Graham Clark (zotz) wrote,
Graham Clark

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Thoughts on songs.

At bootpunk's suggestion, a few thoughts on seven of my favourite songs.

1. Magazine - A Song From Under The Floorboards.

No surprises there, I guess. This has been one of my favourite songs since it got played a lot at a free Thursday-night club called Hades when it was in a bar on the first floor at the east end of Princes Street. I used to go along with Glen, Rob, Lesley, sometimes Richard, I think Lara and Simon, and occasionally some others. Alan Thomson, probably. Good times. This would have been about 1987 or 1988.

This is the sort of staccato, uptempo, slightly dissonant song that's currently all the rage. Bloc Party, the Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand and a myriad others are playing this sort of thing and namechecking Gang of Four and the Fire Engines - perhaps it's time for a Magazine revival while we're at it? This sort of thing hasn't been ignored in the meantime, though. If you were to tell me that Blur listened to this a hundred times before writing the backing for Girls & Boys, I wouldn't be in the least surprised. The rigid timing, the bass sounding warm and jumping oddly around, the lack of obvious harmony - it's all there, fifteen years earlier.

What I really like about it, though, is the lyrics and their calm arrogance - "I know the meaning of life", "I know the highest and the best" - coupled seamlessly to rueful admissions of failure, inadequacy and regret. And, of course, that it has one of the very finest opening lines in rock music - "I am angry, I am ill, and I'm as ugly as sin". I may well ask for that to be put on my gravestone, if I have one.

2. The Only Ones - Another Girl, Another Planet

This also got played a lot at Hades, and at the Potterrow's Green Banana Club on Fridays - another haunt of mine at the time, and shortly after this ('88 or '89) I joined the committee for a while and started inflicting my regrettable music taste on the assembled oligotudes. I've been playing it at people ever since. It's been a recurring pleasure to unexpectedly find other fans - Dave and Adrienne at the Sanger, for instance. A song is a constant friend.

Peter Perret said that he wrote this about a period when he was living with his wife and his girlfriend and taking a lot of heroin. His relationships with the two women were, he said, very different, and that's what the song's about. That and the heroin. With a lot of SF imagery thrown in. He had his fun. And he paid for it. People always "experiment" with drugs. Malcom Owen of The Ruts "experimented" with hard drugs, until one day he died of a heroin overexperiment. I'm reminded of something Kaija's friend Vince said - "We started off experimenting with drugs, but by the end the drugs were experimenting with us." Given that alcohol and others have certainly cost the world as much, I guess the moral has to be that intoxicants generally should be treated with a certain respect.

Anyway, after the digression, the cost - The Only Ones broke up because Perrett became a hopeless junkie. He wasn't enjoying or interested in performing or recording. His career vanished, his health suffered, he and his wife were unable to take care of a child, which entered the care system and last time I saw mentioned Perrett hadn't ever seen again. He didn't have a band again for nearly fifteen years, when he recorded a couple of EPs and an album with The One, with an excellent song included called Nothing Worth Doing, which when I saw them he said was the song he was proudest of writing. Because I did see them, before they broke up again, at the Venue, behind Waverley Station. They were truly excellent, and it's very sad that he hasn't been more active. Perrett was a wizened little gnome of a man in an oversized suit, with a gleam in his eye and a sly smile. Charming, he was. The only thing I've heard of him in the last decade was that he's played Another Girl Another Planet live with the Libertines.

Like the Magazine track, it has a spectacular intro (easily outdoing Howard & co. in this respect), and continues through a rapidfire series of verses and soaring, energetic guitar breaks - proving that the people who said Television were the only band who should be allowed to play solos were dead wrong. It's Joy. And Adrenaline. On a stick. It's very ironic that it's partly about heroin, because this is just so not a sedative kind of song.

