North-East Passage Vol. 2

The second edition of paper-only fanzine ‘The North-East Passage’ is available – for free – starting from… NOW!

The theme of this second ‘zine is ‘Photographs’, and has a truly diverse line up of contributors/ contributions that take in photos, essays, short stories and poems; there really is something for everyone.

Each copy comes with a unique front cover photograph of the now demolished Trinity Square carpark in Gateshead in various states of disintegration, as captured by Matthew Charlton. Other contributors include:

 

Richard Dawson

Benjamin Belinska

E.A.R.

Alex Niven

Richard Elliott

Calum Howard

Bill Calder

Brian Rossiter

 

Send your postal address to ‘thenortheastpassage@hotmail.co.uk’, and I will send you a copy for free!

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High Hopes – Pink Floyd: Ten Times

Listen 1:

Back to the hazy nostalgic vaults of ‘tunes remembered’ now. This is a track from the first CD I remember us having. My dad bought it around about Christmas 1995 (he’d just got a CD walkman from my mum! A big, square black brick of a thing). NUFC were the best football team in the land, all was well with the world, and I was beginning to realise the potential of music.

This song, musically speaking, is a pretty good one to attach that nostalgic ‘first musical awakening’ to; it has a certain amount of kudos to it (or does it?). The track itself – the last Pink Floyd song – is imbued with nostalgia all the way through it; from the shimmering rural soundscape – buzzing bees, birdsong and a plaintive church bell in the distance – to the series of remembrances in the lyrics. This song is deeply nostalgic. The lyric that always sticks out to me is the opening chorus line “the grass was greener, the light was brighter”. This is a working definition of nostalgia, isn’t it?

But there is an unmistakable melancholy running through this song; maybe a recognition of the dangers of always looking back towards the supposed ‘golden past’ – or perhaps, utilising my limited knowledge of Floyd, a comment on the perception of the fans of Floyd’s ‘Great Days’ that were so mired in strife, the insistence on repeating the old songs – the desire to always look back at the past.

Listen 2:

OK, I’m going to be honest here. I am not a big Pink Floyd fan. I don’t own all their albums, I don’t even know what all their albums are! And this fact is probably borne out by the fact that this album – the Division Bell – is my favourite. Every Pink Floyd fan stumbling across this page has just closed it! For some reason, it has been derided by a lot of fans. But for me, this was my Pink Floyd. The first album of theirs I had heard, one released in my lifetime.

I seem favour neglected or criticised works from a few bands. ‘Machina…’ is my favourite Smashing Pumpkins album, for example. Many Pumpkins fans I have spoken to about it say it’s too long, and there is too much dross on it. But I say firstly; it was intended to be a double album, and secondly; listen to ‘Mellon Collie…’ again and, being entirely honest with yourself, tell me there aren’t at least five or six tunes that that album could do without…. “in the eyes of a jackal I say KABOOM!”.

I was also thinking the other day, and this probably lead me to writing about High Hopes, that possibly (and I mean possibly) ‘Be Here Now’ might be my favourite Oasis album. Just because I have fonder memories of that album; because I was conscious of it as it was released in a way that I wasn’t with ‘Definately Maybe’ and ‘What’s the Story’. Objectively, ‘Be Here Now’ is worse – of course it is – but I remember queuing at Woolworths in Consett to buy it, I remember playing ‘Magic Pie’ with friends in the first band I was ever in. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the ‘Easy to Play Oasis’ chord book resting on my lap, singing ‘All Around the World’ was the first time I ever sang in front of anyone (the other three members of that band), it was when I realised I enjoyed singing, realised I could sing (ish), and concluded that singing was going to become part of my life; I was a singer!

Anyway, well of the subject here of Pink Floyd.     

Listen 3:

To bring it back, I guess what has become a recurring theme in many of these Ten Time pieces is that often you don’t choose popular music, popular music chooses you! I had no idea who Pink Floyd were, how important their legacy was, when my dad brought this CD home and played this track for me and my brother.

Sitting in the bay window in a squat, deep green leather Chesterfield armchair. Queens Road. The way the piano part intertwines with the church bell! At eleven years old, that was mind blowing. At twenty-seven, it still is, actually. The way sound effect melds into music makes the song sound as if it comes from nature, is part of nature.

Then comes the ‘military’ bit, as I always thought of it. The classical guitar solo, the rolling snare drums, crescendo strings and horns; a majestic, pompous soundscape for a rock song! Then dropping back to that piano/bell riff. I remember being baffled and intrigued by the myriad instruments. I remember looking through the lyrics book, seeing the word ‘myriad’ and looking it up in the dictionary to find out what it meant.

The booklet was so thick, so full of words and images – a work of art in itself – so expensive looking. Everything about this CD felt expensive actually. The weight of the whole package. I have just found the CD (I have kept it all these years; not that unusually, I know – particularly for me, a compulsive hoarder), and the actual CD feels thicker and somehow more durable that ‘modern CDs’; it is almost like a hybrid between a record and a contemporary CD!  

 

Listen 4:

Actually, something else I have just remembered about this song. A couple of years later, when in Year 10 (I think, it must have been), our music teacher – the unforgettable Len Young – had, in one of those altruistic, hopeful, idealistic gestures, doomed to apathetic response and, ultimately, failure, that music teacher are so prone to making (I speak from (brief) personal experience) asked everybody in the class to bring in a piece of music that we loved, and to play it for the class, and describe what we liked about it.

Instantly, I thought of High Hopes. I thought of so much I could say about it. I thought Mr. Young would have been impressed by unassuming church bell; the reconfiguration and realignment wrought by the imposing piano. The sheer scope of the musical palette. I put the CD in my bag for the next music class the following week.

