Tag Archives: Mojo

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.

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Graham Nash David Crosby Part 2; or a great-sounding record deconstructed; or a case study in LCR mixing

I’ve seen Crosby, Stills & Nash. They’re groovy. All delicate and ding-ding-ding.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi wasn’t wrong. CSN were delicate and ding-ding-ding; particularly in an era of heavy freakout records, Crosby, Stills & Nash could scarcely have sounded more different. Jimi’s own music sometimes traded sonic clarity for head-turning effects or the raw spontaneity of a captured moment. Such a mindset was pretty alien to the CSN way of working.

How did they achieve this?

When I hear the records the Crosby, Stills & Nash diaspora made together and separately in the early to mid-seventies, the word that springs to mind is lucidity. The parts are largely simple, recorded in a relatively no-fuss manner, with little in the way of trickery, and presented in mix in the most straightforward way possible. They’re bright without being cutting and harsh. They’re warm and intimate but not sludgy and ill-defined. There’s strength and muscularity there, but never in a way that overwhelms the music.

By the time Bill Halverson recorded and co-produced 1972’s Graham Nash David Crosby — by which time he’d already worked on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Déjà Vu, Stephen Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name and Songs For Beginners — he’d got the CSN thing down to an art. There are great songs all over the album, as we discussed on Sunday, but there are also great performances and sounds. And while Halverson gives Stephen Stills a lot of credit for the sounds on the CSN debut, Stills does not play on Graham Nash David Crosby; the sounds come from Halverson and from the musicians, who as we noted the other day, comprised the very best players on the West Coast/Laurel Canyon scene: Craig Doerge, Danny Kortchmarr, Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead; CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves; the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason.

Doerge, Kortchmarr, Sklar and Kunkel are known collectively as the Section. When you listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt or Jackson Browne, it’s the Section you’ll hear. They were a key component of the sounds of the records made in LA for about a decade, starting in around 1971. No wonder they also called these guys the ‘Mellow Mafia’. Peter Asher had brought Kunkel and Kortchmarr in on drums and guitar for Sweet Baby James, looking for players who wouldn’t get in the way of Taylor’s vocal or intricate acoustic guitar playing. After that record’s success, the pair were involved in the recording of King’s Tapestry. Completed by pianist Doerge and the truly remarkable bassist Lee Sklar, the Section appeared as a full unit on the Jackson Browne and Nash and Crosby records, and later with Ronstadt and Carly Simon too.

On Graham Nash David Crosby, it all came together. A great group of musicians, playing strong songs and recorded by one of the best in the business at the top of his game.

Let’s look at a couple of songs. One thing you might notice listening to pre-1980s records is that the stereo image tended to be wider. There’s an approach to mixing often called LCR. LCR stands for left, centre and right. What it means is that elements within the stereo image are panned to those points only. Nothing is panned a little bit left, or a little right, or to 10 o’clock, rather than 9. There are advantages to this method. It’s bold, it clears a lot of real estate in the centre of the stereo image for the stuff that sells the song or holds it together (usually bass drum, snare drum, bass guitar, principle rhythm instrument if there is one and lead vocal), making the mix feel spacious, and it tends to provide a stereo image that feels stable even if you move around relative to the fixed positions of your left and right speakers. It’s something of an old-school technique, a legacy of an era where some mixing desks allowed you to rout tracks only to the left or right channel or both. It started to disappear a bit in the 1980s, an era where – coincidence or not – the craft of record making began its slide into the rather dispiriting mess we have today.

When you listen to say, Girl to be On My Mind, which has some fairly big drum fills from Russ Kunkel, you can hear a drum sound that appears to be a very narrow stereo (probably an XY overhead pair with close tom mics, breaking the LCR ‘rule’, panned to the positions where they appear in the overhead image), with an LCR mix constructed around it. Piano on the left, rhythm guitar on the right, bass and lead guitar in the middle, a stereo organ, and all vocals in the middle. It’s well balanced and extremely spacious. Everything has its place. It is, as I said up top, lucid, with a great sense of depth. While allowing for some lovely details – the manually ridden vocal delay at the end of the bridge for example – it’s extremely unfussy. Bold Southern European brush strokes, if you will.

Here’s the rub: a mix this good is not achievable with a half-assed arrangement. Pan LCR with an arrangement that didn’t balance in the rehearsal room and it won’t balance on record either. A lot of young mix engineers are scared of LCR mixing as they haven’t worked with musicians that give them arrangements that create this natural internal balance. Or they’ve tried to create a wide stereo mix out of two or three elements (in a sparse mix, you’ll have a hell of a time creating a coherent whole if you insist on panning the acoustic guitar out on the left and the vocal in the middle, with a mono echo on the right – but then, there are some complete wingnuts crashing around out there).

