Facebook will be the death of us all. It won’t be long until our collective insecurities, voyeurism and hubris will be cranked up to such obscene levels that we rupture at the seams and explode in myriad clouds of brilliant blue and stained, mucky white. This will then be shared with the world on Facebook.
(Naturally, this post will also be publicised on Facebook).
However, amongst all the nonsense and one-upmanship there are occasionally moments of interest on the old blue and white bastard. A few weeks ago people were sharing their lists of the ten songs that they liked the most. I think the phrasing may have been more elegant than this, songs that defined them perhaps, but this was the gist. I was “tagged” and asked to contribute my own list to be read by a few desperate souls and then forgotten about. And I really meant to get around to it. But I failed. Until now. And given that I’ve got a bit of time on my hands this holiday (I am currently sitting at one end of a long table in a house in the middle of France, nursing a cheese hangover, whilst my French housemates sip coffee and talk about I am not sure what but IN FRENCH) and given that the only thing that I allowed to say about our forthcoming feature film High Tide is that I CAN’T SAY ANYTHING UNTIL MID JANUARY) I thought I might crack on with my list. But in long form. A bit like Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs but not as good.
So here goes. Actually, before I leap off into the seas of whimsy I’d like to lay a few ground rules for myself:
1. Be honest. Don’t invent choices to make yourself look cooler than you are. As Ben Folds (sadly omitted from the following list) correctly sang: there is always someone cooler than you.
2. Don’t fret about the order. Life is too short. These are the ten songs that mean the most. Their sequence is unimportant.
3. In a recent interview on American television (they have that there) Michael Stipe said that he “despises nostalgia”. So for the first time in recorded history I am forced to contradict the wisdom of Stipe. I am sure no good will come of this and I will soon be begging his forgiveness and complimenting him on his beard.
SIT DOWN by JAMES
For many of the artists featuring on this list it was a tricky task alighting on just one of their songs, however in the case of James the choice was virtually involuntary -it had to be Sit Down. That is not to say that they didn’t write a host of other excellent songs, Come Home, How Was it for You? (about shagging), Laid (also about shagging), Sometimes, Just Like Fred Astaire, and even their most recent album La Petite Morte (a reference to, guess what, shagging) is also really good. However, Sit Down so perfectly captures a moment of time that it is rendered timeless. It is both of its moment and for all time. Not many songs achieve this.
It is structured in the most conventional of ways – verse, bridge, huge, repetitive chorus, verse, bridge, huge repetitive chorus, middle 8, huge repetitive chorus, end, plus Tim Booth’s vocal is far from his best – he’d yet to really experiment with the falsetto noodling that would become his trademark and yet this relative simplicity is why the whole thing works so damn well. The song is a perfectly designed sonic athlete, with no waste, no flab. It is Blake’s Tyger – a creature of such poise and efficiency that it is proof of the existence of God. Not that I am claiming that Tim Booth is divine. Ace, but not divine.
I had a tape of a set by James recorded from Radio 1 in the early 90s. They had been touring the world with Neil Young and playing acoustically (I can’t remember why) but it was a superb set. Their acoustic sound honestly revealed their folky roots and the songs in this exposed form had a depth that had sometimes been obscured on the albums. Once it came to the inevitable version of Sit Down, Tim Booth introduced the song as “an old English folk song” and I can’t think of a better description.
I discovered James, like most people at the time, via this song. Sit Down was the gateway drug to a very pleasant addiction to their music. A lot of my friends at the time suggested that the only reason that I chose to be a James fan was that I could walk around Exeter wearing a t-shirt with my name emblazoned on the front and for this not be a problem. There may have been truth in that. However, there was something about that font with its type-writer “a” and the image of the enormous daisy (especially when worn in combination with cherry red DMs) that made me deliriously happy. There was a satisfaction that even though I was a spotty, slightly awkward and arrogant teenager, I belonged to a tribe that gave me great strength. We wore daisies. And we were happy.
I will happily admit that when James played in Torquay and the whole audience sat down during
Born of Frustration Sit Down then I cried real tears and supposed that life really couldn’t get much better. And who knows, I may have been right.
