Thursday, 21 April 2016

David BOWIE: Best Of Bowie

(#1069: 1 week, 5 February 2016)

Track Listing:  Space Oddity/The Man Who Sold The World/Oh! You Pretty Things/Changes/Life On Mars?/Starman/Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City/John, I'm Only Dancing/The Jean Genie/Drive-In Saturday/Sorrow/Diamond Dogs/Rebel Rebel/Young Americans/Fame/Golden  Years/TVC15/Wild Is The Wind/Sound And Vision/"Heroes"/Boys Keep Swinging/Under  Pressure/Ashes To Ashes/Fashion/Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps)/Let's Dance/China Girl/Modern Love/Blue Jean/This Is Not America (with the Pat Metheny Group)/Loving The Alien/Dancing In The Street/Absolute Beginners/Jump They Say/Hallo Spaceboy (PSB remix)/Little Wonder/I'm Afraid Of Americans (V1)/Slow Burn

"And then it happened.  Just a little at first.  But then, slowly, inexorably, it began to eat me up....I wasn't leading.  I wasn't following either.  I was inside it, inside the guts of it, and I couldn't get out.  My chest vibrated with the sound.  My head flooded with a million sudden thoughts and feelings - snapshots, sounds, smells....The music was either too big for me, or I was too small for it. Either way, I will never forget being so utterly overwhelmed.  In that moment I understood something profound - that words would only distort should I choose them to describe it."  Spectacles, Sue Perkins, pg. 221

"The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.” – Adam Gopnik, Paris To The Moon

Now, where was I, before being so rudely interrupted?  Oh yes, I remember....

....I remember listening to ChangesBowie and getting a headache and being relieved from that and then writing about The Carpenters and then pretty much being unable to write for some time....

Then came that Monday.  I don't remember now if I knew that morning, as I was doing my grocery shopping, what had happened (I do remember finding it a bit odd that Radio 2 was playing one song by him, then another, both from Let's Dance; but I had to go out.)  I do remember knowing when I got back, and telling M there were plenty of copies of Blackstar where I'd been and him going there that evening to buy the last remaining copy.  I didn't want to go to work.  The people there: not really all that bothered, perhaps a little puzzled/angry that they didn't "get" Bowie or thought he wasn't all that. As usual, I never know what to say at these times, and while I could write this as a way to explain Bowie, that would be exhausting and none of them would read it; anyway I have other colleagues who most certainly do get Bowie, thank goodness.  (You might be interested to know they don't really know each other very well, nor do I sense they would get along....)

Now, as you know a lot of these songs are on ChangesBowie (not forgetting Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, etc.) and I have written about some of them on MSBWT, as well, such as "The Jean Genie,""Life On Mars?," "Drive-In Saturday" and "Sorrow.".  But death alters and magnifies things, and I am going to try to look at some of these songs as I reheard them after seeing the signage at The Ritzy, after seeing the huge crowd there that night coming home from work, after visiting the Bowie mural in Brixton several times, a place that has become the main gathering place for people from all over the world to leave their tributes, messages and notes.  I realize I was/am privileged to be able visit it, though the many notes and letters have been taken away now, for the archives - so many scribbles, so many flowers, balloons, messages affirming Bowie's great courage and more than anything, a deep love and affection.  What tugged at me the most was a child's tribute, including a wonky drawing of Bowie himself, talking about what a great singer and dancer he was, as well as actor and guitarist and also how funny he was.*  I am guessing it was done by a kid who is about the same age now as I was when I first heard Bowie myself, in 1975. 

Yes, it's "Fame" where I stepped in to the Bowie stream, which always means I hear everything he did beforehand as something leading up to it; so I may as well start with it, and meander on from there.  What I remember, even as a kid, was how funky this was and how I couldn't understand it but did comprehend this fame thing as being distinctly bad.  Now I can hear it as a mean song, a justifiably mean one at that (Bowie had been royally screwed by his management) and there's Lennon, about to settle down and forego fame altogether for several years, and in the end it's Lennon that was doomed by fame, dammit.  Who would ever want to be famous after hearing Bowie's snarling descriptions of limos, where life is "hollow"?  The final irony was that this song got him a US #1 and propelled him even further into a world of showbiz that he could not really escape, which is somehow predicted by Lennon's voice saying "fame" over and over and going lower and lower, being dragged down into the mud, into a kind of non-existence.  It is also his first single with Dennis Davis on drums; I will get back to this later.

It is this showbiz world that Station To Station comes from, a world of Hollywood glamor and a desperate need to escape from it, from fame itself. If we take the whole Bowie story as someone who just wants to make music without having to go through through the rigamarole of being a famous person, a celebrity, then this is (as Chris O'Leary states in Rebel Rebel) the album where he goes out, as far as he can, into that struggle.  Does Bowie want to be someone who is high all the time, obsessed with God knows what philosophies or ideas of superiority?  Does he want, in some ugly way, to be a celebrity? In "TVC15" that celebrity, so common and yet somehow mindnumbing, becomes a television that takes his girl; in "Golden Years" that girl (the same one?) is promised fame and fortune herself, but it is a strain, as "run for the shadows" seems to indicate.  You will be famous and you will have to hide, either literally or metaphorically.  You will get hooked on drugs or witchcraft, you will lose touch with reality, or live some sort of parallel life.  You will also give megalomaniac interviews like this, pretty much.  If this marks the edge of Bowie's sanity, then his going to Europe to get healthy, live cheap and be creative is not just a smart move musically but necessary for his own good.  I mean, disco as "soma"? Way to endear yourself to the Soul Train crowd there, Dave.**  But to the title track...

“Station To Station” crawls along like a sinister train at the beginning, the old steam train haunting the present like a Plath poem.  Then it turns into a vamp, a vamp that backs up and up, turning on itself, decadent, a dead end, like a cornered scorpion stinging itself.  The first emotional break in the song, the point of liberation, is the first mention of “love.”  The Thin White Duke throws darts into the eyes of lovers at first, but then there’s the leap outside of darkness and into the world of mountains and oceans – “and who will connect me with love?” It is as if in mentioning love, it hits him, and he asks if he is stricken, if he glows – it is as if the European canon (this is how I hear it) has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and he’s running after it like a kid runs after an ice cream truck on a hot day.  All of these other things mean nothing compared to love, and now it is “too late” for anything else.  The canon is here, his love is here – and the combination of these two things lifts him, and the utter joy of the music, compared to how it starts, is remarkable.  “Station To Station” makes “Sound And Vision” possible, because to get to that blue, blue room and some sense of being at home in Europe, able to just be without drawing on anything esoteric, is a big leap and requires a liftoff of the spirit that has to be transformative.***  This is the real rebirth for Bowie, just as to get from the earth to space takes about 8 minutes or so,“Station To Station” makes its point in that much time, and zooms off, towards Germany...but I digress....

