Four minutes and eighteen seconds: I have very few film score albums - even when my favourite acts do soundtrack work I tend to end up listening to it a little grudgingly. There’s no particular reason for this beyond cinematic philistinism. I also have very little knowledge of classical music, of whatever period. And I have only ever seen one Peter Greenaway film, and didn’t enjoy it very much.
So the context for the Michael Nyman Band’s “An Eye For Optical Theory” - an elaboration on a baroque round by William Croft, originally from the soundtrack of Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract though this arrangement is later and faster - completely eluded me. But I loved the music immediately I heard it, sometime in 1995, so I had to build my own frame for it as a kind of string-driven math pop. What appealed to me then and now is its berserk precision, the different bits of the tune overlapping like layers of clockwork but also with a sense that the whole contraption is somewhat out of control, careening rapidly and giddily towards a collapse just out of shot.
Four minutes and nineteen seconds: First of all, apologies for the wholly unintended break from blogging - I got completely overtaken by other stuff and hit pause on most of my projects for a few days. The truth is, also, that this is getting really hard - we’re now at the stage where my library has about ten tracks I’d like to put up for every length, so choices are getting very arbitrary indeed. Time to be ruthless!
Anyhow, here’s Dusty Springfield, singing a Tennant/Lowe composition, "In Private". It was a single, though didn’t do very well, and comes from the soundtrack to the film Scandal, about the 1963 Profumo scandal in British politics. The personal is often political in songwriting, but Neil Tennant is interesting in that he’s occasionally dug into the erotics of politics - writing songs, like this one, about the literal affairs of the mighty. The split between private professions of love and public denials gives Springfield some rich, painful material to work with, playing the other woman: of course this doesn’t have to be a political situation (or a straight one), there’s a universality of hurt here and I wish this had been a bigger hit.
Four minutes and twenty seconds: "I used to say dumb things / I guess I still do" - I like to give the impression that I spent 1994 listening to Disco Inferno and jungle and dance-pop but the truth is I also listened to the Go-Betweens, every single day. I listened to the Go-Betweens while I got back together with my girlfriend, I listened to them when we broke up again, I listened to them walking in Oxford in the Spring and Edinburgh in the Winter. I called them “the Smiths for grown-ups” even though they sounded not much like the Smiths and I acted not much like a grown-up. I wrote lyrics that were poor attempts at Robert Forster lyrics and tore them up at once. I crowbarred their songs into my situations, forced “Bachelor Kisses” and “Twin Layers Of Lightning” to be about people I knew and risked burning those songs out forever. At the time they weren’t far off a lot of the other stuff I liked, but now that tide’s come in and they’re an island to themselves in my collection. I’m almost scared to play them. On "Apology Accepted", the last track on the brilliant Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express, Grant McLennan sings deliberately raw and thick, stumbling through a song about trying to be trusted and trust again. Do I still love the Go-Betweens? "Such a simple question / I pretended I was sleeping."
Four minutes and twenty-one seconds: Mouse on Mars! Rarely has a band’s name been as exquisitely evocative of their sound! The airless backdrop of another world, and yet from it come tiny skritchings and skitterings, weaving micropatterns of music out of crumbs and straw. The super-tactile "Saturday Night Worldcup Fieber" is typical (perhaps more gorgeous than usual though): pop music made by Borrowers, a football soundtrack made up of the tiniest gestures, a flea circus with drawing pins for goalposts. Nanotech pop, so friendly but so strange.
Four minutes and twenty-two seconds: 4’22” is, taken historically, still above average for a pop song, but for a disco record it’s pretty compressed. "Touch And Go" by Ecstasy, Passion And Pain gets its point across without any loss of power, though. It’s soaked through from start to end with flamboyance, defiance and emotion - vocalist Barbara Roy laying into her faithless lover without let-up. Even on the breakdown near the end, where the man might expect some minor respite, there’s no escape: Roy delivering a damning verdict on his character in the song’s most intense moment.
Four minutes and twenty-three seconds: One of the few things I am sure of in pop is that 90s Eurobeat will have its moment of fashionable revival, along the lines of 80s Italo Disco. Most actual fans of 80s Italo I have mentioned this to have reacted with a degree of horror, I ought to say, but I’m convinced of it. It may even be happening RIGHT NOW. A track that took over my brain something fierce a couple of years ago was Ex-Otago’s cover of Corona’s “Rhythm Of The Night” - but no matter how I liked Ex-Otago’s take this original wins out. They improved its structure but couldn’t quite grab its strange combination of euphoria and fleeting melancholy.
