Three minutes and twenty-nine seconds: 3’29” seems to be a prime length for amazing Jamaican music - Althea And Donna’s deathless “Uptown Top Ranking”, Cutty Ranks’ defiant “Wake De Man”, Yellowman’s deceptively easy-going dancehall “Dem Sight The Boss”, Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments Of Man”… well, OK, this close to the storied ‘ideal length’ of a pop song you’re going to find a wealth of amazing music from any country, but the JA stuff really stood out. So here’s Culture doing “Two Sevens Clash”, one of the colossal reputation-building songs of roots reggae, beloved of punks, DJs, Richard Branson… it’s glorious, but for me the real shivery moments are the cut-through shouts of “WHAT?” just before the chorus.
What would your 3’29” track be?
Three minutes and thirty seconds: I have been listening a lot to early 70s rock recently. I dunno why exactly, it’s good music to fall asleep to for one thing. Which I mean as a complement, of course. When I started getting into pop the early 70s were seen as a bit of a dead zone - kind of like rock’s Middle Ages! The high rock era had finished, punk hadn’t happened yet, and instead there was all this embarrassing stuff you weren’t meant to think about. And reggae, which everyone approved of. And Bowie, obviously. A lot of people sensibly disagreed with that consensus and dug deeper, I was lucky enough to meet some of them so that idea of the 70s didn’t infect me much.
But everything that happened back then has been rehabilitated and now they seem like an amazingly rich period, in part because the crosstown traffic between the “good” stuff and the “embarassing” stuff is much easier to appreciate. A lot of what was good about specifically rock at that point is in Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes”. Bowie as widescreen and sentimental as he ever got; terrace-pop scarf-waving singalongs; Mick Ronson; sweet glitter hooks and posing; a bit of androgyny. And most of all that brilliantly caught younger brother mix of defiance, resentment and regret, the bittersweet sense of a spoiled inheritance.
What would your 3’30” be?
Three minutes and thirty-one seconds: “At Home He’s A Tourist” had a massive effect on me when I first heard it, buying the History Of The 20th Century Gang Of Four compilation on a second-hand tape. I think it was the first song I fell in love with for its guitars.
I loved a lot of guitar music, of course, but mostly bands like The Smiths where it was the lyrics and attitudes that attracted me. I didn’t really care about the sounds guitars made. At school people into guitar music tended to be into classic rock, or metal, and in both cases the solos were kept separate from the rest of the track, and the lead guitar worked broadly in service to the song. I’d heard plenty of then-modern indie where the guitar worked as a kind of colour field of texture but I’d not dug into post-punk and so I wasn’t prepared for how the guitars on “Tourist” splintered, fought with the vocalist, broke out of their confines, stabbed and tore at the groove. I thought, I still think, it’s an incredibly exciting record.
What would your 3’31” track be?
Three minutes and thirty two seconds: In lieu of a full post, here’s an essay I wrote, almost exactly ten years ago, about Le Tigre’s “Get Off The Internet”, and the backlash against the Internet in the wake of the 2000 US elections and the dotcom bust. I could have written most of the essay yesterday, obviously: what I didn’t anticipate in 2001 was how both backlash and defense would freeze into permanent aspects of the web, each of them a position to be reached for, often by the same people. Each of them a comfort. “This is repetitive / But nothing has changed.”
What would your 3’32” track be?
Three minutes and thirty-three seconds: For a while in the late 90s imagining Tricky’s return to form was something of a national pastime. “For Real” was the last time I believed in it - I went and bought the Juxtapose album, played it a couple times, gave up on it. This is still a great record, though - fuggy and poisonous, Tricky’s flow slowed to an offhand, spoken-word crawl as he berates young wannabes. Games of Reality Top Trumps are generally my least favourite thing in music but Tricky wins because he in no sense absents himself from the corrosion and delusion. “It’s not real / It’s just passing time / It’s not real / All I do is rhyme”
What would your 3’33” pick be?
Three minutes and thirty-four seconds: Ripped from vinyl, on an ‘MP3 turntable’ which kept fucking up the speed, this is “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” by The Valentine Brothers, a cover of which provided Simply Red with their first hit. It’s dignified, harsh early 80s soul (‘taches and saxes to the fore) which outlines life as the Reaganomic squeeze hit. Obviously the current situation sharpens the song further, but the real stomach-punch is in these lines, growled with stoic exhaustion by one Valentine or other: “I’m working 9 to 5, 5 days a week / I don’t make enough to survive”. Like Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” - released the year before - there’s an awful archaism in the working hours as presented. In 1982 the idea that fulfilling a working week could leave you below the breadline was presented - quite rightly - as an attack on a man’s dignity. In 2011 it just seems naive.
What would your 3’34” track be?
Three minutes and thirty-five seconds: “A hit. A miss. A cheat. A gift.” “Some Girls” by Rachel Stevens leaked the same week in 2004 as Girls Aloud’s “The Show”: a high tide of sorts for UK pop, or at least for my love of it. I played the two songs incessantly that Summer, letting them fight it out for my affections. After a bit I decided “Some Girls” won.
It had everything that seemed valuable at that excitable, brittle time. Singers who cherrypicked the best new tunes to sculpt a career out of brilliant moments. Producers with a belief in pop which was passionate, not just cynical. An electric sense of competition. A faith in the single as an event. A greedy, but not slavish, regard for the 1980s. And an icing layer of self-awareness - “Some Girls” is about a starlet in a relationship of convenience with her producer. If it’s about anything: it doesn’t have to be.
Seven years is the worst age for a pop record: not much sounds good at that distance, where you’re clear-sighted but not yet nostalgic. But this still does.
What would your 3’35” track be?
Three minutes and thirty-six seconds: When I was 14 or 15 I had a French teacher called Bernard Le Moigne, who I thought cut a very bohemian figure. He had a goatee beard, he smoked gauloises, he had been on the barricades in soixante-huit, he showed us modern French films - Diva, and such like - and he played us French rock music. This last was kind of the weak link in the chain of cool. But little did I know that awesome Gallic pop-disco music like Mylene Farmer’s “Libertine” was being made right around then! Perhaps he disapproved. Certainly he couldn’t have shown us the video, which featured the first full-frontal nudity in a French pop vid. Not that it would have been a shock: like every other British boy I assumed that French media was 24-7 sauce and had been for decades. Anyway, Monsieur Le Moigne, this one’s for you!
What would your 3’36” pick be?
Tumblr isn’t letting me post audio files. I’ll upload the 3’36” to Freaky Trigger tomorrow and see if that works, and maybe do a double post then. Sorry!
Three minutes and thirty-seven seconds: This time-slot seems full of records I’ve wallowed in and agonised to - “Half A Person”, “Riot Act”, “Take Ecstasy With Me”… so here’s one you surely all know, which I can only wish I empathised with. The Kinks doing “Sunny Afternoon”. Of course, as a UK number one, I’ve covered this in Popular, and you can read my write-up and the comments thread here.
What would your 3’37” track be?