If you’re into the details of record making, and God me help I am, Graham Nash David Crosby is a treat. It sounds so good, it’s actually a little depressing hearing a modern record after it. I don’t think I’m simply romanticising the old-school methods here; I hear few records that are played as sensitively and mixed as lucidly as this now, where the details are all so clearly audible, where the sounds themselves are so rewarding. But then, I’ve never been one for a big, soupy wall of sound. I like clarity and audible detail. Halverson, Henry Lewy, Alan Parsons, Ken Caillat, Roy Halee, Tom Flye, Ron Saint Germain…

Bill Halverson

Bill Halverson

Graham Nash David Crosby

Long-time readers may recall that I’m a big David Crosby fan. Yeah, he’s an easy punchbag, but he’s also been a fearless musician, staking out a musical territory that is his alone: voice, tunes, chords, scat singing, sound, mood and atmosphere – all of them his. He imitates no one, and you have to respect that. He may have the smallest body of work of any musician of his stature, he may have wasted the latter part of the seventies and all of the eighties in a cocaine haze, but I’ll take 25 David Crosby songs over 200 of almost anyone else’s, thanks very much.

This week a cover spread on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s infamous 1974 world tour prompted me to pick up Mojo for the first time in getting on for a decade. This is a period I’ve got reading material on already (Shakey, Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California), but it came with a CD of stuff from the upcoming live album (compiled painstakingly by Graham Nash over several years), so I dug into it over the course of a journey home, the train journey courtesy of Southeastern lasting nearly twice as long as it should.

Among the article’s sidebars was a round-up of CSNY-related records from 1970-1974, in which After the Gold Rush, Stills, If I Could Only Remember My Name, Harvest and Graham Nash David Crosby and On the Beach all received rapturous, 5-star reviews. If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably know all of these already, but if any of them is unfamiliar to you, it’ll probably be Graham Nash David Crosby, a 1972 collaboration between Stephen Stills and Neil Young.

Just kidding. It’s by Graham Nash and David Crosby.

“Now oddly overlooked, this is the most blissfully lovely of all the CSNY side projects,” reckons Mojo. Yes, I’d agree with that. I bought it looking for another couple of those precious David Crosby songs. If you like the Cros, you’ll end up buying a lot of records with a lot of crap on them to get at the one or two moments where he was on peak form. But to my huge surprise, I ended up loving almost all of Graham Nash David Crosby.

It helps that there’s no Stills; it’s not that his songs are always terrible, though he is by a distance my least-favourite writer and singer in CSNY, but without Stills in there, the mood is more low key. C&N aren’t trying to take over the world; they’re just trying to express themselves and impress each other. What really hit me about the album, though, was the quality of Nash’s work. I’d never previously liked his songs all that much. Marrakesh Express is not for me. Our House even less so. Teach Your Children is a lovely tune, but sickly sweet, and swallowable only rarely. Yet, his voice, presented alone, retains a surprising Mancunian bluntness, and it’s this quality that pervades much of his solo album Songs for Beginners and on Graham Nash David Crosby. Southbound Train, Stranger’s Room, Frozen Smiles (with its accusatory pay-off, “You’re supposed to be my friend”) and the beautiful Girl to be on My Mind are all great songs with far less hippie-dippyness than his contributions to Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu – being confused and a bit pissed off suits Nash well. Only Blacknotes betrays any of the childlike whimsy that sinks some of his work elsewhere.

nash
(photo by Henry Diltz)

Crosby, meanwhile, is on magisterial form. All his contributions reward repeated listenings and detailed study: Whole Cloth, the harmonically confounding Page 43, Games, The Wall Song and the delicate, gorgeous Where Will I Be?, which with its distinctive polyphonic organum-style harmonies is very much in the mould of Orléans and I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here, from If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby would have made a good 12th-century French monk.

cros

A huge part of what’s so appealing about the album is the lucid, spacious engineering of Bill Halverson and Doc Storch, and the ensemble playing of the backing musicians, a who’s-who of the early-1970s West Coast scene: all of The Section (Craig Doerge on piano/keyboards, Danny Kortchmarr on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums), as well as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh, CSNY veterans Johnny Barbata and Greg Reeves, the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Chris Ethridge and Traffic’s Dave Mason. The drumming throughout is stellar, with sounds that do the performances ample justice. Kunkel, in particular, is on especially impressive form on Nash’s Girl to Be on My Mind and the tricksier Crosby compositions Games and Page 43.

If you’re agnostic about Graham Nash or David Crosby, this album may just convert you. If you like either of them and haven’t yet heard this, remedy that now, please.

nash and crosby
(photo by Joel Bernstein)

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis

Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia

On the canon

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little aside on the idea of a canon in popular music:

By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music. However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it’s rather less likely to become part of the canon.