However, in the following few days, I began to consider the reaction of my peers to this grandiose piece of ‘dad rock’. Not very cool. “He’s actually taking music lessons seriously! He’s actually brought in a piece of music he likes!” So I spent the week in a quandary, weighing up the pros and cons. Sometimes I would think ‘it’s only music class, I’ll just play something I know some of the others will like’, and would take out the Pink Floyd CD from my bag and put in ‘Nimrod’ by Green Day or ‘Incesticide’ by Nirvana. Then other times, I would think ‘maybe Mr. Young will think it’s good, maybe the rest of the class will like it too’.

On the day of reckoning, I had both Nimrod and The Division Bell in my bag. I was called up to play ‘my song’. Division Bell burned fiercely in my bag. I picked up Nimrod. I played ‘Hitchin’ a Ride’. Hitchin’ a fucking Ride, in all its chugging inanity. “At least it has that vaguely interesting ‘gypsy’ violin intro” I consoled myself.

I should have played High Hopes.

Listen 5:

So to the guitar solo mentioned in the piece on Shakespeare’s Sister. Beginning with a biblical, portentous lyric – “forever and ever” – the guitar wails into centre stage, notes sustaining for an inordinate amount of time – forever and ever, it seems! Of course Gilmour plays a slide guitar here, but I didn’t know that when I first listened to this tune. To me it sounded so ethereal, so majestic, so skilful. Favouring melody over posturing (as most of Glimour’s solos tend to), it soars and swoops, before entering into a call-and-response interplay with glissando strings for a four note call  (around 6.26). That little four note melody has stuck with me throughout my life. It is never far from my mind when I am playing guitar. It is certainly one punctum within this piece of music for me.

I don’t think it would be correct to say that this guitar solo made me want to learn guitar – frankly it was incomprehensible to me then (it still is now) that I would ever be able to emulate anything near that sounds –that I could play something like that myself. I still can’t! But it certainly was one of the most striking early realisations of the emotional potential of music. When I listened to this song over and over, unlike the more ‘pop’ songs discussed below, it was not due some sort of compulsion – a mental itch that needed scratching – it was a serious endeavour. I was trying to understand something fundamental about music. When I pressed the button on our old hi-fi, plush foam-coated headphones on, to repeat the track, I did so deliberately and I tried to listen intently to what was happening. The result was that I found this piece of music profoundly moving.

Listen 6:

To the video now, and what a video it is! My goodness. Continuing the theme of absolute extravagance, this video is really just a series of ostentatious (and, one would assume, obscenely expensive) stills. Many of them continue Floyds penchant for large, flamboyant, surreal images; businessmen on stilts, guitars floating down a canal, two men playing ping-pong in a field etc.

But once again, there is an ingrained feeling of nostalgia in many of the shots. Many are shot at sunset or sunrise, with that eerie-beautiful liminal light suggesting either a beginning or ending.

Most prominent are the shots of a man standing next to a Morris Minor Traveller looking pensively out across the English countryside. This image is the most memorable for me in this video of bizarre (memorable) images, for some reason. I always get a pang of nostalgic sadness whenever I see hedgerows or places like the wild undergrowth on train track embankments! Anyway, I get the same feeling seeing this image.

Aside from that, surprisingly, there is very little to say about the video, it’s just a bit too much really. It really feels a bit anachronistic in an age when the conventions of the music video had been pretty firmly established; this is all momentous still images, rather that quick-paced, band-orientated movement. I’m not saying it is a bad video, it’s just not really a music video. I’m sure there is a glut of ‘symbolism’ behind each of the individual set-pieces, which someone with a better knowledge of the intricate wrangling of Pink Floyd’s expansive career could better elucidate, but I don’t really get it.  

Listen 7:

Another little diversionary treat here; the one that actually brought me back to this song. A live version – just Dave Gilmour – at the Albert Hall.

Again though, the prevailing atmosphere is one of extreme opulence. I am usually not a fan of live performances that attempt to emulate the album verbatim, and this performance certainly tries to do that. Even the solos (particularly the classical guitar solo) are almost identical to the album; as for the rest of the track, Gilmour may as well be playing to a backing track. I just don’t really see the point in it usually. The live performance has to have some element of danger in it to make it exciting; the potential for collapse, for not working.

When I was at university in Liverpool, I saw a local band called ‘Brute Forsythe’ a few times. Aside from having one of the best names ever, they were really pretty crappy. But what made them exciting to watch is that they turned the potential for disaster into an art form. They played with the tacit power and ‘responsibility’ of ‘being on stage’, making the audience question this assumed power dynamic, puncturing the bubble of the ‘immaculate performance delivered with consummate ease’. I remember someone else, when I was doing my teacher training in fact, saying, with sagely wisdom (have I written this somewhere else, I can’t remember) “an amateur musician practices until they get it right; a professional practices until they can’t get it wrong”. That philosophy is totally anathema to me. Firstly, because I don’t think, being honest, I have the capacity to ever practice any music until I can’t get it ‘wrong’ – I don’t have the time, skill or patience! But secondly, it assumed that there is a ‘right’ way to play a piece of music, and that, once discovered, it should be crystallised, and repeated forever after.

Anyway, Gilmour is just finishing his third solo on his third different guitar, let’s continue into listen eight.

Listen 8:

Same live recording.

So live music should have something living within it; it should not be exclusively predetermined. That’s not to say that I enjoy or favour the ‘free improv.’ route. I don’t. Actually, I find the free improve. that I have heard to be in some senses more constrictive and predetermined and more likely to sound the same. If you disallow any kind of melodic or thematic repetition, you exclude the audience from the process of second-guessing the unfurling structure of the music, which can be half the fun of listening to and engaging with music.

So some sort of half-way house between these two, i guess, is the fairly radical conclusion. I think I’ll save further rumination on ‘what makes a good live performance’ for a further song I want to listen to ten times…. keep guessing!

