Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Surfer Rosa by Pixies

There are many bands that I learned to love over a long period of time, while others hit me straight between the eyes the first time I heard them. In the case of Pixies ( no "The" required ) it was an instant knock-out.

I first heard about them when they were touring the UK with the Throwing Muses in 1988 and the music magazines of the day went ballistic over them. The late, lamented Sounds gave away a free 7" single featuring the songs Down To The Well and Rock A My Soul which were quirky and spooky, especially compared to the fey indie-pop of the time, typified by the C86 scene.

I missed out on their mini-album, Come On Pilgrim, but bought Surfer Rosa and was amazed by I'm Amazed, lost my mind to Where Is My Mind? etc. etc.

Pixies' early music is a strange, dark world of weird sexuality, mutilation and swearing in Spanish. Black Francis' lyrics are visceral and Biblical, obsessed with pain and pleasure in songs such as Bone Machine, Break My Body and Broken Face, but turning strangely goofy on songs like Tony's Theme and Oh, My Golly! His vocals, now sensual, now raw and screaming, interact with Kim Deal's huskily sexy voice and forceful bass-playing, and with David Lovering's pounding drums, to create an uncertain, edgy glimpse into Pixie-world. Cutting through and underpinning all this is the wailing, moaning, grinding, dirty guitar-sound of the sadly underrated Joey Santiago ( and isn't that the coolest name ever for a guitarist? ), a six-string symphony of deviancy. The production, courtesy of the controversial Steve Albini, is suitably brutal, everything turned up to ear-lacerating volumes. The stop/start, loud/quiet dynamics ( more fully realised on the next album ) were to be a major inspiration to more commercially-successful bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.

Pixies were to go on to more ( limited ) success with their next album, Doolittle, which had some fantastic songs ( Debaser, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation ) and a smoother but still unconventional sound. But I'll always go back to the bruises, incest and cactus-littered landscapes of Surfer Rosa. I think I need a shower now.....

Song to play as the walls come tumbling down: Where Is My Mind?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Psychocandy by The Jesus & Mary Chain

Feedback. Echoing drums. Big hair. More feedback. Deep voices. Guitars going "skreeeeeeeeeech!!"
And more feedback.

Yes, it's those happy Reid brothers, Jim and William, here to rescue the mid-'80s UK music scene from mediocrity and Madonna.

Unusually for me I got into The Jesus & Mary Chain from day one. Well, from single number one, anyway. I bought their debut Upside Down / Vegetable Man 7" from The Trading Post record shop in Stroud ( one of my main haunts as a teenager and, amazingly, still going today ) and was knocked out by its grinding, migraine-inducing, feedback-ridden guitar sound, doom-laden drums and droning vocals. Ever since hearing Adam & The Ants' guitarist Marco Pirroni using feedback as part of his unique sound, I'd thought it would be cool to crank up that screeching sound to the max and build songs around it. And here were these snotty young punks from Glasgow doing just that. ( Of course, I hadn't heard of the Velvet Underground at this point. ) And, as if the music wasn't great enough on its own, the band looked amazingly cool and permanently pissed-off, played controversially short gigs that often ended in "riots", and seemed to be on a mission to antagonise tabloids, other bands, the music press and their own record label. Perfection.

More brilliant ( and slightly slicker ) singles followed: the intense, angry Never Understand, the more intense and more angry You Trip Me Up, and the less angry but still intense Just Like Honey. For some reason I really thought You Trip Me Up would be a massive chart hit in the summer of 1985 - surely the UK's pop kids would hear more than just the squalls of feedback and realise what a classic pop song it was? Er, no. It actually reached the dizzy heights of no. 55 in the chart. I still remember some journalist on Radio One's Newsbeat referring to the Mary Chain's music as "feedback and not much else" at the height of their "New Sex Pistols" notoriety. Of course, that sense of dismissal would only make their fans close ranks and love them even more fiercely.

And then came the album.....

Psychocandy surely stands as one of the greatest debut albums in rock. The fact that the Mary Chain never really scaled such heights again only adds to its grandeur. The album really shouldn't work: it's a still-startling mash-up of seemingly disparate elements - the squealing white noise, the Phil Spector / girl-group drumming, the "poor me" indie vocals, and lyrics like these:
And the sun don't shine
And all the stars don't shine
And all the walls fall down
And all the fish get drowned

.....yeah, OK. In fact, the brothers Reid were/are deeply in thrall to age-old rock 'n' roll themes of disillusion, rebellion, doomed love and heartache. In these songs women are beautiful but treacherous ( You Trip Me Up, The Hardest Walk ), life is hard ( Something's Wrong, It's So Hard ) and even the rock 'n' roll dream of escaping on a big, black motorbike ( The Living End ) ends in disaster - "My head is dripping into my leather boots". Jim Reid's American-via-Glasgow vocals are full of hurt and hunger, throwing none-more-rock " Hey hey hey"'s all over the place like a Scottish Joey Ramone; while William Reid's six-string screams of feedback are more carefully-sculpted than is at first apparent, some beautiful melodies lurking beneath the waves of surging sound. Amongst all this chaos and confusion they find a dark, bleak ( not to mention pretentious ) poetry:

Love's like the mighty ocean
When it's frozen
That is your heart


I never thought that this day would ever come
When your words and your touch just struck me numb
And it's plain to see that it's dead
This thing's losing blood
On this cool sunny day

or that indie-disco favourite:

Listen to the girl as she takes on half the world
Moving up and so alive
In her honey-dripping beehive

No, I don't know what it all means, but it sounds fantastic, fatalistic and painfully adolescent. The whole album is a gloomy teen's dream of love and angst and anger, but it still sounds exciting and energising to this ( gulp! ) forty-something. The Mary Chain would grow up and calm down on their second album, Darklands, which produced such classic singles as April Skies and Happy When It Rains, but couldn't hold a black, patchouli-scented candle to Psychocandy.