When I was eighteen I went off to university to read English at UCL. At UCL, all first-year undergads (at least in the English department) follow the same programme of study, no choice in the matter. You do a module of Old/Middle English (that is, you read Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in the original Anglo Saxon, but a translated Beowulf – because even a certain academic in UCL’s English department isn’t that cruel – and then stuff like Gawain & the Green Knight, written in a Middle English dialect that makes Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing seem as easily comprehensible as Dan Brown’s). You do a module of foundation texts in English: Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, Gulliver’s Travels, Bleak House, The Waste Land (there were a couple more but I forget – maybe Tristram Shandy or Boswell’s Life of Johnson). You do a module on critical terms and theory.

And you take a module called, imposingly, Intellectual & Cultural Sources. Which could carry the alternative title: ‘Squeezing As Much About the History of European Literature and Thought Into a Student’s Head As We Possibly Can In Twenty Weeks’. This is a whistle-stop tour through: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine, Boethius, Dante, More, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx & Engels, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Woolf and Barthes. Whew. That’s a lot of knowledge to drop on an eighteen-year-old, an awful lot of DWMs (or DWEMs, if you prefer).

And it is. It was, and still is, since the course has scarcely changed since I was there 13 years ago. The Western Canon doesn’t change much in 13 years, and the list of works that UCL’s big kahunas think are absolutely essential to read before you go on to study anything else hasn’t changed much either. I don’t think we studied Epistemology of the Closet in 2000, which they do now (and it’s a welcome addition to the list in that it may alert some of the more addled students to the DWM-ness of the programme of study they’ve just gone through).

All of which would seem sensible enough. No one can read everything, and it’s not a controversial opinion to state that Shakespeare is more important than Kyd, even if you like Kyd more.

The problem comes when we don’t interrogate this canon at all, when we just blindly accept it, and particularly when we don’t move beyond it. These writers and their works are important. But every time we focus on them and put everything else to one side, we engage in a process that makes those few chosen works a little bit bigger and more important, and everything else a little more marginalised. If you marginalise something enough, it gets forgotten, and then no one reads it. The canon in pop music doesn’t have the same status as the Western Canon does in art, literature, philosophy, classical music and so on, but it seems pretty unarguable that it exists. It’s reinforced in radio playlists, in the type of music books that publishers will touch (‘Another book on Dylan? Sure! A book on Judee Sill? Well, we just don’t think there’s a market out there’); in the broadsheets and rock monthlies (as I noted a couple of weeks ago re: Mojo and Uncut); in the major online music sites (all of which regularly publish top-100 lists which hardly vary from Mojo‘s or Rolling Stone‘s).

There are a couple of major difference between popular music and literature. It takes dozens or hundreds of hours to read a book. It takes four minutes to listen to a song. If you’re the kind of person that wants to find out about music, a relatively small investment of time is needed to do it. Set aside an hour and you can listen to a few songs each by, say, the big four thrash bands. If you like it, you can go further. If not, then you can stop there. But it’s so much easier to fit that kind of listening into a busy life than it is to read outside of the canon or mass-market contemporary popular fiction, just because of the difference in the time it takes to consume the art: you may, like me, frequently hear a voice in your head saying, ‘How can you justify spending your time reading [for the sake of argument] Shakey again when you’ve still never made it all the way through Finnegans Wake?’ (and I haven’t). But the ease and speed with which you can listen to music you’ve never heard before means that the judgmental voice inside you is liable to keep its opinions to itself.

Secondly, writing a novel is a major job of work. It takes a long time. Way, way longer than it does to read that novel. It is exceedingly unusual for an average workaday writer to tap into something greater than themselves or to push themselves to the edge of their talent every day for six months or a year or more to produce something truly timelessly classic if they themselves are not that order of talent. It just doesn’t happen. In pop music, musicians, producers and songwriters do it all the time. There are thousands of wonderful songs by acts whose only real consequence is that they made that one great record. And that’s part of what makes popular music what it is, is how democratic it is. Three minutes of greatness is possible for just about anyone.

My only real objection to the formation of a rock/pop music canon is that it tends to focus on those acts that consistently made strong albums and marginalises the makers of classic pop singles or individual songs (since not all get released as singles), especially if they only made one or two. Sure, if you want to know about the most widely agreed-upon great works in post-rock’n’roll pop music, if you feel like that’s an important and worthwhile thing to do, you need to know about Revolver, and Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On and Blue. That’s fine. They’re all fantastic records and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But it’s worth taking the time out of your day – worth moving outside of the canon – to hear Mouse & the Traps’ Sometimes You Just Can’t Win. If you really dig that song and want to hear more by them, there’s more out there. You may conclude that the genius of Mr Mouse and His Traps doesn’t extend beyond that one record. But just hearing that one song will, I guarantee you, improve your life a small amount. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Joni and Marvin will still be there tomorrow.

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St Michael Overcoming Satan, John Flaxman, UCL library

Halo of Ashes – Screaming Trees

‘What did you think?’

‘They were screaming!’

‘Yeah. They were great!’

‘They were screaming!’

‘They’re from Seattle—’

‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’

‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’

So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.

Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.

That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)

Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.

But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.

The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.

Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.

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Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor

*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).

It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.