Friday, 24 June 2016

José CARRERAS, Plácido DOMINGO and Luciano PAVAROTTI: In Concert


(#413: 8 September 1990, 1 week; 22 September 1990, 4 weeks)

Track listing: È la solita storia (Lamento Di Federico)/O paradis/Recondita armonia/ Dein ist mein ganzes Herz/Core 'ngrato (Catari)/Torna a Surriento/Granada/No puede ser/Improvviso/E lucevan le stelle/Nessun dorma/Medley (Maria /Tonight/'O Paese d' 'o sole/Cielito lindo/Memory/Ochi tchorniye/Caminito/La Vie en rose/Mattinata /Wien, Wien, nur du allein/Amapola /'O sole mio)/Encores: O sole mio/Nessun dorma

(Author’s note: Carreras sings on tracks 1, 6, 8 and 10, Domingo on tracks 2, 4, 9 and 11, and Pavarotti on tracks 3, 5, 7 and 12. The medley and encores are performed by all three singers in various combinations)

The facts about this internationalist gesture first: the concert was recorded in Rome on 7 June 1990, the eve of the beginning of the Italia 90 World Cup tournament, on the outside stage of the third-century Baths of Caracalla. The three singers were backed by the orchestras of the Maggio Musicale Florentino and the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma – 198 musicians in all, under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Two Spaniards, one Italian and an Indian. Spirits were high – at one point, Pavarotti even happily high-fived Carreras as they exchanged places at the microphone, and there seems to be have been a genuine camaraderie between the trio and with the audience of six thousand, who end up singing along with the final “Nessun dorma.” The actual purpose of the concert was to raise funds for the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation – Carreras himself had just been successfully treated for the disease, and the event was planned with the intent of re-introducing Carreras to the musical stage. The concert was watched on television around the world by an estimated 800 million people. The night was warm with a clear, starlit sky.

Artistically the music is a mixed bag. Pavarotti continues to be the most assertive tenor of the three, but Carreras, whom Lena dubbed the concert’s “indie tenor,” might be the event’s secret star, knowing that the key to a great performance is not to try too hard. Hence his opening “È la solita storia” is a moving masterclass in emotional and technical restraint. Domingo, in contrast, sounds like what one would expect an operatic tenor to sound like; deep, dark, authoritative, somewhat rhetorical. His “E lucevan le stelle” is rather stiffer than Pavarotti’s.

The problem, however, which became really apparent while Carreras was gallivanting his way through “Granada,” is that the soupy orchestration and style of singing seemed to be drawing us back towards the earliest days of Then Play Long, the time of Rodgers and Hammerstein and throaty Drury Lane refrains. As the record progresses, we perhaps regress even further, back to the age of Caruso and Tauber and the remnants of Viennese operetta, traditional European folk songs and Victorian parlour ballads. It is as though rock ‘n’ roll never happened.

With the procession of crowd-pleasers and the endless medley of show tunes and antiquated Zarzuela – not to mention the innate absurdity of the encores; three voices, individually fine but together migraine-generating, singing songs about solitude and individual thought – I am not sure that the Three Tenors phenomenon really ended up having anything to do with music. Instead the experience is akin to listening to a series of football penalties or gymnastic exercises; each trying to outsing, go higher than or hold that high C longer than the others. It certainly has very little to do with what marketing types at the time deemed “core classical,” all the serious work which the “strategic classical” stuff (i.e. the Three Tenors, etc.) subsidised. However, it is perfectly possible for a well-balanced household to say that they like classical music yet own only this album as evidence of their liking.

But, on this Friday, the implications have now gone beyond that.

This morning I woke up in a different country, a country that was different from yesterday. A country which has made it very clear that they hate me and my family and do not want me, or us, here. A country which has sacrificed itself on the dual alters of political expediency and deeply misguided sentimentality. A country whose people are seemingly determined to drag back the clock to the early fifties, a golden age for nobody except those who were there and in retrospect. A country which once commanded respect throughout the world and is now the world’s laughing stock.

Be very clear about what I mean as a “country.” I do not mean Scotland, the warm, friendly country which welcomes everyone – Italians very much included – whose First Minister is now determined to draw up legislation to permit a second Scottish independence referendum. A First Minister, indeed, who has also spoken with our new Mayor of London about their “common cause.”

When I think of England, I do not mean London, the city in which I have lived for the last three decades and which equally came out in favour of staying in the European Union. There may also be a case for an independence referendum here; the actual city of London was very much for Remain, with only the rotten borough suburbs wanting Leave. Nor do I mean great cities I love such as Oxford and Brighton, both of whom likewise rejected calls to go it alone.

But – and I speak as both the son of an immigrant and the husband of an immigrant – I do not feel that this is “my” country any more. The people here have given way to their basest notions, encouraged by the suffocating, one-sided “news” media. A cynic might say that if people base their vote on what the leader writer of a tabloid tells them rather than their own, first-hand experience of matters, they get the kind of divisive, gerrymandering government that they deserve.

Everything good is being drained away – and I don’t just mean the estimated £350 billion that Britain’s cherished wealthy have lost in the stock market this morning. Everything that made us better – food, freedom of movement, art, people – is being snatched away in favour of perhaps the most unashamedly right-wing government that northern Europe has seen in eighty years, and I fear for the consequences. More importantly, I fear for my own safety in this country now. I fear what this country is going to become.

Don’t worry about me – by the time Boris and Michael get around to reintroducing workhouses, debtors’ prisons, ducking stools and concentration camps, I’ll most likely be six feet under, having succumbed to that dynamic double act Atrial Fibrillation and Dilated Cardiomyopathy, immediately prior to which I’ll be wondering whether the whole of life hasn’t been a waste, with everything that I was brought up at home and in school and university to believe was the right way of doing things having apparently been sneeringly smashed to pieces by dopey goofheads. And no, you don’t just carry on as before; in history and especially in Britain, that has never worked. You have to change things. Things including the stupid perception of “experts” or intelligent people generally as Walter the Softie-type easy targets. But who cares? Logic and reason have been drowned out by the loud shouts of squeaky wheels demanding their oil. A facility with words is nothing against a “saucy” YouTube vlogger. Nobody wants to publish books any more, just Celebrity Bonking Garden Nightmares. Nobody wants even to read any more, not when they can look at gaudily-coloured pictures, like cats playing with balls of wool. Dennis the Menace won.

You may reasonably wonder what any of this has to do with the Three Tenors. Speaking as someone whose idea of “the Three Tenors,” then and now, involved Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, what I’m trying to put across is that this record goes back, quite deliberately, to the sort of world to which Britain has unaccountably returned today. A world where caps are doffed, ration books are adhered to, authority is unquestionably obeyed and teenagers don’t exist, except as Mini-Me versions of their parents. It’s not a world in which I feel comfortable living, and it is ironic that a quarter of a century down the line, it should take an enterprise like this – which never really would have happened without the European Union – to remind us of what we are suddenly so eager to forget.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

PRINCE: Music From Graffiti Bridge


(#412: 1 September 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got/New Power Generation/Release It/The Question Of U/Elephants & Flowers/Round And Round/We Can Funk/Joy In Repetition/Love Machine/Tick, Tick, Bang/Shake!/Thieves In The Temple/The Latest Fashion/Melody Cool/Still Would Stand All Time/Graffiti Bridge/New Power Generation (Pt. II)

The Thursday Prince died – or at least here in Britain it was Thursday – I’d got home from work, following a long, circuitous and tedious bus journey. I still hadn’t quite computed the death of Victoria Wood and Lena greeted me grimly at the door with one word: “Prince.” No, my brain thought, not another one, in this most rotten of years; it’s too much for me to absorb.

But he had died, alone and in the elevator that led to the studio, aged fifty-seven. Yet again, the media moaned about his impertinence in dying without letting them know, but this wasn’t cancer or anything else of long standing – rather it was pills, too many painkillers, another accidental death, like Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake and Kenneth Williams. Too few hours in any given day, still less to squander on luxuries such as rest and sleep, too much still to prove, to himself, in his otherwise uninhabited boxing ring.

There wasn’t the same level of mourning for Prince in Britain that there had been for N*t**n*l Tr*s*r* Bowie, though I know that elsewhere in the world they mourned him far more deeply. Still, there were the signs, even here; a mural in Brixton, a message on the (side of the) front sign of the Curzon Chelsea cinema.

