Five minutes and thirty-seven seconds: I toyed with uploading a (different) happy hardcore version of “Together In Electric Dreams” for the six minute entry but went with space disco instead - delighted to discover I can rectify this omission now, with Monty D & D-Skys ft Stompy’s “Electric Dreams”. This is actually the better version, as not only do you get a fully donked and chipmunked version of the Moroder/Oakey song, you get a middle section with spoken word bit, slowed-down “spooky” vocals, and a hyperspeed knees-up piano bit coming on like an even rushier Winifred Attwell. Someone once pointed out that happy hardcore’s combination of constant in-song changes and (often quite complex) chord sequences derived from European classical music makes it a strange counter-Earth twin of progressive rock!
"Together In Electric Dreams" was a popular choice for hardcore cover versioneers - at least one more example of it exists, and I’ve not looked that hard. It comes with ready-made bittersweets, the lyric of fleeting acquaintance belying a deeper understanding is, er, in line with the audience’s concerns, and “Electric Dreams” sounds like the name of an early 90s rave to start with. Feel the vibe!
Five minutes and thirty-eight seconds: The eighties revival has come and gone and there are still too few records which sound like "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" by Simple Minds. I thought it was seven or eight minutes long, to be honest - it feels wide enough.
Five minutes and thirty-nine seconds: There’s a fantastic moment in Pulp’s “She’s A Lady” when Jarvis Cocker yells “THE MOON HAS GONE DOWN ON THE SUN!” and you realise that in Cockerworld not only is he frustrated because people are having sex and he isn’t but the entire cosmos is having sex and he isn’t. Once Pulp became famous they stopped writing quite so many songs about palm-itching sexual hang-ups and started writing songs about other frustrations instead - being old or being famous or being poor - which were often really great but somehow often not quite as…. intense. But before he got properly into being Late Jarvis though he recorded "Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Pelvis" with Barry Adamson, a hilarious kiss-off to the Frustrated Years in which his hopeless, creepy loverman takes it to the floor Austin Powers style. "Haven’t you heard? My name rhymes with Elvis."
Five minutes and forty seconds: What others say about Bob Dylan I feel about Neil Young - I have such a problem with that reedy, accusatory voice that I often can’t get through it to the fine songcraft. But I keep trying, and sometimes reedy and accusatory is what the song needs anyhow: in "Thrasher", a rambling, judgemental, confessional track, Young seems to be justifying desertion of friends, or from his perspective lamenting the inability of those friends to meet his standards of commitment and integrity. It’s a cold song, some of its images don’t come off for me, but there’s a steely authority to it I find fascinating as well as slightly repulsive.
Five minutes and forty-one seconds: "It’s a big decision whether to think of you - or not."The Triffids were an Australian rock band: they played sweeping music, epic music, music too big for the level of success they achieved. By 1989’s The Black Swan they seemed more at ease with themselves, tracks like "New Years’ Greetings" - a struggle to be magnanimous in the face of an ex finding love before you can - full of generosity as well as width. It didn’t help: they were ignored, and they split, and singer David McComb recorded a solo album and then died after a car accident.
This is probably my favourite Triffids song with McComb singing - like "Left To My Own Devices" it captures some of the satisfaction of indecision. My favourite Triffids song ever is sung by Jill Birt: "Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)", best in its studio version but here at a McComb tribute, some time after he died.
Five minutes and forty-two seconds: "Lookin’ good - hangin’ with the Wild Bunch" - "Buffalo Stance" shouts out not just to Bristol’s famous sound system but to producer Tim Simenon’s Bomb The Bass project - and like the early records by BTB and Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry's debut is a foundation tune for modern British urban music (even though she's Swedish!), a massive step towards how pop in the UK sounds now.
Much more importantly, its bridge-building between rap, DJ-culture dance music and pop still sounds absolutely brilliant. A product of its time, sure, indelibly reminiscent for Brits of a certain age of the country’s sudden discovery of a whole chunk of its youth culture. But “Buffalo Stance” is a record in complete command of itself, which you’d probably expect from someone who was playing in bands and working with sound systems and collectives from her early teens. From "Ladies and gentlement, I would like to introduce - the hi-hat" to those teasing guitar figures on the fade, it’s perfect pop.