Anyway, back to Gilmour’s fret-wankage. Having said I don’t usually enjoy these verbatim live performances, I actually really love this one. It just works so well. Maybe because Dave Gilmour looks and acts so un-rock star like. He’s just a pretty fat, old bloke who happens to be amazing on the guitar. He stands stock-still throughout. He looks a bit like a Vogon from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

But the slide guitar solo – elongated and modified from the recording, though dropping back into the familiar furrow for the highlight four-note phrase – is incredible, as it the acoustic guitar addition at the end.

In the Shakespears Sister piece I said that I’m not really a fan of the guitar solo, which is true in most contexts. But I have to say that certain examples such as these, where a really melodic solo is played over four repeated chords, hold a soft spot for me. Other examples would be Knopfler’s solos in ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’.

Listen 9:

Good old listen nine! All the way through. No Pauses, no breaks.

Listen 10:

So here we are, listen ten – far from being tired of this song (I wonder how many listens it would actually take to be completely sick of a song?).

Conclusions? Well, above I said that I intently listened to this song when it first became a ‘repeater’; that the listening process was different from the ‘pop’ songs that I have written about so far. That doesn’t have anything to do with the (false) dichotomy between ‘serious’ rock music and ‘jokey’ pop music. I don’t consider this song to be more worthy of repeated listening than Jojo or Gwen Stefani because it’s by ‘real musicians’.

I suppose what I want to point out in this ‘ten time’ listen is that not all addictive songs get stuck in your head for the same reason. Some get lodged until you can uncover something about them; others get stuck until you uncover something about yourself. High Hopes helped me discover something about my love for music at a young age, and now it remains a masterwork in nostalgia. But it is no ‘better’ than a pop song… but let’s leave this tired old high/low art argument for another day, and let Dave Gilmour slide us out….. BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG[1]  


[1] That’s the chiming of the church bell, by the way, not a drug reference!

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Junior Senior – Move Your Feet: Ten Times

Listen 1:

ah, shit; here we are. So, not every song that gets stuck in your head is a pleasant experience; a reminder of halcyon, nostalgic days of summer. This tune is proof positive of that. It is my single most hated song of all time, head and shoulders above everything else I’ve ever heard. And consequently it has had long stretches of time lodged resolutely in my head; playing over and over and over. “Don’t d d don’t don’t stop the beat and GO!!!”

So why am I subjecting myself to the enforced horror of deliberately listening to this tune ten times in a row? To exorcise this particular demon once and for all? Perhaps (I fucking hope so, anyway). But there is another reason. Because tunes like this are the integral flip side of the coin to the glorious examples of life-affirming pop discussed below. You need pop songs that you despise, that you abhor, to set in relief – to act as ballast – to those tunes that mean the world to you, that you love.

Listen 2:

Well, the one saving grace of this tune is that it is a lot shorter than I remember it being. So this shouldn’t take too long. So why do I hate this song so much? I have told a few people that this is my least favourite song of all time, and they often reply with surprise. A number of people actually like it. Most see it as a fairly innocuous one-hit wonder; it burned unnaturally, incessantly, bright for the briefest of moments in the nadir of the early-noughties, then sunk without trace. To hate it requires remembering it; which is a proactive act for a song that is now never a part of the everyday. You have to go out of your way to find this song, you can’t just stumble across it. So why do I?

Well, and this is not the songs fault at all, but this song once accompanied me – relentlessly and without mercy – for a six hour wait (from 6am until midday) in Victoria train station, and from the hours of 8pm until midnight on the same day in Victoria coach station. The coals of these extended stays in two of London’s less-than-salubrious locations are best left un-raked; sufficed to say, it was a particularly despondent day. And both Junior and Senior accompanied me all the way through it. I had no money, no music, no book, nothing. Just Junior and Senior – refusing to let the beat stop, even for a moment.    

Listen 3:

Specifics. What is it specifically that irks me so much. I always thought this so was called ‘don’t stop the beat’, which seems like either such an inane or desperate plea. Don’t stop the beat. Like if you have to think for a moment, without the succour of a pounding, relentless ‘beat’, you might have to take a long hard look at yourself. Maybe that’s just me.

Second. I hate dancing. In all its many guises. So a song that suggest unity between people can only be achieved through dancing (“would just moving my feet alone be enough to include me in your tribe, Junior, or do I have to dance as well?”) is anathema to me (There’s another song – actually, on reflection, I probably dislike (though in a more dispassionate way) more than this one, which has this same sentiment behind it; but one day I’ll write about that on its own).

Man, these plays are going quick.

Listen 4:

2.32. That’s when it happens. The single moment of confirmation that I despise this song. “Senior” bellows ‘GO’ with such vim and vigour that his voice is slightly distorted. It has an intangible repugnance about it for some reason. I don’t know why. But that is the punctum (see below) for me in this song. The punctum of hate!

As for the rest of the tune, I think it is just that it’s so deliberately ‘catchy’. Alright, I’m going to be honest with myself for one single moment. I actually really like the music in this song. It’s really good. It’s incredible. The sounds are just so euphoric. Fuck. Maybe I like this song after all? I can’t actually tell now.

But the vocals. I definitely don’t like the vocals. They have that sort of Strokes/ The Hives style of singing (Junior/Senior were Scandinavian as well, weren’t they. I can’t bear to look up their Wikipedia page[1]). I suppose that ‘garage rock’ revival is probably, in the cyclical trend of pop music, about as far away from fashionable as it can get (i.e. around 7-10 years ago). Give it another five or so, and it’ll be nostalgically popular again.

Listen 5:

No, there’s one other line in this song that I hate: “put p-p-put my record on/ and all of your troubles are dead and gone”. And as soon as I hear that song, I am transported back to 11pm on a dreary night in 2003, sitting in Victoria coach station, watching a pigeon with a mangled stump where its left claw should be, hobbling towards me, not even feigning fear as I kick a lacklustre foot out towards him to shoo him away. “There isn’t even any food here, you little fucker” I feel like shouting at him, but strangely, the coach station is packed with its usual assortment of weary denizens, and the last thing this unique congregation of late-night travellers needs is another crazy person shouting at the birds. “All your troubles are dead and gone”.