The back catalogue, or some of it (will return to that qualification shortly), duly, or dutifully, re-entered the charts, but none of his albums went to number one – otherwise I’d have been compelled to write about him already. Hit n Run Phase Two, his “new” album, was no Blackstar, and was drowned out of the top twenty by too many other new, or newer, or more genuinely adventurous, records.

The album that did the best was The Very Best Of Prince, a 2001 compilation containing everything you’d expect, and nothing you wouldn’t; a record which quietly spelled out the real problem that people have with Prince, namely that there was nothing on it that wasn’t at least a decade old; moreover, apart from 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” one song from Graffiti Bridge and four songs from Diamonds And Pearls, all of it was from the eighties.

The eighties, when you knew the name of everybody in your place of work, when you socialised with them outside of working hours, went to each other’s houses, played each other music, read each other’s books, when a city was still cheap enough to be lived and played in, when everything was still in front of you. Like their Bowie forebears, I suspect that most Prince mourners were conjuring up a requiem for their own “living” lives.

The trouble is that the eighties were when Prince “mattered.” At the beginning of the eighties hardly anyone here knew who he was – I went to his November 1981 show at the Lyceum and the place was barely half-full. The hip musician then was August Darnell, next to whose seemingly naturalistic refinement Prince might have seemed confused and overbaked (and how uncool Darnell abruptly became the following year when Kid Creole started having hits!). But I remember that I played and enjoyed Controversy – OK, maybe skipping over “Ronnie Talk To Russia” – more than I did Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places.

But then he gradually became big here, and after Purple Rain that became a lot less gradual. As with Bowie in the seventies, the eighties were Prince’s “imperial phase,” that great apex of pop music where the screamers and critics are actually in agreement about something or somebody. He threw out one WTF classic after another, again with seemingly no effort – and his experiments were happening in clear and plain view of us.

The question is: what happened at the point where The Very Best Of Prince stopped? As you’ll see, he didn’t stop having number one albums – not right away, anyway – but after “Money Don’t Matter 2Night,” there is a quarter of a century’s worth of music which largely remains unvisited territory. Yes, there were the stories of his databank of thousands and thousands of never-released classics – but once you’d snoozed your way through yet another multiple-album set of dull jazz-funk workouts, you could be forgiven for being sceptical of this.

You do wonder to yourself: he died for that stuff?

All the trimmings and presentations have been exhaustively mined with the obituaries; the sex/religion conflict, the gender question, the feeling that he probably was an old conservative stick-in-the-mud whose conservatism expired when he got back in the studio and did what he, albeit with a steadily decreasing quantity of other people, understood better than anything. It’s all there to be read and I’ve no interest in revisiting or reviving any of it.

But this tale has now reached the point, round about the beginning of the nineties, when maybe even Prince was starting to wonder a little too much whether he still had a point – whereas in the eighties he didn’t wonder; he just made his point a hundred times over, and every time different and colourful. Perhaps he found that time of times too much, too good, to let flee his grasp.

And this may explain why the vast majority of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack is comprised of eighties outtakes – from Controversy (“Tick, Tick, Bang,” originally set aside for Vanity 6 to record) through 1999 (“Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” “We Are Funk”) to Parade (“The Question Of U”) – not to mention sections of (then) unreleased projects such as Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. Even “Still Would Stand With Time” was originally written for the Batman movie (it was replaced on the soundtrack by “Scandalous”).

I have to say I don’t remember ever going to a cinema to see Graffiti Bridge – and I was a very keen filmgoer back in those days (the Tube was cheap and so were cinemas; you could spend entire weekends travelling around beneath London to watch movies. Oh, you kids today don’t, cont. p. 94…); maybe it went straight to video in Britain? Either way it seems to have been as bad a movie as Prince’s other two (though the man never reached levels of such piteous depravity as Elvis, in Double Trouble, shuffling around on the back of a pick-up truck against blatant back-projected scenery interpreting “Ol’ McDonald Had A Farm”) – but who would criticise Purple Rain or Parade as being nothing more than soundtrack albums for crappy films?

I must admit to having a problem with Graffiti Bridge. It’s not the Sleeping With The Past problem of a lazy, complacent album – on the contrary, not having listened to it since 1990, I was astounded by how good and dynamic the songs sounded (perhaps it’s to their advantage that these songs have not been played to death on oldies radio). I was mentally up and bopping to anything involving The Time (“Release It,” “Love Machine,” “Shake!,” “The Latest Fashion”) – “Release It” actually does sound like something that would be played in the club at the end of the 1990 street, and matters are generally helped by factors such as Candy Dulfer, whose alto is considerably and agreeably freer and more bad-tempered than on “Lily Was Here.” As for Prince’s own stuff, initially my view was one of renewed astonishment. “The Question Of U” has him making like a French Associates. "New Power Generation" is as relentlessly and imposingly catchy and determined a march of principles as “Rhythm Nation.”

Then, about half an hour after listening to the record, I found I could hardly remember any of its seventeen songs. I think I was lukewarm at the time because “Thieves In The Temple” was that extreme rarity, a less than compelling trailer single. It still sounds bewildering and pointless to me, but at least I remembered it from twenty-six years ago. But his repeated “don’t stop”s on the opening “Don’t Stop” sound like George Michael impersonating Prince, and from its clunky title inwards, “Still Would Stand All Time” is a pale lagoon of a shadow of his great eighties ballads. And that’s not just sentimental nostalgia; the Prince everybody cherishes, still, is the one who made those world-beating/fucking records in the eighties. Look for “Prince lyrics” in Google and it’s all “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette” etc.

I think that Prince did for my generation what Bowie did for his, that is to say, create a great kaleidoscopic soup of every great record that he just happened to hear and have them all play at once, only be better than that. But even with the most sympathetic ear, there is a feeling with Graffiti Bridge that there is very little in the way of catchiness on offer. I can remember and even sing records like Purple Rain and Sign "" The Times from first note to last thirty-odd years after they came out, down to things like “The Beautiful Ones” and “Adore” – but thirty-odd minutes after listening to Graffiti Bridge it’s a question of: huh? and what?

Even the guest singers perform as though they’ve been cut-and-paste onto Prince’s two-dimensional universal jigsaw puzzle. Tevin Campbell and Mavis Staples could sing each other’s parts without any detriment to the songs, except that Staples sounds increasingly vexed at having to do this. As for “We Are Funk,” George Clinton is supposed to be co-lead vocalist and co-writer, but you’d scarcely know he was there – he lurks around in the song’s sidebars, like a grumpy caged lion placed next to an office party in a Sloane Square restaurant.

Neither can it be a simple question of overabundance. Sign "" The Times was a longer and better record, and moreover a true double album; Graffiti Bridge seems, like an increasing quantity of “double” albums at the time, to be tailored for the extended requirements of the compact disc. Moreover, whereas Sign "" The Times had a terrific cover, all solemn neons and yellows and a worried-looking, bespectacled Prince lurking in the bottom right-hand corner, Graffiti Bridge’s cover is appalling, like a Woolworth’s budget-priced Prince Of Pop! compilation.

Don’t get me wrong; trim all the fillers off the record and you get a fine and adventurously funky thirty-eight minutes or so, just as you could probably compile a couple of knock-‘em-dead CD compilations of his post-eighties work, even if, like Van Morrison’s trademark one brilliant song per routine album routine, finding the jewels became increasingly tougher work. If you’re a devout Prince fan, you’ll love it. There is plenty here that is stimulating and adventurous (even the “Jimmy JAM!” chants on “The Latest Fashion,” together with its author’s maniacal cackle to top and tail the same song). But I note that this album, though a number one, stayed on our charts for only eight weeks. For fans only, and that’s where Lena’s theory comes in – it was particularly palpable during the closing “New Power Generation” reprise – of the Church of Prince being a place which, if you are a member, know his ways inside and out and are unquestionably loyal to his greatness forever, you will continue to understand and get what he is doing. To non-believers, however, it may have become a little too baffling. This is now the era of the connoisseur’s Prince – one for Nick Clegg to tick off, perhaps. But we couldn’t help noticing the end-credits blandness of the closing title song and thinking…this could be off an Elton John album. Somehow I do not think that this is what “Something In The Water Does Not Compute” was working towards.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Elton JOHN: Sleeping With The Past


(#411: 28 July 1990, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Durban Deep/Healing Hands/Whispers/Club At The End Of The Street/Sleeping With The Past/Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’/Sacrifice/I Never Knew Her Name/Amaze Me/Blue Avenue

Elton John number one albums, eh? You wait nearly sixteen years and then two come at once. Admittedly one of those is a major retrospective, so I will leave it to Lena to discuss what the great man had been up to in the interim, while the other was a hangover from the end of August 1989. Both “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” had been issued separately as singles without much success, but in the spring of 1990 Steve Wright, then a Radio 1 DJ, began to play “Sacrifice”; demand picked up, both songs were reissued as a double A-side with royalties to be donated to various Aids charities, and this unexpectedly became Elton’s first British number one solo single in almost twenty years of trying.