3. The Ruts - Babylon's Burning

I don't remember where I heard this first, but I bought it on a 12" with Staring At The Rude Boys, West One (Shine on me) and Something That I Said. Pick up something with In A Rut on it and you'd understand why The Ruts were going to be huge and important. Sadly, with Owen's death they lost their fire and faded out. I think the Ruts were probably closer to the Clash than anyone else got, following them in welding punk to reggae, but generally at a faster pace than the Clash's crossover numbers. If they'd gone on, I'm sure they'd have done even greater things.

This song, of course, should have been everywhere during both Gulf Wars, although obviously it's about Babylon in the figurative rather than literal sense. A ringing bell, sirens, and then the guitars come in and it alternates between the tension of the verses and the release of the chorus. Babylon burning with anxiety is an image as true now as it was then. A harsh reminder of a harsh time.

Actually, I've just remembered seeing a reggae sound system - Zion Train, perhaps - do a version of this in Cambridge. Did Greenhaus ever cover this, or am I imagining things?

4. Elvis Costello and the Attractions - I Want You.

This came out just before I moved to Edinburgh. I heard it on Anne Nightingale's Sunday evening show, and borrowed the album (Blood and Chocolate, a typically excellent and acerbic Costello record) from the local record library. Once in Edinburgh, of course, I got my own copy - a very nice one with white vinyl. Most of the sleeve notes are in Esperanto, and some of the songs are credited to Costello under that name and some under his birth name, McManus. Some he co-wrote with then-wife Cait O'Riordan. I think somewhere - not on this album, though - there's a song credited to Costello/McManus/O'Riordan, the logic of which escapes me. As a performer he's named as Napoleon Dynamite, of course, which threw me a bit when the film of that name came out a couple of years back.

As a song, it's extraordinary. About the best he's written, which given that it's Costello we're talking about should instantly have you all scurrying for copies. As good as Shipbuilding, or maybe even better. Rather than wars, the arms industry and unemployment, though, this covers the more traditional pop-music ground of romantic loss and rejection, and does it with a rare power and conviction. Cave has, of course, opined that that it is most important that a love song should have Saudade and Duende, and this one has it in spades - it's a bruised epic of rejection (or is it abandonment?), dwelling on the most distressing details ("It's knowing that he knows you now, after only guessing") and moving from desire and adoration to anger and sarcasm, then back again. "I want you, every night when I go off to bed, and when I wake up - I want you." There are only a few songs that are quite likely to reduce me to tears. This is high on the list.

It always reminds me of a very sweet Irish medical student called Catherine, who dissected a couple of bodies down from me, sharing with among others my friend Simon. I used to wander down to chat to Simon and exchange the odd remark with her. I got to know her a bit better as my time on the course drew towards an untidy end, and realised that we didn't really have great deal in common. Very worthwhile person, though. She was (and presumably still is) very clever, startlingly pretty and had the most delightful accent I think I've ever heard. I think the last time I saw her was outside the Royal Infirmary shortly after leaving the medical faculty. I was a lot happier by then, and pretty much living with Lara. Not too long after that Alan Thomson moved into the front room of the flat, and I was very pleased to find that he rates this song as highly as I do. A song is, after all, a constant friend.

5. Ballboy - Olympic Cyclist

Dave-At-The-Next-Desk inflicted this on me. He was in the habit of taping Peel shows to listen to later. Sometimes he'd bring them in to work, especially if there was something in them that he thought would appeal to me. One day he lent me one with the Schneider TM version of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (it's called "The Light 3000" if you fancy looking for it - it's very good, even beyond how simply startling it is to hear a Smith song does as minimal electronica) and while it appealed to me enough that I bought a copy, the song that grabbed me hardest was the Ballboy. I was, of course, keen to find a copy, and I was surprised to find (after a quick google) that not only were they an Edinburgh band, but their records seemed to be put out by someone called Pybus. Now, that's not a very common name, so I was fairly sure that it must be Ed Pybus, who I'd worked with in the main library systems office in the months before leaving Edinburgh. The first time I saw them - at the Garage in Highbury - I marched up to the merch stall to see, and there he was large as life. Larger, actually, as he'd bulked out a little from his underfed student days.