THE BOXER by SIMON AND GARFUNKEL
There was a pleasing symbiosis between the music of the 90s and that of the late 60s (or, more accurately perhaps, much of late 60s music was plundered by 90s bands and passed-off very successfully as their own) and it was possible to flick through my parents’ record collection and find some gems that sounded both instantly familiar and wonderful to the ears of a 90s teenager. It must be said that my Dad also owned some shocking records but I think I will spare his blushes in this regard, after all, what do I know? I paid actual currency for a copy of Be Here Now.
I think it was obligatory in 1970 for every household in the country to own a copy of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album and being the law-abiding type my parents were no exception. Listening to this album as a teenager it felt instantly familiar but also strangely exotic and melancholy. I’ve never been to New York but in my mind it is filled with people in tweed jackets, and moustaches, all rendered in that faded colour of the type found on this album’s cover or in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I fear that if I ever make it to the Big Apple then my vision will be proved to be hopelessly inaccurate. However, it is image to which I still cling.
In an album of masterpieces, the track that ascends to somewhere else entirely is, for me, The Boxer. From Paul Simon’s gentle plucking of the guitar at its opening (which sounds a lot like the beginning to the Postman Pat theme) through to its towering, wordless chorus, punctuated by that thudding single drum sound (which was recorded in a lift-shaft, lift trivia fans) and then back again to the gentle acoustic guitar at its end, The Boxer simply does not sound like anything else. And for me this was thrilling.
However, for all its musical flair, it was Paul Simon’s lyrics that blew the mind of a spotty, bookish teenager. I genuinely consider Simon to be a poet. And one of the finest of the age. Yes he chose to set his poetry to music but had he chosen otherwise he would have been spoken about alongside Ginsberg.
Take, as an obvious example, the opening lines of The Boxer:
I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told
The use of “seldom” is elegant and immediately sets the song apart from 98% of pop songs ever written but it is “though” which sparks the ensuing narrative – the more obvious choice would have been the simple “and” but Simon choses the conjunction “though” which, grammatically propels us towards the subsequent lines in search of what’s next. And what’s next is extraordinary:
I have squandered my resistance for pocket full of mumbles such are promises
You could spend a very long time analysing this single line. The Boxer must be the first pop song to feature “squandered” in its lyric and the metaphor-wrapped-in-a-simile in the second half of the line is worthy of our greatest poets. The Boxer (Christ? Simon himself?) has been tempted to tell his story, even though he’s well aware that the promises made to him could well turn out to be worthless. I’ve just used twice as many words to crib what Simon was saying. And this is the mark of a brilliant poet- saying so much more with less.
For completion’s sake, the first verse concludes:
all lies and jests
(enjambement from the previous line, revealing the true nature of promises)
Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest
(We are all flawed beings and there’s nothing we can do about it so I am going to tell you my story regardless).
And thus a perfect piece of multilayered, allegorical musical storytelling is under way. For other examples of Simon’s genius as a lyricist see almost anything else he wrote – but spend some quality time with The Boy in the Bubble for some particular lyrical fireworks.
THE GLORIOUS LAND by PJ HARVEY
PJ Harvey had always been an artist that I’d respected rather than loved. There’s little doubt that her early work was stunning, although a tough listen, and I appreciated it from a safe distance. A few years later I bought and enjoyed her rather more accessible Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) album and then we rather lost touch, much to Polly Jane’s upset I am sure.
There had been rumours late in 2010 that PJ Harvey was working on something special but I am sad to say that I arrived at the Let England Shake album rather later than most. The reviews were largely ecstatic but it took me a while to get around to listening; I think I was put off by an album which was unflinchingly about the horror of war, written from the perspective of the soldiers being killed. I was a fool to have waited. Let England Shake is a masterpiece. It is indeed a tough listen but it is also incredibly moving, honest and humane. For me it is the best album released this century. And I am aware that this is a big shout.
