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Thursday, September 23, 2021

1984 Music: The Fall, The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall

 

Release date: 12 October 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? No.

This is likely my final post on 1984 music.

I have a distinct memory of seeing the cover of Live at the Witch Trials, the first album by The Fall, in HMV and being weirded out by it: both the title and the spidery, inky artwork. It sat in the vinyl racks like some sinister hoodlum you would cross the road to avoid, and I duly gave it a wide berth, but its negative charisma also made it difficult to ignore entirely. I’m not sure if I ever even heard the music of The Fall in the 1980s – the likeliest place I might have encountered them would be on the Old Grey Whistle Test, or perhaps their John Peel–sponsored appearance on The Tube in 1983: 

 

I don’t know what I would made of this at the time. Certainly I would have dismissed The Fall’s pre-Brix output as too amateurish and lo-fi and abrasive, but on 1983’s Perverted by Language, 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and several subsequent albums, there is at least some effort to meet the listener halfway. In any case, I now consider The Fall as one of the great bands of the era. 

Many of Mark E. Smith’s songs are really ‘about’ his stream of consciousness – a trail of impressions proceeding by allusion and association in the manner of James Joyce. Insofar as my novel is about hermeneutics – the way we interpret things, the way we infer meaning – then The Fall are the ideal band to soundtrack such an effort, and the cover of 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour is in this respect the ideal Fall cover, consisting as it does of Smith’s handwritten injunctions and observations, densely scrawled in defiance of all conventional notions of graphic design. 

 


An entire website – The Annotated Fall – exists to catalogue interpretations of Smith’s lyrics, which typically cover more ground in a single song than many songwriters do in an album. But many of the songs are also stories (even if the events constituting those stories are sometimes unclear), or pointed diatribes about the music and cultural scene and The Fall’s place within it (you might assume this would be insufferable, but these songs are almost always entertaining, viz. ‘Mere Pseud Mag Ed.’ and ‘Hip Priest’, both off Hex Enduction Hour, which combine the diatribe song with the character song). 

All that suggests a complicated relationship with the music press, which will have to remain unexplored in this blog post, since for some reason I failed to copy the contemporary reviews of The Wonderful and Frightening World when I was in the British Library consulting the NME and Melody Maker. In any case, this is not all there is to The Fall.

The Angels of L19 refers explicitly to U2 as one of its inspirations – or at least, it is their music that my protagonist Robert uses as a reference point when he is trying to express himself. U2's early 80s aesthetic is clean, pure – its urge to transcendence is an urge to rise above dirt and impurity, from the realm of matter to that of spirit. But that movement is not what my novel actually enacts. The world it depicts is more like that of The Fall, in which the transcendent manifests as the weird: it doesn’t float above the world, but erupts into it via an insistently material form that partakes of its grottiness. It is both wonderful and frightening. It is, in other words, incarnated. 

Mark Fisher explains in his book The Weird and the Eerie that weirdness in the early work of The Fall is connected to the idea of the grotesque, and that:

The songs [on 1980's Grotesque (After the Gramme)] are tales, but tales half-told. The words are fragmentary, as if they have come to us via an unreliable transmission that keeps cutting out. Viewpoints are garbled; ontological distinctions between author, text and character are confused and fractured.  

This is also highly germane to The Angels of L19, although I can't really explain how and why without giving away crucial elements of the plot.

There is actually a small, indirect U2 connection on The Wonderful and Frightening World, in that it features Gavin Friday of The Virgin Prunes as a guest on a couple of tracks (the Prunes were Dublin provocateurs who were friends of U2 in the early days, and included Edge’s brother among their members). 

Mark E. Smith’s lyrics do have something in common with Bono’s early work: they are sexless. Although I only really know half a dozen of The Fall’s many albums, I have yet to find anything resembling a love song anywhere in their body of work. Instead, there’s a focus on the texture of everyday life unrivaled by anyone from this period except The Smiths, and on (semi-)fictional characters, who often exist dysfunctionally on the fringes of society, like the ‘Neighbour downstairs with one eye’ in ‘Craigness’. The range of subjects covered is suggested by a few songs released in the years prior to The Wonderful and Frightening World: 'Industrial Estate', 'English Scheme' (i.e. council estate), 'The Container Drivers', 'I'm Into C.B.' (i.e. citizens band radio: 'It's about more of a character type, ... People who embrace things that they don't really understand'). Who else would consider any of these subjects worthy of commemoration in song? One of my favourite Fall lyrics is from ‘Slang King’ (the song title no doubt a reference to Smith himself), which describes how: 

Three little girls with only fifty pence 

Had to take, had to put 

The Curly Wurly back 

A Curly Wurly is a type of confectionery:


Beyond the simple pleasure of seeing this everyday name in a song lyric, these lines perfectly encapsulate being at the newsagents with your friends and having a collective pool of funds (a Curly Wurly cost much less than 50p in 1982), and trying to work out what combinations of items you can buy (‘take’ followed by ‘put ... back’ is thus descriptive, not just a verbal tic to fill the line). 

  

Again, while this preoccupation with the everyday might seem to contradict the idea of weirdness, the weird only obtains its effect by contrast with the quotidian: it works by juxtaposition. So although God is absent from this universe, the supernatural is not. For example, on The Wonderful and Frightening World, ‘Ol’ Nick’ crops up in ‘2 x 4’, and the ‘elves of Dunsimore’ in ‘Elves’. Smith was a fan of weird fiction like that of HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, and frequently alludes to their work. Similarly, ‘Lay of the Land’, which opens the album, starts by quoting the chant of the so-called ‘Planet People’ from 1979’s belated Quatermass sequel starring John Mills.

This chant, which puns ‘Lay’ with ‘ley line’ is frankly a little silly, and is presented in the song in such a way to amplify this quality, so it’s kind of a deliberate barrier to entry for the album as a whole, perhaps meant to deter casual listeners. Whatever the song is about – perhaps some kind of low-level societal collapse, like that depicted as the backdrop to Quatermass – it again juxtaposes the sordid and everyday – ‘There's no-one there but crooks and death, Kerb-crawlers of the worst order’ – with the weird – ‘Eldritch house, With green moss’.

 

‘Eldritch’, meaning weird or sinister, was a favourite word of Lovecraft, and the moss here, which suggests an abandoned and overgrown location, thereby also suggests how the weird and eerie are often associated with the atavistic – with something buried and forgotten lurching back into life. But the line that sums up the album for me, and which could serve as an epigraph for my novel, comes from ‘Elves’ (it is actually a quotation from Michael Moorcock, another writer of fantasy fiction): ‘The fantastic is in league against me’.

Monday, September 20, 2021

1984 Music: Other Stuff

Some other albums from 1984 I don't have the energy to write about in-depth, but that were/are on my radar and/or in my wheelhouse: 

The Go-Betweens, Spring Hill Fair 

Biba Kopf in the NME on 6 October: 

Spring Hill Fair? How do you get there? 

Ride in on the tide, the tidal wave flooding the suburbs where civilised streets trail off into the wild, drowning the last livestock, swallowing up liquid assets. And wait, wait for the waters to subside. Then cling like a leech to the mudstained walls, count the damage and latch onto what’s left. 

What’s left are The Go-Betweens, immigrant craftsmen watching helplessly as their dreams are dashed on the rocks, their dreams carried off on successive waves, their lives and loves rent apart. Cling like leeches to them, for if they don’t always seem like good company, there’s plenty of sustenance here. It just takes time for their abundant qualities to surface and shine. 

It’s taken me to this third LP to even notice they’re alive. I would have gone on blissfully ignoring them if it weren’t for the hooks of their current single ‘Bachelor Kisses’ – the LP opener – that affecting male rejoinder to ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’. The mud, it transpires, wasn’t mud after all, but a lifegiving silt deposit, staining everything it touches a rich, melancholy brown.