There are two cds for Best of Bowie, all songs are singles, but there is a huge emotional gap between “Wild Is The Wind” and “Sound And Vision” which is the aforementioned “Station To Station.”  It’s not included because at over 10 minutes it was never going to be a single, but as Chris O’Leary has pointed out, it is his ultimate song, at least in terms of his being able to continue as a human being, let alone as an artist, in mid-70s Hollywood. Though he left behind a lot of the nonsense of Hollywood behind, Bowie did keep his excellent band, with the awesome Dennis Davis (I mean, I worship him now, him and James Jamerson) as its emotional center.  Am I wrong to think that Bowie's real ability to communicate profoundly comes with Davis?  I don't know.  But that's how it feels, listening to this album in order - that Davis shows up, and this whole business of Bowie being behind masks and being unknowable and all that dissolves. Perhaps this is because Davis came from jazz, from funk, from a discipline of invention and emotion - you an listen to Davis and hear his own commentaries on the songs, just as you can hear Bowie's own lyrics. 

Davis leads "Sound And Vision" after all, his drumming neither too fast nor too slow, ambling along, not dictating a mood as such but letting whatever is going to happen, happen.  The whole song is about that space, and there is a kind of wryness to it.  Eno's synth comes in like a shaft of light moving across a ceiling and Bowie sighs; he cannot do anything but wait for his vision, his sound, in room far away from anything.  His world is blue; he sits and stays silent, and his voice alternates between its usual keening and a kind of flat mumble, almost as if he is muttering to himself, and the listener is overhearing his thoughts.  So this is my life now; I am free, even if there's not much going on, I am away from all that, I am free, and that is enough.  A bit of saxophone, a bit of Mary Hopkin, more space.  Davis gives the song energy and swing, that sense of freedom and purpose, even if the lyrics are those of a person just out of prison, a person who has gone through a lot and needs to be alone....    

Whereupon he makes, along with Visconti and Eno, Low.  Now, it is hard for me to imagine a world in which Low was seen as a threat; something scary and alien, inhuman even.  But that was the reaction, famously, in two NME reviews, one by Charles Shaar Murray (anti) and one by Ian MacDonald (pro) .  Perhaps that is due to my age – as a teenager I heard music that was almost like recording the aftershocks of Low, whether it was Autoamerican (“Europa”) or Empires and Dance (the second side) to the Associates’ Sulk to Japan’s “Ghosts.” As I grew up in North America I never heard “Sound and Vision” as a single and since I was not a huge Bowie fan I never really knew about Low as such; I only heard it listening to a chart rundown show while liveblogging with M in 2007 I think.  My reaction was immediate and intense.  Where had this song been all my life?  How meanly for North American radio NOT to have it as a single!  Hearing it was like having a long-time mystery explained at long last. That Bowie famously doesn’t even bother to show up can still upset people, people who want A SONG DAMMIT and not just a groove; imagine what it was like to hear it fresh in 1977....

Charles Shaar Murray felt that Bowie was a man who needed help; Ian MacDonald was scared by the inhuman/alien qualities of side two, but at least it wasn’t as boring as side one.  If you ask me, Low is Bowie at his best – able to make rock, really bare his soul (as with Station To Station I don’t really sense much of a persona here) and then make essentially a leap from rock into what I guess would be called “contemporary classical.”  Side two, I feel and sense, is really the point, the joy, it is NEW and MODERN and an awful lot of people were disturbed by it, by the fact Bowie sings in an invented language (“Warzawa”) or in cut-up words (the brilliant “Subterraneans.”)  The whole album is intense, sure, but I find it emotional, direct, as direct as Bowie was ever going to be.  And yet Low’s reputation is one of being one of “icy experimentalism” (John Harris, The Last Party) and “depersonalized, utterly remote,  Only on the title song of “Heroes”...did Bowie inject some overt humanity into the mix”(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming) which I find puzzling.  It seems that as with so many things, the first impression of Low as being a work of art but a cold and robotic one, stuck.  My experience of the album as being one of rebirth and being rather moving still seems to be in the minority.  What Bowie was trying to do in Low was nothing less than necessary for him, but in the moribund world of music criticism, it was seen as a threat, even by those who liked it....   

Freedom is also the question of "'Heroes'" - a big lumbering song that seems to be perpetually going up a mountain while not really actually getting there.   I am never exactly sure what to make of this song, as it is supposedly about seeing a couple kissing by the Berlin Wall, and there's tons of agony and loudness in Bowie's singing...but....but....what if the couple he saw were in fact happy? O'Leary calls this song cold, but to me he sounds sincere, projecting his own torment on couple he sees, bringing his own struggles to become himself ("we can be us just for one day") to bear.  These people are no longer really people but symbols; they are lovers and their humanity is their heroism.  I think.  The mention of dolphins reminds me inevitably of this, which for all I know is some kind of answer song?  That it's "'Heroes'" shows that even Bowie knew there was a temporary sense of bravery here, a kind of defiance that is/was always going to appeal to lovers and everyday folk alike.***  Its use in the Olympic closing ceremony, along with another song, shows how all  y the Britpop era, Oasis cover it and it loses its quotation marks. (And it's the single, not the album version here, which is a drawback; the quiet part, which is kind of depressing in a way - "We are lovers, and that is that" - has been edited out.)

After Heroes comes Lodger, an album that tends to get overlooked and "Boys Keep Swinging" (apparently his retort to the Village People's "Macho Man") is more Eno oddness, which is why the bass and drums are all over the place, and the guitar is in the same key but a bit frenzied; this is the sound of no one really knowing what they are doing, but doing a fine job anyway.  That the Associates recorded it to get noticed is fitting, as they (as so many of their generation were) were about to step up from being fans to being actual stars themselves.  Bowie easily could have ended the 70s there, but had to step out of the 70s and Europe to end them....