The belated, triple-platinum success of the parent album is entirely ascribable to this, rather than being the first album written by John and Taupin from start to finish since Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Indeed Bernie seems to have got a little above himself; the sleeve announces that all songs were written by “ELTON JOHN and TAUPIN,” indicating that the lyricist had of late been elevated to the House of Lords. Worse is the fact that in the photograph of the two on the sleeve, Taupin looks exactly like me, except (a) I would never look so smug in a photograph and (b) I would never wear leather jeans.

On the sleeve we also find the message “These songs were inspired by the Soul pioneers of the Sixties and Seventies, whose music meant so much to us,” and I don’t blame you if you’re falling asleep already. All due respect to Otis, Sam, Marvin and the rest, but they were about the last people I wanted to listen to in ’89-90, reduced to a teacher’s homework-commanding blackboard pointer. Not that there is much evidence of their influence, as such, on these ten songs. One can see how the opening “Durban Deep” could have been extemporised from a starting point of Lee Dorsey’s “Working In A Coalmine” but its harsh guitars and dub-ish echoes suggest a more pressing familiarity with The Clash’s Sandinista! This is the obligatory anti-apartheid song but rather than protest, it focuses on the travails of a slave miner working in an apartheid-era goldmine.

I am not saying that Elton went all New Wave with this album. Indeed it probably could have done with a direct inject anti-digital gloss ray-gun. “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” are good songs – the former, in particular, is one of the bitterest break-up songs pop has known – but their impact is severely diminished by the spotless, look-no-hands arrangements. Perhaps the wine bar tinkling of “Sacrifice” was the song’s point, but “Healing Hands” in this context sounds like an early Lion King demo. The artful delicacy of a Gus Dudgeon is missed.

Far from being a “Soul” tribute album – never trust anyone who capitalises their music genres – this is essentially a break-up album, a slightly meatier variant on the Phil Collins template. Elton had divorced from Renata in 1988 – one of the most inadvisable weddings in pop history, that – and realised that he was happier being gay. So there is not much of the lovelorn about “Sacrifice” and even less to grab the listener in such romps as “I Never Knew Her Name” and “Blue Avenue.” Taupin’s lyrics are generally as dreadful as you would expect but the songs themselves are largely below par. The interminable “Club At The End Of The Street” is no “Crocodile Rock” and the most unfortunate thing about the record as a whole is that, in 1990, it already sounded dated. The one really good song here is “Whispers,” which plays with patient beauty like the Pet Shop Boys’ less funny uncle (“Promise me everything except a blue night/Shudder like ice in cut crystal glass”).

As a marker of its era, Sleeping With The Past stands as a bridge between Elton's unremembered eighties and a new decade of being pop's Number One Moral Public Citizen. Generally, though, this is pseudo-nostalgic comfort food for babyboomers; the “Sixties” and “Seventies” with all the awkward bits (excitement, originality, fun) taken out. I looked to see who was responsible for this icy production, and it was – Chris Thomas. Does anybody remember what they did in the eighties, and why? And yes, falling asleep to it is what I nearly did. "You can't sit still," sings a hopeful Elton, but I found it the easiest thing on Earth to do.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Step By Step





(#410: 30 June 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Step By Step/Tonight/Baby I Believe In You/Call It What You Want/Let’s Try It Again/Happy Birthday/Games/Time Is On Our Side/Where Do I Go From Here?/Stay With Me Baby/Funny Feeling/Never Gonna Fall In Love Again

Here – at least far as this tale is concerned – is the initial carving of the pathway that would lead to that most singular of post-eighties pop phenomena, the boy band. This album’s predecessor, Hangin’ Tough, the one with Marky Mark and all the hits you’ve heard of, was held at number two by ...But Seriously.

While it is remarkable, and possibly unique, for a group of white boys to be overseen by a black Svengali (Maurice Starr, who pretty much does everything here, although I’m sure that readers will rush to correct my assumption), Step By Step is, by and large, unremarkable. I thought about writing about it in tandem with good music that came out of Boston in 1990, but Bossanova, which came out about two months after Step By Step, was disappointing to me even then (whereas Pod, the first Breeders album which came out three weeks before Step By Step, is a much better “Pixies” record and confirmed my suspicion that Kim Deal was the group’s real genius).

There really is nothing much to say about these dozen, largely listless songs. The title song is agreeable, faintly muscular teenpop, “Games” is quite fun for its Toytown rapping, a bit like a Junior Showtime Stetasonic, while “Tonight” sticks out because it’s so bloody weird, a melange of late-sixties Genuine Imitation Life Gazette post-psychedelic baroque pop which in its chorus inexplicably turns into an ELO song.

Other than that, however, this is routine sub-pop gloop.  On ballads like “Let’s Try It Again” they attempt to be the Stylistics, but Starr is no Thom Bell. Fifties throwback “Happy Birthday” would have been rejected by The Stargazers for being too square. As for Donnie Wahlberg’s ghastly attempt at a Jamaican accent – in 1990 – on “Stay With Me Baby,” the less said, the better.

Two things to note are that, had it not been for dopey Donnie at the bottom, the cover shot might have been of a Scottish indiepop band circa 1983; and that this album spawned no less than five top twenty singles, all of which I struggled to remember. I regret to say that it left the way open for the many undistinguished boy bands who would follow in their forlorn trail. And yet, a year later, it was essentially all over.  Amidst the multiple acknowledgments on the sleeve is the group’s tribute to Maurice Starr: “Love ya, buddy! P.S.: You got $20?” Why do I think that rings truer than was probably intended?

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Luciano PAVAROTTI: The Essential Pavarotti


(#409: 23 June 1990, 1 week; 7 July 1990, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Rigoletto, Act 3 - "La donna è mobile"/La Bohème, Act 1 - "Che gelida manina"/Tosca, Act 3 - "E lucevan le stelle"/Turandot, Act 3 - Nessun dorma!/L'elisir d'amore, Act 2 - "Una furtiva lagrima"/Martha, Act 3 "M'appari"/Carmen, Act 2 - "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"/Pagliacci, Act 1 - "Vesti la giubba"/Il Trovatore, Act 3 - "Di quella pira"/Caruso/Mattinata/Aprile/Core 'ngrato/Soirées musicales - La Danza/Volare/Funiculì, funiculà/Torna a Surriento/'O sole mio

Was Hillsborough the excuse needed – that is, needed by vested interests - for excluding ordinary people from the game of football? I could go on at some length about this but would instead refer you to Adrian Tempany’s remarkable, poignant and deadly damning book And The Sun Shines Now. Tempany writes about that Sunday afternoon and its long and agonising ramifications in immense and frequently painful detail. He speaks with the unquestionable authority of someone who was actually present at Hillsborough and who indeed almost died in the crush, and his account of the subsequent years of action – or, in some vested interests, determined inaction – reads like a never-to-be-written David Peace novel (and Peace himself has said that this is the one topic about which he can never write; to get a hint of what he might have said, read the account of the 1971 New Year’s Ibrox disaster in Red Or Dead – and even then you wouldn’t get half of what the impact of Hillsborough was.

After Hillsborough, however, football was “legitimised”; Dr Karl Miller in the London Review of Books wrote of Paul Gascoigne as “strange-eyed, pink-faced, fairhaired, tense and upright, a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun – a marvellous equivocal sight.” Terraces became all-seaters. Ticket prices shot up to meet the need to attract international playing stars and maintain satellite TV coverage deals. The Premier League – essentially four or five “big” teams and fifteen or sixteen patsies – was established as a monolith in its own priapic right. In that same year – 1992 – Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life, written by Nick Hornby, an English graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, was published and some voices whispered about the game now being “acceptable” (certainly Fever Pitch is very well-written and does considerably more to convert unbelievers than the same author’s subsequent writing, both factual and fictitious, about music).