 

   

Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain

 

Siouxsie & the Banshees, Hyaena 

This album is the one with Robert Smith of The Cure filling in on guitar, after a run of classic albums featuring John McGeogh in that role. I therefore expected it be inferior, but it's pretty good, and Smith makes a decent lead guitarist:

  

David Sylvian, Brilliant Trees

   

 

The Replacements, Let It Be

   

 

The Alarm, Declaration 

My first 'proper' concert was The Alarm on the Declaration tour at the Royal Court in Liverpool in 1984, and I went back to see them again on the Strength tour the following year. Now the lyrics remind me a little of the scene in This Is Spinal Tap (also released in 1984), where Nigel talks about his amp that goes up to eleven – but whereas Nigel understood this setting was to be reserved for special occasions, The Alarm used it as their default (I'm speaking of the group's emotional register, not necessarily the actual volume). I now find the resulting cascade of cliches and mixed metaphors a little wearing, but when the songs are simpler and more direct, it works better. In their Cliffs Notes summary of Stephen King's The Stand (a book and author I had no knowledge of in 1984), sticking to a script provided by someone else actually gives the lyrics more focus:

   

 

Billy Bragg, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg 

The Falklands War didn't produce too many great protest songs, perhaps understandably, given its scope was whatever the opposite of epic is. The greatest of this meagre haul is undoubtedly Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding', in either version (by Robert Wyatt or Costello's own), but the second-best is perhaps this track off Bragg's second album:

 

 

Television Personalities, A Sense of Belonging

And this is perhaps the third-best:

  

 

Cocteau Twins, Treasure 

I bought Head Over Heels, the Cocteau Twins' second album, with my 1984 Christmas money – I think because the cassette version included a bonus EP, so it seemed better value – but I now think this, their third album, is better.

 

 

Bronski Beat, The Age of Consent 

A truly groundbreaking song and album: 

  

 

The Sound, Shock of Daylight (mini-album) 

Something of a comeback for The Sound, after being dropped by their record company after their previous album. A statement of intent. Here's Allan Jones in Melody Maker on 7 April:

This is the way it sometimes goes: a group plays its way into the frame, cheered on by the enthusiasm of the music press, which always likes to think it knows a good thing when it hears one. Albums are championed, success is predicted; record companies look forward to emphatic ticks in profit margins.

Increasingly, however, the public isn’t quite so easily convinced. At first, the group’s supporters stand their ground, berating the public for its cloth-eared insensitivity. But the public refuses to budge, carries on buying Howard Jones albums.

By the time the group releases maybe its third LP, alarm bells are ringing. And, if that record stalls at the counter, heads start to roll: critics become embarrassed by their original declarations, start looking for new favourites. More often than not, the group ends on the heap, its dreams of glory vanquished by the harsh realities of a commercial market-place that demands immediate returns, obvious definitions of success. Crushed by the wheels of industry, the group is simply discarded and the world moves on, not terribly touched by the group’s demise.

This is very nearly what happened to The Sound; but The Sound refused to go under. The Sound didn’t flounder on the indifference that followed “All Fall Down”, they reorganised their lines of attack, prepared themselves for fresh assaults. The result is, of course, “Shock of Daylight”; what we call these days a “mini-LP”: six tracks, 30 minutes of bright, highly-charged music that stands as a defiant testimony to The Sound’s resilience, their determined reluctance to exit on cue for premature obscurity. …

The record rattles off the deck with the pneumatic clatter of “Golden Soldiers”, which finds Adrian Borland delivering an impassioned declaration of love over slurred brass fanfares, pugnacious bass and thoroughly hectic drumming. A breathless juggernaut of rhythm, “Golden Soldiers” successfully buries the idea of The Sound as some dreadfully dour old conglomerate. “Golden Soldiers” introduces a new Sound: more alert to the physical nuance of music; frankly, it sounds like The Sound have discovered sex and the arch poetics of yore have been put on hold, indefinitely.

  

 

The Triffids, Raining Pleasure (mini-album)

  

 

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Born in the USA 

It's actually the previous album, Nebraska, that gets a mention in my novel. However, the release of Born in the USA was a big event in 1984, even for the music papers. Adam Sweeting in Melody Maker on 28 July rather oversells the album’s gloom, perhaps in order to emphasise that it is ‘serious’ music he is entitled to take seriously:

All over Bruce Springsteen’s America, the lights are going out. In the bars, in the factories, in the frame houses. On “Born In The USA” Springsteen is older, even more claustrophobic and increasingly desperate.

It seems astonishing that Springsteen’s morbid obsessions – prison, busted marriages and the futility of good times – should have made him such a legend in the American heartlands. The man’s a walking museum piece, conceived and formed in the primeval days before MTV, still adhering to the simple, robust formulae of the rock’n’roll music he grew up with. He has more in common with Henry Fonda than with Boy George.

Armed only with some badly-corroded blue collar dreamscapes (“Blue Collar” director Paul Schrader gets a thank you on the sleeve, coincidentally) and the mighty E Street Band, Bruce has forged a collection of songs here that ranks with anything he’s done, and indeed, “Born In The USA” might be his best record. Nevertheless, the last mythic rocker paints pictures of unremitting gloom. I find this rather odd. …

If you were to boil down the subject matter of “Born In The USA”, you’d end up with death, either literal or metaphorical. Dead relationships, ruined lives, dead-end jobs and dead people. The fifth word Springsteen sings on the record is “dead”. The opener, the title track, blasts off with Bruce accompanied by a funereal snare drum. It’s a veteran’s lament (“Had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there he’s all gone”), a saga of a man who chose the army over prison and ended up with nothing. Springsteen sings it like a wounded bull while the band sound like an avalanche. …

It’s the earthy comradeship between Springsteen and his group which prevents this from being a cultural suicide note. On the inner sleeve the band are pictured in monochrome in a shadowy unfinished house, so deglamourized that Clarence Clemons looks like a plumber, while the rest could be detectives from the 38th precinct. Age has withered them, but they endure. …


Orange Juice, Texas Fever (mini-album) and The Orange Juice

 

 

The Mighty Wah!, A Word to the Wise Guy 

The mysteriously named 'X Moore' reviewed this album for the NME on 11 August:

The parallel between vainglorious Liverpudlian bands and Derek Hatton’s Liverpool Council Labour Group – banging of drums and beating of chests being dead popular with each – has been staring us Marxist pop commentators in the face these last few months, just waiting to be exposed. 

When I finally tracked down the lyric booklet for ‘A Word To The Wise Guy’ I discovered, blow me, that Wylie’s parting line on ‘Come Back’ is indeed “And hats off to Hatton…” and not “Let’s hitch up to Heather!” as had been painstakingly gleaned from weeks spent listening to Radio 1. 

From the sleeve of the album onwards – its logo the City crest overpainted with the cross of Lorraine, the cover painting’s portrait of The Resistance, the City’s motto ‘God Gave Us This Leisure (To Enjoy)’ scratched in the paint, the vision of Free Liverpool and occupation – ‘A Word To The Wise Guy’ is a document of a city in struggle. 

Maverick? Certainly. Magnificent? Possibly. It is unquestionably the best album about municipal socialism I’ve heard in many a year.

 

 

The video for 'Come Back' has invaluable footage of Liverpool in 1984, and it's a cracking song, whose call to return to the city I followed to write my novel (at least in spirit): 

  

 

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity

 

The Icicle Works, The Icicle Works

I'm not sure how much this is remarked upon, but surely the first album of this Liverpool band drew on the example of the Teardrop Explodes? In any case, Helen Fitzgerald in Melody Maker on 24 March quite liked it:

There’s something growing out of season. Something strong and fiery, something new and exciting, something only a fool would ignore. This record is mine and I’m not sure I want to share it. The Icicle Works are more than a favourite band, their music is a germinating seed of a rebellious attitude that isn’t falsely acquired. … “The icicle Works” is more than my album of the year – it might well be the album of my lifetime. You can agree or argue, that doesn’t matter – but the next time someone tells me there’s nothing exciting happening in music anymore, I’m going to laugh in their face.

  

 

Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II

Not a million miles away from the Violent Femmes:

 

 

The Bangles, All Over the Place

This interview was broadcast on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1984 or 1985, and it was accompanied by the video for the single ‘Going Down to Liverpool’. This was where I first encountered The Bangles – possibly in the same show as the report by Richard Skinner I mentioned in a previous post. The dates are a little uncertain: the YouTube rip of the Skinner report dates it to 1985, and some discussion on a forum dates this interview with the Peterson sisters more specifically to 19 February 1985. But the YouTube post of the interview says ‘circa 1984’, and the release of ‘Going Down to Liverpool’ is here described as forthcoming, which would also mean 1984. And I’m fairly sure I bought the album with my Christmas money at the end of 1984, and not in 1985.

