Tag Archives: Top of the Pops

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 5 – Lime Tree Arbour – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Sorry for the radio silence. You catch me in the middle of a rather busy 10-day period.

Nick Cave is still doing what he does. That is admirable. But really, I checked out a while ago. After a series of what sounded to me like overpraised Bad Seeds records, Grinderman was the last straw: the sound of, what? Self-parody? A formerly vital artist unable to summon up by force of will what used to be second nature? I listened forlornly. Cave doing sleazy, bluesy and (yes) grindy rock would once have been a sure thing, a slam dunk. Yet the distance between No Pussy Blues and, say, Junkyard just made me sad.

So We No Who U R, terrible title aside, was a relief. At this point in his life and career, Cave needs to stick to ballads; he doesn’t have the voice or sensibility any longer to play the terrifying demon he did so convincingly in the early 1980s.

Yet, the rhythmic backbone of We No Who U R – the first track off the most recent Bad Seeds record, Push the Sky Away – is synthetic, so it lacks one of the key elements that appealed to me as a Cave neophyte when I first heard The Boatman’s Call (which was a couple of years old by then). Before that, I’d only heard Where the Wild Roses Grow, which I remembered primarily for how stiff and uncomfortable he had appeared when performing the song with Kylie and the Bad Seeds on Top of the Pops, and some Birthday Party stuff: Big Jesus Trash Can, which had blown my teenage mind a couple of years later when I heard it on a 4AD retrospective, and a live album I’d picked up from a record fair. I didn’t recall Where the Wild Roses Grow well enough to remember the key role played in creating atmosphere by Thomas Wydler’s brushed drums.

I love brushed drums. They’re harder to play than non-drummers might suppose. For me, anyway. I find it harder to maintain a consistent tone and dynamic on the snare with them than with sticks. If you listen to the Fleetwood Mac song Sara, from Tusk, you’ll hear even a great drummer like Mick Fleetwood struggle a little to keep his backbeat even. Played well and recorded well, though, they sound amazing, and many of my favourite drum sounds are brush sounds. Charlie Watts’s magnificent snare drum on Love in Vain might be my favourite drum sound ever.

The Boatmans’s Call is high up on the list of albums that made me fall in love with that sound. It’s probably Flood’s most organic-sounding production, lush and deep and spacious, without being distant or unfocused. Into My Arms is a stand-out song, of course, and it starts the album strongly, but the second track, Lime Tree Arbour, is the first to feature Thomas Wydler’s drums in tandem with Martyn P. Casey’s deep, warm bass guitar, so that’s the one I’m picking. It’s a simple part, but it’s empathetically played, it’s perfect for the song and it sounds wonderful, and sometimes that’s all a drummer needs to do. The key is to realise it.



R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 1

I’m old enough that I can remember the original releases of albums that are now marking their 20-year anniversaries. Some of you reading this will no doubt be thinking, ‘Cry me a river, Mr So Deep’. And sure, we all hit that point eventually, but it doesn’t make it any more welcome.

I remember Monster coming out. I remember What’s the Frequency, Kenneth, too. I’d liked everything I’d heard by R.E.M. up to that point (the singles off Automatic for the People and Out of Time, plus, I later surmised, Stand, Orange Crush and The One I Love, since I recognised those songs when I first heard Document and Green in their entireties), so I was expecting more of that nice big-hearted acoustic rock music, music that was sometimes whimsical, sometimes solemn, but that pulled off the trick of being emotionally generous without being drippy, and tuneful without being trite.

Instead I got a shaven-headed Michael Stipe bouncing around while gabbling a – to me – incomprehensible lyric centred around a repeating question that I couldn’t answer (being 12 and British, I hadn’t heard the Dan Rather story, or of Dan Rather himself) over heavily distorted guitar chords.

Had R.E.M. gone collectively mad? It seemed a legitimate question to ask.