But finance, international finance, became the prime concern. Never mind the games, even, let’s get those Manchester United T-shirts worn in Vladivostok. Teams became uprooted from their origins – in some cases (Wimbledon FC) literally – and degenerated into brands. The game suffered, too, with too many needless fixtures added in for the convenience of television viewers, especially the floating voters of TV who didn’t fundamentally like football but would tune in every now and then. As the art of defending turned into a science, something that could be taught and studied, defenders became stronger and goals became fewer; hence the endless, listless 0-0 draws which constitute most of a Premier League season, or the cynical 0-0 draws, the only purpose of which was to maintain a result, a profile, rather than entertain the people who had paid good money to come and watch it.

No child grows up dreaming of being involved in a solid 0-0 draw. They want goals, and lots of them; they want drama, excitement, and not the stapled-on kind of “drama” which constitutes penalty shootouts and which does not constitute football as any sane person would recognise it. Hence it is almost irrelevant that Leicester City is owned by a Thai billionaire with plenty of resources to pump into the club; this past season they were the underdogs, the one to act as a team rather than an assemblage of sullen, entitled individuals, the one to play together while the other teams, by and large, primped and posed.

One may look at the current events in Marseille and find varying reasons – the Russian hardcore put them up to it, the French “ultras” were having a go at the supporters, the security and facilities in the city were laughably non-existent – for them, and perhaps wonder why the forced gentrification of football needed to happen in England – the other three constituents of the United Kingdom tell a different story, or stories - if this was the result.

But yes, it is now all about international stars and their heroic tales, their defiance in the face of impossible odds, their lives and doings off the pitch. And it is not quite what was there before. Most people who in the old days would have paid next to nothing to go to a home game, even by a comparatively major team, now stay in and watch the games on Sky Sports or online (or on their smartphone), or listen to them on the radio. The notion of community – that this is a rite of maturity to which parents take children to learn how a team of players can work together for a greater good – has vanished.

At the 1989-90 bend in the river, one of the major turning points could be ascribed to whoever in the sports department of BBC Television had the idea to use “Nessun Dorma!” as the theme to their 1990 World Cup coverage.

* * * *

In the second half of 1990, plans were also being drawn up for a commercial radio station devoted to classical music. Although, test broadcasts of birdsong notwithstanding, Classic FM did not come fully on air until September 1992, important moves were being made, mergers agreed, backers sought. The subtext was clear: this would essentially be Radio 3 without all the difficult bits, including any obligation to provide a public service, to make things happen rather than reflecting the shinier parts of them.

It has always been the easy route to fame and fortune – it is certainly not confined to the last half-decade or so – to let people off the hook and tell them not to bother with that difficult and troublesome “new” music that they find so problematic, or, in Classic FM’s case, skip the best part of a century between Debussy and Arvo Part and forget all that awkward German and Austrian stuff that happened in between. This benign philistinism worked in parallel with Hornby’s attitude to pop music; a catastrophic misreading of the common good as all people should like this music, that work of art, and that if they exhibit the slightest hint of independence of thought they are to be excommunicated, damned, considered “weird” or worse; in terms of which the old Soviet Union would have been proud, it was a case of art for the people and anything different was imperialism’s most stalwart servant.

That belief has subsequently ossified into gospel. Radio must only play one of two hundred or so “proscribed” records for fear that the casual listener might immediately switch to another station at the faintest scent of anything unfamiliar or different. One cannot move for newspapers and magazines weekly offering canons, lists, minimal rejigging of the same basic feeding matter. Anybody wanting anything more than crazy golf and Muzak is automatically Unmutual.

It is true that such things as Gorecki’s 3rd and Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood (the remake featuring Tom Waits, alas, rather than the immeasurably superior 1975 original) would not have found such great commercial success without Classic FM’s patronage. But the station seeks to follow rather than lead, to echo rather than to initiate, and its millions of listeners, wanting something quiet and undemanding to listen to in the car or office or kitchen, are happy to abide by that. Is pointing this out “spoiling things,” and, if so, whose spoils are they?

* * * *

The Godfather, Part III opened in cinemas just before Christmas 1990. Coppola was not keen on a third instalment of a story which he thought had been adequately told in the first two films, but he needed the money to stave off bankruptcy. When I first saw it, in a nearly empty cinema in the West End on the first weekend of its release, I thought it was terrible. Pacino had made Michael Corleone look aged, bored, listless, distracted. Sofia Coppola, as an actress, had not yet perfected the blank space that she would subsequently put to great use as a film director. As Robert Duvall had declined repeating the part, primarily for financial reasons, George Hamilton, of all blank spaces, was suddenly, and (in)effectively, Tom Hagen.

I thought that the central plot, involving laundered Vatican money, was ludicrous and flimsy. The villains were largely cartoon cut-outs and so the ritual mass assassinations at the end rang hollow. Only Andy Garcia, as Vincent, demonstrated any vitality or energy, as if to remind Michael how a living Sonny might have run things.

There is some improvement if you watch it as part of the DVD Godfather Saga trilogy; Walter Murch’s editing had been curtailed in a rush to meet Christmas opening times at cinemas, and on the DVD much interesting additional material is restored, giving us a better picture of Michael in his autumnal musings (since it is still, ultimately, Michael’s story).

Watching it now, however, in tandem with its two predecessors, one wonders at the brutal efficiency with which an organisation will endeavour to protect itself, as well as wondering what it is protecting, apart from a dull obeisance, a ritual, a closing of doors to the outside world, including other, parallel organisations. Indeed, parallels with the current state of the United States of America may not be far-fetched. One notices how anybody who demonstrates the slightest independence of thought is efficiently removed from life’s equation. Not that Barzini, Moe Greene, Hyman Roth or Fredo were by and large good people. But one does get the sense of possible futures being blocked off.

The real problem for me now in the third Godfather movie is Joey Zasa. We know – though are never shown proof – that he is a rather nasty piece of work, peddling drugs to the blacks and Hispanics, turning Little Italy into a slum, and that something has to be done about him. We also know, given their long-term mutual hatred, that Vincent will be the one to do what has to be done.

The trouble, however, is that Joe Mantegna’s Joey is too good. He saunters into and steals every scene he’s in, even his own death in the procession. He is hip, cool, smart and arrogantly funny, and next to him the ageing Michael appears as though a dinosaur. We want more of him, maybe a lifetime of him. If Coppola had wanted to make a good sequel, he could have cut out all the killings and big setpieces altogether and made Godfather II a buddy-enemy comedy where Joey and Vincent loathe each other but are forced to work together for the greater good.

But there is that weakness – imposed or instinctive – for the calamitous, operatic finale, played out against a production of Cavalleria Rusticana, that earlier bloody tale about betrayal set in Sicily, an early move towards the verismo trend which overtook Italian opera in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – a move away from romps about kings, queens and gods and towards the tragedies of ordinary people. The question is: would a Michael Corleone ever have settled for being ordinary? That he did not explains his ultimate, lonely tragedy.

* * * *


All this, perhaps unfairly, converges on the 1990 phenomenon of Luciano Pavarotti, on the grounds of a compilation album which spans his work from 1971-89. After all, the younger Pavarotti had fondly nurtured dreams of being a goalkeeper before being reluctantly persuaded to take up music as a career option instead.

The compilation was advertised on television, and I note that my copy still bears a football-shaped sticker advertising both “Nessun Dorma!” and its use in Grandstand. The notion may have been to attract people who would not ordinarily be attracted to opera or classical music in general. It was the first classical number one album, certainly the first number one album by an Italian act, and the first number one album to be sung entirely in other languages (Italian and French).

Before we go any further, I should just like to point out that, as albums go, The Essential Pavarotti is a tremendous record, one of the best you’re likely to encounter in this whole run, and I would recommend visiting your local charity or thrift shop immediately to rescue a copy. You can see from the above track listing that it has every obvious song and aria you could imagine in this context; and yet this album contains some of the deepest and most highly realised music that has ever been composed or performed.