Song to play after being stabbed through the heart by an icepick of emotion: You Trip Me Up.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Hey Mickey, you're so fine!

I'm glad to see Mickey Glitter of Strange Cousin Susan fame is now Following this 'ere blog. Thanks for stopping by!

And no, I won't be reviewing any Toni Basil stuff here :-)

Soundtrack: Ignore The Machine by Alien Sex Fiend ( doesn't really go, does it? )

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Band by The Band

The Band's music used to be a mystery to me. And then it became a myth, or maybe a legend.....

When I was a kid I used to occasionally hear their songs, but I never knew who they were or what they were singing about. This might not be an unusual problem for a band ( or Band ) who seemed almost deliberately anonymous, whose music was in a genre all of its own, who didn't really fit in anywhere.

My first exposure to the Band's music came ( improbably enough ) from a James Last album called "Rock Me Gently - A Tribute To The Great Canadian Songwriters." This collection of easy-listening / big band versions of pop hits featured songs by R Dean Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and one Jaime "Robbie" Robertson, composer of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down which, in this incarnation, was a full-on faux-Nashville singalong that sounded like a Tammy Wynette cast-off. So, my parents' album of middle-of-the-road German dance-band music introduced me to what would, much later, become one of my favourite songs of all time.

Years later, Radio One's Mr. Cheese, Simon Bates, would often play Band songs on his oldies show, the Golden Hour. I became aware of classics such as Rag Mama Rag, The Weight and Rockin' Chair, although I didn't know who was behind them. I can remember listening to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and being puzzled by the song: what was it all about? why are the people singing and the bells ringing when the singer sounds so sad? and what is a Dixie anyway? The mystery continued.....

Even more years later I bought my wife Sarah a Summer Of Love-type '60s compilation tape for her birthday ( yep, an actual cassette - it was a while ago..... ) and amongst all the usual suspects - Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane etc. - there was a strange little song called The Weight by a band called..... er, The Band. I sort of remembered it from years ago but I'd never really listened to it before. The haunting guitar intro, the ragged but beautiful harmonies, the mysterious lyric: all these seeped into my brain and I became hooked on the song, had to keep rewinding and playing it again. There had to be more. I learnt from magazines like Mojo and Uncut that The Band, those four Canadians and one Arkansas boy, had been a former backing band to small-time rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, before going on to back Bob Dylan during his "going electric" period, retreating to a basement to write their own songs, and finally emerging as artists in their own right with Music From Big Pink, one of the most celebrated debut albums of all time. I caught a late night showing of The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese-directed film of the group's last gig ( trust me to do things arse-backwards ) and was knocked out by the songs, the atmosphere, the dynamics, the fantastic vocals of Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Rick Danko. Surely it was now time to actually buy some of this stuff!

The Band by The Band, the so-called "Brown Album", the cover a sepia-tinted photo of five grizzled, pissed-off guys ( farmers? prospectors? bandits? ) standing in the rain in some forgotten, backwoods corner of America. The songs themselves are hazy, faded snapshots of half-remembered lives and loves; a whole cast of characters, maybe all living in the same dirt-poor town at the end of a lonesome trail, all with tales to tell. The jittery lover asking his girl where she's hidden her gun, the farmer praying for a good harvest, the unrepentant thief, the two old sailors dreaming of a life ashore, the good-time girl who lives to dance, the young Confederate soldier recounting the fall of the South.....

All of these characters and stories are brought to life by The Band's warm, organic, rootsy style: a rich stew of country, r 'n' b, soul, gospel and funk, with a dash of rock 'n' roll. Fiddles, horns and keyboards add colour and texture; lines are traded between the three ( wonderful ) singers; instruments are swapped around to suit the song, not the performers' egos; traditional rock 'n' roll excesses are curbed - the song is everything.

The Band brought a new perspective to rock 'n' roll ( although some would say a conservative one ) - when everyone else was turning on, tuning in and dropping out, they were reaching into the past for a feeling of community, history and shared experience. A song like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was something unprecedented at the time: a lament for a lost way of life and for a people that had fought for the "wrong" side and paid the price. Even up-tempo, rocking songs like Up On Cripple Creek and Jemima Surrender still somehow had that "old-fashioned" sound that led to the record being referred to as "the best rock 'n' roll album of the nineteenth century."

The beauty and strangeness of The Band's "old, weird America" stays with you and becomes a part of your own interior landscape, a window on another world. And that's no mystery.

Song to whistle down a country lane: King Harvest Has Surely Come