At 12, I hadn’t heard much alternative rock music, and Kenneth seemed harsh and impenetrable. What rock music I’d heard was, I guess, older 1970s stuff (Queen, maybe) or glossy 1980s LA metal. The former tended not to feature great big walls of rhythm guitar, out of which details struggled to make themselves known; the latter kept its distorted guitar tracks under control and never let them tread on the vocals. So Kenneth was initially an alienating and — later, for the same reasons — fascinating artefact to me. It was still recognisably a pop song, with little hooks that got into me and wouldn’t go away (the ‘uh huh’s; Peter Buck’s extreme tremolo guitars in the choruses), but it took time to reveal itself to me; there are still lyrics I’m unsure of. A month later, Oasis’s Cigarettes and Alcohol came out, shortly after that I heard my brother’s copy of Nevermind for the first time and suddenly distorted guitars seemed to be everywhere in my life.

This is the result of having been a bit too young when Smells Like Teen Spirit came out – the real era of the loud guitar had been and gone already. My first exposure to the music of Nirvana came when they played a clip from Unplugged on Top of the Pops the week Cobain killed himself, so I hadn’t initially associated Nirvana with heavy rock music. Really.

I started playing guitar — rather, I started saving up to buy a guitar — after a friend of mine showed me how to play the Teen Spirit chords. At that point I became a self-defined fan of US rock above and beyond any other kind of music. But earning £11 a week from a paper round, records also had to be saved up for (or scavenged from the library) so what I chose to purchase had to be something I was confident I’d really like. The works of Nirvana first, those of R.E.M. second. I felt I could trust these guys not to let me down.

Monster would have been the third R.E.M. album I got my hands on, after Out of Time (for Losing My Religion) and Automatic. Piecing together what biographical info I could, I surmised that the band had been around 10 years or so already and had influenced bands like Nirvana, who in turn seemed to have influenced Monster. Nonetheless, the jump from Find the River to Kenneth seemed big. Monster was an album that took a long time for me to work out.


R.E.M. in 1994. New looks for Mike Mills and Michael Stipe; Bill Berry the same as ever; Peter Buck with worse hair and more beer

Sulky Girl – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.

Elvis Costello

Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.

I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).

Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.

Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.

Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…

Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:

I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.

While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.


Pete Thomas

One Part Lullaby – The Folk Implosion

I’ve covered Lou Barlow here before. I’ve covered Wally Gagel’s Production Club project too. But I’ve been pulled back to One Part Lullaby by Barlow’s Folk Implosion project this week, and I just can’t leave it alone. It’s a record I’ve come back to time and again since it was released 15 years ago.

One Part Lullaby came out in the autumn of 1999 and crowned a productive year for Barlow, which began with the release of The Sebadoh, probably the most divisive Sebadoh album. Clean-sounding and focused, it was a long way from Weed Forrestin’. In the robotic, repetitive Flame, the band had a hit single. They even appeared on Top of the Pops. Long-time fans complained, as some had with every release, that they just weren’t the same band that had given us Total Peace in 1991 or Elixir is Zog in 1993. Which was perfectly true – with Eric Gaffney gone and Barlow now concerned with structure and consistency, the band no longer knocked out scrappy little gems that sounded like rough demos for a hit single some other band might be able to make. But then, neither did they produce excrescence like Downmind or Bouquet for a Siren. The Sebadoh might have been just a collection of a dozen mid-tempo, medium-intensity rock songs with an acoustic ballad or two for a modicum of variety, but most of the songs were great. That made up for a lot in my world.

Then came One Part Lullaby, a record that was an artistic triumph and a crushing commercial disappointment.

One Part Lullaby is brightly mixed, astutely arranged and full of hooks. Almost every song has a melody that sticks. On its shiny surface, it’s the pop record that Lou Barlow always had in him if he wanted to focus on craft and delivery and make best use of his collaborators. Yet, listening to it, you’re left with the distinct impression that all is not perfect in Barlow’s yard.

My good time, I feel all right
My ritual followed us to paradise
My blood moves, I feel all right
Don’t touch me ’cause you’re still too much to feel tonight

My Ritual

I can’t be trusted, I’m dust in the wind
I let the weather decide where my day begins
I’m not a rebel of the natural one
I’m in love with the chemical
Following the setting sun

Lost my patience
All that it takes to survive
Watching my mind and my body divide
Why live for a future that never arrives on time?