It is tricky to pick just one track but The Glorious Land is a useful distillate of the album’s style and theme. Set against a rollicking guitar lick and insistent drum beat, Harvey’s lyrics allude to the scarring of both the landscape and childhood. Punctuated by a cynical sample of a military bugle, Harvey is at her most acerbic in the chorus, such as it is – Oh England, she withers, Oh America. And the reveal in the song’s final line is as inevitable as it is shocking.
As I get older it is much harder to find music that has as profound an influence as that which mainlined itself into my arteries when I was a teenager. This is no surprise. I am more cynical, more battle-hardened and weary; music remains important in my life but it is not the everything that it was in my youth. However, this song and this album moved me more than anything had done for years. It is a work of considerable intelligence, power and emotion. And it is damn good musically too. If you haven’t heard it then I urge you to have a listen. And if you have then there’s a pretty decent chance you will agree with me.
LEAVE THEM ALL BEHIND by RIDE
I had a childhood friend called Jonathan Couch who was a year older than me, was very good at tennis and liked some very cool music. Our parents were friends (they still are) and Jonathan and I had spent many summers together playing in the nearby fields and generally having lots of fun. In our early teenage years the twelve months difference in our ages became more significant and I became very interested in the music Jon would play in the car as our fathers took turns to drive us to play golf every Sunday. I know, golf. Who would have thought it?
One the bands that Jon was seriously in to was from Oxford. They were called Ride and they made very loud guitar music, music that harked back to that written by The Byrds in the 60s (not that I knew this at the time) and to my ear was thrilling and addictive. Jon loved their early EPs with songs like Chelsea Girl and Drive Blind and then slightly later the superb Sennen from their Today Forever EP. However, it was the release of their album Going Blank Again that marked the change for me from a keen interest to a full-blown love affair. I had the album on cassette; one side had a green label, the other a red and I had to take my copy back to Our Price twice to be exchanged as the first two copies played at the wrong speed. My Dad blamed Creation Records having no money to put out decent quality product and he was probably right. This was several years before Oasis made Creation into a multi-million pound record label.
The opening track on Going Blank Again is an eight-minute masterpiece of frenzied guitars called Leave Them All Behind. It begins with a wibbly bit of electronica before the guitars explode in to the mix, a moment that even today reduces me to air-punching joy and wonder. These guitars swirl and collide in a ramshackle melody before returning briefly to the electronic pulsing of the song’s beginning, giving the listener a chance to briefly draw breath before the whole thing starts again but this time layered with Mark Gardener and Andy Bell’s ethereal vocals singing something relatively nonsensical and tuneless but nonetheless brilliant:
Wheels turning round, into alien grounds,
Lost in a different time, leave them all behind.
Whatever that means.
Listening to the song now conjures the rush of early-teenage excitement, of a world waiting to be conquered, of dreams that are just beginning to be dreamt. It is an overwhelming listen and one that never fails to lift the spirits. It is as if teenage hormones had been put in to a bottle, shaken to the point of explosion and then liberated in a rush of ecstatic guitars. Ride really were one of the best bands from that pre-Britpop era and I am just sad that I was too young to see them live. Apparently they are reforming to play some gigs next summer but I don’t think I will go. They could never match my memory of them playing in their pomp at a gig to which I never went.
TONIGHT WE FLY by THE DIVINE COMEDY
To choose a single track from this album is not only fiendishly difficult but it is also against the spirit of what Neil Hannon was trying to achieve in writing a sequence of songs set over the span of a single day. Tonight We Fly is the album’s penultimate track and sees Hannon soaring over the landscape and reflecting on the fleeting, yet wonderful, thing we call life. The orchestration of the track brings energy and ecstasy and the song concludes that whatever the horrors we have to endure in life, that life itself is a thing of wonder to be celebrated. The whole album is infused with a sense of carpe diem, of living every second to the full – in fact it begins with a quotation that works as a leitmotif throughout everything that follows: tomorrow do thy worst for I have lived today!
In an album in which God is regular character, Hannon’s father was a Bishop so this is probably no surprise, Tonight We Fly ends with a declaration of secular celebration:
And if heaven doesn’t exist,
What will we have missed?
This life is the best we’ve ever had!