Five minutes and forty-three seconds: 95% of the time when I listen to dance music I’m not dancing - inevitably this inflects my tastes in it. (The question of whether this is a wider problem in, and for, dance music criticism is a hot and thorny one. I get around it by very rarely writing about the stuff.)
Something I’m a perpetual sucker for is a particular kind of indecision in a dance track, where the groove of the track works as a kind of freezing of emotion, a moment of decision or crisis caught in rhythmic amber. No resolution need be provided (especially since in its primary context it’s up to the DJ to provide one, not the performer). "Tell Me" by DJ NG ft Katy B and Versatile, is one of these tracks: it’s a UK Funky House record which The Lex sent me at the start of 2009 and which helped soundtrack last winter. It’s a wintry record - Katy B’s smooth, clear, lightly echoed vocals sound like they’re coming from a cold place, and the insistent four-note motif and keyboard swells don’t brighten things up much either.
Five minutes and forty-four seconds: This seems a good time to mention that I’m not necessarily picking the best tracks in my collection for each length, but they’re always songs I enjoy. This is the intriguingly-titled "(Hurt Me! Hurt Me!) But The Pants Stay On" by Samantha Fox, a record I read about - in a Chuck Eddy book, it may not surprise you to learn - and assumed I would never hear, and then along came MP3s and P2P and all such assumptions crumpled.
Sam Fox was a British page 3 girl - probably the most famous one ever over here - who decided to have a recording career because, well, she could, I guess. Thanks to a canny choice of collaborators, and less baggage, I get the impression she was actually bigger in the US than at home (where people dismissed her after the first single). She doesn’t have a very good voice, and as is often the case the production has to work pretty hard to disguise that. So part of the appeal of the track is as an index of the production tricks of a particular moment in pop - the party-gang chants, the sinuous orientalesque synth line, the beats, all very late-80s, all rather effective despite the weak centre. There is also a bit of skit either side of the track -no spoilers, as these things go it’s good though and it’s lovely to hear Sam’s wholly unvarnished speaking voice near the end too.
I’m a day behind now so expect a double bill soon.
Five minutes and forty-five seconds: Rotary Connection - “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun”. The first time I heard this song was as the Nu Yorican Soul cover - very faithful indeed, from my memory, the kind of ultra-reverent cover that serves a useful educational purpose. What blew me away about the song was its mystery (from that amazing, evocative title on), and its sense of pride and most of all its scale. Progressive, ever-growing but always returning to and building again from that piano groove. It brings to mind my fantasy idea of boho 1971 - mostly derived from LP sleeve fonts - and my fantasy idea of… well, fantasy, it sounds incantatory, like something a priestess from an intoxicating pulp novel might sing.
Quick procedural note: this was recommended by somebody in the answer box for a post a couple of seconds back, and today Ben G. asked how I determine song lengths. The answer is, since there’s no canonical way of doing so I’m going for internal consistency and just following what my copy of WMP tells me. So for any given record there’s a 1-2 second halo in either direction, but that shouldn’t affect the overall shape of the blog.
Five minutes and forty-six seconds: I would like to tell you that when I first heard The Fall - and this was the first thing I ever heard by them - I was dumbstruck, amazed, revolutionised. But I wasn’t. Because - the power of criticism! - I’d read bits about them and their abstract ever-changing always-the-same primal sound and what I’d constructed in my head was FAR more terrifying and forbidding than any music could actually possibly be. I was honestly a little bit scared of hearing The Fall.
So I wasn’t surprised by how odd it was. Instead I was surprised by how clean it was - I wasn’t to know that 1988 was the end of “the Brix Smith years”, where the band had teetered toward the commercial, had actually (tough to imagine even now) placed a song in the Top 40. "Guest Informant" wasn’t that song, and was certainly on the fringe of my then taste. But it was brash and bright enough that the only real difficulty I had was in working out what they were singing. And eventually I gave up and just enjoyed those mischievously roaming basslines.