“Ashes To Ashes” is a profound song, the sort of song that reminds me that Bowie was an artist who chose to work in music; it is self-referential, sad, weird, astonishing.  I am amazed to find out that no one DJ had a special “first play” of it; I was struck dumb by it when I first heard it, and am even more moved now.  Imagine listening to a chart with this at the top – the actual chart included ABBA, Roxy Music and The Jam, not forgetting Kate Bush, Diana Ross or anybody else – and it is as if the horizon, the scale, the tone of everything has changed.  The song pauses and worries; it confesses, as much as it can; it mumbles (foreshadowing “It’s A Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys – more on them later) and says goodbye not just to the 70s but the late 60s as well.  “I’m stuck with a valuable friend” – that friend is the past, the old selves - Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Diamond Dog.  But it has to go now.  It just has to.  The most moving part is the end, as the old world recedes, disappears, and the voices fade; the long, long goodbye, looking backwards again and again, the pull becoming stronger on one hand and weaker on the other, this NOISE coming through like the end of "The Boxer."  It is like the fierce nostalgia that hits you when you are about to leave somewhere, when everything important and good is suddenly apparent, necessary. But in “Ashes To Ashes” that moment has happened already.  Major Tom is someone to avoid; he is the past incarnated.  The past, which can only be preserved in cold, dry uninhabitable places, places where the spark of life is impossible.  That is what Bowie was trying to say, that he knows letting go of the past is tough, but it must be done, because it is a kind of living death otherwise.  

Whether the British public understood this or not, I still don’t know.*****

“Space Oddity” is where it all starts; “Ashes To Ashes” is where it ends.  This is how I felt, lying on my bed listening to it, dazed, stunned by the production (which I rarely am), struck (subconsciously) that this is the song in A minor, which might just be the most poignant of all the notes.******  The single edit sadly leaves out the pauses, the weird Tom Waitsesque roars, and somehow the fact that this is a song, as the title suggests, about death.  It is an odd tango, (a tango from outer space), giving a sort of theatrical dignity to Major Tom and his passing.  This is a very conscious song, a deliberate one, and it uses “we” to bring the listener into the song.  It isn’t just Bowie who is stuck, it’s the listener as well; those doubled voices who say “I’ve never done good things...I’ve never done bad things” may as well be Bowie and the listener.  And then the childhood rhyme that closes as a world disappears – and the old world floats off, a world of stupor, decadence, remorse.  The 70s were terrible and out of that terror came tremendous efforts towards art and transcendence, new futures that could happen – but I remember how eagerly people wanted the 70s to be over, for a truly fresh start to occur.  And here is Bowie essentially saying, yes BUT – you cannot have this renaissance without letting go, in this case of a beloved figure, so beloved that three years later Peter Schilling would have a hit wherein Major Tom actually did get back home safely.  (This was a hit when Bowie was pushing Let’s Dance which was his attempt to be an American, again.  I’ll get to it in a bit.)

Speaking of America, it is because Bowie was an expatriate for so much of his life that the whole idea of being given any honours by the UK establishment must have seemed beside the point for him.  Think of the those who have accepted the “Sir” – no matter how talented and even inspirational they are, these are mostly people who have found their niche and dug in, becoming very much part of the Establishment before getting what most of them see as their due reward, their entitlement.  Bowie changed and altered himself as life took him, from Brixton to Hollywood, Berlin to New York City.  His polite refusal of the honour strikes me as something that someone who is very much self-made and introspective would make.  As an American, I like to think also that he favored the American equality of character rather than the bow-to-the-Queen idea of being somehow above others. (Also, someone with such hauteur as Bowie could have in performance and images in general somehow didn’t need an honor – he was a self-made aristocrat already.)

It remains one of the enigmas of our age that “Fashion” continues to be used to denote, well, fashion.  Think of the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics; think of Debenhams’ front window only a few weeks ago.  Fashion!  Turn To The Right.  There are simply too many moments in the song (Best of Bowie unfortunately has the single edit) which indicate that while this may be inspired by The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” that this is far from what it’s really about.  The mechanical sequencer whoop-whooping; the utterly pissed off and sarcastic guitar by Robert Fripp*******, the “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town, beep beep.”  But all this is thrown aside for the tremendous Dennis Davis beat, the notion of this as an early 60s dance song gone horribly wrong.  There is a dance, but what is it?  The narrator says he doesn’t know (but does), the guitarist certainly knows, but that knowledge somehow isn’t absorbed by the public, unless the people who put together the ceremony were playing an elaborate joke on Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss, who for a little while seemed to be the spokeswoman for Bowie (“Scotland stay with us.”) That it’s clearly about fascism and people behaving like sheep – the right, the left, keep moving – is one of those things that makes me headdesk. “You shout it while you’re dancing on the-uh dance floor.”  And that’s right where it was played, at university and school dances across the world.  Do I even need to explain New Pop here?

"Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)" is a harsh song; metallic, sung in a sarf Lonnon voice that Bowie rarely used, and I can't really say that I know what he means; why does he call her stupid and yet still love her?  Am I being too literal here? (I realize that I'm not looking too deeply into lyrics here; it's hard to listen in this case when I feel as if I'm in a factory of some kind, hammers and chisels swinging away, the ssssssssssss sound of Bowie's vocal very prominent...)

Though I intend to talk more about “Under Pressure” when I get to Queen’s Greatest Hits II (what, you thought I wasn’t going to write about it?) I can say that Bowie is what makes the song work, and his definition of love at the end as “old fashioned” is the only way to make any sense of “Modern Love.”  That kind of love, the kind that passes him by, is cold and reeks of yuppies and Filofaxes and nouvelle cuisine and people who go out and buy Let’s Dance and prefer Bowie as a guy in a linen suit to any other version so far.  (I strongly suspect these are the types who get up at 5 and don’t really care very much about music, period.) I have warmed to “Let’s Dance” a bit since hearing a version of “Louie Louie” that is modelled on it (and which I hope Bowie got to hear), but the backing singers aren’t exactly Vandross & Co. as they once were, and Bowie was just a bit better at dancing than Bryan Ferry. Nile Rodgers make damn sure it was a dance song though, just as he made sure “China Girl” sounded Asian, because this is Bowie for the masses, just as he was once a Glam Slam hero who appealed to those (same?) younger masses. 