The music rises and then stops and as a listener you are left exhilarated and deeply, deeply happy. It is a profoundly spiritual moment paraded as agnosticism but I don’t think Hannon is fooling anyone. However, regardless of one’s religious beliefs, Tonight We Fly works as a creed by which to live every blessed day that you pass on this planet.
LOSING MY RELIGION by R.E.M.
Oh my. Where to begin with this one? My love for R.E.M. is profound, real and eternal (My love for Eternal less so.) It began with the aforementioned Jonathan Couch on our Sunday morning journeys to Dawlish (a place before it was a Harry Potter character) to play golf. He had a copy of R.E.M.’s Green on tape which was played regularly and I very much enjoyed the pop sensibilities of “Pop Song 89” (Shall we talk about the weather? Shall we talk about the government?) and the slightly ridiculous “Stand” (Stand in the place you live, now). In short, here was a band that I thought I liked well enough.
Then I heard Losing My Religion. And everything that I’d assumed about this American indie band appeared to be wrong. This wasn’t a group to simply enjoy and stick on at a party for a dance (although you could do that), this was a group to embrace, venerate and generally get a little obsessive about. At least in my case.
Losing My Religion is not really a song. Or if it is, it is a long, long way from anything else that was in the charts at the time. For a start it features a mandolin (an instrument that was to dominate their subsequent album, the imperious Automatic for the People), not known for its contribution to international pop hits and plus it has no chorus whatsoever. There are a few repeated snatches of lyrics, I thought that I heard you laughing and, famously, that was just a dream but nothing really you could sing along to in the pub. Although people tried. And then were often attacked by people who liked Def Leopard.
Michael Stipe’s lyric is part-confession, part-stream of consciousness and at the time I had absolutely no idea what he was on about. Listening now he seems to be musing on the power of fame to warp perceptions of him, both those of others and his own. He sees himself in the third person, cornered and fretting about what it all means. Although one is tempted to lose a little sympathy when you remember that the album from which the song is taken, Out of Time, went on to sell 18 million copies. At least Stipe could now afford a decent chair and a selection of M and S snacks to make his corner a little more salubrious.
Watching the video for the Losing My Religion now, a couple of things seems absurdly obvious. Firstly, trying to ape Stipe’s dance in the nightclubs of Exeter, even on indie nights was NEVER going to get any girls. He somehow gets away with it (just) because he is Michael Stipe but it was never going to work for any other human on the planet. Secondly, I can’t believe that there was any debate whatsoever about Stipe’s sexuality. This is simply one the gayest videos ever. Look at all those half-naked angels and that pair of leather-clad chaps staring blankly at the camera. The whole thing is so wonderfully homo-erotic. It does perhaps say something about the early 90s, which is now a very long time ago, and the progress the mainstream has made since.
But back to the song itself. It shouldn’t work. It should be pretentious and ridiculous and dull when in fact it is one of the greatest singles of the C20th and for me marked the introduction to a band that continues to delight and move me on a near-daily basis.
(Quick extra – Five essential R.E.M. albums – a list in no particular order:
1. Automatic for the People
3. New Adventures in Hi-Fi
4. Life’s Rich Pageant
5. Out of Time)
LET DOWN by RADIOHEAD
There is a huge amount to admire about Radiohead: their politics, their seriousness about their craft, their wilful disregard of record companies in recent years and, most wondrously of all, their music. Like most people at the time, I was a huge fan of The Bends, an album that seemed to take rock music and inject it with something altogether edgier and more thrilling; anyone of an age can, even today, be heard to fire off the occasional volley of: Lying in the bar with my drip feed on, talking to my girlfriend waiting for something to happen. I wish it was the sixties, I wish we could be happy, I wish I wish I wish that something could happen!
Anyone under thirty in the vicinity just stares blankly.
However, I don’t think that even the most ardent of Radiohead supporters were quite prepared for the overwhelming masterpiece of a record that was their follow-up to The Bends: the magisterial OK Computer. Make no mistake, this is one of the great albums not just of the 90s but of ALL TIME. Today it still sounds as fresh, difficult and innovative as ever. Released in the same year as Tony Blair’s first general election victory; a time when even the most cynical of us were caught up in eye-widening hope for a better future, it is if Radiohead were warning us that for all the smiles and good hair in Downing Street, we were still fucked. We would still be betrayed. And, depressingly, Radiohead were proved to be utterly correct.