The Bangles were the most commercial of the Paisley Underground bands, and – eventually – the most successful. They are a little poptastic for my tastes nowadays but I enjoyed All Over the Place at the time – especially ‘Going Down to Liverpool’. As Andy Kershaw’s interview suggests, the song was written by Kimberley Rew, ex-member of English psychedelic revivalists The Soft Boys, for his new group Katrina and the Waves, who also recorded it, in several versions. 

In the interview, Kershaw expresses scepticism that the very Californian Bangles even knew what a UB40 was – as any fule kno, it was the form you needed to sign on for unemployment benefit in the UK, and as such the inspiration for the band of the same name. I wonder if even Rew – an Oxford graduate – was self-consciously slumming it a little when he wrote the song, though most semi-professional musicians in the UK at the time were familiar with the Job Centre, since unemployment benefit effectively served as an arts bursary throughout the 70s and 80s. But the date of the song’s composition – 1982 – and the seemingly arbitrary reference to Liverpool suggest to me that it might have been inspired by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys From the Blackstuff, the most talked-about television show of that year (though it was not broadcast until November, so I may be wrong about this). 

I don’t know anything about the milieu The Bangles grew up in, but it’s hard to imagine them dropped down into Bleasdale-world for a musical guest spot in the way that UK bands appeared in the middle of each episode of The Young Ones (the second series of which was broadcast in 1984) – hard to imagine them on The Young Ones for that matter. Certainly there’s none of the scuzziness of The Dream Syndicate in their music, and everything feels very sunny and light – in ‘Going Down to Liverpool’, their delivery of the line about doing ‘nothing, All the days of my life’ is therefore unconvincing. 

Nonetheless I find their appropriation of the song interesting, in that it mirrors the American response to the so-called British Invasion of the 60s. This attitude is made clear by a 1986 performance, in which the introduction describes ‘Going Down to Liverpool’ as a trip ‘far, far away, across the ocean wide, to the land where The Beatles and The Rutles came from’. The inclusion of the latter group with the former feels significant here: the pastiche lumped in together with its inspiration. Both Liverpool and the UB40 are treated as fetishes of authenticity, but entirely detached from their original context. 

 

Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain 

Yes, yes, I know, I know. But I have nothing to say about it that Donnie Darko hasn't already said better. I admit didn't pay much attention to this at the time of its release. In my experience, you either liked the Teardrops/Cope or the Bunnymen, rarely both.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

1984 Music: R.E.M., Reckoning

Release date: 9 April

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? Yes, from about 1987.

Below, quotations from group members and some background information are taken from Craig Rosen, R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song.

R.E.M. were probably my favourite band for a few years in the late 80s. I liked their 1986 release Lifes Rich Pageant best, both then and now, but I bought or taped all of their albums until Monster, and went to see them twice on the Green world tour in 1989. Reckoning, their second album, is (together with its immediate follow-up Fables of the Reconstruction) probably their folkiest collection of songs, and it is certainly their simplest. It was recorded quickly in a break between touring (exactly how quickly is disputed, but certainly less than a month’s total studio time). Most songs were recorded in a few takes, with the backing tracks played close to live in the studio, and there are no guest musicians and few overdubs other than piano (by bass player Mike Mills) and some doubletracking of the lead instruments and (perhaps) Stipe’s voice. The sound is therefore close to their live act of the time.

It has to be said that a few of the songs betray this quickness of execution: ‘Second Guessing’ could have done with a little more of the titular quality it decries; ditto ‘Letter Never Sent’, which, according to guitarist Peter Buck, ‘took about as long to write as it did to play’.

The album originally had the mysterious subtitle or alternate title of ‘File Under Water’, and there are indeed a lot of aqueous references in the lyrics, from ‘So. Central Rain’ to ‘Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean’ to the ‘water tower’ in ‘Time After Time’ to ‘The water’s receiving me now’ in ‘Letter Never Sent’.

Onstage, Stipe was still shy, and Berry was hidden behind the drums, but Buck and Mills bounced around energetically, as in the band’s first appearance on US network television for David Letterman, where it’s notable that Stipe fades into the background for the requisite chat with the host, leaving this task to the more extrovert Buck and Mills. This contrast was even more marked in the studio, where Stipe recorded his vocals separately, and in a corridor outside the main studio room.

R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, had been a big critical hit and a decent seller on both sides of the Atlantic, and Reckoning got the same reaction. Mat Snow in the NME on 21 April:

When I hear the word ‘plangent’ I reach for my applause button. Which is why ‘Reckoning’ and its predecessor, last year’s ‘Murmur’, confirm R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet.

It would be naïve to deny that enjoyment of these vinyl cathedrals is untouched by love of the tradition from which they spring – the soaring trajectory from The Beatles’ ‘Hard Day’s Night’, through the Searchers to America’s electric Dylan and reaching an apogee in West Coast laureates The Byrds. Jingle-jangle merchants have followed – British pub-rock, the likes of Dwight Twilley, Orange Juice at times, and a whole new generation of 12-string choristers. But none have devoted themselves with such inspiration to the driving, towering purity to be found in the fullness of what is demeaningly called space-folk guitar music. When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by R.E.M.

Drugs don’t come into it: there’s no need for a head full of snow or funny pills to groove into the spirit of R.E.M. It’s to do with America, the journey west to the Promised Land with nothing but a shimmering horizon ahead and a blazing, deep blue sky above. And although R.E.M. address themselves particularly to America the country, they resonate beyond that to signify America the state of mind, a Garden of Eden before its loss of innocence, its fall from grace.

It seems no coincidence that R.E.M. hail from Georgia in the New South, the paradise to be regained after California was lost. Wheel me out frothing if you like, but R.E.M. sing wistfully of a Golden Age that never was. Though even the most part-time romantic wishes it had been and hopes, in some tiny moment of nirvana, it will come again.

To particulars. With ‘Reckoning’, R.E.M. have dispensed with the discreet strings and profusely interlocking layers of instrumentation and vocal harmonies that characterised ‘Murmur’ and returned to the terser sound of first EP ‘Chronic Town’ which was displayed live earlier this year with such breathtaking brilliance. But Spartan it isn’t. No modern axe-hero, yet Peter Buck shows why he is perhaps today’s greatest rock guitarist: both economically precise and rich in timbre and immaculate in timing and dynamics, his guitar sings.

Also at the top end of the mix, Michael Stipe on vox emerges a little further from his shell of ‘Murmur’’s gnomic utterance and occasional fragments of chorus keening with bright-eyed rapture. Yet so much more is conveyed in the interplay of aching, troubled voice, soaring harmonies and ringing guitars than in literal pronouncement, however assiduously Dylanologist you may be in its unpicking. …

So full circle. The Byrds best albums – ‘Fifth Dimension’ and ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ – were of their era yet still exhilarate today. R.E.M.’s two LPs are more consistently brilliant still, and, by picking up where McGuinn and co. left off, R.E.M. somehow transcend period fetishism to make music similarly in tune with the times. In short, another classic.

Ian Pye in Melody Maker on 14 April was similarly impressed:

Somewhere in mythical America lies Rockville, the eternal small town full of well worn people where the state of the art hasn’t changed and maybe never will. Red dust blows down the main drag, cowboys and factory drones drink beer in run-down bars, and the steel guitars whine on into the sunset. It’s a kind of dream really.

REM warn us not to go there, yet strangely they can’t resist making the trip themselves. Whereas their captivating debut, “Murmur”, looked to the brash energy of punk and the classic heritage of the guitar-song group, “Reckoning” shifts the formal axis towards Americana and the down-home truths this culture would rather forget.

Which is not to suggest that REM are going backwards – their widely anticipated second shot is easily the equal of its predecessor, a more even record with less obvious highs and less obvious lows – but that Athens’ finest have simply come to terms with their catalystic love-hate affair. In doing so they manage to celebrate everything great about white American pop in the last 20 years while turning their backs on America, the movie. … the post-punk thrash is gone and in its place the always present Byrds references are many and unashamed; luxurious swathes of gleaming guitars chime loudly as the finest chrome work. …

Retaining the same production team of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon has ensured that REM’s air of brooding introspection and undefinable mystery continues, yet once again the clarity of Michael’ Stipe’s powerful lyrics are frequently obscured. This is certainly intentional, but it’s debatable whether this tantalising effect balances out the sheer frustration of trying to make out what the hell each song is about. …

REM have used the great American myths to enhance the depth and roots of their music while exposing the empty vessel at the end of Disneyland’s rainbow. This is an album made by Americans, but Americans who are unsure about America – it’s fascinating.

