Category Archives: Songs

Songs that saved your life: The Smiths – “The Headmaster Ritual”

THE SMITHS – The Headmaster Ritual (1985)

“Five years of education here proved to have no effect upon me whatsoever…except in a very adverse sense. Not to be recommended.”

In winter 1985, Morrissey walked The Oxford Road Show past childhood Manchester haunts, and stopped outside the gates of Stretford St Mary’s school. His sour pronouncements would compel the school’s sitting headmaster to mount a counteroffensive on local radio. The new Smiths LP, Meat Is Murder, was #1 in the U.K. album charts, while its tumultuous opening track, “The Headmaster Ritual,” made art out of the singer’s magnificent angst.

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s arch, vituperative lyric was neither the first nor last time Morrissey brayed about adolescent tribulations, but as the press and public’s fascination with his thematic material intensified, he began using his celebrity to ramrod a wider array of targets. The results could be spectacular. As the lead song on a chartbusting LP, “Ritual” was guaranteed analysis and notoriety, and its subject matter further distanced The Smiths from the Brit pack.

Morrissey’s March 1985 walking tour of Manchester, courtesy The Oxford Road Show:

The host album’s a wonderful piece of work, the most bewitching and beguiling of the four Smiths studio LPs. Miles ahead of  The Smiths‘ stiff and boxy execution, Meat Is Murder sounds luscious, muscular, vivacious. The all-hands-on-deck stylistic breadth’s amazing: consider the ground covered, from “What She Said”‘s metalheaded clangour to the swampy, multitracked guitar break in “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” from “Well I Wonder”‘s desolate, rain-soaked reverie to the pound of flesh exacted by the stridently funked-out “Barbarism Begins At Home.”

And then, the lyrics. They’re the reason so many of us dig The Smiths in the first place, and while Morrissey arguably grew more artful over the next decade, Meat‘s lyrics represent the best Smiths-era expression of his morose, inescapably magnetic confessionalism: while he’s still teasing out his Wilde-ly romanticized frustrations, in improving upon The Smiths‘ model, his delivery’s rawer and less fanciful, experiential consequences more desperate and deep. Meat Is Murder diarizes fatalistic romantic entropy, dicey political rage, unsettling social forays, and, famously, “belligerent ghouls [who] run Manchester schools.”

The Headmaster Ritual” live in Madrid, May 19, 1985:

“The Headmaster Ritual”‘s plainspoken imagery was unsettling (and is possibly even moreso today, a quarter-century further removed from the excessive corporal punishment once common to the English school system). With accounts of child abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – a matter of public record easily recalled through any Google search, “Ritual”‘s grey, dead-ended grimness ranks among Morrissey’s most powerful statements on inequity.

Mid-week on the playing field,                                                                                        Sir thwacks you on the knees.                                                                                   Knees you in the groin, elbow in the face.                                                        Bruises bigger than dinner plates.                                                                                     I wanna go home, I don’t wanna stay…                                                  Lalalalalala la-ee-ay…

Perhaps Morrissey’s taken poetic license with his recount of life on the soccer pitch at Stretford St Mary’s. Perhaps not. The word deployment’s awfully effective, either way. Thwack. Who else uses that in a song lyric? The mid-verse repetition of “knees,” first mentioned as the hapless victim’s body part, then as his tormentor’s weapon of choice. The ingenious long-vowel rhyming scheme incorporating “face,” “plates,” “stay” and the feral, wordless chorus yodel.

The couplet that gets me has to be the last verse’s “Please excuse me from gym/I’ve got this terrible cold coming on…” I went to Canada’s most prestigious boys’ preparatory school for five years (“not to be recommended”). Competition loomed at every turn, an exhausting and exhaustive gauntlet which re-made and re-modeled athletic, scholastic, social and pyschological heroes and zeroes on a weekly, if not daily basis, where class reports were sometimes graded by peers and field trips reasserted the alpha, beta and omega statuses of 10- and 12-year old boys, under the yawping direction of burly gym teachers and hirsute music instructors who grabbed shirt collars and screamed at below-average performances. Please excuse me from gym…Feigned illness? Oh, I used that. Sometimes it got me out of an undesirable task. Sometimes it got me screamed at. In “Ritual,” Morrissey’s pubescent sadsack finds himself grabbed and kicked in the showers. If this were going on today there’d be a whole lotta sad vaguebooking, a whole lotta investigation, a whole lotta publicity, a whole lotta withdrawn financial support. In “Ritual,” the protagonist only knows humiliation. In “Ritual,” Morrissey – supported by Marr’s cascade of jagged riffage, Andy Rourke’s ornate, thrusting basslines and Mike Joyce’s no-nonsense snare and cymbal work – exposes a bully pulpit for the monstrosity it is, and the result is one of the four or five best tracks in The Smiths’ canon.

