Four minutes and seventeen seconds: "Fire Bomb" is my favourite thing on Rihanna's last album and grew on me to become one of my favourite songs of last year: an unabashedly epic and sentimental R'n'B power ballad about suicide bombing your former lover. I enjoy so much about it - its central imagery ("The lovers need to clear the road" - what a great line!), bizarro lyrical flourishes like “microwaved in a metal tragedy”, Rihanna’s nothing-to-lose tenderness on “baby we were brilliant”, the sheer enormous GOTHINESS of it. I love how unrespectable it is - of course she knew that people would be scouring her album for songs that might be about Chris Brown but I sincerely doubt any of those rubberneckers were expecting something like this.
But most of all I love the guitars. There are guitars all over Rated R, mostly used in the way they are on “Fire Bomb”: deliberately ugly, vulgar, over-the-top, crass signifiers of “rock” you might say but also there to suggest sheer mess. I don’t think there’s any intention of actually ‘rocking’ - the motion in the songs comes from their choreographed R’n’B hardness. The rock elements are purely textural, scar tissue and scabs on a wounded, angry record.
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.
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!
Four minutes and forty-eight seconds: Yes this is from a leak of Ikonika’s new album which you should go and buy - there’s a little robot at the start of the track telling you the name of it. Like lots of this dubstep-not-dubstep "They Are All Losing The War" reminds me of IDM from waybackwhen but it’s more fun than IDM generally was: more melodic, richer, more urgent too, less stoned, more relevant, whatever I mean by that. I don’t feel like I’m listening to anything other than a 2010 record, I guess.
Four minutes and forty-nine seconds: This is "Kennedy" by The Wedding Present, which is not normally 4’49” but here it’s being played as part of the John Peel Festive Fifty in 1989. I listened at the time and kept this show, on tape, for many years. Peel introduces the song, and then counts down the top ten in the Fifty after it (you are left in suspense as to the #1, though you can always look it up).
Several of the records named were bona fide hits - “Kennedy” included - which surprises me a little now. Not that they didn’t deserve to be, but I thought Peel’s audience had split from mainstream indie a little later than it obviously did. But no, the coalition still held. With hindsight the Stone Roses - represented twice in the top 10 though Peel was no fan - were a break point but then and there they seemed like a breakthrough.
For me at the time, this Festive Fifty was thrilling validation of the music I had been listening to that summer: I bought “Kennedy” on cassingle in Winchester WH Smiths, four tracks for 49p in an unwieldy flip-top box. It’s one of the Wedding Present’s most abstract singles - vaguely about JFK but the sense of it never gets in the way of the sound of it: listening to its soupy, crude layers of jangle upon jangle I fancied I could hear all sorts of strange overtones, and perhaps I could. In a funny way “Kennedy” was my introduction to the avant garde. But this trebly radio-transfer MP3 is a good way of hearing the record, to be honest.
Four minutes and fifty-one seconds: I’m really not back in any kind of music-writing headspace so I can’t think of anything much to say about "Heartbeat" by Taana Gardner except that it’s early 80s NYC disco, and that critics like Frank Kogan and Chuck Eddy and Michaelangelo Matos revere this record, and that they’re not wrong to, so if you’ve ever trusted any of them and you don’t know it, play it. If you think they’re all completely wrong-headed, play it anyway.
Four minutes and fifty two seconds: My poptimist time travel dream would, I think, be to go back to the late 70s and experience the dazzling heyday of the Chic Organisation as a fan at the time. If I could somehow take a rolling ILM thread back with me to track the superlatives so much the better. Not just for the string of impeccable records they made under their own name, but their work for Diana Ross, their offcuts and curios like the Sheila and B Devotion stuff and of course at the gleaming crystal centre their series of singles for Sister Sledge, of which "Lost In Music" is the greatest.