A few months after hearing it - by which time I’d bought The Frenz Experiment - it was my turn to bring a favourite piece of music into my music lesson at school for discussion. My classmates had not been radical in their choices - Tracy Chapman was as cutting-edge as things had got, otherwise it was Pink Floyd, Dire Straits… I thought bringing in “Guest Informant” would shake things up a bit, show the squares what time it REALLY was.
It was a long five minutes and forty six seconds, because I realised in under sixty of those seconds exactly what the first thing I would be asked was, and I also realised that I still had not the first clue. Bostin’…stay cog….analyst?
Five minutes and forty-seven seconds: I’m on deadline for something else tonight - as seems often to be the case my default is 5+ minutes of rave-era menta(li)sm: the flashing sequencer meltdown of CJ Bolland's "Horsepower". Lots of other good candidates, of course, and I really do appreciate your suggestions.
Five minutes and forty-eight seconds: For the first time I have missed a posting deadline, so I’ve uploaded this file to Freaky Trigger, not Tumblr. I hope it works!
This is "Love Songs On The Radio" by Mojave 3, the post-Slowdive band formed by Rachel Slowdive and, er, Someone Else Slowdive*. It was excitably described as “country” by those top country experts the British music press - which is to say it has lots of slide guitar on it. At the time - 1995 - I thought it was very beautiful, and I’m still fond of it. It appears here not because it does anything amazing with its running time but because I have been trying to work out what the new Beach House record reminds me of and this sleepyheaded prettiness is as close as I’ve managed to get.
*(Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon, apparently - thankyou nuggetsofthefuture! Who needs Wikipedia when you can ho for reblogs instead.)
Five minutes and forty-nine seconds: Long pop records afford artists the luxury of a longer intro, a bit of scene-setting, something to get the atmosphere right. On the other hand you have records like "TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)" by MFSB, which roll into a groove so expertly and quickly that by ten seconds in it feels like they’ve always been playing. It has a climax as surely as it has a beginning but you hardly notice it changing gear. Car comparisons are irresistible - the track accelerates smoothly, it glides, it purrs. Precision in the service of beauty.
Five minutes and fifty seconds: Today’s deadline has snuck up on me rather - and five minutes fifty is a rich seam. I could have written something on “Skank Bloc Bologna” and the arbitrariness of song length when you’re learning on the job. I could have written something about “Like A Prayer” or “Common People” - yer bona fide pop anthems, which make superb use of their almost-six minutes. But I’ve written enough for any man about “Common People” and “Like A Prayer”, like all upcoming Popular entries, is embargoed.
So honestly there was only one choice I could make. And here, for the third or fourth time in my internet career, is "Tickle Tune" by Sex Boots Dread. Thanks as ever to Tim Hopkins for finding this thing and bringing it into my life in the first place.
Five minutes and fifty-one seconds: I know nothing about this track - "Keteke" by Jean Pay Ramazani - other than it’s from an album called Africa Connection Vol.1 - Zaire Choc - and that, like everything else on that album, it’s sublime. I want, like most dilettantes, to explore, understand and differentiate African pop music more. More germane to this project, I think one aspect of that will be understanding the structure of its songs, and that includes their length. Song length is part of the grammar of pop: dealing with anglophone pop, of whatever style, I have an unspoken understanding of what a long or short song is within that style and the kind of use that implies. I don’t have that sense of grammar with African music and it’s as much a barrier as the language and context.
Five minutes and fifty-two seconds: Of the disco tracks that have survived in the popular imagination, Boney M’s “Rasputin” is perhaps the least respectable. It showcases the absurdist, anything-goes side of disco, the side that drew in the novelty-seekers and wedding dancers, the side that - legend has it - repulsed rock buyers grown accustomed to judge pop by standards of seriousness and artistry. Fuck that, say Boney M, let’s live a little, let’s do a record about Grigori Rasputin, the Mad Monk, let’s fill it with all the Russian musical shorthand we can, let’s get people doing drunken cossack dances on church hall lacquer floors!
Because Frank Farian is no fool, “Rasputin” is impeccably constructed - full of bumps and peaks; on parent album Nightflight To Venus it flows out of the spacey title track to produce a visionary collision of the past and the future! Certainly the track goes well beyond “so bad it’s good” - maybe you come for the kitsch and the lyrics and the growling but you stay because Frank Farian has built a song that makes you stay.
