Four minutes and thirty-two seconds: I’m not sure that British dance music has ever got as delicate as Y Tribe’s “Enough Is Enough” - a 2-step garage track built around a harpsichord synth motif and a singer’s train of thought about a suitor. I’m tired of love. And scared of no love. She sounds totally caught up in those thoughts, like their recording is a lucky accident, and the harpsichord and bass patterns are simply a ball of silver twine she’s playing cat’s cradle with while she wonders what to do.
Four minutes and thirty-three seconds: This is a recording of John Cage’s composition 4’33”, arranged for piano. The performer was Mark Sinker, the audience included myself and Eli Sessions, who also produced this recording. Mark also arranged the piece from memory, with the result that 4’33” is performed as a single movement rather than as 3 separate ones, as indicated in Cage’s original score.
The performance took place at about 8PM, on Monday 12th April 2010, at Mark’s flat in Hackney (chosen because it’s where a piano is). It was a fine Spring day, one of the best of the year so far in London: after the recital we headed to a pub. Birds were singing, though I don’t think you can hear any on the MP3: you can hear traffic passing and people walking through Clapton Square. In the fourth minute of the piece a conversation starts outside Mark’s window (which was open) and the rest of the performance is relatively full of incident.
The track is best listened to at high volume. Or possibly at very low volume.
4’33” is not designed for recording. The nature of the piece is such that if you play it back the recorded version will inevitably find itself overlaid by noise that occurs when you play it. Or rather, the recorded version will inevitably interfere with the noise that occurs when you play it. It would be possible - and fun in a way - to make an Alvin Lucier style thick recording of 4’33” by recording the recording over and over again, letting background noise accrete like dust until the track is caked with it. (Someone may already have done this.)
But in general, a recording of this piece is an unnecessary novelty, so my apologies for forcing it on you. I have seen a few ‘versions’ of 4’33” - there’s one on the 2-for-1 CD reissue of the first Magnetic Fields albums, as a bonus track between the two records. But these are simply blank stretches of CD, actual silence which in some ways mistreats the piece as badly as recording it does. Genuine live versions of it are quite unusual, though. Back in the early 00s I read a piece suggesting that there were several versions of 4’33” available on Napster: none of them were actually four minutes and thirty-three seconds long.
Why did Cage choose that particular length? I don’t know. (EDIT: This interesting page about the piece suggests he didn’t - the duration is arbitrary, and he wouldn’t have approved of the fast-and-loose way we’ve arranged the work or treated it either. Sorry JC!) But I do know that different durations would make for very different experiences. We’re used to shorter silences - we use 1 and 2 minute ones to mark tragedies or remembrance. These are solemn occasions: background noise is an irrelevance or an annoying and insulting distraction. I remember two 3-minute silences, for Princess Diana (ridiculous and poorly kept) and after 9/11 (chilling, but even then there was a sense of people twitching expectantly before the end).
4’33” is obviously longer than any of those - and of course there’s no specific instruction on the audience to be silent, or any more silent than they would be at any recital. Assuming you do keep quiet while the piece is being played, those 273 seconds may fall intriguingly on the cusp of your ability to guess duration - the ending of the piece snuck up on me shortly after I’d stopped anticipating it. It’s also in the nature of the thing that the sonic content of the piece remains unresolved - whatever is happening when the lid comes down is framed and really before you know it time and sound are moving on again, one second at a time. What happened after the end of this track? What happens after the end of any?
Thanks to Mark and Eli for making this entry possible. What would your 4’33” track have been?
Four minutes and thirty-four seconds: I remember following "Lay All Your Love On Me" as it crawled up the charts in the Summer of 1981, willing it to go higher. I was eight, it was my favourite song for a while, one of the first I can remember.
Why did I like it? Unrecoverable. I only know why I like it now, for the same reason I love almost all ABBA songs: it catches the awkward grown-up vulnerability of our square world. Everything about the song is stressed - its narrator, chafing at herself over a possible liason; its uptight, nervous not-quite disco groove; its suspended promise of release in the bridge; its pedantic, jabby rhythm guitar licks, dinka-dinka-dink-DINKdinkdinkdink. The song was released only on 12”, which suggests maybe the band thought it was a record for the dancefloor, but it sounds like a record for standing at the bar, fidgeting and sipping your drink too fast.