The record splits broadly into two parts - the song itself, which like a lot of Chic songs is a somewhat ambiguous paean to dancing, to music as obsession and addiction. "Have you ever seen some people lose everything?" Joni Sledge asks conversationally, "First to go is their minds". Form follows content as the second half of the song is Rodgers and Edwards obsessively tweaking their sterling silver chorus, filling out the drums here, twisting the strings there, making it build and build. Since a Chic string arrangement is like an elegant mathematical proof of joy anyway the effect is quite something.
(Apologies to yesterday’s benefactor, Mr Knabb not Knapp!)
Four minutes and fifty-three seconds: Almost thirty years from its release, “The Jezebel Spirit” still stands up as an example of how to build a track around a sample. The TV exorcist David Byrne and Brian Eno lucked onto is a potent enough sound-source in its own right but it’s the way the two musicians reconstruct and soundtrack his narrative that makes the song special. The panicky thumb pianos, the surges of afropop guitar, the runner’s rhythm that lets the song warm up for a minute or so before the exorcism starts - in combination with the exorcist’s own well-practised cadences (and his horrid cackle) it makes for a chilling track. It’s only the fact that it fades before it reaches five minutes that can feel disappointing. In the context of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts “The Jezebel Spirit” when the fever of media babble that’s built over the course of side one breaks, and the stage is set for the quieter, but no less spirit-ridden, second half.
(I put this on my main blog not ITS - sorry for these continual format screw-ups - and thanks to ‘jacobsknabb’ for some very interesting comments w/his reblog, which I urge you to go look at!)
Four minutes and fifty-four seconds: From my “Decade in Pop” piece for Pitchfork:
"But the 1999 pop record that pointed most clearly at the future was a comeback single for an ex New Kid on the Block, helped out by two career-twilight producers. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ work on Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You” mixed circus music and New Jack Swing over thickets of clicking and popping beats. It sounded notably fresh, and very clearly inspired by the work hip-hop producer Timbaland had been doing with acts like Missy Elliott.”
It also sounds like the stuff JC Chasez would do (to more acclaim and less sales) a few years later. I wish I could remember who it was pointed me towards this single: I owe them a beer or two. Not that I even think this is anything that spectacular - it’s good, musically still as thickly enticing as it used to be, but Jordan K himself is kind of watery and creepy on top and no amount of production tweaking can sort that out. But it was an important record for me - the kind of approach I thought was worth talking about and championing.
What would your 4’54” track be?
(Not for once my fault that this didn’t work - Tumblr crashed mid upload and when I refreshed the “answers enabled” was no more…)
Four minutes and fifty-five seconds: In my Guardian column about critics not picking up on ‘social innovation’ I talked about Black Sabbath in terms of “pop occultism” that was around at the time, but actually that fits Black Widow better - at least their remarkable "Come To The Sabbat", which captures exactly the blend of the kitschy and unnerving I was thinking of: witchy stories in IPC girls’ comics, pentagrams and boobs on sub-Wheatley NEC paperback covers, Hammer Horror, trickledown post-Tolkein medievalism, John Pertwee’s Doctor Who fighting a stone gargoyle and the devil, who is also an alien come to judge humanity (but of course). And somewhere behind it all the question - well, what if some of this stuff isn’t a put on?
"Sabbat" starts with its most front-and-centre spooky trick, a cthonian flute melody that really does sound mossy and ancient: allied to heavy chanting it sets the scene for some utterly committed maypole dance action - "discard your clothes and come on foot!" - all in the name of Astaroth. It is a very funny record but more than that it’s a really driven, groove-ridden, exciting and catchy one; it pretty much explodes the feeble binary of “taking something seriously” or not doing so. On the one hand, the goggle-eyed infectious enthusiasm of “Satan’s there!” in the chorus, and on the very same hand the brilliant stabbing woodwind arrangement. It’s also hard to escape the sense that precious few rock bands even in 1970 believed in their material with the same absurd intensity Black Widow display here. Ridicule, as ever, is nothing to be scared of.