Five minutes and fifty-three seconds: Andy Partridge’s voice remains an acquired taste, but I remember when I first heard XTC’s “River Of Orchids” being struck by how adeptly the track built. The song is an ecotopian fantasy - a perhaps post-human London returned to floral wilderness - and the arrangement at first has to push up through the silence like the lyric’s green shoots breaking the concrete. Then the song broadens and deepens and becomes something unstoppable, Partridge coming on through it like a middle-class English shaman. It’s as precious and eccentric as they’ve ever been but it’s XTC’s best late song and a fine climax to the series of nature-loving lyrics threaded through Partridge’s career.
Five minutes and fifty-four seconds: I put "Nursery Rhyme" by Raymond Scott on last night and its Fisher-Price sci-fi sounds lulled my seven-month old - or at least intrigued him enough to stop his tooth-driven shrieking. Since it’s from the Soothing Sounds For Baby, Vol.1 album, I judged it a success - even if as an adult “soothing” is hardly the word I’d use. It repeats, it cycles, it speeds up, it makes - unlike fashionable childrens’ music today - no compromises at all for any ears beyond those intended.
Soothing Sounds came out in 1963, and has a minor reputation now for prefiguring techno, etc. So do a lot of things actually - electronica’s 80s and 90s search for roots deserves its own post/essay/series sometime. But SSFB is interesting in its own right - it’s utilitarian, and that always fascinates me. It strikes me that part of the price we’ve paid for accepting recorded music as art is the partial loss of a tradition of records as tools.
Five minutes and fifty-five seconds: Dylan as songwriter this time - I’m far less familiar with Fairport Convention than I ought to be (though I type this wearing an especially comfortable jumper so perhaps it’s time) but this version of "I’ll Keep It With Mine" jumped out at me when I made the 5’55” shortlist. It’s the way Sandy Denny’s voice cuts through the chorus just as it’s rising, turning what could be an affirmation into a demand. And a risk: she makes no pretence that choosing to agree to her, choosing her, is the secure option. "Some people are very kind" she sings, in an observational tone. She is something else.
Five minutes and fifty-six seconds: The name Eon was, I only realised last year when I found out he’d died, a pun on “Ian” - Ian Loveday, one of a host of one-man bands and bedroom producers who got going after acid house armed with second-hand equipment and a bunch of film samples. As Eon Loveday made slamming, kinda nerdy tracks like "Spice" and “Basket Case”, and it was a bunch of sometime comics fans who introduced me to his stuff, vibing off the Dune snippets as much as the beats I’m sure. Well chosen snippets too - "He who controls the spice controls the Universe!" has a do-you-see factor (hmm hmm what IS this ‘spice’ you speak of eh) but also keeps its melodramatic charge, and actually benefits from being in a context where it, you know, makes sense. RIP.
Five minutes and fifty-seven seconds: Very little posting time tonight so excuse my muddledness. I was involved in a conversation about “vanguard indie” recently, which I liked as a phrase because it captures that feeling of expectation on particular bands - that they’re the groups with the responsibility to push things forward, make the plays that other bands might run with.
There was a time when The Beta Band might have been vanguard indie. Certainly they emerged at a pretty weak time for the music in the UK and there was a sense that they were doing something interesting - mixing up folk and instrumental jams and dance music and pop in fertile ways. When they put out the “To You Alone” single and were in the press citing UK Garage as an influence people got very excited: this kind of cross-genre pollination always looks great on paper. Looking back I don’t know whether the music ever lived up to those hopes - certainly the rap guest spot on "Won" wouldn’t start any revolutions - but it was always likeable.
There was a cuddliness about The Beta Band - sometimes a sinister or stoned cuddliness but there nonetheless - which at the time I might have said held them back but now seems their most important asset. “Won”, wandering around an old Three Dog Night single, shows it well.