I am not sure Bowie had much fun being a regular guy rock star, and that professionalism and normalcy deadened him in a way - (I would even say he acted in bad faith when he decided to make a big hit record), whereas on Scary Monsters he sounds like a man having fun, and being able to freely express himself.  Let’s Dance and Tonight were ultimately successful as aid for Iggy Pop, and for getting Bowie and Iggy hits, but by “Dancing In The Street” things were getting just too normal.  A duet with Mick Jagger for charity?  This is the sort of thing yuppies wanted, a dance song stripped of its meaning, with both of them dressed badly somewhere in an east London warehouse.  They don’t sing the song with much feeling (“on the streets of Brazil!” Bowie sings as if that’s a new idea), whereas in the original version Martha Reeves sounds a bit pissed off, mainly because the people in the booth forgot to record her first take.  And so the single is her second take, the immortal one, the one that promises liberation and danger, and not just jumping around having a good time.

“Blue Jean” is a fine video, if you like that sort of thing.  (It does prove what the girl wrote in her tribute – Bowie was indeed very funny, and the best parts of the video capture that.)  The song?  Hmm, not so much.

“Loving The Alien” is Bowie somehow trying to be just like what “David Bowie” is, but not getting there. 
I try not to think of “China Girl” or the video, which as I understand it wasn’t shown on UK television until after 10, whereas I saw the whole thing after school on Video Hits.  Nile Rodgers was right to think of his addition to the song as bubblegum, and he was terrified Bowie would hate it, but Bowie liked it and so it went.

Bowie notably cooled on doing music in the mid-80s and got far more into movies, so it makes sense that his best songs for the rest of the decade would be from movies.  “This Is Not America” is Bowie gliding and aching over the plotline of The Falcon and the Snowman, with Pat Metheny’s beautiful drones and pauses – and just as Boy George did, he mixes up “America” and “a miracle.”  He sounds oddly abstract here, again Bowie being “Bowie” but not as annoying as in “Loving The Alien.” And as befits this period, these songs are acted; a lot more mannered than anything from Low, I feel....only on "Absolute Beginners" (maybe because he was part of that London, of that time) does he reach back to finally be Anthony Newley and call for ease, celebrate not decadence but innocence, and the classical melodrama of the song - all very theatrical, darling - actually makes him sound more sincere as well.  I don't think he had recorded anything more generous since "Starman" over a decade before, and there is a kind of humility here too...

From here, there are two more songs which stick with me; "Hallo Spaceboy" with the Pet Shop Boys and "I'm Afraid of Americans" which he did with Trent Reznor.  No, there is nothing of the whole Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider Tour/Tin Machine era, and I will quote Rebecca Harrington here on a future TPL subject to make my point clear:

"The problem with flying to great heights is that like the Spice Girls, you think you can do anything. Sponsor a frozen pizza. Call an album Schizophonic. Get really long extensions with one nonmatching streak in them.  Guess what? You can't. You can't do any of that. Just because you're in the Spice Girls doesn't mean that all is permitted. You're going to fall back to earth eventually." (I'm Having What She's Having, pp. 84-5)

I don't know if this is Bowie's I'm-a-rock'n'roll-martyr period, but in any case if you want listen to these albums, you are welcome to them (and I am sure they have their defenders).  But Bowie/his label felt no need to remind anyone about them....

TPL will get to Black Tie/White Noise, which has "Jump They Say" - what I can report here is that Bowie, by now married happily to Iman, had a far better handle on himself and what he wanted to do, and even if he is a middle-aged man playing catch-up, he is not that bad...

Back to "Hallo Spaceboy" - a rare case of Bowie working with someone else (thankfully not Mick Jagger) in the modern era and its working, but maybe not in the way it used to. It is "also an unexpected return to "Space Oddity" - the song that haunted Bowie so much he tried to kill it off with "Ashes To Ashes" but it's hard to kill a myth....

"Space Oddity" (only the other days did I realize this was a play on Odyssey, by the way) is a song that packs in as much of modern life as it can handle - drugs, commercialization, loss, alienation, love, more wordplay ("Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you/Heeeere, floating in my tin can") while being a folk song, folk song, after all.  It appropriately ended the 60s along with everyone else, the difference being this is where Bowie really gets going, while The Beatles and Co. are beginning to wind down, or weird out.  The helplessness of the astronaut as he looks at his blue planet is the exact opposite of Bowie in his "blue blue electric blue" room with the blinds drawn all day on Low.  There at least the narrator is waiting for something to happen; for Major Tom, he has no expectations, just a beautiful expanse of something to look at, out of his head and a Ground Control who seems helpless, too. 

Of course, Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” with the moon landing in mind, but he must have been moved by the story of Apollo 8; in some ways a more amazing achievement than Apollo 11.  To get to the Moon and then orbit it was the goal, but only the people at NASA, the astronauts and their wives would know beforehand how unlikely it was to work – the odds were only 50-50 they would get into orbit (the odds  were equally bad on them being returned safely), and even now listening to Public Service Broadcasting’s “The Other Side” can bring me to tears.  So easily they could have missed their mark and simply gone off into space, disappeared.  Christmas Day 1968 was the day that they reported back from the other side, to the immense relief of everyone on Earth.  The intense drama of the day could not have been lost on Bowie, who equally had the one chance, the one attempt, to get a hit single after years of trying. “The unmanned lunar orbiter spacecraft orbited the Moon perhaps 10,000 times, but this the first that a man aboard reported back to his compatriots here on Earth.”********

Perhaps because it was based on reality of this sort that "Space Oddity" would find itself, and Major Tom, persisting so strongly.  (It could also be why so many people felt, after Bowie's death, that somehow he was immortal, too.)  To free yourself - or be freed - from your Earthly Bounds and be able to come back to earth is nothing short of miraculous, and Bowie may have wanted Major Tom abandoned, but here he is again.  And in a remix by the Pet Shop Boys, no less; by 1995, he needed them more than they needed him.  Spaceboy is free - and who brings in Major Tom but Neil Tennant himself?  "Ground to Major, bye bye
Tom/Dead the circuit countdown's wrong/Planet Earth is control on?/Do you wanna be free? Don't you want to be free?" "Moondust will cover you" "This chaos is killing me!!" sings Bowie, the "bye bye love" swirling out - "Yes I wanna be free!!"  Has Major Tom merely fallen asleep, found a new drug?  Boys or girls - it's confusing these days!  Bowie sounds at home with PSB, and vice versa; though when the song was performed on Top Of The Pops, few in the audience knew who Bowie was - such goes pop.  What starts as a folk song, goes to a room of blue and then a sad farewell, comes back in the club, zooming off into the unknown.

