Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S (1987)

When I first heard this song, I was going through some kind of irrational ‘no hip-hop’ phase. I don’t really know why – it was probably hip-hop’s best ever era, and here I was more or less refusing to listen to it (though oddly I seem to know all of the era’s greatest hip-hop tracks – somehow.

What I was listening to was all kinds of arty English music – you know, playing the part of suburban Canadian sophisticate. My wardrobe wasn’t entirely black, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the songs I was listening to.

Anyway, suddenly there was ‘Pump Up the Volume’. To somebody with the musical rigidity of a North American radio station, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was uncategorisable and thus did not compute. It was on 4AD, home to the artiest of the arty and the Britishest of the British, and had a cover that looked like it. It was by a band that technically didn’t exist (M/A/R/R/S were a one-off collaboration between two bands I’d never heard of and would never hear from again), it had about a million different remixes (okay, probably 5 tops, but that was revolutionary back then), and best of all, it wasn’t really a song at all.

It may not seem like such a big deal now, but that fact that ‘Pump Up the Volume’ was actually bits of a bunch of different songs cobbled on top of each other completely amazed me. I mean, I’d heard plenty of songs with samples and/or with scratches (and I’d heard ‘Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ and tried – and failed – to me impressed by it), but this was somehow more compelling. I immediately gave myself over to silly rhetoric about how all songs would sound like this in the future (for a brief moment, they did, first and foremost the Coldcut remix of ‘Paid in Full’, which might as well be the same track). What they call the ‘magpie’ aesthetic appealed to me conceptually, while still sounding good. It's a rare beast that, as they say, appeals to the mind as well as to the body.

Now, of course, songs like this are illegal (for the most part)… It’s easy to get overly swept up in the politics of sampling – it is an interesting discussion where things really aren’t clearly black-and-white – but what I miss about song constructions like this is how they manage to be both arty (thus appealing to my teenage self) and undeniably visceral as well. It seemed like people really were pushing the boundaries of what music was, all the while creating product that was genuinely enjoyable and danceable (not that I would have been caught dead dancing back then…). It isn’t often that you hear songs that are genuinely ‘prophetic’ – giving you a sense of what the future will be like – but listening to Ofra Haza trilling exotically over a flood of breakbeats, chants, soundbite phrases, scratches, guitars (how déclassé!) and kitchen sinks back in the day really did give you a sense that music was somehow changing.

Even if it turned out to be a false prophecy in the end…

Incidentally, if you ever doubt the arty credentials of this song, consider this: I have never seen it since or even found reference to it online, but I am absolutely sure that I can remember, when the song was popular, seeing its ‘sheet music’ for sale in a music shop. Picture, if you will, ‘sheet music’ for this song. Has there been a better conceptual-joke objet d’art since the glory days of dada?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1970)

Okay. I do admit it – my musical tastes have, on more than one occasion, been described as ‘gay’. It’s all good. I don’t happen to be gay, but as there’s no proven link between sexual preference and musical preference, all innuendo just washes off.

See, it’s all about the divas. I, you see, am a bona fide fan of divas. Not Mariah Carey – can’t stand her. Just the old school ones. Even at that, I am rather discerning with my divas. Allow me to elucidate.

I recently saw an ad touting a new season of “Canadian Idol” (the Canadian version of, surprise surprise, “American Idol”). Among the wannabes soundbited on the ad was a particularly histrionic woman screeching (as opposed to singing) “Come on and take it” (presumably to be followed, post-soundbite, by “Piece of My Heart”. We’re meant to watch and say ‘Hey! She can’t sing! She can only screech!’

People worldwide will hate me for saying this, but… That seems like a pretty decent imitation of Janis Joplin. I’ve never understood the appeal of Janis Joplin. She is, to me, what a diva should not be – aggressive, dissonant, indeed histrionic. What a diva should be… I’ve heard it said that power without strength is nothing. Having the pipes is nothing if you don’t know how to use them.

Observe Gladys Knight. With or without the Pips behind her, Gladys Knight can sing (so well, I’m tempted to spell it ‘sang’). To me, that means having a great instrument and having expert control over it. Diana Ross can exude personality, take you on a journey with the way she sells a song. But her pipes are not the most powerful. Aretha Franklin can tear the roof off of a church merely with her voice. But… wait. I can’t criticise Aretha Franklin – that’s a crime in certain jurisdictions. In any case, what Gladys has is the power and the glory. You can hear, or could at one point, an a capella version of this song on YouTube. It is a thing to behold. The girl can sing like hell. She’s broken hearted, she’s triumphant, she’s wilful, she’s dreamy. She sells it all so convincingly that you want to throttle the bugger that’s choosing some other girl over her. I mean, what, is he deaf?

There might be many out there who deride Motown and say that Gladys was at her best after Motown. I do know, especially from an instrumentation point of view, what they’re saying. But what Motown could do better than anyone out there is chain enough monkeys to typewriters that stunning compositions like this would come along often enough to keep everyone on top of their singles games (albums? Well… that’s what ‘greatest hits’ compilations are for…). In this particular case, the song is heartbreaking. The melody is as evocative as any screenplay and the dynamics tell as much as the words could ever hope to. For anybody suffering from a severe case of Jon-Cryer-as-Duckie-style unrequited love, this song couldn’t ring truer.

Difficult to imagine it happening to Gladys, mind you.