Both these reviews are at pains to situate the music within a tradition: that of ‘Americana’ (I didn’t know this word was already a critical term in 1984), with particular reference to The Byrds (a comparison that eventually began to irritate Buck). For UK music critics, the group were therefore a means to think about America itself in more authentic terms than that provided by Lloyd Cole’s pastiche references. However, it’s interesting that there are no comparisons here to the Paisley Underground bands, who shared several of the same reference points.

In 2005, Mike Mills put together a compilation for Uncut magazine. Stipe and Buck did their own compilations too, but Mills’s is more consciously historical. Like the contemporary reviews above, his choices situate R.E.M.’s music within a tradition of Americana, but with different emphases to the NME and Melody Maker. In particular, this compilation has no less than three tracks by Paisley Underground bands: Green on Red, The Dream Syndicate and The Long Ryders. But also selections from a broader scene of early 80s new-wave (to use the preferred US term), including fellow bands from Athens (Pylon, Love Tractor – the latter had Berry on drums for a while), but also The Embarrassment and cow-punks Jason & the Scorchers. The more distant past is here only represented directly by Big Star (and indirectly by the Dylan song performed by Jason & the Scorchers). There are no UK bands.

The reviews above focus almost exclusively on Buck’s guitar and Stipe’s vocals and lyrics, but in the early days of R.E.M. Mills and Berry were the more accomplished musicians, and the group’s sound reflects this in important ways. Buck rarely takes solos, for instance, and Stipe is relatively low in the mix, (deliberately) exacerbating the inaudibility of his lyrics. The bass playing, by contrast, is very lively, and moves around and counterpoints the vocal melody in a way that complements Mills’s (always pointed and effective) backing vocals. The drums entirely lack the big ‘thwack’ sound of gated reverb. Again, I’m no musicologist, so I’m really going on feel and impression here, but they seem more trebly, less reliant on the overbearing pulse of the bass drum, and with the sound of the sticks more prominent, along with the cymbals.

Stipe is obviously a large part of R.E.M.’s allure, precisely because it’s difficult to know what he’s singing about most of the time. Part of this was undoubtedly a self-protection strategy to work round his shyness and prevent him from feeling too exposed. In some ways, his approach recalls that of Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile. Stipe: ‘I approach my lyrics from the third person instead of the first person, which gives it a slight detachment. … It’s kind of a protection – I would no more care to cut my gut open and display it to the 200,000 people who are going to buy the record’. 

But whereas Mark E. Smith of The Fall – another singer prone to lyrical obscurity – often seems to be dropping breadcrumbs that invite interpretation (and attract it, viz. The Annotated Fall website), Stipe doesn’t seem to provoke quite the same level of obsessive engagement, if only because listeners just admit defeat more quickly. He often alluded to hidden meanings in interviews, but these hints sometimes just feel like trolling. For instance, his claim that ‘Harborcoat’ was a ‘rewriting of the Anne Frank diaries’. Really? Perhaps more revealing is the idea that this and ‘Laughing’ off Murmur are ‘violent and brutal … but they’re both so internal and folded in on themselves that no one would ever pick up on that except as a general gut feeling’.

The title of ‘Letter Never Sent’ is interesting in this context: a letter marks an absence, an interruption in face-to-face communication. A letter never sent doubly so: a negated act of communication; a withdrawal.

It’s perhaps better to approach the lyrics as sound poetry, as one element of the music, in which isolated images sometimes emerge, but not necessarily as part of larger thesis statements. A characteristic effect of early R.E.M. is for a clear phrase or emotionally direct statement to emerge out of the surrounding murk like the sun bursting through clouds. The effect is often electrifying: on Reckoning the clearest example is the chorus of ‘So. Central Rain’ (the second song in the Letterman clip above), in which Stipe breaks cover to declare ‘I’m sorry’ over and over again. In fact, this song has a relatively clear origin. It describes – or rather, it uses as its point of departure – Buck’s attempts to call home on tour when a storm was ravaging Georgia (‘Did you never call? I waited for your call … The lines are down …’). But this is only clear if you're already aware of the background.

Similarly, and contra Stipe’s statements about ‘Haborcoat’ above, the ‘meaning’ of that song seems to emerge most clearly from the phrase ‘a handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got’: the language of gesture more straightforward here than the treachery of words.

Having said that, there are two songs on Reckoning with relatively clear lyrics. ‘Camera’ was a sort of memorial to a friend of the band: Carol Levy, a photographer, who had been killed in a car crash a couple of years earlier. If you know this, it reads like a song about absence and grief – but then again, if you don’t, it might seem like a more general meditation on depression and social isolation. ‘Will you be remembered?’ is a straightforward enquiry in the first reading; a self-addressed question to a narrator erasing himself in the second.

The most straightforward song of R.E.M.’s career thus far was however the country pastiche ‘(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville’ about the relative attractions and dangers of the small hometown and the big city.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Review at Lunate

There's a lot of pressure on review space and competition for people's attention, so it's rare to get a lengthy discussion like the one just posted at the journal Lunate, which describes The Angels of L19 as: 

[O]ne of the novels of the year—a book of substantial scope, style and ambition, and one that speaks eloquently and authoritatively of connection, of kinship, and of what might result when we think to narrow the gap between the singer and the song. Thus, the reading of the book becomes a communion, every passage an article of faith. There are wonders here. Embrace them.

Many thanks to journal editor and review author Gary Kaill for this in-depth discussion.

1984 Music: This Mortal Coil, It'll End in Tears


Release date: 1 October 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? I bought the seven-inch single of ‘Song to the Siren’, and I distinctly remember examining the album’s cassette case in HMV, trying to decide if it warranted a purchase, but I must have decided against it, because I didn’t hear the rest of it until much later. 

This album and Rainy Day, the subject of a previous post, both contain a cover of Big Star’s ‘Holocaust’, and both were recorded by indie ‘supergroups’, to use a term from 1960s stadium rock. In other words, they are credited to groups with no permanent membership, temporarily convened out of members of other groups. However, unlike their 60s forebears, in both cases under discussion here, the musicians were probably barely making a living in their day jobs, let alone their side projects. 

Rainy Day were an American – more specifically an LA – collective, but This Mortal Coil were the house band of the UK indie label 4AD, then best-known as the home of the Cocteau Twins, who feature here (and who recruited Simon Raymonde based on his contributions to this album). Like Rainy Day, It’ll End in Tears includes several totemic covers: ‘Song to the Siren’ was originally a Tim Buckley song, and ‘Kangaroo’ was, like ‘Holocaust’, off Big Star’s infamous abandoned third album. There’s also a cover of a Roy Harper song – an interesting choice, since Harper was not at all ‘cool’ in 1984 as the other historical reference points were. Plus there’s a more recent post-punk song from Colin Newman’s first solo album (‘Not Me’). 

Also like Rainy Day, the album as a whole is a little underwhelming: here the cover versions are complemented by several original songs, but these are wispy, seemingly improvised instrumentals, big on atmospherics but short on substance. Two compositions by Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance with her trademark keening vocals are better (especially ‘Dreams Made Flesh’). But the album is best known now as the setting for ‘Song to the Siren’, which, as performed by Fraser and Robin Guthrie, is really a Cocteau Twins track – except for the fact that its lyrics, though poetic and allusive, more or less make sense. 

It’s an inspired choice for a cover: Fraser’s voice is quite different to Buckley’s, but equally distinctive and acrobatic. So, whereas the covers on Rainy Day sometimes feel like degraded facsimiles of the originals (the closing version of Hendrix’s ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ is particularly bathetic), ‘Song to the Siren’ both adds to and transforms its progenitor.

It’ll End in Tears was reviewed in Melody Maker on 6 October 1984 by Steve Sutherland: 

When I first contacted Ivo, the instigator of Some Mortal Coil [sic: there are a lot of errors in this review], with the intention of maybe writing about it-them-whatever, I didn’t have a clue where to start. Tentatively suggesting a number of approaches, I ventured that perhaps talking to some of the participants might cast some light on this unintentional enigma. 

Ivo said he’d sound out his cohorts and rang the next day to say Howard Devote [sic] couldn’t see why I’d want to quiz him. “When you interview a guitarist,” he’d said, “you don’t interview the guitar.” 