Which leaves "I'm Afraid Of Americans" - a song I cannot take seriously as Bowie only wanted to be an Amercian growing up and ended up in NYC for many years; this is more about cultural dominance, a dominance he mused on in "Life On Mars?" but this has Trent Reznor moping in the background (it is the NIN version on Best of Bowie), giving it that requistite everything's-going-to-hell late 90s vibe that made sense at the time but probably sounds a little forced now.  Bowie wears a Union Jack coat on the cover of Earthlling, perhaps a nod to Britpop, which was itself dying away bit by bit in 1997.

"Slow Burn" is on here as it was the first single from Heathen in the US; and it is Bowie back with Visconti, with Pete Townshend even, post-9/11 and in a world where there's no need to look for oddness or alienation in outer space; there's a feeling of unreality right here in NYC "the center of it all."  "The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears."  Now he sounds his age; a older man, content to make music, not videos.  "It's not unlikely that you're going to have a sense of angst in anything that's recorded in New York or by NewYorkers" he said at the time, like a native himself.  That this compilation ends with a sense of being grounded, a bit unsafe, is somehow fitting; Bowie rarely made merely cheery jock rock, the sort of stuff truckers listen to on long hauls; though for all I know there's a trucker out there right now blasting this album into the day/night.

So is this the best of Bowie?  In some ways yes, in others, no.  The intense and sustained mourning of Bowie (even now there are still flowers being laid in front of the Brixton mural) shows that he means something private and individual to many, which was also shown by the avalanche of albums that went back into the chart after his death - some of which, at this writing, are still there, this one included.

It seems wrong to say this, but I will anyway; as an American is fully apparent to me that what makes the UK special isn't fancy shops or buildings or the royal family, but the capacity of a culture to help someone with no special background or connections like Bowie to make it in the world of music.  (I wonder if this is part of what makes people mourn, or gives them fresh cause to mourn.)  Just as Merle Haggard came from nothing, Bowie did too (without the jail time, obvs.) and the deaths of these men are enough to show how determined and stubborn they both were, in the face of indifference.  But the self-made-man is a US idea; in the UK, one is supposed to "know one's place" even now, when class consciousness is just as strong as ever, and at a time when a lot of rock musicians are people who "just happen to have" gone to a special school (Brit School, public school, etc.) and not the art school that Bowie went to - which wasn't even all that, really.  Where is the Beckenham Arts Lab isn't so much the question as where's the Stockwell Arts Lab?

Bowie had the time and space to woodshed and develop his personae, and then enough clout to go to Hollywood and Berlin and back to NYC.  After Heathen came Reality, and after that....nothing, until we get back to Bowie in good time.  His health slowed him down, but his method became a bit more like his hero Scott Walker, who also takes his time making music.  (It is nice to think that Low influenced Nite Flights

I remember being on the 28 bus and seeing the big billboard by where it turns at the end of North End Road - a big black star.  I had no idea of what it meant, just as I had to readjust my understanding of Bowie that Monday, hearing songs I'd never heard on the radio before, and then seeing the reaction of Londoners to one of their own; and now I'm adjusting to Dennis Davis having passed as well, and feeling more than a little aggreived that his work has not been noted or honored in any way (or if it has, I haven't heard it yet, even on Radio 2.) These two men were remarkable, but what they accomplished together to me is the best of Bowie; a fine example of the Ocean of Sound, where two differing currents meet and something greater comes out of them.

David Bowie (nee Jones) 1947-2016
Dennis Davis 1951-2016 


*I am sure he would find it amusing to be praised for his guitar skills, but Bowie was indeed a funny guy.

**His random mentioning of the rather hapless O'Jays seems meaner than "Fame" at this time.  That Radio 2 plays the same songs by them all the time isn't their fault, after all.  Also, didn't he admit to liking "I Feel Love"?  The only bit of old Hollywood which works is "Wild Is The Wind" which is very fine but also painful, as if he wants so badly to be part of that glamorous world of yore, but it's not ultimately for him and he knows it.  He was born far too late, and there it is, stubbornly still the 70s.

***I wonder if it is about this time that Bowie realizes he has to go back to Europe to live and is only more than pleased to do so, not really enjoying being a celebrity in the USA as much as he’d like.  I also wonder if he had an experience on a kind of spiritual or mystical level, a moment he has to grasp right then and there or else he will lose it – there is no persona in Station To Station, no mask; this is a man grappling with the meaning of life before us, and joyously realizing it does have purpose and meaning   It is, in the truest sense, soul music.

****They are supposedly Tony Visconti and a woman who wasn't his wife; the woman later said that this was impossible, that they got together after the song was recorded.

*****”The country carried all the psychic baggage of a Pyrrhic victory.  Despite the postwar burst of Socialism, the war had seemed to vindicate the status quo.  The incidence of films celebrating England’s endurance and victory was in a direct ratio to the refusal of its people to see the need for change.  England was smug and static, full of imperial pretensions, even in areas such as the celebration of the Beatles’ worldwide fame after 1964 – one of the country’s few successes.  Pop was a hitherto unrecognised and rapidly expanding source of capital.” Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming, pp. 108-9

******I mean, never mind “Stairway To Heaven” quite frankly. (In case you were wondering, the other big A minor song is "Unfinished Sympathy.")

*******I know I might be upsetting some King Crimson fans out there, but his playing here  Oh and come on down, Graham Coxon.

********For a different view of loneliness, outer space and all that, there's Daniel Belanger's "Dans Un Spoutnik" from his 2001 album Rever Mieux.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

David BOWIE: Blackstar

(#1068: 15 January 2016, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Blackstar/Tis A Pity She Was A Whore/Lazarus/Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)/Girl Loves Me/Dollar Days/I Can’t Give Everything Away

In the end, it turned out to be a story that began with Frank Sinatra and ended with David Bowie. The two are said to have met, at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles during the autumn of 1975; Bowie was recording Station To Station, while Sinatra was working on music of his own – the Sinatra discography suggests that this was an era of single-only releases. It is claimed that the two got on well, so well that Sinatra listened to some of Bowie’s playbacks, in particular his version of “Wild Is The Wind” – always more Nina Simone than Johnny Mathis – to which the Chairman gave the thumbs-up.

Even if the story isn’t verified, I’d like it to be true, to have happened, as it would represent a midpoint between this tale’s two extremes, a tale that lasted nearly sixty years, that began with the colourful optimism of Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, one of the earliest examples of the long-playing record, then an exciting novelty, as a conceptual thing in itself, and ended with Blackstar, a conceptual record about things drawing to a close in an age when the long-playing record is essentially facing extinction.