And now, curios for the curious:

In 2009, Marr discussed Smiths riffs for a Fender guitar promo. In this excerpt, he lays out “Ritual”‘s central figure:

By 2004, Morrissey had taken to playing “The Headmaster Ritual” in concert, albeit at a slower tempo. This clip’s from the official tour DVD, taped in Manchester on the occasion of the singer’s 45th birthday, May 22, 2004:

In November 2007, Radiohead tackled a pair of cover versions by Manchester’s twin legends: the incipient New Order’s post-Curtis single, “Ceremony,” and “The Headmaster Ritual.” The Smiths cover’s energetic, full of feeling and worth a listen, if not a patch on the original article:

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Songs that saved your life: The Big Apple Band (pre-CHIC) – “You Should Be Dancing”

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THE BIG APPLE BAND – You Should Be Dancing (1976)

Nile Rodgers has a must-read memoir out in late 2011, and while walking the press gauntlet he’s maintained his admirable, fan-interactive approach on Facebook and Twitter. One of Nile’s great shares this fall is a clutch of privately filmed performances immediately pre-dating his big break into the disco and pop music scene as the fulcrum of CHIC. Filmed in late 1976, these clips are riveting pieces for any disco or ’70s soul fan, and I’d like to spotlight the one that killed me from its opening bars.

In one of pop music’s great meta moments, this clip presents the backbone of disco’s greatest performing band covering a recent #1 hit by the world’s most popular mainstream disco band, on what looks like a tiny, rented soundstage, with absolutely no indication of the fame and riches to come. At this point, these guys are just trying to get a record deal, and they’ll play any place that promises a payday. Including New York City area high schools and biker bars.

Think about that for a second.

Now, this band is not the same Big Apple Band that placed a Beethoven disco interpretation on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1977, effectively forcing a name-change for Rodgers and his equally important running mates Bernard Edwards (bass) and Tony Thompson (drums). The Big Apple Band we see here was –despite extant pedigree (all were successful session players) – a start-up venture susceptible to brand name pilfering and record label rejections. School of hard knocks, yeah?

In the Bee Gees’ iconic performance, “You Should Be Dancing” makes a superb pop single, airy and fleet despite the density of the arrangement, so fluidly played its innate rock heaviness is hardly noticeable. Bells ‘n’ whistles production – conga percussion, punchy horn charts, the Gibb brothers in biting falsetto mode – places the emphasis on the high end, the kind of thing that sounds great coming out of tinny speakers and AM car stereos. The breakdown even showed a clear understanding of early disco music dynamics; this group was no mere genre tourist. Released in June 1976, it quickly made #1 around the world and reaffirmed the Gibbs’ place in the pop firmament. They were huge, and about to get even bigger.

The Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson performance, stripped down to an almost metallic clangour, is hard-as-nails funk disco. Shudderingly physical, thrillingly intense stuff, with a little extra shading from a lead guitarist and singer. Interpreting another’s work, they play it loose and loud. Signature styling abounds: Edwards’s thumping basslines were miraculous – any CHIC YouTube clip invariably sports gobsmacked commentary from what appear to be younger, newer listeners in discovery mode – while Rodgers’s rhythm guitar technique (“chucking,” Edwards called it) has always sounded like precision-drilled sunbursts. Together they are phenomenally simpatico, one of the great axe tandems in rock history (Cropper and Dunn, Townshend and Entwistle…there aren’t many this good).

With Nile and Nard in recognizable form, Thompson is the revelation here. An incredibly heavy drummer (”He hits the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen” – Rodgers), his CHIC tracks were marvels of control and economy, wherein any short roll or flare could make your heart skip a beat. But on “You Should Be Dancing” he is unhinged, from the speedy fourth bar tom roll to the clatter of his hi-hat playing. Some of that clatter is miking technique. The rest of it is hands and feet, and Thompson had great ones.