The album divides evenly between operatic arias and popular songs, in no particular chronological performance order. One can view how the slightly reedy voice of seventies Pavarotti evolved into the confident tenor of the eighties; the album’s first half cleverly begins and ends with recitatives from Verdi and one can witness how the rather stiff, haughty tenor of “La donna è mobile” evolves into the imperious, percussive and absolutely commanding voice of “Di quella pira.” Overall, however, the impression, as Lena remarked to me, is one of a soul singer, a genuine artist. Not the Glenn Gould thing with the Artist being their own Artwork, but someone who turns up on time to the studio or the opera house, has rehearsed their lines well – for opera demands that great singers should also be great actors – knows their art inside out and is technically and emotionally capable of giving the song as good a performance as possible. A soul singer because the only point of comparison that we could find with Pavarotti was Levi Stubbs; someone who gives a definitive delivery of every song they sing and who more importantly make you believe everything they are singing, even if you don’t know the language in which they are singing or know enough about opera to realise that they are singing something completely ludicrous. Pavarotti’s performance on “Che gelida manina” brought, of all singers, Matt Bellamy of Muse to our minds, not so much because of any vocal resemblance, but because there is a similar commitment to the epic, the definitive and grand statement – even when, as in La Bohème, intimacy is largely required from the lead performers.

As I say, no obvious song is missed out, and perhaps no opera plot (prior to the twentieth century) was too obvious. Even when they are not comic operas – and it is quite startling to realise that even Carmen was considered one in its day – their plots, even when dealing with everyday cuckolded clowns, were elaborate, fantastical myths, all kings, queens and dukes, or the sudden giving and equally sudden withdrawal of love, with much blood and gore mixed in, not to mention demonstrably artificial plot or character twists. This was no different from Shakespeare in his Globe Theatre days, or for that matter from the ancient worlds of Plautus or Aristophanes; as Game Of Thrones has demonstrated, humans still need fantastical stories, legends, myths – something which is bigger than them but makes them feel yet bigger, since every hero and heroine has a fatal flaw. Stories are what keep us going, nourish and sustain us.

As fine as the showpieces from Tosca and Pagliacci are in Pavarotti’s hands, he is even more impressive when he turns the volume down. In this collection you will find no sign of his interpretations of Gluck or Haydn, or for that matter Schoenberg, but the comic opera performances are quite touching. Of these, Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” is the more outstanding in that Pavarotti does not go for the big finish but keeps the tone medium, meditative – his character is wondering whether the solitary tear he saw her cry means something, represents love. Even in his closing accapella feature he exhibits great technical and emotional control.

It is impossible for me to dismiss or belittle this music as it is in my DNA; this is music with which I grew up, some of which I experienced first-hand (for many of these songs are derived from Neapolitan music, some sung in Neapolitan slang). That also goes for the album’s popular/populist second half. His “Core ‘ngrato” is a tremendously touching and fulfilling performance. Only his 1984 “Volare” seems a slight miscue. Performing under Henry Mancini’s direction, the song starts (and indeed ends) like an outtake from Scott 4 with echoing chants and free-floating strings. It gradually assumes some form of recognisable order as it proceeds, but the impression here is one of a polite battle; Pavarotti clearly wants to sing the song his way, but Mancini is equally determined to do as he does. It doesn’t quite finish in a draw. Nevertheless, I note that the closing two songs, both performed brilliantly, were the foundations of consecutive number ones by Elvis Presley – like Pavarotti, born in 1935 – and given how both these young men idolised Mario Lanza, the penny drops; this is the record Elvis would have made if rock ‘n’ roll had never happened and he had been given the opportunity to take better care of himself.


But the song at which we must pause, and in many ways the most remarkable song on the record, is the one which sounds utterly of its time. “Caruso” was written and originally recorded in 1986 by the Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla. It was inspired by thoughts of the last days of the great tenor, as he looks in the eyes of his beloved (by now, in Caruso’s case, it was one Dorothy Park Benjamin) fully aware that he is about to die. Several songs on this collection find Pavarotti staring in the face of imminent death – even Turandot is about the need to know the answer to three riddles, on joy of royal marriage or pain of death (you see what I mean about intrinsically silly plots – Pavarotti transcends the silliness and turns “Nessun dorma!” into a defiant cry of a challenge to the whole world; “I WILL WIN [with or without your help]!”) – but only “Caruso” finds its protagonist actually approaching the end of his life.

“Poi all'improvviso uscì una lacrima (furtiva?) e lui credette di affogare,” he sings, which means: “But then, a tear fell, and he believed he was drowning.” The song’s second half is an adaptation of a Neapolitan love ballad from 1930 entitled "Dicitencello vuje" and, in an affecting echo of the other end of the second half of this record – the compilation is even structured like a football match – the word “Surriento” is heard.  The chorus is a cry of love, noting that “It is a chain by now that heats the blood inside of our veins.”

Pavarotti recorded his version in 1988, accompanied by not much more than a Fairlight by the sound of it, and it is breathtaking; his yearning sounds deeper and higher than anywhere else on the record, and we could not help but think, yet again, of Billy Mackenzie. The free kick somehow lands in the middle of the New Pop square, the singer’s performance is as great as any of the truly great performances to be encountered in this tale. The nearly sixty-eight minutes of this record go by as a whisker, and you forget that this is supposed to be 1990, the year in which so much of our present-day pain was allowed to be legitimised, but are never allowed to forget, in this week of decision, what European music and European musicians have done to enliven and indeed enable the art of this land.

Friday, 10 June 2016

SOUL II SOUL: Vol. II: 1990 - A New Decade


(#408: 2 June 1990, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Get A Life/Love Come Through/People/Missing You/Courtney Blows/1990 A New Decade/A Dream’s A Dream/Time (Untitled)/In The Heat Of The Night/Our Time Has Now Come

The problem with basing your career on a manifesto is that you then have to build a career. You have to follow up your lifetime’s thoughts with rapidly-assembled sequels. If you are unlucky enough to be without your best-known singer, that intensifies the pressure to prove cynics wrong.

Usually, when faced with this situation, the artist expands, adding guest singers and instrumentalists, or children’s choirs, to the basic picture. The artist has to be careful that the basic picture does not become obscured as a result. All of this is evident on the second Soul II Soul album, which, though receiving good, if not spectacular, reviews at the time, has since tended to lurk beneath the overweening shadow of its predecessor.

At the time it was easy for cynics to say, ah, they’re just replacing Caron Wheeler with gimmicks, it’s a bit all over the place. On recent repeated listening, however, I reckon that Vol. II might actually be the better record. Certainly something like “Get A Life” was easily taken for granted back then; now, however, one realises what a bizarre and out-of-kilter record this is for something that was, as a single, almost the Christmas number one of 1989. “WHAT’S THE MEA-NING? WHAT’S THE MEANING OF LIFE?” bellows the children’s choir – a full decade after “WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION!” – while the beats are crisp and Marcia Lewis’ vocal threateningly reassuring enough to balance out Jazzie B’s booming ringmaster announcements and obviate the need to think too much about concepts as abstract as “positivity” and “objective” (on at least two of the album’s songs we are instructed to “analyse” – pop as a PowerPoint presentation?). A flute carefully walks the music’s beneficent tightrope.

After this, Jazzie B effectively bows out and leaves the stage to everyone else; apart from a couple of cameos on side two, he only reappears at the very end to wrap the record up in the illustrious and opulent company of Fab Five Freddy. The solution to the Caron Wheeler problem – she had left to pursue a solo career – was to spotlight a whole host of other singers and personalities. If that means Vol. II plays like a superior hits compilation, it is no bad thing.

Lamya – full name, Lamya Hafidh Sultan Al-Mugheiry – does very well on “Love Come Through” and especially on “In The Heat Of The Night” where her astoundingly rising voice reminds me of no one less than Billy Mackenzie; perhaps not coincidentally, the music has grown darker by that stage.

