Tag Archives: pop music

OK Computer is 20, part 4 – Guest post #2

And now, stepping up to the plate, Melanie Crew.

Écoutez-vous la musique pop?

That was the important question posed to us one day, in our secondary school French class. My answer was simple. “Je n’aime pas la musique pop.” I don’t like pop music. Aware that my answer was controversial, at a time when all kids liked pop music, I was willing to subject myself to potential ridicule in what was, quite possibly, my first act of rebellion.

My abstension from pop music didn’t last all that long. Within a few years I was glued to Radio One’s chart show like everyone else, engrossed in All Saints videos and dreaming of becoming the fifth member of a girl band called N-Tyce who my family and I had, by chance, seen perform in Capital FM’s cafe in Leicester Square. I mention this gig as the year was significant. 1997 – the year Paranoid Android was released.

I probably wasn’t even aware of Radiohead in 1997. I remember complaining about Oasis every time their songs were played on the radio, but indie and rock music was largely unknown to me: my attention was focused elsewhere. A few years later, when I left London to go to university in Kent, I took with me a few of my favourite CDs: Illumina by Alisha’s Attic, and Mariah Carey’s Greatest Hits.

In the year 2000, I wasn’t listening to Pulp or Blur or any other band with guitars. Not at first anyway. Not until I heard a very strange song night after night, which someone – I always assumed it was just one person – kept putting on the jukebox in Rutherford Hall’s dingy little bar, not far from my room. If I had to name one song that shaped my musical tastes, it was Paranoid Android. Not long after that I started going along to the campus rock club and enjoying songs like Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name. My initiation into rock music had begun. I’d discovered something wonderful: the guitar.

I don’t know what it was exactly about Paranoid Android that I found so captivating. I remember being in my room and hearing a really mournful voice coming from the jukebox. I’d listen carefully, and wonder who it could be. Back then, of course, there was no Shazam to identify the mystery singer. I didn’t even have a smartphone to Google the lyrics. I don’t know how or when I found out it was Radiohead, but I do know that hearing that song changed my understanding and appreciation of what truly constitutes great music.

It was the tonal quality of Yorke’s vocal, the chord changes, the layers of guitar, the strange spoken words in the background. As an introverted student discovering new ways of thinking, lyrics like “with your opinions that are of no consequence at all” just really appealed to me. And I was left spellbound by the song’s melody: the way that the melody, initially, rises and falls in each line, with a different note for each word: “Please could you stop thar noise I’m trying to get some rest”, before one word is drawn out – “what’s thaaaaaaaaaaaat?” You just didn’t hear that kind of thing on the radio.

Nowadays I always say that there’s no need for a song to be over three minutes long. Paranoid Android is over six minutes, yet it never becomes dull – not even after hearing it many, many times. Probably that’s due to the fact the song encompasses different sections. There’s the section at the start, then – after about two minutes – some noisy, insanely complicated  distorted guitar parts, interspersed with snarling lyrics like “squealing gucci little piggy”, and – when you least expect it – a beautiful, rousing, choral section with layers of harmonies sitting behind the lead vocal. Then more crazy guitar riffs at the end.

Paranoid Android is four different songs in one, but somehow it works. It’s an incredible piece of work. And what I find really surprising, given how uncoventional the song structure is, is that Radio One played it several times a day. If I’d heard it on the radio in 1997, who knows what I would have thought of it. But hearing it a few years later, straining to listen from my room, and feeling so far away from the people talking and laughing in the bar, yet somehow so connected with music, was an experience I won’t forget.

 

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2015, Part 9: Are “Friends” Electric?/Cars – Tubeway Army/Gary Numan

Even cyborg pop stars have uncles.

Gary Numan’s uncle, Jess Lidyard, was also his drummer.

It was unusual enough that an uncle would be playing drums with his nephew, but even more so that he would be playing this music, in 1979: a song with barely a scrap of melody, no chorus whatsoever and a lyric that talks baldly about sex with androids. Jess Lidyard, clearly, was an unusually cool uncle.

His playing on Are “Friends” Electric is as key an element of the track as Numan’s pained, nasal vocal and those Minimoogs and Polymoogs. While other electronic musicians were evangelical about all-electronic music (OMD’s Andy McCluskey reportedly told the members of Kraftwerk after he’d seen them perform live that he and his band were going to bin their guitars and do it all with synths from now on), Numan’s music was essentially a rock/electronic hybrid, with synths being a late addition to their sound (Numan only played a synth for the first time when in the recording studio working on second album Replicas). The rhythm section remained an analogue affair even after Numan’s conversion: Lidyard’s acoustic drums and Paul Gardiner’s bass. This digital/analogue, rock/electronic hybrid finds its most perfect expression on Are “Friends” Electric.

It’s not a fresh insight to note the influence on Numan of JG Ballard, or of dystopian science fiction generally. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that Numan’s brand of futurism felt lived in and down at heel. This music belongs to a world not white and gleaming but bodged, a world built on top of what was already extant. I’m trying very hard not to say the word “steampunk”…

Jess Lidyard provided the steam. Not only are his driving 16th-note hi hats the most apparent and persistent rhythmic element in the track, but he provides added push by reinforcing the synth bass line with his kick drum. I don’t think Are “Friends” Electric would be half as good if it had been powered by a drum machine. It was Lidyard that stopped the music from being too gleaming, too synthetic, too perfect.

Cars (from Numan’s next album The Pleasure Principle), similarly, derives a great deal of its power from its performed drum track. By this time, Lidyard had been replaced by Cedric Sharpley (Lidyard wasn’t keen on the touring musician’s life). Sharpley’s drumming is ever so slightly more elegant than Lidyard’s and he sounds more “live” on Cars than Lidyard did on “Friends”. Cars has a subtle continual lift in tempo throughout its duration, its kick-drum pattern becomes increasingly complicated and the drum fills get more frantic with every verse. Lidyard seemed to power the music from within. Sharpley fed off it and responded to it in his playing. I can imagine hearing Are “Friends” Electric and thinking the drums were from a machine. I’d be staggered if anyone thought that about Cars.

After around 90 seconds, Numan has said all he as to say about life in cars, and the band takes over. This is where Sharpley is really at his best, with a performance that’s urgent and mechanical and weirdly funky all at the same time. I didn’t get Numan’s music for a long, long time. Granted, his public persona had a lot to do with that, I didn’t respond to anything in the music either. As has so often been the case for me, I got into the music once I started following the drums. And while Are “Friends” Electric is the more important, and ultimately better, track, it was Cars that began the process, which is why I had to write about them both.

Some recentish work

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.

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