This strikes me as the nearest I’m likely to get to explaining what This Mortal Coil is, how it works, what its aims are and, finally, its achievements. It is the dream of one man, Ivo, supremo of 4AD records. A non-musician and a novice producer, he hit upon the idea of recording the album he’d always wanted to live with using some of his favourite musicians for tools. That’s it. He’s succeeded admirably. 

“It’ll End in Tears” is an extraordinary record in that it pays no heed to what’s currently in vogue and resists the temptation to become another BEF public relations exercise while adhering single-mindedly to one vital premise: that this should be an album rather than a collection of songs, an atmospheric, even spiritual whole. A vision, not an indulgence. 

Its mood is melancholy, desperate at times, and yet, like Eno’s ambient things (the nearest comparison but still distant), it seeks to serve some purpose, to perhaps give some comfort, some companionship. 

Whatever the truth of this rapturous assessment, This Mortal Coil certainly achieved more than Rainy Day, if only by virtue of the fact that the collective issued two additional albums after this one. Here’s a recent discussion from The Quietus on their body of work.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

1984 Music: The Smiths, The Smiths and Hatful of Hollow


 

Release dates: 20 February and 12 November 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? Not in 1984. I acquired a copy of Hatful of Hollow in about 1987, and The Smiths at university in the early 90s. 

There are plenty of songs about heartbreak in the canon of pop music, but before The Smiths there were few songs about those who felt themselves excluded from love – and life – entirely. The classic 1960s pop song asserts the singer’s teenage identity against those who don’t understand him (or, less frequently, her) – but that usually means parents or authority figures, or, later in the decade, ‘squares’, the representatives of conformity. The Smiths occasionally approach this territory (e.g. ‘The Headmaster Ritual’), but members of an older generation are just as likely to be kindred spirits (‘Vicar in a Tutu’), and for Morrissey the real threat comes from one’s peers. 

Love, desire, infatuation, the misery of rejection: these had all been familiar emotions in pop music. But embarrassment, boredom, impotent frustration – these all came in with punk, and reach their apotheosis here. 

The teenage songs of an earlier era relied on a shared identity and appealed to shared experience for their impact – their loyalties were tribal as much as individualistic – but here the only shared experience was that of imagining other people might feel as alone as you did. Above all, the characteristic emotion is disappointment: crushing, humiliating bathos. ‘I look at yours, you laugh at mine, And “love” is just a miserable lie’. 

 Or in one of the group’s most famous moments from ‘How Soon is Now?’: 

There's a club, if you'd like to go 

You could meet somebody who really loves you 

So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own 

And you go home and you cry and you want to die 

The succession of ‘and’s really sells this: the misery is familiar, expected, never-ending. And Marr’s guitar shimmers and shivers and grinds our faces in it. 

Stereotypically, The Smiths were a student band, and certainly the world of work is only present here as a source of oppression: ‘I was looking for a job, And then I found a job, And heaven knows I’m miserable now’. But none of the band actually went to university, and the ‘exams’ mentioned in several songs were likely O-levels (certainly the weird 1984 tabloid accusations of paedophilia directed against ‘Reel Around the Fountain’ and ‘Handsome Devil’ assumed this). So the songs don’t actually describe the student experience. Rather, they are situated in the places the group’s student fans had escaped from: northern, provincial, urban, lower middle class or upper working class. Council houses, but not tower blocks. Clubs, sometimes, but not pubs: little alcohol in general, and no drugs, which Morrissey disapproved of (bassist Andy Rourke was later temporarily sacked when his heroin addiction was discovered). The threat of violence as a public crime outside in the street, but, interestingly, not usually in intimate settings behind closed doors (except in 'Barbarism Begins At Home' on Meat Is Murder). 

Sometimes this milieu has quite precise geographical and historical markers – the Manchester suburb of Whalley Range, the names of the victims of the Moors murderers – but mainly it’s defined by more general social, economic and cultural details: patios, disused railway lines, houses with doorsteps on the street, the News of the World, the end of the pier, kissing outside under iron bridges (presumably because there's nowhere else you can go), trips to the countryside on bicycles with punctured tyres; and so on. The frequent literary references and occasional archaisms (‘a jumped-up pantry boy’) situate this world in a tradition, but not primarily that of pop music, although both Morrissey and Marr were fans of 60s girl groups in particular, and helped to resurrect the career of Sandie Shaw. Instead the tradition is that of Middlemarch, Shelagh Delaney and the kitchen-sink novels and films of the 50s and 60s. 

Most of this is noted in the group’s early music-press coverage, though both the albums under discussion here are rarely considered definitive in the context of the group’s longer career: The Smiths, their debut, had been delayed and then re-recorded from scratch, and perhaps shows some fatigue at that process. To me, it feels a little forced and tired in some of the performances. Hatful of Hollow, released later in the year, was actually a compilation album, including several singles and associated tracks, and versions of songs recorded in session for Radio 1, many of which actually predated The Smiths –and a few of which also appear in different versions on that album. I think it’s generally assumed that the release of Hatful of Hollow was a tacit admission that the first album didn’t quite work, and although much of the compilation was never intended to be definitive (radio sessions, recorded fast and cheap, are by definition works in progress) it is for me one of the group’s best albums. 

Having said that, Allan Jones in Melody Maker had no reservations at all about the first album. Here he is on 25 February (note once again the ubiquitous Velvet Underground references, shoehorned in whether or not they belong): 

These songs, this music, The Smiths themselves, seem to owe nothing very much to anyone: they appear to exist without convenient contemporary comparisons. For music as lean and urgent, as passionately articulate and eerily beautiful as the most haunting episodes on this record, you have to refer back to the stark emotional lyricism of the Velvet Underground’s third album, and the decisive genius of songs like “What Goes On”, “Some Kinda Love” and “Pale Blue Eyes”. 

There really isn’t much room for anything but perfection on this LP. There are moments here that float and shimmer with a spectacular inevitability, a timelessness, an opinion of their own enormous qualities that only the very best pop music can boast. And, like most of pop’s most enduring moments, The Smiths’ music is often bruisingly mordant in its preoccupation with states of melancholy, regret, an ironic nostalgia for the way things might have been, but obviously weren’t and, perhaps, were never intended to be. 

The following passage seems less convincing to me: 

Like most great pop, “The Smiths” is also consumed by an extravagant romanticism, a touching conviction that love and the act of loving can overcome the most critical of life’s squalid realities. The beguiling sensuality of songs like “Reel Around The Fountain” and the awe-inducing “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” proposes an intimacy, a sense of communication through fingers, tongues and senses – a sense of coming together, if you like – that will enable us to survive wider disasters. … When Johnny Marr’s exquisite guitar caresses the provocative melodic nudge of “I Don’t Owe You Anything”, The Smiths sound like the very definition of Marvin Gaye’s idea of sexual healing. 

Marvin Gaye! Surely the only time his vocals have been compared to Morrissey’s ‘celibate cries’ – especially given the latter’s noted contempt for Motown, an early hint of his current odious politics. It’s true that for The Smiths, intense emotional connection to a love object might offer redemptive possibilities. One may even express desire towards such an object (‘Let me get my hands, On your mammary glands’), but more usually, being the recipient of such declarations provokes paralysing anxiety or conflicted feelings. In general, it’s safer to retreat into platonic territory: ‘But I don't want a lover, I just want to be seen, In the back of your car’. The most common position here, then, is not wanting, but wanting to be wanted: ‘Girl afraid, Where do his intentions lay? Or does he even have any?’ In any case, the consummation of desire is always a mistake – always excruciating. 

Jones’s review continues: 

The world inhabited by Morrissey’s blistered imagination and Johnny Marr’s evocative melodic settings is a world that’s been betrayed: their songs describe impoverished lives, circumscribed options, limited achievements, murderous equations. Illness, corruption and death are frequently present as central images. … 

I don’t mean to make “The Smiths” sound like an exercise in cerebral bleakness: there’s a robust physical enthusiasm at work on most fronts here, a very natural sense of what makes a song work. 