Four minutes and twenty-four seconds: My MP3 doesn’t credit it as such but I’m pretty sure this is the Motiv8 Radio Edit of "Jellyhead" by Crush - those shameless handbag-house keyboard riffs are very them. Motiv8 were a remix team some or all of whom ended up in Xenomania, and “Jellyhead” from 1996 is very much a stepping stone towards self-conscious 00s pop: full-on clubland influences, knowingness, classicist nods back to girl-group fierceness… it flopped - ‘96-‘97 were sour times for pop unless your adopted surname was “Spice” - and became a cult favourite. You get the feeling if the Popjustice Forums did a Top 100 of the 90s it would get major backing.
Have I made it sound terrible? Sorry! It’s good! I could listen to this kind of clean, cheap dancepop production all day - Motiv8 (if it IS them) should’ve been the 90s Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics though.
Four minutes and twenty five seconds: I went through the UK civil service fast track exam process twice. There’s an exam, and an interview, and then a two-day interview, and then you have to wrestle one of our lizard overlords or something, I’m not sure as I never got to the fourth part. The first time I reached the two-day interview and at one point they asked me about the House of Lords, and I said oh, a portion of it should be chosen by lot, like in Ancient Greece. Bad Tom! Civil servants love the House of Lords because a lot of them end up there. I probably said some other crap stuff too. Then two years later I got to the two-day interview again, but I had another job offer and I cancelled.
Anyway ALL THROUGH that initial two-day interview this song, "Government Administrator" by Eggs, was playing in my head. I was talking to my bouncy and enthusiastic fellow would-be civil servants and in my head Mr Eggs was going "WALK LIKE I WALK THINK LIKE I THINK YOU’RE CATCHING ON FAST LET ME BUY YOU A DRINK". Yeah, Mr Eggs! Stick it to the man! In the job I did take I ended up drinking with my co-workers anyway and sometimes WEARING A SUIT and stuff too so who is the sell-out now, it is me.
But I love this record, it is pretty much the song which completely sums up early 90s indie rock for me in all its scuzzball naive hopefulness. I hear it and I think of John Peel, and of Peter Bagge comics, and of reading about the Internet and wondering what it was like, and of reading about K Records and Teen Beat and wondering what those were like, and of not wanting a job but not wanting to not have one and the general wide-open confusion of being 20. All that just in his opening dorky-ironic “Oh KAAY” really.
I got a job, not for the Government, I never really got into K Records stuff. The internet turned out alright though.
Four minutes and twenty-six seconds: "I had a dream of a backlot / I saw my life in a longshot". New wave gawkiness, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Trevor Horn discovering his production style, a song that ends with a cut, a man coming to terms with change, a hymn to the studios where Top Of The Pops used to be filmed, the birth pangs of the New Pop. It’s Buggles, with "Elstree".
Four minutes and twenty-seven seconds: "Laundromat", by Nivea, is a bit of R’n’Bubblegum so playful in its sweetness, so oversaturated with sugar that you almost don’t realise it’s a kiss-off track: even then it’s letting the guy down as gently and prettily as it can. Pop beamed in from a world where pain is impossible - your archetypal ‘nice place to visit’ I’d say.
Four minutes and twenty-eight seconds: Inasmuch as I could name The Enemy when I was 14 or 15, it was Fleetwood Mac. Tango In The Night was everywhere (wannabewithyoueverywhere): it crossed over from radios to shops to my school, which didn’t usually listen to anything later than the mid-70s but which made an exception for the Mac’s supersaturated slickness. The newspapers loved them; Q magazine, which someone got at school, loved them even more. My own tastes were jumping like a rat in a box - taping pop off the radio, grabbing every Bowie tape I could off friends, borrowing older boys’ classic rock compilations, headphone sessions to Pink Floyd then a sudden turn when I heard The Smiths. But through all of it the constant distaste for Fleetwood Mac and their dead-eyed implacable emptiness.
And now I really like them: never, ever trust me, please. Here’s "Gypsy", from 1982, Stevie Nicks with a nod back to the sad sunshine glide of imperial-phase Fleetwood Mac.