It is obviously pretty impossible to pick one song from the album – Paranoid Android, Karma Police, Airbag, No Surprises, all stunning in their own way. However, the one track that still retains its power to grab my spine and give it a squeeze and a shake is Let Down. Seemingly set in an upside down bar where the drinkers hang grimly on to their bottles to stop them from falling, Yorke’s lyric alludes to being repeatedly crushed, repeatedly let down. It’s not a jolly song.
Towards the end, an escape is suggested:
One day, I am going to grow wings . . .
Oh good, Thom Yorke the butterfly, escaping the urban misery for a brief life of beauty amongst the flowers. There is hope after all!
A chemical reaction.
Hysterical and useless.
Oh dear. However this moment is scored in the most extraordinary way, with what I have always imagined to be digital confetti raining down on Yorke, the band, and everyone listening. At the time I’d never heard anything like it and all these many years and hundreds of listens later, this effect still retains its power. It is at once celebratory and melancholic, the sound of a billion zeros and ones leaking like sand from the back of a computerised world.
For all the incredible music they were to go on to make (I would recommend to anyone a full, in the dark, listen to the full Kid A album – a truly transformative experience) this moment of sonic brilliance captures an incredible group of musicians at the apogee of their powers. I am shivering just thinking about it.
GET ME AWAY FROM HERE I’M DYING by BELLE AND SEBASTIAN
I’ve bothered the internet in the past with my lengthy protestations of love for Belle and Sebastian. If you wish to feel a little bit icky in the stomach then you can read my just short of porny, love-letter here.
Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying is the quintessential Belle and Sebastian song containing a tick-list of elements that provide a handy guide to all that I love (and many hate) about the band. So here goes:
1. Delicate, high-register vocal by Stuart Murdoch? TICK.
2. Acoustic-guitar being strummed in a bittersweet manner? TICK
3. Lyrics referencing the urban landscape of 90s Glasgow? TICK – busses, tenements, rain, windows.
4. The suggestion that sensitive boys who sometimes cry are not to be pilloried but celebrated? TICK
5. The word “boy”? TICK
6. A sense that liking this song could get you a snog amongst a small subset of the opposite sex but then this snog turning out to be a little less satisfying than you’d hoped for and so maybe next time you might pretend to like The Prodigy instead? TICK.
A lot of flack is hurled Belle and Sebastian’s way. They are lazily called “twee” and “precious” and this is a lot of old balls. In fact, they are one the best indie bands of the last thirty years and have written songs that awkward and non-awkward types will still be listening to one hundred years from now. Fact.
TENDER by BLUR
Oh this song. This song. And this band. Blur WERE the 90s. Their music reached extraordinary numbers of people; they retained their integrity and managed to survive the decade without breaking up. (And then they broke up a year or so in to the new century). Parklife remains a truly great album and although a lot of sniffy journalists blamed it for spawning a lot of the Britpop nonsense that was to follow, there is no doubt that Blur made it cool to be British in 1994 and 1995. Before others went and ruined it. Thanks a bunch Menswear and every Oasis record after What’s the Story.
However, Tender comes from what feels like a very different world from the early 90s hedonism of the Parklife. The party was over by 1999 and everyone was getting worried about what was going to happen to all the computers on New Year’s Day 2000. Maybe the world was going to end. In reality Armageddon was on hold for a year and half and the worst that happened at the dawning of a new century was that most people had a stinging hangover and I had sand in my bed. But that’s another story.
Blur’s Damon Albarn had split up with his girlfriend in 1999 and the result was the song Tender, which is quite unlike anything else the band had written. It works as a dirge for a happier time but it is simultaneously uplifting. Damon provides the poetry of heartbreak and the gospel singers in the background urge him towards recovery – “Come on, come on, come on, get through it!”. Oh yes, Damon’s best friend Graham on guitar sings a bit about a baby “Oh why? Oh my!” he exclaims slightly pointlessly but with all the tenderness that the song’s title suggests.