I seem to have missed the NME review of the first album – surely there was one –but here’s Adrian Thrills on Hatful of Hollow from 10 November: 

It is a patchy, erratic affair and often all the better for that. A song like the maudlin epic ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ that was later fleshed out and cushioned by the softer production on the debut album is included here in raw, less ‘pleasant’ form; ‘Accept Yourself’ and ‘These Things Take Time’ from the Jensen session are thrillingly abrasive; ‘Still Ill’ and ‘Girl Afraid’ remind one of a dull, prosaic competence which marked the group’s musicianship in their early days; the wistful ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ and the dense, relatively complex ‘How Soon Is Now’ illustrate the new heights to which they have recently aspired. 

But what difference does it make? The most staggering changes are not in Morrissey’s beguiling, ambivalent obsessions, which have remained similar throughout, but in the flowering of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Marr, that chiming man, into one of the era’s truly great instrumentalists. Compare the monosyllabic flatness of his early picking with the cascading mandolins that close ‘Please, Please, Please’ and it will be clear just how much he has come on. His role in the band is now worthy of at least equal billing with Morrissey’s, a fact acknowledged on the awesome ‘How Soon’, a track previously only available on the ‘William’ 12”: with the voice buried deep in a clammy, claustrophobic mix, Marr – adroitly supported by the two unsung grafter Smiths – unleashes a barrage of multi-tracked psychedelic rockabilly, his Duane Eddy twang destroyed in an eerie quagmire of quivering guitar noise. Magnificent! 

And so to the calculated mystique of Morrissey: the man-child has mastered the knack of giving away absolutely nothing while appearing to be the most frank, disarming and explicit wordsmith currently working in pop. But, for all their sexual ambivalence and lyrical unorthodoxy, his songs are universal in the vulnerabilities and desires they seek to express. … 

I won’t quote Adam Sweeting’s dismissive Melody Maker review of Hatful: I get the impression they chose the one person in the office certain to dismiss it, purely to prove the paper wasn’t a pushover. 

Above I’ve focussed mainly on the lyrics, but the reviews are an important reminder that there were four members of The Smiths. Marr’s guitar and melodic genius are almost as lauded as Morrissey’s words, but the rhythm section of Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke – the ‘unsung grafter Smiths’ – were also superb. Infamously, the last two were entirely excluded from songwriting credits and given only 10% of performance royalties each. And while Morrissey probably bears the greater share of the blame for this state of affairs, Marr agreed to it too. A fairer division would surely have been 10% of songwriting royalties and 25% of performance royalties: I just don’t believe that such skilled and inventive musicians contributed nothing to these songs in the studio. Or did Marr really write all the basslines and drum patterns as well as the melodies and chord sequences? 

Parenthetically, I might note that groups who make a decision to split royalties evenly from the start – notably U2 and R.E.M. – tend to have long and happy careers. In any case, they don’t end up hating each other if and when they split.

Monday, September 6, 2021

1984 Music: Rainy Day, Rainy Day


Release date: unknown (but 1984) 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? Yes. 

Rainy Day were a studio concoction put together for this album only by David Roback, who had just left the Rain Parade, and he is the sole common element across the album’s nine tracks. All the other musicians came from the Paisley Underground scene, discussed in a previous post, and all the songs are covers of tracks by artists who inspired those bands: from the 60s, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, Hendrix, Dylan, the Velvets, The Byrds and The Beach Boys; plus one slightly later song by Big Star. The tracks borrowed from The Byrds and The Beach Boys were their interpretations of folk songs (perhaps chosen by Roback here to avoid paying royalties on what was surely a low-budget recording). Several of the others were fairly obscure: both the Dylan track (‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’) and the Big Star had no official release in 1984. Oddly, both the Buffalo Springfield covers were of songs written by Neil Young, but originally sung by Richie Furay. 

Truth be told, it’s a patchy album, but it has some genuine high points: the Dylan cover and the version of the Velvets’ ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ have rich, emotional vocals by Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, with sympathetic and unobtrusive backing, and the minimal version of Big Star’s ‘Holocaust’ with deadpan vocals by Kendra Smith (who'd just left The Dream Syndicate) looks forward to her work with Roback in Opal. This track made a big impression on me at the time, and I find it superior to the This Mortal Coil version (which I’ll discuss in a future post).

I said in my introductory post to this series that 1984 was perhaps the point at which I started to become aware of the history of pop music, and began to try to understand the music I liked in historical terms. This album was important for me in that regard – although I didn’t really start listening to Buffalo Springfield et al. until a few years later in the early 90s. And the album’s existence points to something essential about the Paisley Underground scene: that all these bands were obsessive music fans (Steve Wynn worked as a record-store clerk while recording The Dream Syndicate’s first album) – and so were the people who released their music. Syd Griffin of The Long Ryders tells this story of how they got the attention of their UK label

The cover of [our 1984 album] Native Sons is [a re-creation of] the rejected album Stampede by the Buffalo Springfield and they [The Long Ryders’ record label] immediately got it, being old record collector dogs. It took us forever to find a cabin like the one the Springfield used – it was way out in the desert, rusting apart. It was in the middle of nowhere, a real American west town that was dead. And they got such a kick that we knew the Buffalo Springfield Stampede cover that they thought: "This is a great record; these guys are obviously savvy – call them up." 

I’m not sure if Rainy Day garnered much review attention: I didn’t notice any coverage on my run-through of 1984 issues of NME and Melody Maker, but without knowing the precise release date it’s hard to be certain I didn’t miss something. In 1984 (or more likely 1985), I bought it just because I saw it in HMV, with a helpful sticker on the cover advertising the presence of musicians from Paisley Underground bands I already liked.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Review at Locus

Lovely review at Locus from Ian Mond, who calls The Angels of L19 a 'tremendous novel', and says:

I, of course, loved Walker’s sudden switch from the quotidian to the supernatural. Not just because it’s an audacious move (which it clearly is) but because this clash of styles plays cleverly into the novel’s themes about religion and faith. ... While Walker is careful not to draw any facile conclusions about religious belief, in straddling between the real and the unreal, the mimetic and the fantastic, he brilliantly lays bare the struggles of two teenag­ers striving to find meaning and comfort in a world increasingly overburdened by misery and despair.

I Was a Teenage Christian

I wrote a photo essay called 'I Was a Teenage Christian: Church Youth Culture in Liverpool' for 10 Million Hardbacks, which went up today. A short excerpt:

1989

I went to church every Sunday – usually twice – but I also went to a youth event at Gordon Hall in the town centre most Saturday nights, and to an informal Bible study at the house of one of the church members on a weekday, where the photo below was taken. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect: not sedate contemplation, but barely controlled chaos. Obviously this was after the ‘official’ part of the evening had ended.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

1984 Music: The Blue Nile, A Walk Across the Rooftops


Release date: 30 April 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? No, not until I moved to Glasgow in the early 90s. 

Note: apart from the Melody Maker and NME reviews, all quotations in this post come from Allan Brown’s book, Nileism: The Strange Course of The Blue Nile, which I recommend. 

This album makes an interesting comparison with Sparkle in the Rain. It’s much slower and more contemplative – introverted where Sparkle in the Rain is extroverted, minimalist rather than maximalist – but here too we are in an electrified and modern city (‘Tinseltown in the Rain’, ‘Automobile Noise’). In keeping with the lack of specificity about geography I’ve already noted in blog posts about other 1984 albums, there are no unambiguous topographical details on A Walk Across the Rooftops. Nonetheless, no one who’s ever lived in Glasgow will be in any doubt as to why the waterfront is depicted as lashed with rain on the Simple Minds album, or why the ‘big rhythm’ of the city on ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is indistinguishable from the hiss of falling water.

So we’re in Glasgow. 

Or are we? 

Certainly a lot of listeners assume we are. Here, for instance, is fan Yvonne C. Stewart talking about ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’: 

For me the song is all about Glasgow. It reminds me of walking up Argyle Street in the rain, like the day I bought the record. It reminds me of seeing everything in black and white for some reason, just as it’s about to get dark and all the lights come on. A wet Glasgow evening. Lots of people around. Lots of noise. The lyric ‘Is there a place in this city/a place to always feel this way’ gives me the feeling of being safe and happy, just being there. 

But arguably none of this is in the song – someone who lived in Manchester could as easily project their own experience on it (plenty of other cities have ‘redstone buildings’ for example). And while the group themselves may have had Glasgow in mind as the backdrop for several songs, ‘Heatwave’ and ‘From Rags to Riches’ were explicitly inspired by the (then-)recent history of Beirut, while ‘Easter Parade’ was a film noir snapshot of 1940s New York, where the Easter Parade is a regular fixture. 