I am off on holiday for a mighty ten days - It Took Seconds (which as is probably apparent may spill into 2011 as a project, but we’ll see if I can catch up over the summer) will be back with 4’34” on the 25th or 26th April.
Thanks, as ever, for reading, following, and suggesting tracks. It makes this far easier and more enjoyable.
Four minutes and thirty-five seconds: Of all the manufactured pop icons I find Kylie Minogue the hardest to like. No, not to like, who couldn’t like her, she seems a lovely person, hardest to enjoy. Even her iconic hits - yes, even THAT one - don’t do a lot for me. And if I had to pick only one Kylie song and leave the rest to hang, it would very probably be this ridiculous, cynical, glorious thing, this bit of overcooked Village People tinsel, "Your Disco Needs You". It was written by Robbie Williams’ chief songwriting dude Guy Chambers, and you can totally hear it as a Robbie song, but Kylie sounds like she’s having more fun with it, maybe even like she believes it for a few minutes.
I don’t feel it rewards too much thought to be honest with you. Hooks are never a problem with her: the reason I don’t go for Kylie is because her voice is so thin, and the reason I like this is because here she’s mostly drowned out by a line of marching beefcake shouting “DISCO! DISCO! DIS-DIS-DISCO!”. That’s all.
Four minutes and thirty-six seconds: Even when I didn’t like The Rolling Stones, I liked “We Love You” - the one-off single from their psych period, recorded complete with being-dragged-to-jail noises as a riposte to the establishment they felt were hounding them. Never has forgiveness sounded so malicious: Jagger claims the high moral ground then uses it to give everyone the finger (this is directly where Lydon got “we mean it, maan” I’d guess). Meanwhile, the rest of the band invent baggy. OK, it’s not their greatest claim to fame but credit where it’s due.
(Aarg, wrong tumblr - this needs a reblog to go to ittookseconds - sorry!)
What would your 4’36” track be?
I will do the reblog, for I do so dearly love this song. People hate on the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic period, particularly on the Satanic Majesties album, but I’ve always loved all the stuff they did during that era, this song and “Child Of The Moon” in particular.
P.S. I’m still fuzzy on what “baggy” is. I think the fact that I own the first Stone Roses album means that I like it, whatever it is. But still.
I was semi-joking! But most Manchester bands in 1990 would have murdered for the loose shuffle-beat Charlie Watts gets here. Thanks for the reblog!
Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds: We’re now moving into the area of uncomplicatedly fine pop songs, of which there’s sometimes not a lot to say. Also, I think unless I get "Touchy!" by A-Ha up in the next few minutes my MP3 posting clock will roll over into another 24-hour period. It’s terribly of its time - particularly the bounce and thin-ness in the sound - but I like it a lot. The band were always excellent craftsmen, and later they got recognition for that, deservedly so, but by then some of the thrust had gone out of it.
Four minutes and thirty-eight seconds: A last minute substitution since the track I was originally going with - Joker’s “Psychedelic Runway” - tips the 10 MB mark. This is The Bee Gees’ “Nights On Broadway”, from 1975, when disco was just beginning to bleed into their grandiose pop - apparently it’s their first single to use Barry Gibb’s falsetto. There’s something marvellously ripe about it, and I love the way that, the Bee Gees being the Bee Gees, they drop in a gorgeous slip of melody 2/3 of the way through that has precious little else to do with the song.
Four minutes and thirty-nine seconds: Green Velvet's "The Red Light" anticipates electroclash by a few years - though since the ingredients of electroclash were public domain anyway it’s not too surprising people had started playing with them in the 90s. The “Red Light” cocktail includes The Normal, Grace Jones, Soft Cell all on a base of the hard, acrid house music Curtis Jones/Green Velvet specialised in. Like many GV tracks it is very funny as well as very banging: fans of his mordantly amoral approach to house may raise an eyebrow on learning he’s now born-again and making Christian techno, though “Flash” and “La La Land” are thankfully still on his Myspace.
Four minutes and forty seconds: I found this track while scouting for South Africa in the Pop World Cup: I downloaded it on sight because of the artist name. It turned out to come from Côte d’Ivoire so I couldn’t use it. A shame as it’s the best thing I turned up. Turns out it’s an example of Coupé-Décalé, which because I’d not been paying attention I hadn’t heard of - a high-tempo, electro-based style of mostly Ivoirian dance music: “featuring African samples, deep bass, and repetitive, minimalist arrangements” according to Wikipedia. Brilliant! So here’s Alpha Jet DJ with "Premier".