Lastly, the Pips, frankly more often an anchor than a set of wings, are perfectly fine in this song, staying to the background and making the gender-shift a little less annoying than it otherwise might be.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Born Slippy .NUXX" by Underworld (1996)

It’s a funny thing, memory. I was just listening the other day to Black Sabbath, to the Sex Pistols, to Nine Inch Nails. I even tried to listen to Led Zeppelin (couldn’t quite bear it, though). I was struck by the fact that songs that seem in our memories to be hard as nails turn out, listening again, to be soft little lumps of Jello. I mean, Ozzy Osbourne gurgling “I am Iron man!”? That’s comedy, not horror.

Which brings us to the present song, perhaps the only song in history to be harder than memory serves. Unlike so many songs that end by simulating dawn, this one starts in sunshine until the babbling words and thumping drums conspire to slowly drag you down.

Down where? Into hell? No, no, but at least into oblivion. This is a song that makes no sense pouring out of little computer speakers. It can only truly be observed on a crowded dance floor bathed in strobes and sweat. Apparently there are lyrics, though all I’ve ever heard is the words ‘boy’, ‘lager’ and ‘mega mega white thing’ over and over again. Of course, the lyrics aren’t the point at all.

Well, what is the point? Our boys in Underworld insist the song was all a joke. It’s apparently a remix of a song that I’ve never heard called “Born Slippy”. The remix was meant to be preposterous, its shouted vocals and relentless beats meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

Which goes to show you, of course, the truism that it is the people who create art who are least likely to be able to evaluate it. Additionally, it goes to show just how much Underworld themselves have stumbled aimlessly through their career like an escaped mental ward patient.

Underworld started in the early eighties in a group that, years before Prince did it, were known only as a squiggle, though they did relent and allow themselves to be called “Freur”. They then turned themselves into a crap band called Underworld, not to be confused with the middling band in question called Underworld. This one survived for precisely two albums., whose covers make them appear to have been Adam and the Ants or Sigue Sigue Sputnik or some nonsense.

Only after all that did Underworld, like the Bee-Gees before them, realize that they weren’t quite too old to start making the intelligent dance music that the kids were digging. Even at that, of course, though the music’s listenablility improved, they were still pretty much a failure. It took “Trainspotting”, the movie about Scottish junkies whose soundtrack was a defining feature of 90’s British musical ethos, to transform the two-year-old b-side of a flop single into an international hit and slice of ‘zeitgiest’.

Thank God for Scottish junkies.

It’s actually amazing in today’s more conservative musical climate to think that there was once a time when a song as extreme as this could even approach mainstream success. As it was, it was no Christmas number one, but it was ubiquitous enough that your grandmother might have spoke about ‘that strange song about lager’. Almost ten minutes long, largely amelodic thumping, it’s unlikely to inspire a Britney Spears cover. Yet there was a time when this is what radio sounded like.

That time was more than ten years ago now. And yet Underworld, active since the early eighties, are still soldiering on, unaware that they remain a 25-year one-hit-wonder.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"They Don't Know" by Tracey Ullman (1983)

Music tends to be, in my experience, a struggle between irony and sincerity. With the advantage of added-on hipness, usually irony-mongers dominate the FM dial and critical opinion. Sincerity-mongers, on the other hand, often dominate the AM dial and are sneered at.
Music can bring you down or lift you up. It’s your choice as a listener, frankly. Which doesn’t explain this song at all. Tracey Ullman, most famous as the person who midwifed the birth of the Simpsons, is a comedian. Out for yuks. She made one album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places”, where she tarted up a handful of covers in a kind of 60’s girl-group fashion. The whole thing screams ‘conceptual joke’. It screams ‘artifice.’ It has no right to be any good.
Yet it is. It’s utterly fabulous. I was 8 when it was released, too young to understand irony. I just fell utterly in love with the song, with the Farfisa, with the church bells, with the harmonies and, of course, with the ‘bay-bay’ squawked 1:51 into the song. I would never have questioned its sincerity, having had precisely the sincerity of an 8-year-old at the time. Even the obvious piss-take video, with our girl Tracey living up to her name in slippers and face mask (and Paul McCartney, for some reason).
It’s all heart-breaking, really. Taking advantage of a wide-eyed child like that, making him fall head over heels in love with the ‘poetry’ of a song that is ultimately a punch-line. Once more the cruel forces of fate take the beauty out of something and replace it with grim reality.
Except that whenever I play the song I immediately become that 8-year-old again, forgetting everything and instantly wide-eyed and in love with the world again. I am completely unable to listen to this song in public, even through headphones, because it inspires in me nothing so much as an uncontrollable desire to spaz-dance around the world yelping out the lyrics like a basset hound.
And then, it doesn’t really matter who Tracey Ullman is or how she earns her living. I’ve seen a fair amount of Ullman comedy. I see it as occasionally hilarious and frequently ha-ha half-funny. She is, ultimately, a footnote in history to me.
Yet on precisely one occasion she tapped into that spirit that animates all that is great in the universe and recorded three minutes of wistful hope and defiant joy that illuminates all that is great in the universe.
And a quick note concerning the songwriter, the late great Kirsty MacColl, who had regular access to this spirit-tap and used it to make wonderful and wonder-filled music right up until her tragic drowning death. Perhaps her version is even better. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard it.