Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Someone Saved My Life Tonight" by Elton John (1975)

“There was once a time when Elton John was wonderful – putting out amazing songs that weren’t in the least contrived and hackneyed at a rate of two albums a year or more.” Tell it to the kids of today and they won’t believe you…

Hell, tell it to the parents of the kids of today and they’ll have no reason to believe you. The Elton John I grew up with was a terrible embarrassment, chirping out meaningless drivel like “I’m Still Standing” or – gag – “Nikita”. He just seemed to get worse and worse. So logically, I presumed he had always sucked.

Not so, as present evidence can confirm. I may have heard this song a million times, yet every time it manages to take me by surprise. The emotional depth it presents still continues to stun. The dynamics it possesses, the tension and release. Elton sings it like he means it, and as far as I knew in the 80s, Elton didn’t mean anything. To anyone.

Elton was not completely innocent of suckage in his glory years. (“Bennie and the Jets”, anyone?) This song comes from an album that apparently is a ‘semi-autobiographical account of he and his songwriting partner’s lives’. The cover is all done up to look like a superhero comic and it has a similarly crap title that I can’t be bothered to Google at the moment. It didn’t have any ‘hits’ on it, so I never gave it a second thought. I don’t even know under what circumstances I first heard this song, but it left such an impression that I immediately hunted it down. Apparently, I have since learnt, it’s based on a true story in which Elton’s life was saved, from a suicide attempt or an overdose or something, by his brave and gallant lyricist Bernie Taupin (the songwriting partner I mentioned above).

To write a song, and a magnificently beautiful one, as thanks is a lovely gesture, except… well, Bernie Taupin is the lyricist. So if this is true, then Mr. Taupin saved his famous friend’s life and then composed a song of gratitude about it for that friend to sing back to him… masturbatory, anyone?

Doesn’t matter. If it is a true story, perhaps it cuts deep, and perhaps that explains why Elton here managed such a bravura performance, making you feel both the desperation and the gratitude. Or perhaps it’s just that Elton had yet to blow his emotional depth away with mountains of cocaine. Who can be sure?

In the end, what matters is this seven-minute slab of beauty and the emotional weight and ense of drama it carries. If it took Bernie Taupin saving Mr. Reg “Elton John” Dwight from an early death to bring that to life, then I guess the 30+ years of maudlin ick that followed it are worth it.
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Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Temptation" by New Order (1982)

At this point in this project, I’m planning on not duplicating artists. Sooner or later I’ll have to get over that – I mean, when it comes to sacred cows like Bob Dylan or the Beatles, you can’t just throw in one song as representative of them and be done with it. Certainly each of them have quite a few songs worthy of being considered among the ‘best ever’.

I mention those two ‘golden-age’ performers, but I haven’t gotten around to either of them yet. As strange as it may seem, at this point the artist I’ve had the hardest time narrowing down to a single song has been New Order.

Their modish design ethic on a chic boutique indie back in the 80s may have obscured the point, but New Order were shockingly consistent. Listening to their singles collection “Substance” reveals not a single song that couldn’t by rights appear here on this list. Their approach was so assured that they were pretty much guaranteed of quality each time out.

They’re an interesting band, New Order. The path they took from generic punk on “Warsaw” (recorded with Ian Curtis as Joy Division) to guitarless rave on “Fine Time” in less than ten years might not seem all that plausible except that each step of that journey was a completely logical product of the previous step. Their trajectory would have been chess-like methodical if it weren’t so plainly the result of blind flying. What made New Order’s halting journey to the dancefloor believable was the fact that, even when surrounded by Balearic beats and building up an ecstatic trance, they still seemed like outsiders, gazing at their shoes and vaguely embarrassed by it all. As a wallflower in need of deliberate coaxing myself, I could see in New Order kindred spirits on the dance floor.

Through it all, the main constant in Joy Division and New Order has always been Peter Hook. It is his bass playing that makes a New Order song, and whatever else it sounds like, if he is on bass, it’s genuine. “Temptation” has great lead bass lines, but what it also has is both melodic guitars and punchy drums. In other words, it’s an intermediate step in their journey, and being the single coming immediately before the iconic “Blue Monday” is the last time that they were truly stumbling in the dark, holding onto Joy Division’s residual audience without truly finding a new one of their own. They were soon to be heroes, but weren’t yet.

Which is remarkable, because Bernard Sumner’s amazing lead vocals (who says this man can’t sing?) on wonderfully enigmatic lyrics (who says this man can’t write?) pull you in, but the amazing, glorious never-ending mess of a groove that the band concocts behind him is truly what makes it worthwhile. At 7:00, it’s quite short by New Order single standards, but it’s not merely a generic dance-remix extension. It’s seven minutes long because it has seven minutes’ worth of things to say – disjointed things that might not have coalesced, but somehow do. Chorus? Verse? Bridge? Doesn’t matter. I recently read a comparison between New Order’s song structures and Pink Floyd’s. After initially scoffing, I thought about it, and there is some truth to it. Both of them write epics. But Pink Floyd’s epics don’t inspire careless abandon on the dancefloor. And are that much there worse for it.
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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Troy" by Sinéad O'Connor (1987)

I remember it. Toronto in a... well, I don't remember the weather. I do remember being a kid and playing hooky from school. I remember watching MuchMusic and seeing the VJ introduce some woman with a funny name and a funny accent. She was bald, which, to my twelve-year-old mind, was absolutely hysterical. I was only half-watching as whatever banal questions were met with whatever banal answers. So far, so irrelevant.