Four minutes and forty-one seconds: Malcolm McLaren spent the entire 80s going “HEY! Let’s put THIS THING with THAT THING”. That was his thing, as a ‘svengali’ I guess, or as a fashion guy, or a guy who’d hung out with fashion people, or just as a businessman. It usually worked really well. Square dancing and hip-hop! Waltzes and vogueing! Opera and, I dunno what else is on “Fans” really - opera and MOR synthpop! Was he a cynic? I don’t know. On "Double Dutch" - afropop and skipping! - he sounds (for him) crazily enthused, grabbing you by the lapels to tell you about this skipping competition stuff. "To win the Double Dutch you must STAY JUMPING."
This is - as I suspected anyway and learned for sure last time I posted it - a note-for-note steal from an old single: the Boyoyo Boys’ “Puleng”, which the Postpunk Tumblr called “more heard of than heard”. Mclaren is a good businessman but not a good businessman, since the Boyoyos had to sue him to see any money from it. I don’t know if the Boyoyo Boys have those glorious climactic string harmonies, and of course they don’t have the jump-rope noises, or the girl admitting to the radio station how she stays up so late, or the Mclaren narrative. So I’d probably still prefer “Double Dutch”. But the bottomless joy of it is the Boyoyo Boys’ and it’s annoying that one of my favourite singles ever rests on such shadiness.
Four minutes and forty-two seconds: "Big Pimpin" needs very little introduction, I guess what stood out for me this particular listen wasn’t Jay-Z and UGK's verses but the little shifts and details Timbaland employs to stop the flute sample feeling stale over four-and-a-half minutes: a synth here, a backing vocal counterpoint there.
Four minutes and forty-three seconds: Pixies' Trompe Le Monde was my favourite record in the world for a while. ‘Favourite’ doesn’t really cover it: in the moment there would be other records I liked better, but Trompe was my best-loved record, it could raise my mood and comfort me, it was the recorded equivalent of a well loved stuffed toy.
This might seem odd because it’s not for the most part a very emotional record and certainly not one designed to console: it’s glittering and clever and nerdishly enthusiastic, in places it hums with calculated savagery, its subjects are often obtuse and compressed. Gil Norton’s production is spaceship-shiny - after “punk broke” later in 1991 you would hear people lamenting the fact that the Pixies weren’t getting their dues, but there was a reason they weren’t and that reason is that they were making records like Trompe Le Monde. Beautiful records, thick with delights, but absolutely wedded to a vision of gleaming sci-fi rock that was tricksy and nasty and loud sometimes but never messy, or never messy in any way that was about people. I loved that but the weather was against it for a while.
The most emotional song (and the prettiest) on TLM is "Motorway To Roswell", about the - then just creeping into mainstream consciousness - alien corpse supposedly recovered from a UFO crash site. The song is from the alien’s point of view - trying to get wherever it’s going, forced into a landing on Earth. "He ended up in army crates" spits Black Francis with genuine disgust. The sentiment is in a punky neighbourhood - sometimes something remarkable and amazing happens or almost happens and we fuck it up through greed and stupidity - and there’s an anger and sadness in the song which there almost never is in Pixies’ music, the emotional register of most of their early stuff is a kind of nihilist glee. Maybe he could only ever really get his emo on for space.
But there’s also a great yearning in the record - not just of the alien for welcome, or of the singer for the story to turn out some different way, but a deeper longing for this to be real: it’s there too in the other great Pixies alien epic, “The Happening” (also Area 51 related but this time the Mothership lands in Vegas and Francis is in the traffic jam of stargazers welcoming it down). But “Motorway” is where it’s best realised, this childlike will to believe, the feeling that if you could just wish hard enough the world might shift into the form you know it should be in. Two years later The X-Files tapped the same mythology and I guess some of the feeling and hit big with it.