It therefore makes sense to bring this story to a close with Bowie’s last words. But you might be wondering: where have I been?


With four months away, you could assume that I had something to do, and while that’s true, I’ve also been reading, specifically Jon Savage’s book 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded. On its surface the book does what it promises, namely document what happened in that most curious of years as filtered through the year’s pop singles (and to a lesser extent its albums) and the main socio-political events in Britain and the USA.

Wisely, Savage does not attempt to document every last scrap of what happened and what was done in 1966; in his Introduction he freely admits that if you want to read about developments in free jazz or Jamaican music, or New York minimalism or Strasbourg Situationism – to which this reader would add events in South Africa and Red China – then these form the basis of other books yet to be written. Likewise, Dylan is a benign spectre throughout the book, as his 1966 doings are exhaustively documented elsewhere (though it is good to see AMM getting due respect in relation to their influence on the early work of Pink Floyd).

The Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys are sketched in lightly, as Savage prefers to focus on the less feted music of that year. The book takes the form of twelve essays – one for each month – all of which take their lead from a specific single before broadening out. The first eight essays are devoted to thorough exploration of specific fields – Vietnam, nuclear war, the rise of feminism and gay rights, the rise of soul and R&B, etc. – while the last four see all the disparate elements collide together, not always comfortably (the key word in the book seems to be “compression” as though pop and youth are fighting for their lives, trying not to be crushed by the weight of the old). That having been said, the book’s most compelling chapter might be that on the Velvets and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable – a tale told countless times, but rarely from the perspective of the then forty-year-old Andy Warhol (whom Bowie later portrayed in the movie Basquiat). Savage considers, at length, what, if anything, this all meant to Warhol.

And yet the story of 1966 is a rather melancholy one. 1965 plays a considerable part in the book’s build-up but 1967 is hardly mentioned. Reading Savage’s various accounts – and his account of 1966’s Civil Rights struggles is written well enough to work as a school textbook. But we are not allowed to forget that 1966 was a year that began with the Great Society and ended with Governor Reagan shutting California down, that started with “Day Tripper” but culminated in “Green, Green Grass Of Home” – I had never before considered how much  that latter record’s success owed to its status as an unofficial charity record to commemorate the Aberfan disaster. Pop appeared to be closing down, or closing ranks, too.

Taken in conjunction with something like 4-2, David Thomson’s meticulous ball-by-ball analysis of the 1966 World Cup final, Savage’s book acts as a useful corrective to the misty-eyed Revolution In The Head stories of 1966 representing a sunny, optimistic time for everyone. In fact, in most places outside London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and King’s College, Cambridge, it might as well still have been 1936. It was a miserable and rotten time for most people and, in the end, perhaps also for pop.

For the Beatles, Stones etc. appeared to be moving away from their audiences. The daft optimism of the initial Beat Boom had proved to be unsustainable – and, if you chance upon a 1964 or 1965 edition of Pick Of The Pops, it is now mostly unlistenable - as its leading lights drifted into rest, contemplation, experimentation. Common people did not feel that the Beatles were speaking to them any more, and yet, paradoxically, in the December 1966 easy listening desert, everybody was waiting for the Beatles to provide an answer, or signal a way forward.

They did not – they were busy working on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” neither of which was earmarked for single release at that time – and so the great promise which “Reach Out, I’ll Be There “ and “Good Vibrations” had proposed fizzled into nothing. The turning point was probably the Yardbirds’ “Happening Ten Years Time Ago”- and in particular its midpoint, when Jeff Beck starts his police siren impersonations, which marks the second when British pop turned into British rock – Jimmy Page’s guitar swoops down like an irritated pigeon to meet Beck, and you can smell Led Zeppelin coming in the middle distance (a notion aided by the fact that Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja remembers nothing about making the record, and suggests that John Paul Jones might have played bass).

The single was a flop, barely scraping into the Top 50. Commentators like Penny Valentine thought the Yardbirds were jiving, showing contempt for their slow-witted audience who couldn’t keep up with their daring artistic experiments (whereas American acts, from the Beach Boys to the Supremes, managed to be more genuinely experimental and not make a cackling fuss about it). The Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow” was a mess and suggested a group that was hopelessly lost, and America, and specifically California, was picking up the baton again.

By 1967 most of the British musicians who mattered had more or less turned their back on the single and moved towards albums. Coupled with the ending of pirate radio, the charts duly and inevitably collapsed into a morass of MoR and novelty sludge. The year’s biggest new star, Engelbert Humperdinck – to all intents and purposes a throwback to the pre-rock era – captivated the cloakroom girls and typing pools who had become confused by the Beatles, had grown up a little and wanted a less complicated life, while their kid sisters had the Monkees to scream at and laugh with.

That is a spurious and superficial overview of a complex and creative year, if you only base such an analysis on the year’s Top 40 lists. But it may be, as Savage suggests, that something crucial was lost when the “serious” musicians more or less abandoned the Top 40; immediacy and concision were sacrificed, as was a certain degree of excitement and commitment. Although “Readh Out” and “Good Vibrations” were rightly praised as landmark singles at the time, their ramifications weren’t or couldn’t be followed through – 1967 was the year of Smiley Smile and The Four Tops On Broadway.

Towards the end of Savage’s book, and therefore towards the end of 1966, David Bowie turns up in earnest, having already made a couple of cameo appearances. “The London Boys” was only a B-side, but unlike much of the year’s pop, it was slow, contemplative and ambiguous, pointing a softly accusatory finger at the façade of Swinging London and pill culture. “The first time that you tried a pill,” he sings, “You felt a little queasy, decidedly ill.”

It sounded as though the seventies had already begun.

“It’s all gone wrong, but on and on/The bitter nerve ends never end/I’m falling down.”

* *

In 1966, Savage makes the very subtle point that, to put it in such words, nothing has changed. Without needing to underline it, he demonstrates how horribly close the general oppression of 1966 is to now.

And so David Bowie, coming into and going out of a world that has stayed the same.

* * *

Unlike everybody else on the planet with foresight, I didn’t buy Blackstar last Friday or indeed over the weekend; I had other things to do. The first I heard of what had happened was when I looked at Twitter on Monday morning. Death is what goes on while you are doing other things, as somebody else didn’t sing.