Until they played the video.

I don't recall when else I have been so utterly captivated. There's not much to the video except her naked and in gold paint. Yet somehow the video perfectly complemented the song. Which was...

It was...

Twenty years later I still can't explain why this song effects me the way it does. Something about it just pierces through my (admittedly thick) armour and slays me. Every time.

Maybe it's the way she effortlessly goes from whisper to scream, all the time in perfect control, with a searing heat, both of passion and of anger. Maybe it's the way those strings create a perfect vessel on which to navigate the stormy seas - tiny and plain but never capsizing.

Maybe it's just how completely and utterly new this strange creation was; how it was able to take my prematurely-wizened "been there, done that" twelve-year-old mind and slap it out of complacency, saying "There is much more out there that you still have no idea of".

It was just as mythical as the phoenix she sings about.

It seemed to show that there were entirely new modes of expression I was unaware of. Entirely new definitions of beauty and of power. I was completely floored. Transfixed, silent, mouth agape for the six-plus minutes of the song.

Turns out after the video, when they cut back to the studio, the entire working staff of MuchMusic was as shocked and transfixed as I was. There was the kind of reverent silence you probably get when a statue of the Virgin Mary starts crying. Then there was just this applause all round. It was so intriguing to me to see people spontaneously react that way on TV (remember that in the 80s, spontaneity on TV was a bad thing). Especially seeing people spontaneously react the same way I just had. It was truly wonderful.

Then, of course, Sinéad O'Connor became superhuge with a Prince cover, tried to continue pushing the envelope while under the spotlight of fame, messed up tragically, became a punchline, then, after all that... recorded a reggae album.


Still, before becoming a parody, she was the future of music. Hell, perhaps she was the future of Western Civilisation.

And after this accomplishment, a million punchlines are irrelevant.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" by Public Enemy (1989)

Being the age that I am, I missed several key 'Year Zeroes'. I wasn't born when Elvis, or Chuck Berry, or Ike Turner, or whoever it was who somehow magically 'birthed' rock and roll came out with whichever magnum opus was 'the first rock and roll song'. I wasn't alive for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". I was alive for "I Feel Love", "God Save the Queen" and "Rapper's Delight", but just barely - and more interested in Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" than any of the above.

One of the few true "Everything you knew is wrong" moments in music history that I can actually say I've witnessed is the release in 1988 of Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back".

I think one of the main reasons I was slow to warm to rap music was that the early era of rap music was, let's face it, decidedly light on meaningful lyrical content. The music was great, the verbal dexterity was impressive, sure. But lyrically most of the rap that was on the radio in the mid-eighties was pretty vapid lyrically.

Or, more to the point, if there was any depth I wasn't hearing it. Rap was okay, but it wasn't compelling. Chick D, on the other hand, had both a voice that pulled you in and the lyrics to make you shut up and listen. Hanging out with my friends and a boombox, I can only remember once being absolutely stunned into silence with a rap song. It was this particular one, though it could have been almost any on this album.

It wasn't just that piano riff (sampled apparently from Isaac Hayes). Like so much of the Bomb Squad's work, it seemed annoyingly compelling, or else compellingly annoying at the time, but years later I see it as a great exercise in tension and release. More specifically, each of those repeated clashing chords steps up the tension, until the bar-ending piano line lets it out. And then over and over again.

And over again.

Six and a half minutes is crazy long for a mid-tempo rap song. The only real reason this song can go on so long is that Chuck D is telling a great story. Hell, it was revolutionary enough that he was telling a story at all, but this noir tale of a draft dodger breaking out of prison is just a good story. The black power rhetoric (here is a land that never gave a damn...) stunned me but in a way that somehow felt refreshing, exciting. It set up a tale that, while bloody and subversive, was profoundly righteous. Going through idealisms at a teenage rate as I was, that was highly impressive.

Lastly, sorry to say, "Black Steel" is brilliant because Flavor Flav's role is minimal. One of the more frustrating people in hip hop, Flavor Flav took solo pieces like "911 is a Joke" and made them compelling. He was a good rapper. Yet so much of his "Yeah boy-eee" shtick was tired that it actually regularly served to bring down everything Chuck D had built up. So here, absent except for verse-delineating 'phone calls', Flavor Flav is exactly as present as he ought to be.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians (1966)

This tinny little recording is iconic for oh, so many reasons. They talk about how it started 'garage rock', or even punk rock. It gave a generation of people something to play in organ showrooms, and ? himself is even lauded as an early Hispanic American role model.

All of which is good and well. For me, though, the thing that's wonderful about "96 Tears" is how truly democratic it is. It's completely anonymous, so simple that anyone can play it, utterly devoid of alienating showboating or anything that a musical education could give you.

Yet it's indelible and it's immediate. It doesn't tell you the meaning of life, but it does lift your spirits. It's just fun. The fact that it's so anonymous that the band name is deliberately so is exactly the pont (as is their status as 'one-hit wonders'). There's a famous line that not many people bought the Velvet Underground's albums but all those who did started bands. I love VU, but I wonder if their intellectual freak-outs actually convinced as many people to think, "Hey, I can do this too" as this little ditty. It is easy to imagine this being the sound of any amateur band in any city in the world at any time since the 1960s. There are hundreds of bands in the world that sound exactly like this. Some will get better. Many won't. It doesn't matter because if ? and the Mysterians (whoever they even are) can come up with something lieke this, so can they.

Music is all about dreaming anyway. Bruce Springsteen made a career writing about it. These people probably only made a few hundred bucks but personified it.