The daunting task of covering for the three-headed Bee Gee vocal monster fell to Bobby Cotter, a Jesus Christ, Superstar cast member hired into the Big Apple Band as lead singer and face. In Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Rodgers writes, “he looked like a star and we looked like his band.” Cotter’s loose-limbed physical presence infects his delivery with similar spirit, unbridled and flamboyantly visceral. Sort of like Thompson, actually. He’s got amazing range, a delivery entirely at odds with CHIC’s deadpan female leads. As producers, whether for CHIC or their numerous clients, Rodgers and Edwards tethered singers to the songs. It’s tempting to wonder what Cotter might’ve done with CHIC’s own material. Alas, behavioural tics rattled his image-conscious Big Apple bandmates, and Cotter was left on the cutting room floor.

Functioning as a cover band here, the Big Apple Band brief is simply to get people bumpin’. They should be dancing. As a talent reel-cum-historical artefact, “You Should Be Dancing” is a thunderous rough draft from a band on the verge of history, working out the kinks while showing obeisance to a group they’d eventually outperform in the idiom for which each is best remembered. Thanks for sharing, Nile.

Further viewing: Big Apple Band soundstage covers of “Getaway” (Earth, Wind & Fire), “Sweet Thing” (Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan) and “Lowdown” (Boz Scaggs).

Songs that saved your life: The Blue Nile – “The Downtown Lights”

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THE BLUE NILE – The Downtown Lights (1989)

I’m writing this at 3 a.m., soft rainfall and ambient lightning flashes outside suggesting, at last, the advent of summer weather, and all I want to do is skip down to the street corner to catch retreating car lights dance off scattered pools of rain water in the road. I never did this before I saw the video for The Blue Nile‘s “The Downtown Lights” in the early ’90s, but I’m stuck with the mental image of Paul Buchanan ambling through the neon-lit video set, singing those love-drunk opening lines:

Sometimes I walk away,

when all I really wanna do is love and hold you right.                

There is just one thing I can say: Nobody loves you this way…

It’s fitting The Blue Nile follow Sinatra in this blog because very few bands of the rock era – if any – do late-night soul searching as well as Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Among post-punk and new wave bands, The Smiths are surely the most quotably incisive authors on the human condition, and I don’t mean it as a condemnation when I say their music’s often too busily inventive, the words too on-point, for them to be the band for all depressive seasons. I reference Morrissey’s lyrics all the time – they grow more profound the older I get – but his band doesn’t always get pole position when melancholia strikes. OMD and New Order wrote thoughtful songs in this vein, wisely allowing simple wordplay and imagery to adorn, rather than dominate, their ruminative numbers. The Go-Betweens wrote about love and love lost from an earnestly poetic, adult perspective, largely forsaking cinematic grandeur for indie guitar angularity. All of these artists should fill any good, left-of-mainstream heartbreak playlist. But none of them match peak performance Blue Nile, and few songs measure up to “The Downtown Lights.”

The opening passage is incredible. A shimmering fanfare that sounds like the moon bursting through the clouds. Simple keyboard strokes and measured percussion set to a walking gait. Gorgeous reverb accentuating the high-end – what Trouser Press aptly called the “pristine click” – while a ghostly, held keyboard chord glimmers throughout. There’s not a hell of a lot of melodic detail, but the sum of parts makes for a beautiful, hopeful start.

And then, Buchanan. They’ve compared him to Sinatra, you know. His tinder-dry, weary voice bends under the emotional toil, an everyman voice for the ages, taking the simplest of words and making them sound profound by dint of exquisite phrasing. The verse delivery is sublime, but to these ears the song’s obsessive middle eight (“How do I know you feel it? How do I know it’s true?) is the hook. Behind Buchanan, the music ebbs and flows to match his wavering confidence, shading from a warm, fuzzy glow to spare, chilly uncertainty, but my God, man: when he bursts into that exultant “yeah, yeah, yeahhh,” I really do think it’s gonna be alright. The song breaks down and rebuilds towards the outro, a perfect four-and-a-half minute single, but it’s sorely missing a phenomenal coda I need to tell you about.