It was a shock, for me perhaps the biggest shock since that misty Oxford Tuesday morning in December 1980 when I blearily switched on the radio and everything was Lennon. This is not to say other deaths weren’t shocks; it’s just that with Elvis, Kurt, Michael, Amy and Whitney you could see it coming. Ornette? He was my favourite musician of the last hundred years but he was eighty-five; he’d lived a life.

The only thing most people knew about Bowie was that he had heart problems and was living the quiet life. The fact that he died such a mundane death – cancer, at sixty-nine; what, Bowie? – would not have been especially shocking to me (though might have been to those devoted adherents who felt that Bowie was “above” such things); the fact that we didn’t even know is what was shocking. It was like we hadn’t given him permission to die. It was a Gesamtkunstwerk fait accompli and maybe simultaneously the noblest and crassest exit in pop history.

As though Bowie would have been bothered by history, or his story.

Me? I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

* * * *

A Sainsbury’s superstore, my local, on a chilly, damp and dark Monday early evening. The white light and white heat of the supermarket momentarily dazzle. I go to the CD section. There is one copy of Blackstar. I pick it up.

“Do right by him,” warns the voice which has suddenly popped up next to me. “A good time to announce you’re stopping writing about music, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps I was writing about music in the wrong way,” I ventured.
“You still are. Endless, ponderous preambles to pretentious writing which does nothing but state the obvious. No wonder you can’t get any writing work. No wonder no agent will touch you with a hundred-foot bargepole.”
“I’ve always said I’m happy to work with a good editor,” I replied. “But nobody’s interested in publishing literature any more. As for the type of writing I do, I am fully aware that right now there’s no market for it at all.
‘Furthermore, I take into account what Mark Sinker said in his Wire review of 1966, about ‘the boomer’s generation’s seemingly endless ability to reinvest in its own youth, at the expense of anyone else’s.’ It’s what bothers me about the Bowie tributes. They’re all, or mostly, about the seventies and eighties Bowie. Really, if he’d done anything since Let’s Dance you’d hardly know it. Perhaps they’re just lamenting the loss of their own youth.”
“And you don’t?”
“It’s why I wanted to stop writing. It is not befitting of me to complain about baby boomer music writers running things when I’m days away from turning fifty-two.”

You see, we were evicted from our flat. No fault of our own, but somebody else bought the building and wanted it empty to start from scratch. Letters from lawyers using terms like “trespassing” as though we had committed a crime, other than the fatal early 21st century crime of being too poor to live in London – when we’re both working professionals.

We spent two months trying to find somewhere else and most of the people and places we saw were absolute shits. The only estate agent we dealt with told us that if we didn’t earn at least £30K a year we were untermensch. Just what you want to hear when you have heart problems and need to lead a stress-free life.

Happily – and as usual in such cases, almost at the last minute – a good, decent and helpful landlord came through and we found a new flat. But it would be wrong to say that this experience hasn’t left scars in me, scars which are unlikely to heal. And it has affected my whole attitude to writing about music.

We are still unpacking boxes. The other night, most of the old Then Play Long LPs came to light, and as we glumly unpacked them I actually wondered: why do we still have all this stuff, and what did it ever mean outside of writing about them for this blog? To see them again brought us no joy. Most of them are rubbish. To be truthful, we will probably end up putting them in the recycling bin; they’re not even worthy of the local charity shop.

And yet people bought these records in sufficient quantities to make number one, and so I wonder – have I wasted the last eight years of my life writing about drivel, and how much more drivel can I tolerate just to get to the good stuff?

Then I remembered what Jon Savage says in 1966 about albums being more expensive than singles and therefore primarily being bought by adults, who have more money and are therefore more conservative about what they spend their money on. Thus the album chart has remained an innately conservative affair with only the occasional irruption of the unexpected.

It is these records – OK Computer, Wu-Tang Forever, To Pimp A Butterfly, to name but three off the top of my head – which demand attention. To paraphrase Mr Bangs, I’m not sure whether I want to see my way towards retirement writing about pap and mud.

If that weren’t bad enough, I fear that at nearly 52 I may have developed incipient reactionary old git syndrome. Perhaps that makes for an easier life than actually engaging with what’s happening now. Or it is simply the case that, as suggested in the current Wire, politics has overtaken music. The world is crumbling to argumentative pieces and I don’t know that doing an end-of-year list or walking around the privileged orchard saying “2015’s been a good year” is the way to deal with that.

Furthermore, after the fifty-three year irruption that constituted “rock ‘n’ roll,” it seems clear that everything has simply returned to pre-rock ways, with singers and composers again devolving into two separate entities. Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-Mo-Tion may be much talked about somewhere – presumably on music messageboards that I no longer read – but commercially its launch was botched, and while it is a richly entertaining pop record, the presence of the usual suspects in the songwriting and production departments suggest it might be the last gasp for this type of thing (even though, happily, Ms Jepsen does appear to have had some input into all of the record's songs). There are minor tugboats of resistance, like Sophie (like or dislike PC Music, Sophie crossed into the mainstream via Rebel Heart, a much better album than you think) but they do their thing and nobody really notices.

Nothing is CHANGED.

* * * *

In the past week a lot of people have referred to Bowie as a “genius.” As Ian S Munro made his Glasgow artist say, “It’s not in my working vocabulary and I’ve no notion how its colours mix.” But you know a genius when you see one. What is a genius? Let me offer a peremptory and inadequate list: Orson Welles, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, Brian Wilson, James Joyce, Sylvie Guillem, Ornette Coleman, Fred Astaire, Oscar Wilde, Sonny Rollins, Derek Bailey, Roger Federer, Aretha Franklin, David Lynch, Bill Shankly, Alasdair Gray and Billy Mackenzie.

Yes, I know, what a pitiful (and overwhelmingly male and white) list. No doubt you can think of a better one. But that’s the standard of being a genius; you do things that nobody else would even think of doing, and more often than not you create art before you think. Throughout his long career, David Bowie never did anything without thinking about it, without planning it all out (whereas a Bowie idoliser like Mackenzie at his best sounded and looked like he sang without doing any thinking), and so by that yardstick I regret to say that Bowie was not a genius. But he was a great synthesiser of trends, one of the 20th century’s great art conduits. Like Diaghilev, Miles and Eno, he was able to link great strands of development to each other, and responded best when he had a Visconti or Ronson or Eno to argue back at him.

That was what I thought until last week, anyway.

Then I listened to Blackstar and wondered whether he was a genius after all.