Like Yvonne, I brought my own set of prior assumptions to this last song when I was living in Glasgow in the early 1990s, where parades are mainly occasions for sectarian provocation by the Orange Lodge. So I thought there was an interesting contrast between the sentimental, nostalgic atmosphere of the song – only recorded on successive Sundays in the studio to preserve its air of sanctity, though I didn’t know that then – and the harder actualities of life in Glasgow. But I brought that contrast to the song, as more careful attention to the lyrics would have told me, with their references to typewriters, hats, radio, etc.

Nonetheless, the songs on A Walk Across the Rooftops do have this quality: they cry out for listeners to fill in their gaps – to move towards them imaginatively – because they have a kind of hollowed-out quality. As David Quantick explains: 

[I]f a song is a house, most bands wallpaper it and put in the pictures. The Blue Nile seem to have done all that, then taken all the furniture and pictures out and painted it white. It’s not that they write Spartan songs, they write songs where everything has been removed. It’s the art of subtraction that they specialise in. … With ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ or ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ people use terms like cinematic and Cinemascope. But they’re tiny records. They’re like looking at a beautiful city then realising you’re looking at a miniature model. 

One of the most common words used about The Blue Nile’s records is ‘emotional’, especially about Paul Buchanan’s rich, saturated vocals. But there’s another word that comes up over and over again in Allan Brown’s book: ‘detached’. Referring not only to the abstract lyrical perspective and the group’s attitude towards fame, fortune and publicity, but to their whole identity as mediated through the music, which exists in the tension between these two seeming opposites: emotional and detached. As Buchanan put it in an interview with the NME published on 12 May 1984: ‘I don’t think we really want to present ourselves as players or personalities or people.’ 

This negation of self assumes an almost spiritual quality: Brown describes the first album as ‘dry, precise, reverb-free music; as still and devout as children praying’. In that sense, its strategy is quite different to Sparkle in the Rain and The Unforgettable Fire: there’s nothing ‘big’ about this album, which, as Quantick suggests is better understood as ‘miniature’, and not only because it entirely eschews sonic exaggerations like gated reverb. 

Another word that comes to mind is ‘synthetic’. A Walk Across the Rooftops was very much a studio concoction – the group didn’t perform any of this album live until the tour for their second album, five years later. So the album has a hermetic, self-enclosed quality. And it was constructed meticulously over a much longer length of time than was normal for a debut album – mainly due to a collaborative arrangement with the album’s producer, Calum Malcolm, who also owned the studio where it was recorded. Its creation was famously financed by Linn, then known solely as a manufacturer of hi-fi equipment, who had decided to start a record label to demonstrate the superiority of their analogue equipment for reproducing the music they released. So studio precision was built into the brief. 

The sound is dominated by keyboards, many of them treated or manipulated; by synthetic drum pads – played by an actual drummer, Nigel Thomas, though working under mechanistic constraints (he wasn’t allowed to use cymbals or fills); and a string quartet on loan from the Scottish National Orchestra, which, like the drums, you might initially mistake for a synthetic substitute, except for the richness of the sound. The bass is central, but, while there are sometimes guitars in the mix, they’re rarely prominent. Some of the sounds are samples, or improvised effects, presented as short fragments repeating within the song structures – but the non-sampled sounds often have this quality too, which is why it’s easy to mistake their origins at first listen. In any case, sampling required a great deal of ingenuity given the state of technology in 1984. Paul Buchanan: 

To generate all the sounds in “From Rags to Riches” was hard work. None of it came out of a synth, apart from the little Jupiter. … We found objects and recorded them, changed them, moved them, put them under water, we did a thousand things to get what we were looking for. 

And floating above it all – that voice. Much of what it’s singing is very simple, even banal – but it’s the way he’s singing it. It reminds me of a quotation from Terrence Malick, which was a kind of motto for me when writing The Angels of L19:  

When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public. 

This perhaps sells Buchanan short. For every couplet like ‘Do I love you? Yes I love you,’ there’s a line like ‘Tall buildings reach up in vain’. In any case, in a song, lyrics don’t exist in isolation: they are presented to us through a performance and against a background of instrumentation. 

Obviously the music press loved them, even without any gigs in support of the album. Here’s Paul Du Noyer in the NME from 5 May: 

For this listener at least, recollections of the ’84 Spring sunsplash will forever be entwined inside the record I’ve played so constantly in the past two weeks. Meet The Blue Nile and greet their album debut: some music to shade your dreamtime in subtle colours, a quiet influence, delicious persuasion. … It’s a record with scant similarity to anything else around at the moment, perhaps the fruit of some reclusive, obsessive vision. 

It’s difficult stuff to describe (often a good sign), … It’s easier to suggest the moods it evokes: romance, doubt, a rich sadness. The keynote is restraint; far from straining for effect, The Blue Nile allow their music to find its own atmospheres … a kaleidoscopic shift of textures where nothing intrudes to upset the balance or divert the steady, even flow. 

And Helen Fitzgerald in Melody Maker on the same day: 

Good music can always complement the mood you’re in, but you know you’re on to something really special when songs can create and influence these moods of their own volition. The Blue Nile’s stunning debut album seduces the emotions as well as the senses, and instead of fighting its effect, the sensible thing to do is relax and enjoy it. 

Seduced initially by the intoxicating width of the title track with its heart-stopping open spaces and sensuous basslines, you’ll recognise straight off that you’ve hit on a vein of hedonistic luxury. There’s a mesmeric quality in this music that makes you want to savour every track with the respectful appreciation of a connoisseur. … 

“Tinseltown In The Rain” stands out as the sweetest flavour. Lush strings and a dynamic beat forming a backdrop for the incisive clarity of Paul Buchanan’s vocals. Lesser mortals have compared his mellow tones to Tom Waits, John Cale (on “Easter Parade”) and even Nils Lofgren, but that’s all preposterous nonsense. 

Rich and smooth, his tones have no sharp edges, no unpleasant gravel. … 

Experimenting with texture is obviously a Blue Nile fascination, from the sparse piano/vocal simplicity of the ballad “Easter Parade” to the more complex constructions of “Heatwave” and “Tinseltown.” The authors are bent on moody intricacy without being artificially clever. 

Individually, the tracks weave patterns that leave traces of spectacular emotions. Nostalgia, romance, elation and reflection are woven into their fabric with gossamer-fine delicacy. 

Their spacious arrangements are deceptively fluid. Listen to “From Rags To Riches” (the instrumental version, “Saddle The Horses” is the single’s B side) on headphones and you’ll see that their simplicity is a carefully crafted illusion.

Monday, August 30, 2021

1984 Music: The Waterboys, A Pagan Place


Release date: 1 June 

Was I listening to this in the 1980s? Very much so. 

The Waterboys were my favourite band from 1985–8, and the most exciting concert I’ve ever been to was their gig at Liverpool University Student Union on 2 May 1986. As the previous post suggests, I only became aware of them after This Is the Sea was released in 1985, but I quickly bought everything I could find – and nowadays I consider 1984’s A Pagan Place to be the superior album. Its successor is a little too pompous, the cavernous reverb on the wall-of-sound production a little too much. 

It’s worth noting that the version of A Pagan Place now available on digital download and CD after a remaster in 2002 is not quite the album I bought on vinyl in 1985. There's an inferior outtake ('Some of My Best Friends Are Trains') inserted in the middle, and two of the songs included on the original release have been altered: the outro for the second track ‘All the Things She Said’ is pointlessly extended, adding an extra minute or so to the running time to no good effect, while the third track ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ substitutes a different take with a much looser vocal than the original release – one might argue it’s more emotional; alternatively one might describe it as more amateur. I have no idea why these alternate versions weren’t just included as extra tracks – fiddling around with the contents of an album many years after its release (beyond remastering) makes no sense to me. But this is a great album in whatever iteration one encounters it. 

The Waterboys are really a vehicle for songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Mike Scott. The group’s composition changed from album to album, and this was part of Scott’s design, to keep things fluid (hence the name). Indeed, the first album released by the ‘group’ was really a collection of solo demos with occasional contributions from other musicians, notably saxophonist (and later mandolinist) Anthony Thistlethwaite. A Pagan Place was therefore the group’s first proper release, and notably features keyboard virtuoso Karl Wallinger (later of World Party), though he was not present for the earliest sessions in 1982. 