In short, it is an over-long, slightly pretentious but ultimately very moving piece of songwriting. And my friends and I loved its every second. Shortly after its release Tender was added to the songs we’d sing whilst drunk in sitting rooms or gardens. Inside was fun but outside was best. And when we were at Dave and Rupes’ in Camberwell nobody seemed to complain that our band of drunks were singing loudly in the garden at midnight. Either we were very, very good. Or because it was Camberwell people might have thought we had knives. Which we did. But only for cheese.
After a while Tender was incorporated into a longer medley of songs which also featured Sit Down by James (see above) and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Rupert on guitar would segue from one to the next and we’d all drone on for hours. I remember the ultimate performance of the Tender medley occurred on the night of England’s 5 -1 victory over Germany on 1st September 2001. Ten days before everything changed forever.
Listening now Tender seems like an elegy not just for a lost relationship but also to a lost world. But I guess we did get through it. Just.
Or maybe we’re still in the getting.
A DAY IN THE LIFE by THE BEATLES
If you were trying to be cool in the 90s (as we all were) then you’d say that Revolver was The Beatles’ best album. And all your friends would agree and say that it was indeed one the best things in the history of everything and that on Tomorrow Never Knows John Lennon and George Martin pretty much invented dance music. Which of course is all largely true.
However, I’d been listening Sgt Pepper for years thanks to the battered old vinyl copy that was in my Dad’s collection, complete with original 1967 Pepper cut-out insert and so for me, this is the Beatles’ greatest achievement. And the closing track of Side 2 of Sgt Pepper might just be one of the greatest single recordings ever made. And I do mean that.
There are very few proper Lennon / McCartney collaborations in the latter years of The Beatles’ career but A Day in the Life is just that. Two brilliant songwriters, two friends who were growing ever-distant from each other, summoning some of the magic of their youth to create this wonderful song. Lennon’s voice is both beautiful and melancholic as he almost slurs the famous lyrics – I read the news today, oh boy – and then McCartney’s mid-song counterpoint with his playful, urgent voice segueing back into Lennon’s final section via a spliff at his desk – found my way upstairs and had a smoke, somebody spoke (great rhyme) and I fell into a dream. Oh yes, and a massive orchestra going mental in the background.
Much has been written about the enormous, sustained E maj chord that closes the song (and for the definitive analysis of the music of The Beatles then you should read Ian MacDonald’s unbeatable Revolution in the Head) and it is tempting to retrofit all sorts of metaphors – the end of the 60s (although still 3 years away), the end of the “golden” era of The Beatles (but there were masterpieces still to come), or maybe the end of the Lennon / McCartney collaboration that had begun in their bedrooms in Liverpool the previous decade. It doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that it sound incredible. It is the sound of artists making up their own rules.
And this is what is most incredible about the band. It is not only that they remain the starting point for anyone who is remotely interested in Western pop/rock music but also that we need to remember that they were making it all up as they went along. Of course they reacted to the music that they heard, the influence of Dylan and then Brian Wilson for example, but for all this they had the creative vision and determination to repeatedly do things that had never been done before. Whilst taking a huge amount of drugs in the process.
So A Day in the Life is on my list because it is ace. But also because it is a reminder of what is possible when you work with someone you love and trust in equal measure. I am not hubristic enough to draw any clear comparisons here but it is inspiring that two best friends had the talent and conviction to keep making the work that they wanted to make.
That’s the plan for us too.
1. You never love music again like you do when you’re a teenager.
2. It appears that I believe that if you have a vagina you can’t make great music. Unless you are PJ Harvey. I don’t think this is true. Maybe your own gender “speaks” to you more profoundly than the opposite. Or maybe I am just a daft misogynist. I hope not. I don’t think I am.
3. If you’ve read this far then I applaud you.
4. For a blog from a filmmaker then this is probably too much about music.
5. You can still see the trailer for our forthcoming FEATURE FILM High Tide by clicking below.
6. Michael, I am sorry.