Five minutes and fifty-eight seconds: This is "Ballad Of A Thin Man" by Bob Dylan. I wanted to post it partly so I could reprint this great Frank Kogan exegesis from an obscure comments box on one of my other blogs (bold mine, italics his):
"The moral force of the song comes from Dylan’s contention that Mr. Jones could know what’s happening but chooses not to. Jones walks into the room with a pencil in his hand, see’s somebody naked and says "Who is that man?" So something is being opened up for him, is standing before him bare, and Jones fends off understanding and identifying with what he’s seeing, the pencil being a tool he uses to ward off experience. Another song I liked at 16 and 17 was Jefferson Airplane’s "The House At Pooneil Corners": "You say you don’t see and you don’t/You say you won’t know and you won’t." And Jones’s problem isn’t that he tries and fails to understand what’s in front of him, but rather that he tries so hard but just doesn’t understand what he’s gonna say when he gets home. He’s not committed to what’s hitting him between the eyes but rather to fitting it into someone else’s experience back home. And Dylan very much isn’t offering himself as a guide, since this journey to knowledge, to self-knowledge, is one that Jones has to take for himself. Jones hands in his ticket to go watch the geek (he’d never realized that he shouldn’t let other people get his kicks for him), and the geek in effect holds up the mirror, asks Jones “How does it feel to be such a freak?” And Jones says “Impossible!”.”
I still think that “Ballad” works as a kind of epitome of hipster spite but Frank’s reading is richer and truer.
How does the song use its almost six minutes? Sheer force: layer upon layer of awful judging force bearing down on Mr Jones. Those mocking, rolling pianos, halfway between boogie-woogie and Max Martin pop bludgeons, and Dylan’s voice at its most biblical - my god! Something I keep reading about Dylan is that he’s a poor interpreter of his own material, better as a songwriter than a singer. He can be an excellent songwriter but honestly, who could ever have done a better job at singing this?
Five minutes and fifty-nine seconds: I’ve generally thought of Glassworks as Philip Glass' poptastic smash hit sellout album and Wiki backs me up on this - first for Sony, meant (apparently) for the walkman. So by Glassian standards - or by my ignorant impression of same - the short pieces on Glassworks are high-impact and accessible, catching your ear quickly before unfolding a little more. The album came out just after his soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi and you can play the imaginary-film game with "Floe" if you like, its sad crisp bustle making me think of the old view from my office window on winter evenings, a scurry of commuters wrapped up in coats and evening plans, criss-crossing Tooley Street and Bermondsey Street to find buses and trains and a way in from the cold.
Six minutes: So as I understand it what happened was this - there were certain rules of structure associated with songwriting and composition and those played a big part in determining how long a thing was. And then James Brown came along and basically unhooked length from this framework by saying, “OK, let’s build a track around groove rather than around structure”, and the groove could extend from a few seconds to as long as the players could physically sustain it. And this is one of the things hip-hop is built around. So when you’re listening to much early hip-hop what you’re listening to is scale-free music - individual moments in the track don’t necessarily progress from or relate to others, there’s not necessarily a starting point or at any rate the starting point feels arbitrary.
By ‘85 and tracks like the Boogie Boys’ “A Fly Girl” we’ve come out of hip-hop’s super-long-song period - which won’t fit into the structure of this blog, of course - but some of that scale-free feeling sustains. How long does “A Fly Girl” need to be? How many rhymes have we got? I like the pedantic breakdown of what makes or doesn’t make a girl fly enough - fluorescent socks a dealbreaker? Standards are high! But mostly I enjoy this for the rock-hard beat with its occasional keyboard drop-ins and the background sound of a knife sharpener.
Six minutes and one second: One of the reasons I’m doing this is because I - like thousands of other people now - have a vault of music on my hard drive and barely any idea what it sounds like. Narrowing it down to a set length every day at least makes coming to terms with this more manageable.
So this is “Underwater" by Harry Thumann, which sits in a folder called “Legendary Clubs” that’s full of ‘greatest tracks’ from places like the Loft, Paradise Garage, Cinderella’s in Guildford, etc. Thumann was a German guy who made ‘space disco’ and is now dead, sadly. That’s all I know about him and you can guess how I know it. “Space disco” these days seems wide-ranging, mind-expanding but also relaxed and tasteful, certainly on a Lindstrom record you would not expect to find the WTF GUITAR SOLO that slides in at 4 minutes or so on “Underwater”.