“No they fucking well aren’t, Senior, me old mucker. No they fucking well aren’t! I have an eight-and-a-half hour National Express trip up to Newcastle (calling at every arse-hole provincial town on the way) to get through yet. It looks like the coach is going to be full. There’s an African woman barging to the front of the queue. She has a toddler with her, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she seems to be refusing to allow him to go to sleep on top of her suitcase, instead opting for an irrational cocktail of three parts shouting at him, one part slapping his hand, and one part cramming biscuits into his mouth. All of my troubles are far from dead and gone, and your record is playing ad infinitum inside my head, “Senior”. There is an Indian family behind me who seem to be carrying all their copious worldly goods in a series of plastic woven luggage bags with a red-and-blue tartan design and gaffer-taped cardboard boxes, each larger and heavier than the last. If there is one thing coach drivers hate (aside from driving coaches and “foreigns”) it is people who try and put more that their allotted amount of luggage on the coach. My troubles? My troubles, Senior. You don’t have a clue!”

Listen 6:

To the video now. There’s not really that much to say about it, is there? It has a squirrel in. The graphics – deliberately ‘low-fi’ – remind me a bit of a couple of computer games we used to play; particularly ‘Parasol Stars’ (the music for which, as I recall was incredible), ‘Lemmings’, of course (the music for which was even better. In fact I once recorded the music to Lemmings onto a cassette, so me and my brother could play football whilst listening to it!). It mostly reminds me of Cruis’n USA; a shit-even-for-its-time racing game for the N64, that I spent a quite bizarre amount of time watching my brother play.

There’s a little bit at the end with the squirrel spinning out of control in a TIE fighter. For no reason.

Listen 7:

Yeah, I really am starting to tire of this song now, despite its brevity. Actually, the bass line, and the synth trumpets are still chirpy. I really like the sound of the snare drum as well. I can tell why it got stuck in my head, and maybe under different circumstances, it would have become a favourable catchy tune? But it is allied to that dark moment in Victoria coach station, so it is forever destined to be a reminder of that. Is that all that makes us love certain pop music? The fortuitous serendipitous happening with positive life experiences? Probably not. I’m sure there are songs that I like/ dislike without any positive/negative emotion or memory connected to them? But I’m sure that for a great number of tunes, this is how they get lodged in our heads. The get plucked, often unconsciously, or certainly not deliberately, from the ether of ‘ubiquitous listening’, and become cemented to certain moments; maybe as a way of helping us to remember those key moments better; a sort of aural mnemonic device.   

Listen 8:

Listen eight is always the desolate wasteland in these experiments. I am always lost for something to say, yet thinking of what I’m going to conclude. Thinking I should be doing some in-depth analysis – picking at minutiae – before the treat of listen nine; the unencumbered listen through.

But what I am starting to realise is that I am never tiring of listening to these chosen songs. Even this one, which I hate, I could stand to listen to another ten times easy. With the likes of Jojo, I could listen to it on repeat all day (I did the day of writing about it actually!). Does this mean that I have an unusually high repetition threshold? I think I do. But that is the point of pop music is a sense. That it can be listened to over and over. Repetition is key in pop music. That is not a criticism, it is just one of its key tropes; thus songs that stand up to repetition are better pop songs than those that don’t. That, I think, is one of the composite reasons why many people castigate pop music as trite and meaningless; they don’t understand that its repetitiveness is in fact is key ingredient.

Actually. I was going to do a listen to a live version. From a 2003 edition of Top of the Pops. But then Ben Fucking Elton’s rodent-esque little face popped up and, I mean, Jesus Christ. I know this is all a bit of a silly waste of time, but I’m not sitting here on a Sunday afternoon watching Ben Elton. Sorry.

Ben Elton presented Top of the Pops? In 2003?! I don’t remeber that. Fuck me, no wonder that programme went tits up. I mean, everyone looks back with a sort of smug wince at the TOTP presenters of yesteryear, like Jimmy Savile, DLT and Noel Edmonds. We all say “god, how did people put up with this shower of shite in ‘the olden days’”. But come on, we had Ben Bastard Elton. And I also remember one week Chris Eubank presented TOTP!!!

Listen 9:

As is now customary, this run through is just for listening. A Straight run through. See you on the other side for some semblance of a conclusion.

Listen 10:

When describing laughter, Robert Provine writes that “laughter is a harlequin that shows two faces – one smiling and friendly, the other dark and ominous[2]”. I think this definition could be used to pretty accurately describe pop music as well. It is a harlequin; its two faces are life-affirming profundity and maddening, hate-inducing inanity. But you need both of these faces, they are symbiotic. One demands the other to justify itself. Great pop music needs shit pop music to define it as such. Maybe that is what makes pop music as an art so special? The fact that it is always teetering on this brink of love/hate or valuable/valueless or great/shite. Do I love ‘Move Your Feet’ or hate it? I honestly can’t tell any more. But that is the beauty of pop. That it is always threatening to destabilise itself. Just when a tune comes along that you feel you could confidently defend as being ‘great art’, another will come along that will remind you pop is just as Adorno described it; a cynical, meaningless product of ‘the system’ (,maaan).

Pop music is always trapped between these two states of being – profundity and inanity – that is why it is so good. So, though I think, on reflection I hate this tune more than anything else, I thank Junior Senior from reminding me of that!


[1] I Just did. They are.

[2] “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation” (2000)

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The Shadow Line: A Penultimate Review

Because my preliminary review of ‘The Shadow Line’ seems to be getting more views that all my other posts combined, I thought I would jump on my own band wagon and write a follow-up review specifically about episodes five and six (which I watched last night) in preparation for the series finale next Thursday.