Just past the five-minute mark of the even-better album version, the incandescent swirl of synths evaporates as clipped, funk-style guitar drops in like an unwanted gust of cold air. Cue one of Buchanan’s soon-to-be trademark impressionistic raps, encroaching sobriety sparking a frustrated, half-spoken array of images pulled from his boozy stumble around town, neon-lit streets, rental cars, empty bars, chimney tops and trumpets, his voice growing ever-more exasperated while the music builds again, to peak with a magisterial shout: I’m tired of crying on the stairs! The downtown lights!

How do I know you feel it?

How do I know it’s true?

Next time the rain’s splashed an impressionistic glow across your city streets, why don’t you slip into your galoshes and take a peek at the transformation of the downtown strip a few hours after the last bar’s closed: a couple of taxis roaming for last fares, the hum and buzz of electric wires overhead, the faint tingle of perfume and desperation, a sampling of lonely wanderers looking for answers to questions unasked, questions unanswered.

The highly recommended full-length album version  

The original UK video version  

***

“The Downtown Lights” was the lead single from the second Blue Nile LP, 1989’s Hats. Reaching #67 (U.K.),  it remains the best-known Nile song, no doubt aided by adult contemporary cover versions recorded in the succeeding half-decade by both Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox.

Songs that saved your life: Frank Sinatra – “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning”

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FRANK SINATRA – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (1955)

Frank Sinatra died 13 years ago today, May 14th, 1998. And I barely noticed. Satisfied with the music of my youth, Sinatra represented a different set of musical values and themes. I did not need his art to give voice to my personal concerns. That would change.

When I finally took the plunge in March 2002, it was the result of a desultory five-year gestation period of Scott Walker solo records, ’60s bachelor pad swank, spy movie soundtracks and half-forgotten memories of some hard-swinging Tony Bennett numbers. After some careful reading, I chose Sinatra’s third Capitol Records LP, 1955’s In The Wee Small Hours, as my starting point. I love songs about heartbreak, and despite a youthful assertion that nobody could top Morrissey for dark-night-of-the-soul hand-wringing, I’d read no one ever did it better than Sinatra.

The Frank Sinatra of 1955 was back on top of the entertainment world, with a battle-scarred lustre lending gravitas to every move he made. Over the previous half-decade, he’d scandalized America like no entertainer before him, beginning with divorce as the consequence of serial adultery. He’d been fired by his film studio, dropped by his booking agency and released from his recording contract with Columbia Records. His press agent died suddenly; his doomed second marriage to actress Ava Gardner reduced him to suicide attempts and brawls with the press. He’d lost his voice and he was losing his hair. All of this was a matter of public record, which made his 1954 Oscar win for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity a life-changing moment without precedent or parallel in English-language popular art. His is referred to as the greatest career comeback in history.

Never a dull moment: Sinatra on the August 29, 1955 cover of Time.

Despite the career resurgence, Sinatra remained unhappy in his personal life. He never got over Gardner. It’s important to recognize that when listening to “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning.” Sinatra chose it as the title track and leadoff song for his first full-length album with Capitol. The long-playing record was in its infancy when the 39-year-old singer hatched the idea of crafting records with thematically linked songs. Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter. He chose from a pool of show and film standards and newly commissioned pieces from in-house writers. The “Hours” team of David Mann and Bob Hilliard had limited exposure to Sinatra at that point – Mann had played piano on a few Columbia-era Sinatra recordings – but from the moment they demoed the song for him, he was sold.

Not that I knew any of this in 2002. I just pressed ‘play’ and waited.

I was staggered from the first line. The phrasing is out of this world. Initially I couldn’t track what he was doing, but I was bewitched, fascinated. The Sinatra method involved studying a song’s lyric for days or weeks – without the music, mind – the better to parse its meaning and emotional potential. Music historian Jonathan Schwartz wrote Sinatra was “the only singer I’ve ever heard who could sing a semi-colon.” What you hear during “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” is the incandescent genius of an artist who has lived this song’s message night after night after night after night in his personal life, pumping the words full of the hard-won right to be reflective and lonely.