Four minutes and twenty-nine seconds: One of the things sampling has done to pop music is allow songs to be retconned, have their meaning and reception flipped long long after they were created - not just the original sample-source songs but (perhaps even more so) tracks which used a sample that was later used by a bigger hit. So when you listen to "Funky (12")" by the Ultramagnetic MCs now, it’s very difficult not to frame it in terms of its difference to “California Love”, which uses the same Joe Cocker piano sample as its base. The two tracks - both terrific - are a good lesson in the artistry of sampling in 80s and 90s hip-hop: how the same source could be used to build entirely different moods. The Dre and 2pac tune uses the piano as a roll, a bottomless and ever-refreshing well of bountiful confidence. The Ultramagnetics track takes it as a judder, something more off-kilter that refuses ever quite to resolve and pulls the MCs into spatchcocked, pause-filled flows (which were the kind of things the UMCs did anyway).
Four minutes and thirty seconds: R&B, like much of pop before it, relies on a system of matching the best songs and songwriters with the best performers and the best producer/arrangers (rather than, say, expecting people to be good at them all, or even two out of three). This is not necessarily the best way of creating magnificent pop music - there is no best way - but it’s certainly created a lot. Of course it can misfire, and it’s particularly galling when an inferior version of a song ends up getting the commercial rewards.
The internet isn’t always so great at redressing the financial injustice in these situations (because most people going mad for ‘the original’ won’t have paid for either version). But it can give pyrrhic credit where due. After the Pussycat Dolls hit with "Don’t Cha" it didn’t take long before MP3s of Tori Alamaze's first recording of it where flying around. The quality of this file isn't great, and the record sounds cheaper - in a more intriguing way - than the Dolls' hit, but Alamaze's performance cuts through. The PCDs - who would go on to make much better records - strut and pout but stay fantasy figures, taking the path of least resistance through the record. Alamaze is different - against this thinner, more mechanical backing she sounds cold-blooded and cruel, stating her superiority as a fact not a promise. Her heat is in the song - the Dolls need visuals - but it's a fatal heat, radioactive. Ironically, it's testament to the quality of her take on “Don't Cha” that she was able to make this song - which we know as an absolute lowest-common-denominator banker of a record - somehow too forbidding and clammy to be a hit.
Four minutes and thirty-one seconds: You knew there’d be a New Order song eventually, right? Here’s how I tried to explain New Order when I reviewed the reissues for Pitchfork.
"Following the suicide of Ian Curtis and subsequent retirement of the Joy Division moniker, New Order began as a band without a frontman; the trick of them is that they stayed that way, even after Sumner had become the regular vocalist. Sumner’s often flat, affectless voice might be a familiar point of contact with New Order but it’s rarely their focus. Their notoriously careless lyrics— Sumner has generally made great play of how last-minute they are— are a further sign of the group’s discomfort with the way rock music tends to be lensed through its singer. So it’s no surprise the 12" format was so attractive for New Order— more lovely space for the vocals to wander out of entirely.
So if Sumner isn’t a frontman, what is he? “World in Motion” suggests an answer. It’s a song that uses soccer as a metaphor for raving and resistance— “Beat the man! Take him on!”— so why not use the sport as a metaphor for what the band who made it do? In those terms, Sumner isn’t a frontman, he’s a target man: The striker whose job isn’t just to score, it’s to hold the ball so his teammates can move forward and into play. New Order’s secret is their fluidity, their easy sharing of the spotlight. At any time in any song, any one of them might provide the hook— the bright drama of Gillian Gilbert’s keyboards, the giddy sequencing of Stephen Morris’ percussion, Peter Hook’s famously liquid basslines, or indeed Sumner’s own guitar lines, as gorgeously full and melodic as his vocals are blank.”
This isn’t “World In Motion” - my rule here is that I’m not allowed to feature tracks I’ll be covering in my other big web project. It’s “Run”, from the glorious Technique album, one of their most straightforward songs in fact. "Well, you don’t get a tan like this for nothing.": actually Sumner’s singing is the focus here, or at least it is until one of those luscious bursts of guitar comes in, and after that he’s happy to step back and let Peter Hook wander generously all over the song. Beautiful stuff, might be my favourite thing by them.