So; I am still a fan of this series. I mean, when you consider some of the dross that makes it on to television under the rubric of ‘British Drama’, then ‘The Shadow Line’ is really very good. Compare it with something like ‘The Bill’ for example! That was what I thought of when I thought of British police TV show before ‘The Shadow Line’ (I admit I have never seen Silent Witness; though I served tea for the post-production of the last ever one. I would tentatively say that The Shadow Line has much more in common with – and borrows much more from – Silent Witness than it does from the likes of The Wire).

Has The Shadow Line been a perfect series? Absolutely not. The dialogue is still frequently clunky in its attempt to be ‘overly clever’ whilst simultaneously explaining what is going on. Because the cast of characters is so big, certain characters tend to fall out of memory, only to be brought back in a couple of episodes later, leaving you to think “oh yeah, where has he been”. This happened earlier on with Ecclestone’s character. It has happened in the last two episodes with Spall’s manic gangster-teetering-on-the-edge-of-Guy-Ritchian-mockney-cartoon-character; where has he gone in all of this? His main rival – the man we were led to believe killed Harvey Wratten (remember this? The actual premise of the whole show, that has been almost completely forgotten) – Bob Harris has been killed, and Jay Wratten didn’t even pop his head up to comment.

A similar thing happened in episodes six with Glickman’s girlfriend. Up until now, she had been the girlfriend-in-mourning; a bit-player in Bede’s side-story of dealing with his wife with Alzheimer’s (another character gone missing). Suddenly in episode six, it turns out she is some sort of silent assassin; killing the man she professed to love with no apparent motive. No sooner has this bombshell been dropped then she is killed herself.

One other character I would point to is the bent cop – the one shown in the very first scene of episode one leering over Harvey Wratten’s corpse. With the underlying subtext (often shouted at the audience from ‘between the lines’) of ‘cops and robbers think they live in two separate worlds, but in fact there is a thin ‘shadow line’ between them’ having to be clunkily written into dialogue; with this character of the bent cop (for my money, the best actor in the whole thing) they could have shown that much more succinctly, rather than insisting on repeatedly saying it.

All that said, I am still compelled to watch this show, mainly because it is still exciting and, to an extent, unpredictable. The show is bold in killing off main characters mercilessly. And it has thrown a good number of curve balls. The killing of Gabriel’s young son was really quite shocking, and it demonstrated the ethos of ‘Original British Drama’ (as a spate of BBC programmes are labelling themselves at the moment); uncompromising, prepared to go to ‘dark places’ in telling a story, prepared to spend money on good production.

But once again, and forgive me if I sound like a broken record, the time frame given to tell this complex and intriguing story is too short by half. The result is that engaging story lines are rushed through, characters in a large cast are left out, and the little tangential side-stories are left as unsatisfying loose-ends. With more space, all of these things could be given so much more space to breathe. A perfect example would be Glickman. When he was eventually shown living in Ireland, he comes across as some sort of ‘man-with-a-thousand-voices’, able to wander the world with no-one noticing. The next episode, he is killed. (I can’t imagine that the old fella he runs the clock shop in Dublin with hadn’t said to him once in the eighteen years he had been coming there “you don’t half have a ropey Irish accent there boss, to be sure”).

I know that the counter argument will be that there is not enough money to do this, or that attention spans wouldn’t stretch over fourteen weeks, or that British dramas are traditionally split up into smaller series. Well, I don’t want to watch another series of this programme. With many of the main characters killed off, they would inevitable have Gabriel tackling a new case, and there would be little continuation. As for the attention spans, I’m sure enough people would switch on week after week. If the aim is to make intelligent drama, then an intelligence in the audience should be assumed. As for money, there would be a number of ways around this, spreading out production costs (even making ‘cheaper’ episodes). Psychoville did this excellently in series 1, having a whole episode with just three characters set in one room. I could easily imagine a whole episode of Gabriel in an interview room, interrogating a suspect. The script would have to be tight, but the production cost would be minimal. It would also afford some really needed character development, and would make the ostensible ‘dramatic’ moments where Gabriel has lost his rag and started shouting so much more dramatic.

But I’ll still watch the concluding episode, and will probably enjoy it, with one eye on other examples of Original British Drama (such as ‘Luther’; another police drama screaming out for comparisons to The Wire).

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‘I Don’t Care’ – Shakespears Sister: Ten Times

Listen 1

Surprisingly for a song almost twenty years old, I don’t really have any rose-tinted, nostalgic anecdote to tell for this one… well, almost none. For my relationship with this song stretches back only about six months. My wife and I often spend whole evenings listening to ridiculous songs on youtube, sessions in which she displays her truly encyclopaedic knowledge of forgotten (or often never heard of) pop/rock tunes; Kansas, James Ingram, Extreme, The Cranberries, Eddie Brickell; basically any artist that you thought of as a ‘one hit wonder’, my wife will know albums worth of songs by them!!!

So on one instance, we somehow got around to Shakespears Sister. Did we even play ‘Stay’? I can’t remember, but we did play ‘I Don’t Care’. I think I had heard it before – I must have – but it occupied only a vague space in my pop memory banks, hidden, perhaps, under the bushel that is ‘Stay’. I like everyone else, knew ‘Stay’, and knew it really as S.S.’s only tune of note. However, listening to ‘I Don’t Care’ obviously changed my mind, and it quickly became an over-regular fixture on my Spotify playlist (salad days [Shakespeare reference!] when Spotify didn’t constrict you to 10 hours a month and only five listens per song).  

Listen 2

The shitty synth cello sound at the start of this, and the echo ‘dream version’ of the song at the start are already starting to grate on my nerves; only eight more to go!! But all is forgiven as soon as those screaming vocals enter. Histrionic doesn’t do it justice! In fact this whole song is sheer pantomime. Usually this would really turn me off, but with this song, something hits home, and I really love it. I think it’s because, behind all the melodrama, it actually has a great deal of complexity and care in the production and writing. Those harmonic guitar notes; the whole guitar part – has a really lush sound to it.