Sinatra also tailors his delivery to Nelson Riddle‘s beautifully delicate, lullaby-like arrangement. The whispered celesta-plus-strings introduction is all the set-up Sinatra needs, his first line stripping away everything save an impression of street lamp glow squeezing between the cracks in the window blinds, lighting on a motionless figure slumped in an easy chair, drinking or smoking alone, eyes fixed on the door. There’s no call for histrionics in such solemn company, so Sinatra flexes his portamento style of note-bending, gracefully rounding into notes, constantly playing with the intensity. Listen to the gorgeous first verse, how he takes his foot off the pedal on “morning,” the carefully enunciated p at the end of “asleep,” the drawn-out ssst in “most of all.” Weariness pervades, but tenderness is still present. It’s only after the mid-song interlude he returns with defeat looming closer: a truncated version of the first verse, in which he sings “you’d be hers if only she would call” at 2:07 with a different inflection from its first appearance at 0:59, hints at spiritual decay, the scene you’d expect upon checking in on a loved one a week further into their mourning period – the clothes more rumpled, days of stubble on chin and cheek, the shittier, cheaper bottle of bourbon tableside. When Sinatra sings the final phrase, “most of all,” the heaviness is nearly unbearable.

Staggering, stupendous stuff. It’s one of the finest vocal performances I’ve ever heard. Three minutes after I’d begun my Sinatra journey, I was all in. I was born to listen to this. I haven’t stopped.

Sinatra would go on to record dozens of songs in this vein – some nearly as good (the so-called “suicide” albums were chock full of this exquisiteness: besides In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You? [1957], Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely [1958] and No One Cares [1959] all mine the same elegiac mood with rewarding results) – but for me, the first cut was the deepest. For anyone who’s ever lost a night’s sleep to obsessing over love lost, broken or untouchable, “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” is your anthem of discontent.

Rest in peace, Frankie.

"Ladies and gentlemen, may you all live to be 102 years old and the last voice you hear be mine." Sinatra on the May 25, 1998 cover of Time.

Songs that saved your life: Morrissey and David Bowie – “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”

MORRISSEY – I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (1992)        DAVID BOWIE – I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (1993)

For all his utility as a virtual Facebook sadsack status generator (does iPhone have an app for that yet?), Morrissey‘s bag of tricks is light on bona fide homilies. One of his most affecting songs, 1992’s torch ballad “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” is one of those rare birds.

The song also sparked one of U.K. pop’s great inside jokes, when David Bowie chose to cover what was, in essence, Morrissey’s Bowie homage.

“I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” began life as a 1991 demo by Mark E. Nevin, offered midway through a two-year collaborative partnership of middling quality and Keystone Kops-like weirdness. Nevin co-wrote 80 per cent of Kill Uncle, the weak sister LP that coincided with a sudden spike in Morrissey’s Stateside record sales. Nevin’s greater contribution to the cause was his role in drafting many of Mozzer’s most-significant post-Smiths players (Alain Whyte, Gary Day, Spencer Cobrin, and somewhat circuitously, Boz Boorer), acting on a brief from the singer that he was entering a rockabilly phase and required suitably bequiffed musicians.

Assuming good standing, Nevin sent Morrissey a new batch of songs, including “Someday.” Mozzer took to it immediately, writing Nevin “I’ve listened to it so much that I’ve actually lost my eyesight.” By the time he recorded it a year later, the bequiffed rockers had all-but-replaced Nevin. The resulting record, Your Arsenal, produced by Bowie’s celebrated Ziggy Stardust-era sidekick Mick Ronson, was the first really good proper album in Morrissey’s post-Smiths career, a brawny set of glam-tinged tunes that sort of acted as a pre-echo to Suede and the fast-approaching Britpop. But although Arsenal‘s beefy sound dominates, two of its more reflective numbers stand out: the forlorn, inexhausibly quotable “Seasick, Yet Still Docked” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday.”

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You might think Morrissey’s coasting because the lyric is an optimistic bromide about stiff upper lips in the face of rejection, but instead of employing the sick-and-dull-and-plain defence tactics of, say, The Smiths’ “Accept Yourself,” this time he sidesteps whatever ails, and simply extends a hand: “please wait…please wait…don’t lose faith…” In that wavering, clenched-jaw croon, hovering above a lovely, slow-motion track filled with ghostly radio static and dramatically double-timed guitar strumming set halfway between swampy (“How Soon Is Now?”) and pomp-y (“Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”), the lyric’s awfully effective.