Dave and I were, therefore, the Sanger Ballboy fans, and would irritate our cow-irkers with the CDs I'd pick up in Avalanche on my trips north. I saw them a few times in London before moving back up, and have seen them a few more times since. Dave, as far as I know, still hasn't. His kids like Ballboy, though. They ask him to put it on in the car. The first time I saw them after getting back, I met Gordon afterwards through friends ,in a pub across the road from the venue. He bought me a drink, which was really the wrong way round.

The version on I Hate Scotland is the acoustic one, which I've not heard them do live. One of the earlier times I saw them, on Chalk Farm Road, Gordon claimed that they didn't play it because Katie didn't like having nothing to do, but from her denial I think he was just taking the piss. It's an impossibly tender and melancholy song, in spite of having nothing to be melancholy about. There's no loss or longing involved. Just a beach, a bicycle, a council flat and happy memories. Cave's notion that a love song must have a hint of sadness in it somewhere falls down over this song, but then I already knew that some songs escape because it also can't account for Walking On Sunshine.

6. New Model Army - Marrakesh

My copy of Impurity doesn't have this song on it, because I bought it as a proper record when it came out, rather than on one of these silvery beermats that people seem so strangely keen on. Therefore, I didn't have a copy of it for many years, in spite of it being one of my favourite NMA songs. Myf had it on a cassette, taped from a CD belonging to one of her flatmates, so I heard it occasionally for three years and then not at all for several after, until I found a copy going cheap and decided that I could do with having it.

I've seen them do it live precisely once, on the second night of the pair at the Astoria in late 2000 when they played four sets with no repeats. If there was one song I'd have wanted to hear but would have written off any chance of, it would have been this one. I was overjoyed. Oddly, I suspect Myf was there, but I don't know for sure. I don't think I've seen her since.

This is one of Justin's acoustic ones, and one of only two songs I know of - he wrote the other one too - that mention the M6. I always think of it when I go under the flyover and up onto the northbound carriageway where it meets the M1 and the A14. Every time, I feel that I should stop and paint "I'm sorry" on the concrete in big letters. I like songs to have a sense of time and place. More songs should. Olympic Cyclist is set in a council flat in Brighton. Billy Bragg rewrote Route 66 as A13 - Trunk Road To The Sea because it's where he knew when he was growing up. Too many songs could have been written anywhere, at any point in the last several decades.

7. Big Black - Kerosene

Another 'Row song, and heavily associated with CJ, Thommo, Glen, Lara, Simon, Lesley, Rob, et many many al. Also, of course, another song I've kept playing at people ever since. The first time I heard this might actually have been the first time I played it out - it was a request, the week we'd bought the album. I put the strobe on during the second chorus and then every time I played it there I stuck the strobe on during the chorus. I've not been in the habit of playing with the lighting lately because the rigs have been either too rudimentary to fiddle with or too complex to drive without being able to set patterns, but the 'Row and then later the Park Room were quite fun for a while.

A tall Yorkshireman called Tim was heard muttering along "Spread it on toast - margarine!" to the chorus, which had a very bad outcome. Pretty soon, with (IIRC) Nik and CJ a fairly complete set of lyrics was available. Thankfully we never recorded it, although in theory the threat still exists. The song also prompted the earliest interaction with Fiona that I remember. She asked on UPG about getting Atomiser on CD, and I answered. You remember what I said about songs being friends?

Conflating sex and arson is always going to be a dangerous move, but then Albini himself asked the world "When did people start expecting social responsibility from punk bands anyway?" This is another one with an instantly recognisable intro, and after that the Bonhamesque drum pattern piledrives the song through several false endings to an abrupt end an uncharacteristic six minutes later. It's a hammering wall of white noise with a pencilneck Yank whining about isolation, boredom, and the solutions they've found to them. As such, clearly it has universal appeal.

And, errr, should they wish to participate, may I be so bold as to nominate gingiber, sabledemon, kiaransalyn, scylla and darkstones? Although if you don't mind me not being limited to five, I'd actually be interested in what nearly all of you think.
Tags: bands, meme, music, songs
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