Marcia Lewis returns to sing “People,” Nellee Hooper’s beats both crunching and floating, like the worn boots of angels kicking away paving tombstones, and then you realise that worlds are beginning to merge:

Walking down the street, watching people go by
I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you

However, this song, “People,” as with the rest of the record, bears what Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards termed “deep hidden meanings (DHMs)” to do with things other, and perhaps greater, than what is expressed in Chic’s songs themselves. Phrases go off like landmines to the unwary throughout “People,” particularly “This time we make a stand/To be happy to live on this land.” It is a pledge made by, for and to the hitherto oppressed.*

*(And hence it is at best jejune for people like Ben Ratliff to presume that such things do not matter. Amid the multiple mishearings, misreadings and misunderstandings demonstrated in his “acclaimed” new book, Every Song Ever, Ratliff asserts that the above explanation is insufficient: “Those are good answers for interviews” he chortles, patronisingly, at Chic, “but I am convinced that they understood the creation and dismantling of the repetitive art as its own DHM.” In other chapters he goes on to demonstrate how much more he understands about the music Shostakovich and Robert Johnson than the artists themselves – his brief commentary on the former’s almost unbearably moving String Quartet No 15, from 1974, the year before the composer’s death, is an impertinence, and shrivels to nothing when set next to definitive writing on the same piece by Ian Macdonald, Judith Kuhn and others, whereas he demonstrates his understanding of Johnson by digitally slowing the speed of his recordings, a habit out of which most of us have grown by the time we have reached the age of five – so his blatant misunderstanding of Chic may not have a racist undertow in itself, although the chapter in question carries too many assumptions – “I know of six excellent songs called ‘Don’t Stop The Music.’ Rihanna’s, of course [sic; why “of course”? What will this mean to people reading the book half a century hence?)].”

Elsewhere Ratliff demonstrates philistinism – bracketing Sunn O))) with Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett [“powerful, mind-over-matter stuff”; I cannot disagree with a phrase I cannot understand, though suspect it of being profoundly wrong-headed] – and misinterprets Andrew Hill’s comment that “I look at melody as rhythm” [“If you accept melody is rhythm,” Ratliff goes on, which is not what Hill said or meant; rhythm and melody are two entirely different, though possibly interdependent, things, as a cursory listen to Point Of Departure or Black Fire would have confirmed] - but things become extremely problematic when he addresses the issue of bebop, specifically Bud Powell’s 1953 Birdland recording of “Salt Peanuts.” The chapter in question begins with the sentence “If you are thinking of Bud Powell, you may be thinking of someone playing the piano fast [sic; unfortunately for Ratliff, we fuddy-duddy, stuffed-shirt conservatives in Britain expect salaried writers to be able to differentiate between nouns and verbs, between adverbs and adjectives, and between verbs transitive and intransitive]” and does not improve from there.

The point of Chic’s subtext was the black struggle. So it is inadequate and indeed insulting to refer to Powell’s “Salt Peanuts” as “the symbol of straight stunting, aggressive showboating,” and it is hardly an improvement to refer to the drummer Roy Haynes, who celebrated his ninety-first birthday two-and-a-half months ago and continues to work as a musician, composer and bandleader, in the past tense [“found self-possession,” “made velocity irrelevant” – whatever those phrases are supposed to mean].

“The experience of hearing music like this,” says Ratliff, “involves questioning whether it’s worth it, or whether you’re up to the task…Why are you here? Do you actually hear music that goes by this quickly? Really, how many people do?” What, apart from the thousands of musicians who heard this, learned from it and used it as a building block for their own music? Is Ratliff entirely ignorant of the racial struggle, the confrontation that gave rise to bebop – the declaration that this music would be too fast and complicated for white people to copy and steal?

“At a certain point, as a listener, you just don’t know. You give up,” complains Ratliff, confusing the second person singular with the first person singular. “And what have you gained? A statistic…And then an evaluation, which is probably of no consequence…” Actually if Ratliff had shown evidence of any knowledge of basic musical theory and the art of developing variations, improvisatory or otherwise, he wouldn’t have been so baffled. Powell’s “Salt Peanuts,” a recording with which I have been familiar since childhood, is an exhilarating rush of paradoxically patient invention, Mingus and Haynes with him, answering back and interacting all the way. It is a defiant declaration of power, of ecstasy, of independence.


“Speed has no practical purpose in music…Speed is to be considered separately from music…Speed on music is like a sweater on a dog: mostly for show.” Soon after such a display of arrogant ignorance – since Ratliff is obviously aiming to comfort affluent, white, Google-avid listeners rather than tell the truth – the author begins to contradict his own “theory” by slavering over the deployment of speed by Houston punk band D.R.I. [at a 1984 gig where the teenage Ratliff just happened to be present] and Jerry Lee Lewis live at the Star Club in 1962. The inescapable subtext is: how dare those black fellows come in here with their superior ways, and perhaps all of the speed is merely a priapic metaphor because “we” know what "they"’re like?

I think that’s perhaps enough of Ratliff’s “writing” to do us for the time being, and indeed for any time)

Side one eases to a satisfactory end with one of Kym Mazelle’s most intense (in terms of brightness) vocal performances, while Courtney Pine has fun with his soprano over some elementary beats in a John Surman-jamming-with Spyro Gyra sort of way. The second side concentrates on assimilating the collective’s** aesthetic with the then relatively new template of Deep House, be it by ritual chanting (the more-or-less title track), the use of angular classical tropes (“A Dream’s A Dream,” here improved from its rather ponderous single mix by the introduction of accented beats to a Pet Shop Boys-lost-in-a-Kentish Town-riot scenario; the surface-light menace of the “I can see, I can see, I can see, I can see, I can see RIGHT THROUGH YOU” refrain comes over more markedly) or, in the case of “Time (Untitled),” the absence of words. Overall, Vol. II is a largely optimistic and determined portrait of mid-1990 London culture, if a little more wary than before, peering over its shoulder, sensing the incipient cool of an approaching autumn (with particular thought being paid to Lamya and Marcia Lewis, both of whom died at absurdly young ages earlier this millennium).

(**Do collectives, as such, exist outside black or predominantly black music genres? Broken Social Scene, Fife’s Fence Collective and maybe Belle and Sebastian aside, I can’t think of any)

Those paving-stones-as-crisp-tombstone beats from Nellee Hooper, looking back and forward, marching forward but then sideways rather than back - looking to the North once more, then eastwards where it all began, and celebrating what was great about new black culture...before it all went West.




“The way to test a modern painting is this: If
it is not destroyed by the action of
shadows it is genuine oil painting.
A cough or a baby crying will not
ruin a good piece of modern music.”
(John Cage, Silences. London: Calder and Bryars, 1968, “45’ For A Speaker”)

The first I heard of Massive Attack was in the autumn of 1990, a few months after Vol. II came out, when the evenings were dark again and Twin Peaks was on television. Listening to a radio show whose provenance I have long since forgotten – even whether or not the station broadcasting it was legal – I heard this tune drift into my presence and sensed that it wasn’t like other music.

“I quietly observe standing in my space,” sang one Shara Nelson, as though she were John Berger’s daughter, or Bartleby’s great-great-granddaughter. Above and around her, pin pricks of what once might have been music darted, momentarily lit before retreating back into universal ash, like a long-disused jukebox or pinball machine.

I recognised the sample as coming from “Mambo” by Wally Badarou, a sometime unofficial fifth member of Level 42. 1984 and parallel thoughts of Nik Kershaw’s song “Human Racing” where he looks back to see if he was looking back to see if he was looking back at him. Echoing statues of beats arose in the middleground like a rediscovered cooling tower in Pimlico. There were other whispers, mutters; three quiet male voices playing aesthetic table tennis, always more (gently) warming than comforting.

“The cool breeze that you welcome in the heat,
You don't see it but you feel it when it's blowing on the street.”

This isn’t Soul II Soul’s primary-coloured welcome-all open day; indeed, the discourse makes it resemble more of a closed day. Perhaps a Generation X

* * THOSE WORDS!!!! * *

declaration of no principles, or anti-principles.

Words which saunter out of the picture like a friendly rocket:
“But I just take it easy, it’s a Sunday morn!”
That one called himself Tricky Kid. One already gets the feeling that he won’t quite settle for what the other two want (“I’m very down to earth but brain sits on top floor”). But what do the other two want?

The three voices remember those old songs, scanty memories – “Light My Fire,” the Budokan (such a cheap trick), Mrs Thatcher (by now, nearly gone), Fiddler On The Roof, Abbey Road (though they sound as if they have the Richie Havens version of “Here Comes The Sun” burning quietly in their minds; this is NOT coffee in St John’s Wood). Meanwhile, Nelson is the impartial observer.

I love my neighbour, I don’t wait for the Olympics

The music is so damned patient, twinkling in a quiet μ-zik sky (not that anybody in 1990 knew who Mike Paradinas was yet), doing anything BUT selling itself. And if you couldn’t sell yourself in 1990, what good were you? As far as some people were concerned, you might as well be selling your soul.

