Tag Archives: The Smiths

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

You’re Not the Only One I Know – The Sundays

It’s spring. Springtime means jangle.

I do a lot of my music listening on the way to and from other places (work, chiefly), on an iPod. Certain times of year tend to push me in the direction of specific artists and styles of music. I always seem to have a period of intense British-folk-revival listening in the autumn (see here, here, here, here, here, and here); shorter days, colder nights, crisper mornings and teeming rain just seem to suggest jazzy folk-rock to me and then only double basses, fingerpicked guitars and woody low-tuned drums will do.

In the spring, I tend to find myself listening to lighter, airier music – no coincidence, that, I’m sure – and so I always seem to end up spending a couple of weeks revisiting the Sundays. This year is no exception. They’ve scarcely been off my iPod all week.

Partly it’s a matter of the sound fitting the moment. Brisk tempos, jangly guitars, melodic bass, near constant 16th notes on the hi-hat from drummer Patch Hannon – I feel like I’ve needed this airiness and forward momentum to get me through the week. But there’s more to it than that. Most characteristic of the Sundays’ music – particularly on their debut, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (which is, among many other things, a pun on their hometown of Reading) – is a sense of potential, and spring is all about potential, rebirth, what might happen.

The Sundays were a young band, recent graduates, in 1990 when R, W & A was released. Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin had met at university, and written many of their early songs there. It shows. I Won is about the politics of flatsharing. The now-famous chorus of Here’s Where the Story Ends (‘It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year which makes my eyes feel sore/And I never should have said the books that you read were all I loved you for’) is archetypal student-in-love stuff. You’re Not the Only One I Know will for ever sound to me like the song of a slightly lost undergraduate, too proud to ask for attention from someone they like or admit that they might be floundering, if only a little, in this new and unfamiliar world.

My own university years were pretty trouble-free, and while I had friends who went through the mill a good bit more, no matter how rough times may seem when you’re going through this stuff the key thing about being 20 is that you’ve got nothing but time ahead of you. Basically nothing you can do at that age is irrevocable; nothing can’t be fixed in the nearish future. That knowledge – and I think we all do know it even as we go through it – lends a different character to our experiences, and if we happen to write songs, a different character to our writing too. A woman in her late forties singing, ‘It’s perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday till Saturday, and what is so wrong with talking out loud when I’m on my own?’ would come off very differently to the way it does when Wheeler sang it on You’re Not the Only One I Know in 1990. The song recognises this, plays on it. It’s aware that, left unchecked for too long, this kind of willed isolation could lead to a life that is no life at all, but just for now, it is perfectly fine.

It’s a lovely song, the saddest, most doubt-filled moment on a record that is otherwise confident and animated by the promise of tomorrow. The Sundays were not particularly sonically adventurous and their early music doesn’t seem to have too many reference points other than the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins, but this song adds another element to the usual sound: a melodic bassline from the Peter Hook school, played with a pick and a lot of chorus in Hookian fashion. It’s this sound – brightly strummed guitars, subtly addictive 16th-note drums*, sinuous basslines – that brings me back to the Sundays whenever the days get longer and brighter, but its the quality of their songs and the idiosyncratic moods they create that keep me listening over and over again.

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The Sundays, early 1990s

*I can never decide how much of the drumming was programmed. I suspect at least a few songs were: the drums on I Won sound a lot more live than the ones on, for example, Can’t Be Sure. But Here’s Where the Story Ends and You’re Not the Only One I Know? Still can’t decide. Hannon could play these songs live, no sweat, so could have been live, but they are remarkably consistent, and a little hemmed in, in a way that could easily be programmed.