The dual vocals are, of course, the aspect which really make the song. The sound in parts as though they are competing (maybe this is a projection), but when they come together – particularly in the chorus – they complement each other so well that by the time the second screaming session comes in, I’m already anticipating listening to the song immediately again!

The rap. Hmmmm. It’s not really a rap is it, but it’s on the cusp! I’m still not entirely sure about this bit; I’ll come back to it I think.

Yet even this insecurity is washed away with the abandon of the final chorus; replete now with trumpets. Then it’s the guitar solo – as melodramatic as anything else in the song. Now usually I don’t particularly like gut-busting guitar solos. My short-live love affair with the medium was ignited by the slide guitar wizardry of Dave Gilmour at the end of ‘High Hopes[1]’ (one of the very first CDs I remember listening to; maybe the first we owned?) and it died when I realised I was singularly incapable of playing the guitar solo from ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ (I was about 13 at the time, and had only been playing guitar for about 6 months when I came to this conclusion, maybe I gave up too quickly!). Anyway, the song is over now; I like this guitar solo.

Listen 3

Fucking synth-cello and ‘dream-song’; so unnecessary. I haven’t actually looked at the video yet to see what accompanies them. I have seen that there is some ‘quote’ at the beginning, but I haven’t read it yet.

The more I listen to this song, the more I realise I think of it as a series of beautiful fragments. Maybe I’ll address one fragment per listen.

One thing though; this is probably obvious, but I’m always reminded of the Cure when I listen to this song; and it’s not just because of the excessive make-up (though that certainly plays a part!). Siobhan Fahey’s voice is kind of reminiscent of Robert Smith’s, isn’t it? The jangly guitars etc remind me of the Cure’s ‘Friday, I’m in Love’ (also repeating the strangely positive-nihilist maxim ‘I don’t care’); the horn sections remind me a bit of ‘Close to Me’.

Anyway – the guitars in this song are, on reflection, my favourite bit of this song. Maybe that’s why I have such time for the guitar solo at the end, because throughout the song, the guitars are understated and precise, whilst adding so much to the sound world; such diversity. From the jangly chorus to the buttoned-down reverb punctuations in the sparse verses. It’s so nice to hear an out-and-out pop song utilising the guitar in such a fashion. I suppose the early 90s was something of a strange time for the electric guitar, wasn’t it? Well, this song is as much a celebration of the guitar as anything else.

The driving rhythm of the screaming section is so good – it really pushes the song along – almost pushing it past the ‘rap’ (still can’t think about this bit yet).

So: to the guitar solo. Firstly, the timbre is perfect; almost swamped by the trumpet stabs, always on the brink of disintegrating into white noise from the distortion, it always seems to find the next note just in time. There’s a bit around 4.48 (oh dear, I’ve just seen a few snippets of the video at this point!) which is an amazing melody – then capped by a pentatonic motif around 4.51 which signals a really satisfying end to the guitar solo.   

Listen 4

There’s a bit at the start where someone says ‘that’s fantaaastic’; every time I hear it, I want to stop doing this!

Anyway – lyrics now. Strangely, for someone who is obsessed with lyrics, and in a song where the vocals take such centre stage, I haven’t really noticed them too much. The line “I’ve got nine lives, and I land on my feet” always sticks with me; it seems like such a child-like thing to say in the face of someone being hurtful in some (I assume) adult way. In fact, it gives the whole song a sort of child-like quality; making the song into a playground rivalry between the two tempestuous singers – or them comparing notes on recently dumped boyfriends behind the bike sheds. Etc.

No; what I wanted to say is that, based on absolutely no empirical research whatsoever, I am prepared to say that everybody remembers one girl in their infant school who pretended to be a cat – thought she was a cat, if only for a brief amount of time – and that is what the above line reminds me of; “I’ve got nine lives and I land on my feet”. I like it a lot.

Well, this listen has finished. I was going to talk about the lyrics, I got caught on another singular fragment, but that is, I’m starting to think, the beauty of this song (perhaps of all these ‘must-listen’ songs), that in each listen, a new little fragment will catch you unawares and snare you, and you feel compelled to go back and listen to that particular bit more deliberately. However, the truly great (or infectious, depending on your view point) pop songs will then throw out a different, even more intriguing, more unexpected barb, that will catch you out as you’re listening intently to the other little bit, so you have to go back and listen to that bit as well, and so on.

Listen 5

Right; we can’t put it off any further. The ‘rap’.

Actually, while I wait, there is a little faux-laughter immediately before the song proper begins, and immediately after “fantaastic”, that is even more annoying.

Well, I wasn’t fully aware of the lyrics to the rap at all, and they are certainly more esoteric than many pop-raps are (cf. Debbie Harry’s “and get in the car/and drive real far/ and you drive all night/ and you see a light” from ‘Rapture’). So, to fully appreciate them, here they are the lyrics to this, what I’m now calling ‘spoken word section’:

In a borealic iceberg came Victoria
Queen Victoria sitting
Shocked upon the rocking horse of a wave
Said to the Laureate
This minx of course as sharp as any lynx
And blacker deeper than the drinks
As any hottentot without remorse
For the minx said she
And the drinks you can see
Are hot as any hottentot
And not the goods for me
Hot as any hottentot
And not the goods for me

[You can read all the lyrics, along with the video here]

Now I’m not going to pretend to have know that these ‘lyrics’ come from an Edith Sitwell poem; I didn’t. But they do. And I’m not sure whether this makes them better or worse. Better, I think, in that it unashamedly melds so-called ‘high art’ into pop in a very deliberate way (maybe this is just me, but is there something akin to ‘The Smiths’ in this appropriation, in the way Morrissey would reference poets: “Keates and Yeats are on your side, while Wilde is on mine”. I’m sure there are more direct quotations from poetry in The Smiths’ lyrics (though not as extensive a passage as the one quoted above), but I have left my knowledge of Smiths lyrics behind me now.)