This fluidity creates a sense of musicians newly excited by the possibilities of working together, and reconfiguring regularly to recapture that excitement. It's there in the immediate burst of energy in the album’s opening seconds, when a fastly strummed acoustic guitar charges forward into ‘A Church Not Made With Hands’, and is then joined by Wallinger’s rolling piano, drums – and trumpet from Roddy Lorimer. This song is one of the great album openers of all time, and the first lyrics we hear are a quotation or paraphrase from CS Lewis’s The Last Battle

Bye bye shadowlands 

The term is over 

And all the holidays have begun

At the time, Scott was also a fan of Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and was interviewed in Strait, the Christian music paper I mentioned in my post on the Violent Femmes. However, as the album’s title of A Pagan Place suggests, he did not define his beliefs as narrowly as Lewis did, and has subsequently I think disassociated himself from this connection entirely. He was for many years (perhaps still is) a resident in the Findhorn community in Scotland, which doesn’t seem to have any doctrinal commitments beyond a belief in holistic ‘spirituality’ and a commitment to ecology. More of a hippie than a Christian then – he even looks a little like Donovan. But in 1984 the lyrical allusions on the album and the sense of yearning for transcendence the music shares with U2 were more than enough for me to identify a kindred spirit. 

The childlike frame of reference borrowed from Lewis is important I think – part of the album’s Romantic openness to innocence and wonder. At the climax of ‘A Church Not Made With Hands’ a chiming, soaring electric guitar solo follows the similarly childlike declaration ‘Isn’t that a pretty sun? Sitting in a pretty sky. Ooh, will we stay and watch it darken?’ 

Interestingly though, the album’s ‘relationship’ songs are all clouded by adult emotions and regrets (‘All the Things She Gave Me’, ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and ‘Rags’) – my distant memories of reading Scott’s memoir suggest that these songs may have been inspired by the same person. 

One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘Red Army Blues’, about a Soviet soldier condemned to the gulag in 1945 for fraternizing with Americans. It has revealing lyrical weaknesses: ‘I prayed for Mother Russia, In the summer of 43, And as we drove the Germans back, I really believed that God was listening to me’ doesn’t really sound like the sentiment of a loyal Soviet atheist, and ‘Bit my lip against the snow’ hardly does justice to the savagery of the Russian winter. But the song ultimately works because it has a very clear dramatic structure: in other words, it works as a story. And the music serves that Doctor Zhivago conception of individuals caught up in larger turmoil, with fake Russian choirs and pseudo- balalaikas, and epic saxophone solos. It all requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but it takes you places.

The album’s closer, ‘A Pagan Place’ takes us back to the state of mind of its opener, and its ‘Church Not Made With Hands’ – significantly, Roddy Lorimer’s trumpet reappears here. And we are definitely back in the world of Romanticism, where nature is the gateway to the world of the spirit, not its antagonist, and where some some sacrificial, Christ-like hero – or perhaps just a fellow seeker – serves as our point of identification: 

How did he come here? 

Who gave him the key? 

It slipped into his hand 

So secretly 

Who put the colour 

Like lines on his face? 

And brought him here 

To a pagan place

Like the subject of ‘A Church Not Made With Hands’ the figure invoked here is mysterious, elusive. It’s important that the lyrics are phrased as a series of questions. For Scott, unlike CS Lewis, it’s being open to the questions that matters – not pretending to have the answers. And if this figure is a ‘god’, then perhaps it is Pan, who is named in ‘The Pan Within’ on This Is the Sea and ‘The Return of Pan’ on Dream Harder. I’m also reminded a little of Herne the Hunter in the fictionalised pantheism of Robin of Sherwood, a television series first broadcast in 1984, though this is certainly a coincidence rather than an influence, since it wasn’t broadcast until most of A Pagan Place had been recorded.

I haven’t mentioned the album’s most famous track. ‘The Big Music’, which gave its name to the sound of all the groups who shared Scott’s wide-eyed wonder – it’s not one of my favourites. 

For the music weeklies in mid-1984, Scott was a person of interest, but not a star. Someone to keep an eye on for the future perhaps, but not yet entirely convincing. For the NME, the album’s release seems to have fallen into the gap created by the strike I mentioned in my post on the Violent Femmes, but David Quantick reviewed one of the group’s first concerts at Strathclyde University on 5 May: 

The Waterboys are one of those bands who get played on David “Kid” “Jensen”’s show without actually manifesting any signs of existence outside that world; I contend that nobody owns a Waterboys record. At all. This is a pity, since Mike Scott and his Garçons D’Eau are the purveyors of what we forest folk call a rocking sound. … 

Mike resembles Chris Jagger, which fact of course instantly reminds the funky young reviewer of the rough-edged and smelly-men-in-food-stained-coats aspect of the Waterboys’ music; you could say the boys play a kind of r’n’b, but you’d need a very supportive family to get away with that simple a remark, because The Waterboys have a sense of pop as well, one which occasionally gets too grandiose, granted, but a sense of pop that knows a good tune and goes out with it for years until people wonder when the wedding is. … 

I like The Waterboys: although occasionally harking back to a ‘70s idea of rocky pop and songwriterly posing, they stay on the right side of contemporary. Their main problem is that they’ll always be a serious-minded and intelligent group lacking the power actually to move you. …

In Melody Maker, Jeremy Lewis wrote a short review of the album for the 2 June issue: 

The Waterboys have gone halfway to making a great record, filled with bright and brassy pop. Roddy Lorimer’s incisive trumpet breaks the surface of the music with a flourish as bright as gleaming chrome, and although their little portrait of the world contains more grey than that of the Pale Fountains, the same reliance is placed upon enticing melodies and synth-less sound. 

Yet there is an outmoded element within the album that revolves around the persona of Mike Scott himself, a sort of pre-punk early Seventies folksiness that occasionally spills out all over the sound and mars the enterprise.. If Scott falls short of excellence, then it is because he pulls himself down into the more of some rather tacky past influences.

Occasionally, though, it works. “Rags” unrolls with an almost organic elasticity towards a series of great, gushing climaxes. “The Big Music” is filled with booming echoes, vitality and tension balanced in a dramatic equilibrium. “Red Army” has a powerful, pained saxophone replete with tragedy. … 

An odd record, wearing a mask of commerciality, but with something a little more elusive at its core. I don’t think Mike Scott wants to be pinned down and his record is rather like a blurred snapshot of a slippery spirit. … A record marked by too much cant and not enough candour: “I have seen the big mountain/And I swear I’m halfway there”. Perhaps next time, he’ll give us the view from the peak. 

Some of this doesn’t feel like it’s engaging with the music at all – the accusations of unfashionable influence just seem silly now. And r’n’b – even ‘pop’ for that matter? Surely this is music positioned interestingly between folk and rock (something increasingly obvious on subsequent albums)? Its ‘elusive’ qualities are correctly identified – but this is a feature, not a bug. Just when you think you’ve got Scott pinned down, he’s on to something else. 

The NME also ran an earlier interview with Scott on 21 April, in the run-up to the album’s release. Paul Du Noyer’s framing remarks here are notably more positive: ‘[advance single ‘The Big Music’ is] his strongest effort yet, the record’s a blessed match of power and grace. It’s definitely rock, and proudly so; an avalanche of acoustic guitars, real drums, impassioned vocals, trumpet and sax as bold as brass can be’. They later ran another interview on 11 August, in which Scott explained: 

“I am really interested in life. What it is, where it comes from, what is behind physical being … and I think all that is religious. It’s hard for me to give you an answer. I care about what I say. 

“I went to church as a little boy. I was always quite pissed off with church. It was really miserable, all these miserable people in their best clothes with flash cars outside, inside these four walls, singing dirgey hymns. It didn’t seem like a celebration of life, and there’s no better way to pay tribute to the thing that gives you life than by celebrating life. Bob Marley said, I don’t go to church – I am a church. That was how he celebrated life.” … 

In the thoughtless modern way of categorisers, The Waterboys will be simply indexed with U2/Bunnymen/Big C and their garrisons of hero-rock. Almost any sector of ‘A Pagan Place’, with Scott’s overwhelmed voice at its heart and the music swelling and swirling all around him, keeps that promise: of warrior legions galloping to the crest of a hill … 

“… Over which lies the new world!” Scott offers a sharp giggle. “I don’t see that really …”