Leaving heaven below
Go wherever the angels follow

One Part Lullaby

There’s a lysergic undertone to many of the lyrics on the album, and a sense of torpor that feels unnatural, narcotic. All of which is undercut by music that is more intricate, multi-layered and pulling in more directions than anything else Barlow’s ever been involved with, which thrums with the creative energy of two bandmates (Barlow and John Davis) and a producer (Wally Gagel) working at the top of their games.

Were these lyrics meant to be read metaphorically? Were they an attempt to convey actual experience? Were they confessional? An observation of another’s experiences? Who can say?*

Since the success of Natural One (from the soundtrack to the Larry Clark film, Kids), the Folk Implosion had always been a rhythm section-led band and, since their drums came from machines and loops, a bass-led band. Barlow has never claimed to be a great musician, yet he’d developed into an excellent bass player: stripped of the distortion he often used with Sebadoh and Dinsoaur Jr, his lines were revealed as tight and fluid, with power in the low end and definition when he played in higher ranges. A good percentage of the songs seem to have been built from the bass up (My Ritual, Gravity Decides, Merry-Go-Down, No Need to Worry, maybe Kingdom of Lies) and where they that hadn’t been, he inhabits them in ways stylistically of a piece, but without overwhelming them or getting in the way.

Davis, meanwhile, adds sprinklings of acoustic and electric guitar, little counterpoint things (see the second verse of My Ritual), fat lead riffs (again, My Ritual, but also the fuzzy hook on Free to Go and the lead riff on Kingdom of Lies, which is a longstanding favourite of mine), and big layers of all of the above (Someone You Love).

It’s the most closely and successfully that Barlow and a collaborator have worked together, but they had a sympathetic producer too, in Wally Gagel, who had also produced the Dare to be Surprised in 1997, and parts of Sebadoh’s Harmacy. Gagel gives a wide-ranging set songs a recognisable sonic imprint, a big bottom end, lots of focus in the crucial, and sometimes congested mid-range, and a pronounced top end, which suggested a bid for radio success – as did the crass mastering job from Steven Marcussen, which undid a lot of Gagel’s good work. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it’s a shame so many of the prominently mixed drum tracks lose their punch through having been square-waved.

It could have been a big hit record, albeit one that was a little out of step with the types of records that actually were being hits. Maybe if they’d made this in 1997 rather than the spare, often goofy (but very charming) Dare to be Surprised it would have been a big hit. As it was, it was reviewed positively (certainly in Britain) but went nowhere commercially. It sold 20,000 fewer than Surprised had**, which thrilled new label Interscope not a bit. Davis left the band, according to Barlow, as soon as the record was released. Their next album, as the New Folk Implosion, was muted and monochrome, with Imaad Wasif and Russ Pollard filling in for Davis and the drum machine respectively. I saw them in 2001 and they were actually really great, but songs from One Part Lullaby, too layered to be recreated on stage by three musicians (and possibly not Barlow’s favourite bunch after the record had stiffed), were notable by their absence.

One Part Lullaby is a deceptively troubled record, one more substantial than it might initially appear, then. Many of my favourite records from my late teens have paled for me in the intervening years. How could Dog Leap Stairs remain a touchstone once you’ve heard Blue, Paul Simon, and Judee Sill? But One Part Lullaby is still a favourite, not just because it’s a collection of really good songs (and a really good collection of songs, which is not the same thing at all), but because nothing else in my record collection sounds like it, combining early eighties new wave with hip-hop-derived rhythm tracks and singer-songwriter lyrics and chord changes. Whether or not it actually was one part lullaby to two parts fear, it was the right mix.


Folk Implosion – John Davis (top), Lou Barlow (bottom)

* Doing some research and background reading for this post, but after having written the early paragraphs, I came across this quote from Barlow on the forum he maintains (loobiecore): “John had some very serious mental health issues.. nuff said.. and i was more or less a drug addict.”

** Again, from Barlow’s forum:  “The previous album ‘dare to be surprised’ outsold it by about 20,000 copies”. On another thread he’s more specific: “Dare to be surprised actually outsold it 2:1 (dtbs sold about 50,000, amazing to think of now). When i started working on a follow up to OPL the label (interscope) dropped me when they heard the songs.”