For Bowiephiles, drawn to Morrissey’s solo music through the involvement of Ronson – then terminal with lung cancer – “Someday”‘s cheeky outro was the in-joke that launched a thousand knowing smiles. Swanning into the final minute, “Someday” locks into the unmistakeable rise-and-fall melody of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”, the 1972 album finale Bowie routinely used to close his Ziggy concerts (as preserved most famously at his Hammersmith “retirement” show in July 1973; the video clip’s linked at the end).

The in-joke drew momentum as Bowie set to recording 1993’s Black Tie White Noise album, with several old trusted hands on board, including a pair of ex-Spiders from Mars: pianist Mike Garson, and…Mick Ronson. In a delicious fit of trainspotting fervor, Bowie, having sensed “Someday”‘s distinctly glam flavour, decided to record his own version less than six months after Morrissey’s was released. After coyly moving Morrissey’s early-’70s reference points ahead by a few years (“I thought it would be fun to do it in the way I would have done it in 1974-ish”), the incestuous circle was complete: Bowie had covered Morrissey’s Ziggy Stardust homage in the style of Young Americans. (No word on whether Moz was next tempted to dabble in disco.)

Bowie dispensed with the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” climax, by the way. Probably one conceit too far.

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If you’re wondering which version I prefer, I’m going with Morrissey’s. His acolytes are nothing if not weary, wary and worn-down by serial romantic and social slights, and the ingenuous it-gets-better message is an ideal break from those wittier, bathetic songs of surrender. Sometimes a straight-up tune about sunrises helps you get through the night, y’know? And to be honest, Bowie’s at a disadvantage here because we know he’s had love and is in love (he’d just married Iman, for frig’s sake), and that creates a distancing effect Morrissey’s one-of-us persona doesn’t have to contend with.

For his silver medal performance Bowie affects his boomy “Fat Elvis” voice. The histrionic, gospel chorus-backed take has one transcendant passage in the final verse, when he hollers hard enough to force the air out of the room, and with it, all the heartbreak implied by the lyric. It may be the best moment in either version. This glutinous overhaul actually works in the manner of all great, ridiculous art: in blowing emotion so out of proportion, the only artist capable (read: pretentious enough) of doing justice to his disciple’s celebrated psychosis manages to create a separate work nearly as essential as the original. Morrissey reportedly cried when Bowie played it to him for the first time.

Click on the images above to hear Morrissey’s 2004 tour version and Bowie’s 1993 album recording. (You realize the guys are about the same age in those clips? Moz’ clip was filmed the night he turned 45; Dave was three months past his 46th.)

As promised above, the 1973 Ziggy Stardust “retirement” announcement, followed by “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”:                               http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0WQldWMrPs

Songs that saved your life: New Order – “Everything’s Gone Green”

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NEW ORDER – Everything’s Gone Green (1981)

After releasing tentative product either heavily indebted to Ian Curtis’ doomy worldview (Joy Division actually rehearsed both sides of the “Ceremony”/”In A Lonely Place” single) or scared shitless in the wake of his suicide (Movement is a fine album, if easier to admire for its sound and style than for any number of great songs), New Order‘s first hall of fame moment arrived in September 1981 with the “Procession” single. A gorgeously fleet dream-pop number written by drummer Steve Morris, “Procession” introduced the gleaming synth-wash effect that dominated so many of New Order’s ruminative mid-period songs. But it’s the B-side whereupon they ripped up the rules and staked their claim as the most influential British group of the decade.

Said B-side, “Everything’s Gone Green” is a five-star sunburst, its exhilerating physicality sometimes only partly conveyed in early live versions (like the one linked above, hailing from a November ’81 NYC show). But the song’s essence was perfectly realized in the studio recording, leaving hardly any room for improvement or expansion of ideas in a concert setting. A perfect record, then, its je ne sais quoi the byproduct of studio whimsy.

Singer/guitarist Barney Sumner, on the signature sequencer line running throughout the song:

We triggered it by Steve playing a hi-hat beat into a 24-track tape machine and then sticking a wire into the tape machine’s VU meter and connecting that to the synthesizer. Somehow it just worked. It really was just about sticking a wire into something and seeing what happened.