Four minutes and forty-four seconds: I remember my Dad borrowing Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds from the library - one of the few occasions I noticed him taking any interest in pop music. I was six or seven, and I found the record captivating - Richard Burton’s opening voiceover (“…slowly and surely they drew their plans against us”), the eerie synth motifs, and particularly the “OOLAA” cry of the Martian war machines. Or at least that was my memory of it - at University I tried to listen to the thing again and couldn’t reach the end: I’d tuned out the meandering songs, the bad dialogue, the garbled plot, just how plain boring it was.
A decade on from that deflating experience I visited a record shop on the way home from the pub and next morning discovered I owned the Highlights From War Of The Worlds album, a collection of “radio edits” of the original record cut down to a single LP’s length. A bad song, it turns out, is still a bad song when edited, but the disc includes this mix of "Horsell Common And The Heat Ray", a mix which helpfully includes everything memorable, endearing and awesome about the whole project (apart from Richard Burton). “OOLAA”! The ee-ow ee-ow ee-ow synth line that signifies a DEAD BRITAIN under the Martian heel! And heaps and heaps of gloriously absurd prog-glam riffola which I guess represents the War Machines blasting Victorian Surrey to pieces. It is the entire ridiculous folly - and the entire unfashionable end of the late 1970s - condensed into almost five wonderful minutes.
Four minutes and forty-five seconds: The odd closing track from the first album by Betty Boo, "Leave Me Alone" is four minutes forty-five of trebly pop paranoia, the chorus a repeated cry of “Get away from get away from get away from me”. In the second half the vocals go operatic.
Betty Boo was one of the first ‘credible pop stars’ I can remember - in 1990 she occupied a similar position to Annie (though she had more hits than Annie!) or the Sugababes, somebody making completely bubblegum dancepop but it was totally dandy for indie kids to like her in a way that it wasn’t quite OK to like Kylie - though that changed, and I think Betty Boo was part of the reason. I dunno, proof if yet MORE proof were needed that the ‘turn to pop’ is an ever-recurring theme and not something unique to the last decade or so.
Four minutes and forty-six seconds: I’ve been thinking a lot about the early 90s this week, prompted mostly by the conversation around Jude Rogers’ recent Guardian piece. That period, particularly 1992-3, is interesting to me because it’s the moment in my active listening lifetime when politics, anger, and social commentary most seemed like not even an important part of pop music but a normal part of it, something to be expected. Huggy Bear, “Youth Against Fascism”, Chumbawamba, “Call It What You Want”, Rage Against The Machine, Body Count, Riot Grrrl - I wasn’t an especially politicised student but this stuff was just part of the music experience of the time, there as a background even if what you listened to was Suede and the Boo Radleys.
One of the grand causes of the era, in the UK anyway, was the Criminal Justice Bill. This was, from memory, one of the enormous catch-all bills the Home Office likes to put through occasionally as a grab-bag sliding in contentious provisions under cover of a bunch of reforms broadly accepted as necessary*. The most controversial bits was a crackdown on “illegal raves” - outdoor music events - which was seen as an attempt to destroy the travelling party and rave scene, an enormously vibrant bit of British pop culture at the time. The CJB eventually passed into law as the Criminal Justice Act and if that was its aim it was largely successful. The era of the massive outdoor parties ended and that of the ‘superclub’ dawned.
The fight against the CJB brought the political elements of the loose coalition known as ‘dance music’ to the fore, and singles like "Kingdom" by Ultramarine were talked up as a modern kind of protest song. In fact “Kingdom” is an ancient kind of protest song - the words Robert Wyatt sings are medieval, from a ballad composed in the years of misery and ferment following the Black Death. Wyatt’s vocals are up to his usual standard: an oak-grained stoic melancholy to set against Ultramarine’s gentle, folk-inflected techno and the result is awkward but potent, a record that puts down ambitiously deep roots.
*the word at University was that the CJB also legalised heterosexual anal sex in Britain - to this day I have no idea if this is true!
Four minutes and forty seven seconds: There are days when I think people go on about the whole New Pop thing a tiny bit too much - lots of stuff happened in the 80s and the New Pop has certainly benefited from having some smart writers around it. Then there are days when I play "Duel" by Propaganda and the very question seems absurd. The song - their catchiest, probably - is a balance of force and immediacy and mystery (played on, at the time, extremely expensive Fairlight synthesisers). I heard it on the radio in 1985 and it hung around my head for years before I found out who it was.
Lots of new followers by the way - no idea why but hello to all of you!