So, the song finished ages ago, as I Googled all the relevant information above, and we’re still not really any closer to understanding the rap. I’ll give it one more go in a bit, but first; the video!

Listen 6

So, the illusive quote at the beginning is: “Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of women…” [I think there should be a question mark there somewhere, shouldn’t there?], which, as we all know, (after searching Google) is a play on ‘The Shadow’s’ tag line ‘who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.’ Very literary. Let’s move on.

Strangely, the video accompanying the ‘dream-song’ version (I swear I didn’t know that Marcella Detroit was sleeping in this bit of the video when I named it that!), makes this bit even worse! A totally shit ‘effect’ (like those ‘crazy photos’ you can take on mac books that squash a bit of your face) on a black and white image of the band ‘horsing around’ whilst Marcella tosses and turns in a fitful sleep ‘neath golden sheets. She wakes. She screams. Though the video tells us not why.

Oh, actually, I get it now. The rest of the band are laughing and joking about Marcella at a rehearsal that she isn’t at. The scream is akin to the classic “WE SLEPT IN!” moment in Home Alone [another Catherine O’Hara reference!]. We see a golden clock. It is five past four. Either the band are practising at an ungodly hour of the morning (in which case, Marcella has every right to be in bed), or else Marcella has slept in until four in the afternoon. In which case she has absolutely no excuse, and really needs to have a serious word with herself, screaming about it won’t help!

Black and white now, a skewed camera angle of a corridor (Siobhan is so fit, by the way). A bit of over the top ‘crazy’ acting for Siobhan. She meets Marcella (is this corridor in Siobhan’s dream? A dream within a dream? Wow. This video preceded ‘Inception’ by eighteen years!)

Then – joy of joys – we’re at the rehearsal – now in ‘real-world’ colour. And all the band are wearing their most fashionable gear! (actually, I can’t be bothered to make any comments about the “terrible fashion from twenty years ago” mainly because it’s just a tired thing to do, but also because it will be back in fashion in a revivalist way in a few years time, as inevitably as the tides coming in and going out again; In fact, I may grow my hair into ‘curtains’ now, just to be slightly ahead of the curve (and simultaneously totally out of the loop)).

I can’t go through the rest of the video with this level of detail (there is no detail in the above, just tangents; it’s that kind of a day). What I will say is that both Marcella and Siobhan have studied and practised the fake smile (1.16 – both, 1.22 – Siobhan, 1.37 – Siobhan, 1.45 – Marcella, 1.56 – Marcella, etc) to the point of turning it in to a fine art; again another playground trope: the withering smile.

2.30, the rehearsal over, they have changed into their stage costumes, sparkly black spandex: now we’re talking!

More screaming in the futurist-architecture golden bedroom. (actually, it looks – deliberately, I’d suggest – a bit like a scene from Metropolis, this bit; the overabundance of makeup and silent cinema scream).

Finally, there is a party on a Shakespearian stage, with balloons and flashing lights. Then Shakin’ Stevens does his guitar solo. Actually, that ending reminds me a lot of the Cure’s video for ‘Friday, I’m in Love’, which I haven’t seen since for ages, which I’m watching now. Yeah, sort of; an ever-changing stage, that gets more and more crowded with a bizarre cavalcade of people.   

Listen 7

So, after that short Cure break (and a cup of tea), I’m still in the mood for a visual treat (and in need of not hearing that synth-cello part again), so here is a live version of the song.

And David Letterman’s dulcet tones make me immediately long for the synth-cello. Bring back the synth-cello, I don’t want to hear David Letterman. Listen to the way he says ‘Shakespeare’. Then the patronising ‘kids?’ like they’re not entirely ready to perform, and might be hiding in the front room eating chocolate snowmen off the Christmas tree (that was me.)

Immediately struck by how good the scream vocals are executed. Siobhan’s vocal style is slightly over-done here, bordering on embarrassing even, but she look amazing, so we can let it slide! Actually, the pre-chorus (“we hurt the ones we love the most”) is incredible. I think Marcella Detroit must be an amazing singer, and Siobhan is an amazing performer, so as a duo, they work perfectly. A few more fake smiles around 1.16. Is Marcella Detroit American? Were they big in America? ‘Yes’ and ‘not really’ respectively. Thanks Wikipedia!

Siobhan’s dancing at 1.51 is incredible. And that’s from someone who hates almost all forms of dancing.

I’m just noticing things now.

The guitar solo is disappointingly curtailed here; I don’t like that. But at least the video finished without too much of Letterman.

Listen 8

Back to the rap. I’m going to come to a conclusion this time.

What do I make of it?

There is one line that turns it around: the delivery of “said to the laureate”. Before that it’s a bit too contrived, a bit too overdone. But the phrasing of ‘said to the laureate’ makes it work. I love the pronunciation of ‘laureate’; the ‘t’ sound is really nice. Then it’s repeated a number of times through the word ‘hottentot’, but nowhere is it as beautifully said as in ‘laureate’.

So, it’s ok. No, it’s more than that, it’s good. I like the ‘rap’. It’s good. One more listen. Yeah. It’s good… Ah, it’s alright.