No, this is “space disco” in a more forthright sense viz. it’s the theme for an imaginary space film, but at one remove: it’s the disco version of an imaginary theme for an imaginary space film, and imagining that film is like listening to Mego’s amazing disco Star Wars theme and deriving the existence of Star Wars from it.
Six minutes and two seconds: "For Tomorrow" is Blur's most self-conscious record, which is saying a lot. Its calculation was born of necessity: this was a band smart enough to realise they were on the very lip of the dumper, trying to think their way back from it.
So this single - I bought it on cassette, to get this full-length mix - was presented to the press as a statement, kicking off the campaign for Modern Life Is Rubbish. I was slap in Blur’s target market - student, indie listener, Select reader - but it all seemed a bit obvious and unfocused to me. The song too: nobody had used a Langer-Winstanley style brass section in British pop for a decade and it felt forced, way too knowing.
They were on the right side of history, though. What sounded like a cynical gamble in 1993 now sounds like a band groping, in realtime, to invent an audience and pull a genre together. The song itself - it’s OK, it’s catchy enough, nice “Waterloo Sunset” theme, Rowntree bringing the best hook (dum-dum-dum-DUM), but it’s too idealised, too abstract, doesn’t resonate. So the horns come in, a break between rounds, and Albarn steps back, then with a minute to go he’s back in with a sing-song chanted coda about Jim and Susan and it clicks: suddenly he’s singing about real people in a real city, spoiled and directionless and frustrated people, the people who’ll be buying his records and all the records they cause. In two years’ time he’ll be No.1 and it’s Jim and Susan who’ll put him there.
Six minutes and three seconds: For some acts a six minute song is an epic, stretching their grasp of form and structure, an effort to be saved for when there’s a Major Statement to be made. In the context of Tim Buckley's early career, "Buzzin’ Fly" is a tight, economical track, one of the shorter ones on Happy Sad and blessed with one of the man’s catchier choruses. Buckley used his long songs to capture rangy, wandering emotional states, pushing out into abstraction, but that’s somewhat tempered here: there’s a woman on his mind, decisions to be made, maybe even today.
Six minutes and four seconds: There’s been a minor surge of interest in 1980s 12” mixes in recent years, thanks to some canny repackaging on the part of labels but also thanks to a collective remembrance of what an odd thing they were. Almost their own genre in fact, as whatever the source material the forced extension of it tended to the similar: a bunch of tricks and novelties lifted from dub and disco and applied to the works of, say, Nik Kershaw.
This is the 12” of "Our Lips Are Sealed" by Fun Boy Three, the playful post-Specials band put together by Lynval Golding, Terry Hall and Neville Staples. I keep meaning to explore FBT a little more as their singles are so glorious - “Tunnel Of Love”, “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum”, the extremely strange “The Telephone Always Rings”, and the stuff they did with Bananarama. Here they take the track Hall had written with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin and slap on four extra minutes which revel in their own irrelevance, an honest-to-goodness new pop take on dub’s anything-goes tricknology, complete with marvellously doomy toasting by Staples. It shows the 12” at its best - an indulgence, a treat, a free gift.
Six minutes and five seconds: This blog project - which, like all blog projects, is as likely to fail as finish - is based on a very simple idea. I wanted to take advantage of Tumblr’s song-a-day posting ability, and so I had the idea of starting the year with a track 365 seconds long, and posting a song one second shorter each day. Nourishing longer tracks to get us through the winter; a golden spring and early summer of three-minute (or thereabouts) pop greats, and then as 2010 ages we get to hear the song form break down and we’re plunged into a primordial pop soup of demos, skits, jingles, and grunts.
It should be fun! I’ll need help, of course, but more about that as and when I do. I’ll also add a comments facility before too long so you can make your own suggestions. The focus of this won’t be on the writing - I’m too busy - but when I have something to say about a song, I’ll say it.
I’m starting blog and year with Model 500’s “Night Drive (Time, Space, Transmat)”. This is because a new year is a time to start thinking about flying cars, teleports and rocket packs. The song was written for Juan Atkins’ previous outfit Cybotron, but they split up and it came out under the Model 500 name. Like a lot of mid-length techno tracks it doesn’t really build so much as restate its premise but its balance of moodiness and geekiness is highly effective nonetheless.