it gains a spring in its step from the idea of being home in California, it contains in its heart a sadness that the singer is not there but must keep working, keep moving, keep staying away. It may be a song about California by an Okie, but it’s a song for anyone, anywhere, who is not where they most want to be.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at 25

After last week’s little round-up of Morrissey-related discussion and analysis, here are my thoughts on a work by another of my generation’s problematic favourites: Billy Corgan and his band, the Smashing Pumpkins.

In fairness, I should say that I don’t see Billy Corgan and Morrissey as being in the same category of problematic fave. As far as I know, Corgan has an obsession with New World Order-style conspiracy theories that are at least adjacent to the fashy right, and he’s got some very conservative views on healthcare and climate change, but I’ve never heard him traffic in the same kind of bigotry you get from much of the conspiratorial right, some of whom have moved from anti-government, libertarian positions into more or less open fascism in the last seven or eight years. That said, I’m by no means keeping up with what he says or does; I just see when something he does makes it on to those websites that aggregate music-related news.

None of which changes a note of the music he made in the 1990s, although if there are former fans who don’t want to listen to it anymore because Corgan hangs out with Alex Jones and opposes universal healthcare, I do understand and sympathise. There’s no moral imperative to separate the art from the artist. The reverse is not necessarily true either, although again I sympathise with anyone who won’t listen to Ryan Adams, Mark Kozelek or Michael Jackson now (to take three examples of musicians whose work has meant a lot to me and who I find I just don’t want to listen anymore).

So, Smashing Pumpkins, then.

When Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 1995, I was 13 and a newly converted fan of alternative rock music – open to anything with a big drum sound, heavy guitars, gloomy lyrics and a good tune. I was knew and liked Today from Siamese Dream, and so was keen to hear more by this band with the silly name. A guitar magazine I bought in October 1995 contained a long interview with Corgan where he talked about recording the album, went through the guitars and amps he used, and explained and demonstrated some of the songs’ riffs. It was super interesting, and he came over very well. Corgan was a great interview back in the 1990s; garrulous and full of himself, sure, but analytical and reflective about the state of rock music and his place in it, and full of creative ideas. I duly got a copy of the record from the library and dove in.

Melon Collie is, obviously, far too long and baggy as anything. The Pumpkins were always a maximalist band, and for me they are – and remain – a difficult band to listen to at double-album length. Corgan’s voice, which emanates entirely from the throat and head and so has little warmth and resonance, is not necessarily a problem on Gish, Siamese Dream and Adore, as on the former two he is sunk quite low in the mix, and on the latter is mostly singing more softly. On Melon Collie, though, he’s mixed more prominently and he made some questionable choices with his delivery, particularly on Tonight, Tonight, where he’s all over the place – sometimes sneering and declamatory, sometimes soft and intimate, sometimes both within the same line. There’s no emotional throughline to the vocal; it sounds carelessly comped from a set of takes with wildly different timbres and moods, although perhaps he just sang it that way. Either way, it ruins the song for me. He’s also pretty hard to take on Zero and Bullet with Butterfly Wings, but I think more intentionally so; one may cringe at a line like “God is empty – just like me!”, but at least his sneering delivery supports the juvenile sentiment.

OK, so now I’ve trashed half of the album’s best-known songs, is there anything I do like? Actually, quite a lot – at least half of it. Jellybelly is one of Corgan’s most crunching riffs, and Jimmy Chamberlin is on fire on that one. Here is No Why – Corgan’s affectionate tribute to a teenage goth, who may or may not be himself – is monstrously anthemic, with a fantastic guitar solo. To Forgive and Galapagos are two of his best ballads. An Ode to No One commits entirely to its bratty premise, with another great drum performance from Chamberlin. Muzzle sees Corgan at his most outward looking and has a gorgeously chunky rhythm guitar sound (might be James Iha rather than Corgan – it’s quite organic sounding in a medium-gain Les Paul/Marshall-y way, in contrast to the usual Corgan rhythm tone, which is very high gain with a suprising amount of low end from a Strat, suggesting some extensive EQ use).

On disc two, highlights for me include the opening one-two punch of Where Boys Fear to Tread and Bodies, which both have great riffs, the gentle In the Arms of Sleep and the very-much-not-gentle Tales of a Scorched Earth, which has a riff somewhat similar to Jellybelly and a heavily distorted vocal. The high-gain treatment essentially turns his voice into an aggressive texture in the mix rather than the focal point of the song, which actually works quite well. The epic Thru the Eyes of Ruby is perhaps not much of a song to spread over seven and a half minutes, but the main riff is enjoyably preposterous – even Queen might have felt it just a bit too grand and pompous – and I can’t help but smile at the audacity of it.

Which just leaves Corgan’s masterwork, 1979. The way it was put together, blending loops and samples with live, organic performances, was indicative of the path Corgan would follow on Adore (which is my favourite Pumpkins album, though again, it’s half an hour too long), but it works brilliantly on Mellon Collie, not sounding out of place at all; more than that, it’s the very heart of the album. For all that Mellon Collie was Corgan laying to rest his own teenage years, 1979 remains so indelible because of how it universalises the coming-of-age experience. I never rode around the Chicago suburbs, bored and looking for some kind of adventure, but I feel like I lived every moment of that song. Managing to evoke your own fondly remembered but highly personal lost adolescence and make it resonate with everyone listening, making them feel that they went through it all too, is a hell of a thing for a writer to pull off. Corgan’s acted like a terrible brat at times in his career, but he gets forgiven a lot. 1979 is a big reason why.

Twenty-five years on from its release, I’m inclined to look indulgently on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness‘s flaws – its grand ambitions, lyrical missteps and musical over-reaches. Nevertheless, it’s for me – far more so than the White Album – the archetypal double album that would be better as a single. So here’s my 12-song, single-album tracklisting.

  1. Tonight, Tonight (but I’d force Corgan to redo the vocal)
  2. Jellybelly
  3. Here is No Why
  4. To Forgive
  5. Muzzle
  6. Galapagos
  7. Where Boys Fear to Tread
  8. Bodies
  9. In the Arms of Sleep
  10. Tales of a Scorched Earth
  11. 1979
  12. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
The increasingly goth Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan newly shorn. 1995, I guess.

Note: I’ve not said very much about James Iha or D’arcy Wretzky in this piece, and frankly, that’s because I’ve no idea how much of a role they played. It’s well documented that Siamese Dream was basically played entirely by Corgan and Chamberlin (producer Butch Vig has confirmed as much). Mellon Collie seems to have been a more collaborative affair, with Wretzky playing bass on most, if not all, the basic tracks, and Iha credited with rhythm and lead. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Corgan took the lion’s share of the solos, and safe to assume most of the flashiest ones (for example, that glorious solo on Here is No Why) are Corgan’s work.