Four minutes and fifty-six seconds: Billy Paul’s “Let The Dollar Circulate” is a rare example of a soul record offering advice on macroeconomic policy; mind you I couldn’t do any better, and Paul’s desperate “let it let it let it let it let it circulate” on the chorus brings over the feeling of being caught in a squeeze not of your making as well as anything I know. Turned up, thirty-four years later, on Young Jeezy’s The Recession album: Jeezy barely changed the lyrics, because he barely needed to.
Four minutes and fifty-seven seconds: At the start of this decade I was part of an MP3-trading mailing list and someone uploaded a bunch of Slabco Records tracks: Sukpatch, Land Of The Loops, probably others. They were charming, winningly unassuming but with just enough strangeness to catch in your hindbrain - for instance the sample at the beginning of LotL’s "Day Late And A Dollar Short" has stuck around in my head for years (where’s it from?). Structurally the song is as long as it wants to be, a drawer of bric-a-brac being sorted out and it’s finished when it’s finished.
Much later I read about ‘chillwave’ and I assumed it would sound a bit like Slabco material, but it didn’t. This song isn’t about nostalgia or reaching back to a vanished pre-context world, it’s more the sampladelic drift that happens when a modern adult mind moves into shutdown mode; ambient pop as a screensaver for the brain.
Four minutes and fifty-eight seconds: Now we’re into the four minute zone I’m seeing fewer Big Statement songs and more Amazing Songs Which Happen To Be Almost Five Minutes Long. "Digital Love" by Daft Punk is sort of inbetween, I guess. I’ve chosen it because i) I’m pressed for time, ii) it’s “Digital Love” for heavens sakes, iii) as a memo to self to squeeze an hour out of tomorrow where I can listen to this extraordinary thing.
Four minutes fifty-nine seconds: This is the title track for this project - "Seconds" by The Human League. I felt I had to include it, even though there’s no particular connection between the song and the blog - the phrase “it took seconds” just popped into my head when I came up with the idea, and really this is the first time I’ve considered “Seconds” as a thing on its own, rather than just one of the tracks on Dare. It’s really pretty great though - of the Dare-era pop direction League this for me is the song that calls back most to the Human League’s more perverse, instrumentally austere and lyrically unlikely first incarnation. Which I don’t necessarily prefer, but this song is an intriguing bridge: all heroic builds, you finish it thinking you’ve listened to a big pop number but when you’re actually in it it’s a lot more oblique and shifting.
Five minutes: Other people have found a lot to say about The-Dream's content but I'd be surprised if “Ditch That…" rewarded too much analysis. I wouldn’t know though as I keep getting distracted by the extraordinary music; it’s like The-Dream has a fistful of leashes in each hand as he swaggers through the song and at the end of each is not a dog but an old rave preset, snarling and spitting and never fully set loose.
Five minutes and one second: Which of those early Pere Ubu sides to pick, then? I played some of them obsessively when I finally got hold of them - years after reading about them, so I hear them with Greil Marcus ears. “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” has "Time to put ourselves into strange Gods’ hands". “Heart Of Darkness” has "I don’t see anything - that I want". "Final Solution" has "Mom threw me out till I get some pants to fit" (and fits the timing I need thanks to that great spiralling “SOLUTION!” angst-out at the end). All three - here’s that Marcus influence coming in - all three have the feel of projects very much unfinished, which is to say they sound modern, relevant to whatever “indie” might be doing or still need to do now.
Five minutes and two seconds: What I said about "Southern Hospitality" on NYLPM back in 2001:
“Cadillac grilles, Cadillac mills, check out the oil my Cadillac spills” thunders Ludacris as the track starts, an extraordinary, resonant opening that makes the rapper sound twenty foot tall. Desert-dry Neptunes beats, the ghost of a pan-pipe and an electronic hornet buzz are the backdrop to this half-sermon, half-gloat, as Ludacris places himself midway between Stagger Lee and JR Ewing: one part tycoon, one part pimp. His delivery is harsh but measured: you are in his country now, he owns it, and that means he owns you. If you were feeling fanciful (but not so fanciful) you could call “Southern Hospitality” the first great record of the Bush era, as Ludacris sings a Dirty South where money is power, and where Ludacris has that power, and knows it, and knows America knows it. “If you sweat in your sleep then you sweat for me”: pure evil, and essential listening.