* * * *

Late winter/early spring 1991; the summer’s warming up early again, Twin Peaks has curdled into indifference and “Unfinished Sympathy” is like NOTHING I have ever heard before, with the partial exception of the 1975 tune “Unfinished Sympathy” which Mike Gibbs used to close his album …Directs The Only Chrome-Waterfall Orchestra, a feature for the Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine which arises out of a sombre line for Pat Halling’s low strings and decisive rhythm (Steve Swallow, Bob Moses – both sounding more confident than they had done on A Genuine Tong Funeral eight years earlier - and Jumma Santos; the band was international) which in turn demands that you hear it as a prototype for what would eventually become the first thing the rest of the world heard from a collective who, because of the Gulf War and nervy British media, could only be referred to at the time as “Massive.”

Back then, I do not think anybody had really heard anything like this “Unfinished Sympathy” and nobody was really ready for it; perhaps the diluted band name, a misguided dance remix and a strangely lacklustre TOTP performance combined to make the single stall at #13. But among the dozen records above it which the British public appeared to prefer were four reissues (The Clash, Madonna, Xpansions and Free), two novelties (Hale and Pace, the Simpsons), a mash-up (“You Got The Love”) and a cover version (“It’s Too Late” by Quartz “introducing” Dina Carroll). Nonetheless, enough people decided “fuck the charts” and stood awed at the spectacle of this record.

It begins with a reticent count-in, reminiscent of workmen trying to install triple-glazing, a rash scratch, a deep heartbeat from somewhere (inside us). Then a line of ‘celli play a drone; it is the root note of D minor.

Then the sun rises, possibly the last sun of all, and like stout Cortez we are compelled to witness in wonder the rest of the string section playing the song’s slow and patient chords, starting at D minor, and carefully climbing via E flat minor, F and G to G minor before going back down to where the sequence began, like an ant being knocked back down the anthill by a careless or sadistic finger. Like Prince, no bass is used; there are no guitars either, and only occasional piano at key points. A familiar “hey, hey” vocal sample hovers into distant view like a forgotten 1976 helicopter…

…familiar because the sample – along with the “are you ready” sample we hear later in the song – is also from 1976. It comes from the song “Planetary Visitor” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, from their album Inner Worlds. The album is not very good. Only John McLaughlin remained from the original line-up, and the music appeared to have degenerated into routine MoR jazz-funk, worlds away from Escalator Over The Hill or even Extrapolation. This was indicative of a general surrender that some leading sixties jazz players had made to “the market” – from someone who was there, I can testify that in the late seventies jazz was by some distance the least fashionable music going, at least in late seventies Glasgow, where I was told more than once that there was “absolutely no market” for this music; indeed I was “the market” (one record shop owner confessed that they ordered in stuff in the expectation that I would go in and buy it; their jazz section was stuck far at the back of the shop, next to the bargain cutouts – nobody else went near it, or cared a fig about it).

So a lot of musicians examined their flag, decided that it was white and promptly waved it. “Planetary Visitor,” however, has a crisp backbeat to go with its vocals, both probably due to the band’s then drummer/singer Narada Michael Walden (although bassist Ralphe Armstrong composed the song, and both McLaughlin and keyboardist Stu Goldberg are also credited with vocals on the album) and thus became popular with club DJs and nascent hip hop DJs, always looking for the perfect beat; it is inconceivable that the Wild Bunch would not have spun this at club night time.

Shara Nelson is the lead singer again, and once more she sounds like a planetary visitor herself.

As the music slips unexpectedly back onto a B flat cushion, she resembles the spectator at the end of Bowie’s “Subterraneans,” except here she might be trying to reproduce the sound of Aretha rather than Sinatra. As the harmony floats around C, A minor, D minor, B flat and C again before rejoining the main sequential trail, we hear her cry for understanding: “You’re the book that I have opened/And now I’ve got to know much more.”

Perhaps the song’s theme – she’s already been hurt and would like to get involved again but is understandably wary to the point of denial – is not so far from that of “I’ve Been Wrong Before.” After a brief, piano-led instrumental break the Sisyphean circuitous climb begins again, with the singer a more brisk and intense Wizard of Oz participant: “Like a soul without a mind/In a body without a heart/I’m missing every part.” Behind her the scratching, which sounds a thousand miles away and a million years old, echoes into its own sarcophagus, while Wil Malone’s strings steadily ascend in conflicting runs of whole tones, bending down and back to the beginning before total discordancy is reached.***

***Wil Malone, who while still a teenager was in the sixties baroque/psychedelia group Orange Bicycle, also did the orchestral arrangements for Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and the score for the horror movie Death Line. On UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction he gave Richard Ashcroft his finest moment in “Lonely Soul.” He was also responsible for the raised-eyebrow string arrangements on the strange 1976 Beatles covers/war footage mash-up All This And World War II. His orchestrations, in the right context, are as indipensable as the whiter skies of Turner.

Then the song turns in on itself, retreats into its quietened shell, the opening harmonic sequence repeating over and over as yet more layers reveal themselves; piano arpeggios, scratching beamed down from another planet, samples, cut-up voices…the visitor struggling to make sense of this planet and the people living on it. The strings crawl back down to a low drone, which they hold for a few seconds, before the song cuts out, distant echoes, stilled lives and a brief, unanswerable cry – we are in the world of Joy Division’s “The Eternal.”****

****Possible Bristol forebears: Rip Rig & Panic, who in 1981 burst out of the (then) ashes of the Pop Group with a determined and youthfully arrogant mission to get free jazz back in the centre of the picture. I’m not sure many people knew what to make of them then, other than giving Neneh Cherry her first big chance, but it is significant that pianist Mark Springer was a protégé of Keith Tippett and the right age to remember Centipede, the spirit of which I think the group wanted to recreate and renew (to the point where they kept adding in extra musicians as each song or gig required – they were also a true collective).

Their discography is, to put it plainly, a glorious mess. But listen to something like November 1981’s single “Bob Hope Takes Risks” – a time when, let it not be forgotten, such records stood a serious chance of becoming pop hits – and it’s all there; the queasily querulous string arrangements (occasionally colliding with discordant, droney brass fanfares out of Michael Mantler), Cherry’s proto-Sushi sassiness, the happy feeling that anything goes and “everything” must go; there is even some scratching in the distance of the mix, Sean Oliver and Bruce Smith’s infallible rhythm, holding everything together like Miller and Moholo did in another time. They are, perhaps only semi-knowingly (since they frequented the same clubs in St Paul’s and elsewhere), preparing our ears for a decade hence.


One clue might be found in the piece “The Blue, Blue Third,” which appears on the group’s 1981 modestly-titled debut album God. Ostensibly a slow, contemplative piano piece by Springer – perhaps in an attempt to prove to cloth-eared cynics that he could actually play the damned instrument – there are strange, whirling sounds in the background. These were provided by guitarist/multi-reedman Gareth Sager, running his finger around some giant Chinese glass bowl-type instrument; on first hearing one is put in mind of a late-night club closing down, the bar staff polishing their glasses and clearing the place up, but in reality it was Sager trying to make the piece into more than a moody Evans/Jarrett meditation (although on those terms, Springer succeeds magnificently). The whirling sounds and murmurs we hear circling around the end of “Unfinished Sympathy” really do not sound all that dissimilar.

“Why is it necessary to give the sounds of knives and forks consideration? Satie says so. He is right. Otherwise the music will have to have walls to defend itself, walls which will not only constantly be in need of repair, but which, even to get a drink of water, one will have to pass beyond, inviting disaster. It is evidently a question of bringing one’s intended actions into relation with the ambient unintended ones. The common denominator is zero, where the heart beats (no one means to circulate his blood).”
(Cage, op. cit.: “Erik Satie”)

Despite spending 130 weeks in the album chart (to date; it still resurfaces occasionally), Blue Lines never peaked higher than its original debut position of #13, in mid-April 1991. The British album-buying public appeared to prefer items such as Rod Stewart’s Vagabond Heart or Flashpoint, a live album by the Stones (if one is wondering aloud who on earth would have bought a Stones live album in 1991, it should be recalled that when the Purple Rain soundtrack reached its British chart peak of number seven, it was outsold by Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss. Sometimes the album chart is the least reliable of cultural barometers). In third place was Joyride by Roxette, while at number two was that week’s “big” release, Real Life by Simple Minds, though even they could not overtake the monolithic popularity of the hits compilation that was sitting, long-term, at number one (#427).