 

Taking a logical, nay crucial, cue from Giorgio Moroder’s Donna Summer records, the band and producer Martin Hannett hot-wired Eurodisco’s rigid sequencer synthetics to post punk’s doleful thrum, using Morris’ sloppy brilliance as its fulcrum. As a drummer, Morris’ uncanny time-keeping played chicken with technical imprecision, meaning he could flit about the kit like a spasmodic Stewart Copeland, tom tom hits spilling everywhere, only to hop back on the beat for the next bar. In later years he refined his approach to playing fills over loops, but in those days he sweated every drum hit with beautiful abandon. Tracking that hi-hat pattern to a sequencer, “Everything’s Gone Green” found its heartbeat. Peter Hook’s droning bass lead and Sumner’s wrist-burning guitar shanks gave it its soul.

The definitive 12″ version of “Everything’s Gone Green” (audio only): hhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJNOkQ-jqCE

“Everything’s Gone Green” doesn’t have a chorus, per se. It’s a three-act song, with a lengthy intro and outro bookending a series of vocal refrains. Sumner never could sing and play guitar credibly at the same time. In New Order’s rough-and-tumble early records, the breaks following his vocals provided a spot for all those pent-up notes. Sometimes the passages were serenely beautiful. Sometimes they were beastly rhythm workouts. Sometimes they were both. On “Everything’s Gone Green,” they were minimally hypnotic, scraping, furious.

The primal scream kicks in around the three-minute mark on the recorded version (see audio link above), after Sumner’s last verse. Someone turns the blipping sequencer line way up, Morris starts throwing live drum fills around like he’s in a caber toss, and the guitaring – brittle, bone-dry and rudimentary – leads the two-minute charge to its dizzying end. Hook’s imperious bassline never strays from its role at the eye of the swirling mass, admirably restrained. At full throttle, the song’s maruading coda is like none other, and it is possibly the most exciting passage I’ve ever heard in post punk music.

Tethering rock instruments to computer-generated rhythms wasn’t unheard of in 1981, but New Order’s glowering genius kept ’em ahead of the pack. To a peer group then fuelling pop’s last great singles era, largely still awed by Joy Division’s legacy, this bold music showed the way. Breaking from the sad-eyed languor of the first post-Curtis records, New Order’s embrace of dance rhythms brought sunlight to the playground. Legend has Brian Eno bursting into a Bowie recording session for “Heroes” in 1977, clutching Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” 45, announcing he’s “just heard the sound of the future.” Four years later, I wonder how many jaws dropped when the needle touched down on “Everything’s Gone Green.”

Songs that saved your life: David Bowie – “Life On Mars?” and “Ashes To Ashes”

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DAVID BOWIE – “Life On Mars?” and “Ashes To Ashes” (1980)

Today (January 8th) is David Bowie‘s 64th birthday.

His 64th? Yeah, it’s caught me off guard, too. It’s an outrageous number to consider, due as much to the abiding memory of Bowie’s age-defying prettiness as his retreat from the public eye after heart surgery in 2004. Since then, he’s restricted his live appearances to one-offs with the likes of Arcade Fire and David Gilmour. And even these hail from the days of Funeral and Syd Barrett’s death. This absence – retirement? – has frozen our impressions of him, beautiful in middle-age, but never, ever, old.

If the quality records he was making in his fifties stand as his last testament(s), so be it. The Bowie canon’s among the most fascinating and satisfying bodies of work in any artistic endeavour, whether in terms of its trickle-down effect on those who followed, or the sensory pleasures of the material itself.

This clip, which aired September 3, 1980, recalls Bowie’s lone appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. At the time, he was living in New York City, in rehearsals for his Broadway run in The Elephant Man and wrapping his 14th album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). His commercial stock had dipped in the U.S., but his influence loomed large. In 10 years, he’d veered from proto-metal to folk rock to glam rock to blue-eyed-soul to avant-garde synthpop. Every phase resonated throughout – and suggested an approach to – rock music, particularly the left-of-mainstream stuff. As it has for decades hence. And all of this genre-leaping, myth-exploding, audience-confounding restlessness occurred in a period equivalent in duration to Coldplay’s career.

They do not make ’em like they used to.

And here’s a pile of proof.