Five minutes and three seconds: With recent entries I’ve been repeatedly thwarted by my own recent habit of acquiring MP3s at 320 kbps. Yesterday Kingdom & Shvyonne’s “Mind Reader” (which proves my point about revenant 90sism), today Untold’s tribally sinuous “Anaconda”. Sorry that you can’t get those! Instead a hasty replacement in the form of "Boat-Woman-Song" by Holger Czukay, an edit from a 17 minute piece on his first solo album Canaxis, which I’ve not heard for over a decade. This is the version I’m more familiar with anyhow, it was on David Toop’s head-expanding Ocean Of Sound compilation and then showed up on the OHM compilation of early electronic boffins.
It’s a tape collage piece made up of the named elements - the low, sad horn of a ship; a multiply spliced chorus of a song; and a woman, also singing, in a language I can’t place. The eerie effect of the track is in how these things rub against one another. Very simple, enduringly effective (and a bit ‘difficult’ I guess).
Five minutes and four seconds: There was a brief conversation on Poptimists the other day about the 90s revival - how far advanced it is, what form it’s taking, and so on. One thing that’s clear is that early 90s rave and eurodance will play quite a big part: Gaga’s “Bad Romance” not only drops a big sample from Human Resource’s stupendous “Dominator” into the mix, its restless multiple hooks have some of the speed and choppiness of 90s hardcore, specifically stuff like Praga Khan’s “INJECTED WITH A POISON” (My MP3 is in all caps: I can hardly deny its wishes.)
Even though I came to the music pretty late, I think of myself as astonishingly lucky to have been relatively young at a time when this kind of thing - bombastic, blatantly drug-driven, dayglo, delirious, ridiculous, rushy - was a default option for pop music. It has set benchmarks of preposterous excitement that little music since has met. Since the early 1990s I’ve liked a lot of sophisticated pop music, a lot of innovative pop music, a lot of heartfelt and beautiful pop music. There is a primal part of me, though, which feels that all of it is on some level simply not as good as pilled-up 140 bpm Belgians trying to make their keyboards sound like household appliances. This is part of the reason I am so fond of Scooter, obviously.
As I said yesterday though, the first rule of revivals is to piss off the people who want one, so I am anticipating a couple of years of growing disappointment. The early 90s revival should burn out after that, and will deposit me a bitter and disillusioned husk of a critic on the doorstep of my 40th birthday. It’s good to have things to look forward to!
Five minutes and five seconds: I bought Kilimanjaro by The Teardrop Explodes at the tail-end of the 80s, knowing not much about it - at the time an album was a serious investment in money and hence in time and buying an old album almost more so: at least if you bought something new and it turned out to be a stinker you had a certain amount of conversational currency right there. Who in 1989 cared if The Teardrop Explodes sucked? Who cared if they were good?
Much later I picked up an old issue of a psychedelia zine called Dark Star from around the time TTE got going and it gave me an idea of the band in their context. They were not trusted. Not trusted by the post-punkers because they were playing psych-pop and not trusted by the psych underground because Julian Cope was pretty and obviously wanted to be a star. There was something else though: they obviously cared about 60s music to an extent but seemed blankly unaware and uncaring of the 60s project, which asked the psych true believers some problematic questions, or would have done if they’d bothered to go further than just dismissing the Teardrops as fakers.
That blankness is one reason I still come back to Kilimanjaro while more fully-realised Cope projects I loved in their day go unrevisited. On "Poppies In The Field", the band play bouncy, lightly trippy pop, scattering ideas and phrases over a bassline and not much more. "Comics insult you said, but comics are all I read… The poppies are in the field but don’t ask me what that means… I wait around". Sixties psychedelia was about manifesting inner visions and presenting drug experiences as ones which add depth: the Teardrops on the other hand portrayed an noncommittal, flattened world which ended up resonating with me more.
First rule of revivals: if it doesn’t piss off the people who wanted one, you’re doing it wrong.