But many albums, as this tale is subtly attempting to demonstrate, exceed the charts, the momentary and well-marketed favourites of a few thousand consumers, and at its darkest Blue Lines almost exceeds music. It was Neneh Cherry who noisily encouraged the Wild Bunch (as were) to make and record music (demos were largely put down in Cherry’s nursery, competing with the smell of nappies drying on the radiator; in a 2004 Observer piece, Daddy G admitted: “We were lazy Bristol twats”). Certainly the overriding, or underriding, sound of Blue Lines is patient, unhurried, at times playful and at other times menacing (sometimes both at the same time), as if pointing a rueful finger at the go-ahead nineties and asking: to where do you think you are running?

The record begins with a quiet wind, perhaps the same wind that wound us out of the Specials’ “Ghost Town.” Then an endless but determined bassline begins – most of the track is constructed on a loop of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” with other samples making their way through the fog, depending on what the musicians picked up in the second-hand record shop that morning (in that sense, Blue Lines is the darker cousin of Foxbase Alpha); Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, Johnny “Guitar” Watson. The choice of connoisseurs.

And the Browns. “Looking Back To See” was written and jointly sung by Jim Ed Brown and Maxine Brown – the group would go on to top the American charts with their Anglicisation of the French song “The Three Bells” – and first recorded in March 1954, with a jaunty but resilient backing band including Jim Reeves on rhythm guitar. It is an upbeat, light-hearted C&W love song and would later go on to be recorded by the likes of Buck Owens and George Jones. Its cheery chorus began:

“I was looking back to see if you were looking back to see
If I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me”

However, I suspect that Massive Attack probably had David Essex more in mind; the far more aggressive “Streetfight,” from his 1973 album Rock On, includes, at their 1991 tempo:

“I was lookin' back to see
If you were lookin' back at me
To see me lookin' back at you”

In the song Essex (with Jeff Wayne) paints a picture of a Saturday night out that is the mirror of a nightmare (“Somebody got it tonight”); you might summarise its content as: “Another Saturday night/And I ain’t got no body.” Shara Nelson extends this setting to the prosperous, chic London of her time and sees only hissing, laughing threats: “But if you hurt what’s mine,” she warns, “I’ll sure as hell retaliate.” In the chorus she goes on to warn all these people to keep away; she’s amazed and a little fazed by those lucky dippers and crazy chancers (“What happened to the niceties of my childhood days?” she asks; “niceties” being, like “clutching,” one of those words you just do not find in lyrics these days) and views them as smiling sources of violence. This is the down side of the primary-coloured boom:

“You can free the world you can free my mind
Just as long as my baby's safe from harm tonight”

(“baby” as either “lover” or “the next generation, DON’T YOU DARE HURT THE NEXT GENERATION)

In the early nineties you had this choice:

“One love, we don’t need another love…”
versus
“But I believe in one love…”

Which were you more prepared to believe? It is true that Horace Andy’s declaration of true (and monogamous love) has a rather more direct emotional impact than a glorified football chant which avoids any notion of the specific. But this “One Love” is slower, more cunning – in another time, Bing Crosby could have sung the song – and, when it needs to be, far more threatening (the scratched brass lines of “Ike’s Mood I” creating a surreal effect when set against the smooth promenade of the “You Know, You Know” basic groove - Mahavishnu again). Just turned forty-one at the time of the record’s release, Andy sings like an authoritative but soothing adult when set against Ian Brown’s Curly-Wurly “easy-peasy”s. You are inclined to believe him much, much more.

The underlying sample for the title track is distorted but familiar (“Sneakin’ In The Back” by Tom Scott and the L.A. Express; another untouched title known to me from my 23rd Precinct days); the three rappers pass the pipe and muse about Stephen Stills, Dion, Paul Simon, more looking back, Paper Lace, the Brotherhood of Man (the Brotherhood of Breath would be a far more fitting comparison point here; compare Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me” with Tricky’s “Even if I told you, you still would not know me”)…but the stakes are higher than they were with Soul II Soul. In the middle of this comforting miasma, Daddy G inserts the line: “Are you predator or do you fear me?” – a line which could have come straight from Archie Shepp on Impulse circa 1966. “Skip hip data to get the anti-matter” (best internet advice ever, long before such a thing as the internet was known to exist), “It’s a beautiful day – well, it seems as such”; the syllables sink and refloat like a hopped-up Housman. Their concerns are not that different from Soul II Soul’s; out there working, or in here thinking, and both are hard in different, non-“hardworking” ways. Like a grinning cat in the midst of the maze, the record’s best and most resonant lyric comes through: “To wander lonely as a puzzled anagram.”

“Be Thankful For What You’ve Got,” then a song nearly seventeen years old, and a memory of a not yet unclutched past, is sung very well by one Tony Bryan as though the song had just been written. On “Five Man Army” Daddy G, 3D and Tricky again swap mauvais mots, this time bringing Nina Simone, Paddington station (for easy escape back to Temple Meads if needed), the ease or otherwise of getting a visa card, Subbuteo and Wilkinson razor blades into their deliberations (as do the Kinks with the best Ray Davies paraphrase in all of pop - no argument with Davies himself, one of the most articulate, imaginative and affecting of pop operatives, but some of his disciples and ardent yeasayers do him no favours), all of which are violently brought to an end by a resurgent Horace Andy, who barks “Get away with you gangsters! We don’t want it” before bringing the piece to an end by musing at steadily diminishing volume, merging with the undertow (or underpass) about money being the root of all evil.

Summer in the city, or is it winter upside down? “Summertime always gives me the blues,” sings Nelson over an aviary of distressed string vibrati and (with the occasional joyful hint of Isaac Hayes) the essence of Lowrell Simon’s 1979 hit “Mellow Mellow Right On,” much played on the radio at the time by Tony Blackburn and more or less the foundation of the career of Imagination (“Body Talk,” “In And Out Of Love,” “All I Want To Know,” etc., are natural European extensions, a link between Lowrell’s Chicago and Art of Noise’s Basing Street). The big seasonal hit of that liquid summer of 1991 was “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, sampling Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” but bearing a certain cognisance of Soul II Soul’s work with the clouds of autumn already palpable in the middle distance of the record’s fibres. “Lately” proceeds even more slowly, the park cited sounding like the loneliest and bleakest park on the planet. Permanent sunshine, or any sunshine at all, is not guaranteed.

Nor, for that matter, might the future be guaranteed.

There is whale song and a booming magnifying glass of an electronic melody line. In what will become a common occurrence with Massive Attack albums, the ending will suddenly enlarge and you find that the corner of your eye has now become a globe, seen from space.

It is left to Horace Andy to deliver the final word, a word so apocalyptic that it’s easy to miss in the song’s amiable E flat major shuffle (nearly heaven, not quite heaven, but humanity will have to do with the nearest they can get to perfection; see also the opening, perfect chord of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, which is never repeated). Once upon a time, Marvin Gaye or even Errol Brown (“As a child's silent prayer, my hope hides in disguise”) might have sung this spiritual. From where he stands, Andy can watch, feel, the world ending, and there is a sudden shock when the (heart)beat stops, as the acid rain washes away the watcher’s shadow and burns a hole in him, “and all the King’s men cannot put it back again.”

But the watcher concludes on a bleakly optimistic note, and its message is really not that far removed from that of Soul II Soul: “But the ghetto sun will nurture life.” In the honest town of the south, not the opulent plunder of robber barons one finds in the glorified, or degraded, Disneyland north of the river; that is where love, and life, reside (as the song’s co-author, Neneh Cherry, unmissable in the background, tells us by virtue of her own presence). If Soul II Soul’s record tells us that the future is sunshine, but that we have to work and perhaps overcome ourselves in order to make that happen, Blue Lines reminds us just what a difficult task the art of overcoming can be. The sun has set but can rise again.

The credits are straightforward; Daddy G for the records, 3D the words, Mushroom the sound. Tricky is Tricky. Shara Nelson’s subsequent lonely road was rocky. Neneh Cherry and Cameron McVey were around, at least some of the time, in that order. The late Jonny Dollar co-produced. Nellee Hooper will reappear on the next Massive Attack record. A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving – and, crucially, loved – race.

“Listen, my friends, when I leave you like this and must go home on foot, it is towards dawn I come near Arcueil. When I pass through the woods, the birds beginning to sing, I see an old tree, its leaves rustling, I go near, I put my arms around it and think, What a good character, never to have harmed anyone.”
(Cage, op. cit., “Erik Satie”)