Listen 9

This time through, as with each of these ‘10 time listens’ I’m actually just going to listen to it, without pauses and repetitions of certain sections. Just a straight run-through. I think more than ever this is a necessary thing to do, because I keep getting side-tracked by aspects of the song, or things it reminds me of. Maybe that’s just the skittish mood I’m in…

 

Listen 10

…but I don’t think it is. This song seems to have a number of tangents built into it. The poetry, the Shakespeare references (this version of the video cuts it almost completely out, but there is a Shakespeare quote finishing the song: “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, they have their entrances and exits, and a man in his time plays many parts” – from, of course, as we all know, obviously, As You Like It [thanks again, Google]), it’s place within other late-80s/ early-90s guitar music; why bands such as The Smiths and The Cure obtained such a huge cult following, but Shakespears Sister did not (or did they? I don’t know). No, they didn’t. They were the one-hit-wonders. There’s so many shards that stick in me with this song. Ten listens in (as should be obvious by now, this number is pretty much arbitrary; I’ve listened to parts of this song many more times in writing this), and I still don’t think I’ve got anywhere near the bottom of this song. It’s a strange one. Actually, unlike the other songs I have listened to so far, I didn’t mind pausing and replaying parts of this song so much (though I enjoyed listening to it all the way through on play 9). Like I said, I think this song is made up of little fragments, each one catching the mind, each one leading it of down a different corridor. That is a subtle form of compliment, I suppose.


[1] High Hopes is definitely on the list of repeated tunes. Though it’s about ten minutes long; I’m going to have to wait for a particularly rainy day to do that one!

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The Studium and the Punctum in Music

This might not be a groundbreaking concept – indeed Richard Elliott (unbeknownst to me when writing this) has written a number of examples of stadium and punctum in Fado music at his blog – but one of the most prominent ‘discoveries’ I have made from the few ‘a song: ten times’ listenings that I have done (other than that I have an ability to listen to a piece of pop music an inordinate amount of times) is the applicability of Roland Barthes photography terms to popular music.

In ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes advances the presence of the studium and punctum as existing in the photograph as two elements that work together to ‘make’ the photograph. The studium is the context, the socio-cultural context; essentially the basic understanding of what is going on in the picture. The punctum is the often minute detail within the context that stands out, captures the attention, speaks to the viewer personally and lodges in the memory. When considering popular music’s chief components – the riff and the hook – one can see a comparable elements.

For the studium in music, I think of Phil Tagg’s ‘inter-objective comparative material’; that is the internal list of previously experienced sound and music that we associate the new with, contextualising, comparing and contrasting it within the ‘already known’. Thus, we hear a guitar playing distorted power chords, and we instantly conjure up previously heard chords, and the contexts and associations we have of it, building (and adding to) the map of musical interpretation.

For the punctum, I perhaps want to move away from the more obvious notion of a ‘hook’ to examine what I have found to be the genuinely addictive elements of songs. For me, they are often small details, often overlooked or unnoticed until closely analysed (i.e. listened to over and over again!). It could be a word, the phrasing of a word, one little warble in a note, a backing vocal low in the mix, a rasp of muted guitar strings. It is these little moments – occasionally even little mistakes – that lend a ‘personal’ weight to pop music, giving it a sting of relatability, arresting attention and allowing the song to be  claimed as ‘mine’ by the listener.

I am tempted to bring in another of Barthes’ theories; that of ‘the grain of the voice’. For it is in this grain – the often indefinable characteristic of the individual voice (and I think in musical terms, instruments and their players may have a unique grain to their voices as well; therefore I may talk about the ‘grain’ of the flugelhorn, or maybe the grain of Davey Graham’s guitar playing) – expressed and present in these momentary flashes that gives songs their punctum. I want to present a case study; ‘When You’re Next to Me’ by Mitch & Mickey, from the film ‘A Mighty Wind’. I would normally have included into this song the ten time listening group, but I am currently engaged in a non-stop listening obsession with this song, and it feels like it would ruin it – put it to bed early – to deliberately over-listen to it now. Instead I will address the studium (more prominent as it is a deliberate pastiche of a style, genre, and epoch of music making), then pull out a couple of examples of the punctum, in this song that really grab my attention.

I should preface this by saying that I absolutely love Catherine O’Hara, and have done since I was about six years old and first saw ‘Home Alone’.

The studium of this song is set within the first half of the first verse. Acoustic guitars, a folk style, a three chord love song. For me it is spiced up a little by the autoharp (and its player!), but it still definitely fits within that early-sixties folk revival paradigm. So Bob Dylan, Peggy Seeger, the Newport Folk Festival, etc are all brought to mind in the IOCM map of contextualisation. Though this song is a contemporary composition (and written almost (though not quite, certainly not to the same extent as the other songs in ‘A Mighty Wind’) as a joke) it is deliberately written as though it were from the 60s. the video to the song further sets this studium; the self-conscious, ageing performers, the microphones, the distant backing guitar and double bass; all speak to the well-formed image of American folk music, all set this song easily within that field, all constitute the studium for this song.

In the second half of the first verse comes the first punctum. The change in melody on the line “only good things do I see”, particularly the note held on the word ‘good’ (I don’t have a guitar with me as I write, so I can’t work it out!), really serve to awake part of me from the assurance of a simple melody over three chords. Even though I know it’s coming – even though I expect it, anticipate it, long for it each time it comes, I am given a little jolt of pleasure. A similar thing happens in the second half of the second verse, when Catherine O’Hara mirrors this melodic change (on the line “through a star-lit night”). Even though this part may be more expected, due to the punctum of the first verse, in the very way that it references back to that first instance (though in a new and interesting way) reinforces the effect of that punctum. The two are united and the punctum consolidated in the third verse as the two melodic flourishes are brought together in the killer moment for me, on the line “every dove lands at your feet”. It is a golden moment, perfectly set up, and totally glorious in its delivery.

One other example comes in the chorus with the addition of two chords – an expected relative minor chord (A minor – or B minor really, as there is a capo on the second fret) followed by an unexpected Ab (Bb) which jolts the listener out of the constructed studium of ‘three chord folk song’, before a triumphant returning it with the harmonies of “with glorious light”.

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A Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in Action

No sooner had I written the below about the Nokia ring tone tune, that someone posted this on Facebook. I needn’t really say much more about it; this example does exactly what my anecdote below does, and to analyse this piece of music (deliberately supposed to be ‘funny’) any further would be to ruin the joke somewhat; it pretty much speaks for itself!

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