It’s a typical Bowie masterstroke – that is, one rife with significance perpetrated by his fan-flock after a whiff of suggestion (who d’ya think Morrissey learned that from?) – that he paired the then-nine-year-old “Life On Mars?” with his current single, “Ashes To Ashes.” Or as Carson limply informs, it’s “two songs about space.” (Well, Tonight Show does air in places like Nebraska. Gotta give ’em something they can chew on, eh Johnny?)

This really is a wonderful clip. Bowie hadn’t toured in two years and smoked like a chimney, but voice training for the Broadway stint kept him in fighting form, fluidly grandiose as ever, presenting two of his most vocally demanding songs for a national, mainstream audience. Critics used to argue Bowie wasn’t really singing so much as he was declaiming. Christ, I don’t care whether you can see the strain in his body language – Bowie’s best songs always featured wandering, somersaulting melodies most singers couldn’t touch with a octave’s worth of Auto-Tune. He’s on point throughout, and this uncommonly brilliant art-rock is all the more delicious for it.

“Life On Mars?” was a #3 U.K. hit as a between-albums gap-filler in 1973; “Ashes To Ashes” made #1 in late 1980. Neither single made the Top 100 in the U.S. <sigh> (I’ll reserve judgement.)

And for the curious, heee-ee-eere’s Dave, walking his beat in Soho, in November 2009. Happy Birthday, Spaceboy.

Songs that saved your life: The Kinks – “Days”

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THE KINKS – Days (1968)
The first time I heard this song I welled up by the second chorus, thinking of my pet dog dying a few months earlier. “Days” thus became part of the firmament, because I only have a handful of songs I’ve reacted so strongly to upon first listen. Evidently the song has that kind of effect on people.

 

I’d cut my wrists to write a song as good as ‘Days’ – Bob  Geldof.

“Days” was written and recorded in the spring of 1968, following the first serious downturn in The Kinks‘ commercial fortunes. They’d already suffered stateside, as a performance ban had effectively killed their progress in America (blacklisted, following a 1965 no-pay, no-play fiasco in California). But now their records were stiffing in England as well: where once a run of 12 out of 13 singles made the Top 10, the last pair had peaked no higher than #20.

With fan interest subsiding, bassist Pete Quaife on the verge of quitting and leader Ray Davies‘ songwriting taking a decided turn away from the mod zeitgeist that had sustained the band through its early successes, “Days” has an elegiac bent, and this is why the song is so powerful. In terms of intent, Davies wrote it under the belief The Kinks’ days were numbered. He was always a disarmingly direct lyricist, so perhaps there’s nothing unexpected about the wistfulness herein:

Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me…

Days I’ll remember all my life.
Days when you can’t see wrong from right.
You took my life, but then I knew that very soon you’d leave me.
But it’s all right, now I’m not frightened of this world, believe me.

But I think it’s the music that packs the killer punch here. Taken at a gentle, acoustic amble, “Days” flows like a pretty folk song through its first 80 seconds, until Davies’ masterful arrangement kicks back the curtain to take on an even deeper melancholy. It’s at this point – that second chorus which had me on the verge of tears – when Mick Avory‘s beautifully recorded, lightly delayed drums grow more assertive, when Dave Davies‘ harmony vocal raises the hairs on your arms, when the mellotron string accompaniment grows even richer, that “Days” gains its unstoppable momentum, encapsulating what’s so wonderful – and bittersweet – about companionship in all its myriad forms: it’s possibly impermanent, as life itself is fleeting, but the experience will stay with you forever. The tag line (“thank you for the days…”), followed immediately by a gorgeously, absurdly simple five-note melodic climb, seals the deal. It’s one of the most transcendant passages in pop music’s long history, I tell you.

The rest is icing. Wait until the double-timed drums punch a hole in the sky during the last chorus. Wait until the dramatic final call out, all rising bassline and searing strings and clattering percussion. “Days” temporarily restored The Kinks to the upper reaches of the U.K. charts, peaking at #12. A year later, the BBC elected to air this clip during its final music program of the decade, as if to acknowledge its potential as an ideal song for the closing credits to life’s little movies.

“Days” is one of the greatest songs of its year, or any other year. It’s my favourite Kinks song, and possibly my favourite song of the decade by a British artist. And if I have a say in what gets playlisted for my closing credits…

And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me…