* * * * *

The title song wanders into earshot, or maybe you wandered into the ballroom halfway through it. A Spanish mode – it’s in the same key as Coltrane’s “Olé” – Bowie’s voice sounds rather strangulated, as though struggling to remain above water, as he sings about the world crumbling to pieces, about death, transfiguration and rebirth. It is the saddest and lushest sound you could ever hope to hear – drums stuttering around semi-randomly as though struggling to remember drum n’ bass, Donny McCaslin’s saxophone already causing trouble.

The song steadily builds up until impact point is reached, whereupon it implodes, floating freely through space for a short while before the song’s second main melody steals in – and suddenly we have the old Bowie back; or are these still ghosts conducting a bitonal argument? They keep trying to break through what is otherwise the return of the anthemic Hunky Dory Bowie, but neither side wins and eventually the Spanish mode subtly returns to the foreground before the whole gently atomises.

If 2013’s The Next Day was a cheerful nostalgic romp, then “’Tis Pity She Was A Whore” is neither. It is violent – Mark Guiljana’s drums are mixed firmly upfront – but again, particularly in the glorious key shift from verse to chorus, which instantly recalls “Absolute Beginners,” the song gets detoured by McCaslin’s intentionally argumentative saxophone and flute, as well as some strange keyboard Morse coding at the end. “Lazarus” sees Bowie regarding “heaven” as a prison – his own Fender guitar slams in with regular triplets like slamming metal doors – and again drums and saxophone are prominent; although they begin in a decidedly 1985 mood of opulent regret (it could almost be Dire Straits or Bryan Ferry), they soon become more threatening and dissonant. But Bowie’s dissonance or use of free jazz/contemporary classical tropes – and please don’t call this a “jazz” record; it isn’t – has never seem pasted on, like an exotic chilli. Meanwhile, down at the song’s root, Bowie remarks, “Ain’t that just like me” like it was still 1964 and John Lee Hooker was playing in Tooting.

Like his idol Scott Walker, Bowie’s songs arise out of the voice and lyrical concept, and then the music has to fit around that or exceed it. It is perhaps not surprising that Bowie’s vocals on Blackstar are very similar to Walker’s. Clearly something like Bish Bosch is tougher going, but Bowie utilises his baritone in very similar ways, making it more high than low, as though compressing a life’s experience into however long a song has to be to accommodate it. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a drastic remake of what appeared on 2014’s Nothing Has Changed career retrospective. There, Bowie held back against Maria Schneider’s immense, floating cliffs of brass, allowing McCaslin’s tenor and Ryan Keberle’s trombone to have their say. The verses are spaced out at long intervals; there is a particularly fine moment towards the end when Schneider’s band goes into a ruminative free interlude, with snarling bass trombones acting as pedal points. The music eventually dissipates, as Schneider’s great hero Gil Evans was apt to do with his later big bands.

Here, however, the song gets a violent makeover, the drum n’ bass elements now to the fore, with guitars clashing and screeching. The song’s length is also compressed by half and so Bowie’s anger at betrayal is more palpable, less patient. Who else used a word like “writ” in pop – apart from when Bowie used it in “Life On Mars?” In addition, his outraged, “You went with that CLOWN!” recalls the ending of Jazzin’ For Blue Jean. The song plunges into chaos before being abruptly cut off, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” After that, “Girl Loves Me” marches aridly on the spot, and if Bowie knew what he was on about here, at least someone did (I’ve tried not to analyse the lyrics too much as everybody else is doing that).

* * * * *

I admire the complete absence of self-pity on this record, unlike entry #1067, which was nothing but.

Everybody but EVERYBODY has talked about this record being about his dying, and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. But, strangely or normally, it’s not my concern. Both Tony Visconti and Donny McCaslin have testified that the sessions were bright, upbeat and to the point.

This record would have gone to number one anyway, just like Innuendo did another time. We mustn’t talk of it as though it were some last will and testament kind of thing. Nobody speaks of Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here in the same way (but then I suppose Zevon wasn’t Bowie, who was supposed, in some people’s eyes, to be immortal).

We don’t celebrate any more. We just sit around and mourn, or wait to mourn.

There is always the possibility that Bowie was having a laugh, and not just the last one.

* * * * * *

I mean, look at that last photo session; there he is, in the suit, fedora and wiseguy smile, dancing around why he could almost be FRANK SINATRA

That last photo session, four months ago.

* * * * * *

But then you get something like “Dollar Days,” the one where he treats the English evergreens like Clive James does the tree in his garden or Dennis Potter did with his “loveliest, whitest blossoms” and you are drawn back to that heartbreaking descending chord run as if he were still looking over his shoulder at Colin Blunstone and Nick Drake*
(*sometimes I think the deepest Nick Drake songs are the ones he doesn’t sing on, e.g. “Friday,” whose flautist, Ray Warleigh, died late last year**)
(**that “young” generation of British or British-based improvisers who came through in the sixties***)
(***and the irony of AMM being in part a splinter group from Mike Westbrook’s band, whose regular players were often to be found in their day jobs in the bands of Alexis Korner or Georgie Fame**)
(**they’re all getting old now and dying off, one by one, and it’s happening with the rockers too, all those people now in their seventies or even eighties, and one day they’ll be gone and can you baby boomers deal with that?****)
(****and how do you think that the ORIGINAL rockers, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, who invented the game in the first place and have now outlived most of their disciples, feel?)
but then there’s something that goes awry with the song, harmonies and improvisations grow out of step, and he’s telling you something, that he’s trying and dying to forget you...
...however, as I said, no self-pity.

* * * * *

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” and there he is, telling you, against a backdrop as luscious and subversive as Black Messiah, and that drum n’ bass he can’t ever forget – well, we know he couldn’t help thinking about him but now he has a proper saxophonist instead of trying to do it all himself (“Liza-Jane,” well everyone has to start somewhere; “Subterraneans,” nobody else could have imagined or played that – McCaslin frequently sounds like a more perturbed Andy Mackay on this record, whose seven songs all appear to centre around the same key, like it was one song extending over forty-one minutes and seventeen seconds).

Another name for that last song might be “That Would Be Telling.” Guitarist Ben Monder solos like he’s Mike Oldfield, before the song gracefully glides to a halt, beside the sea which he was meant to see, but never actually managed to see.

* * * *

Yes, the blackstar, the meaning of which is known to all good breast surgeons and clinical oncologists.

Yes, the songs all APPARENTLY/AFTER THE FACT about death.

But I feel that Blackstar is an almighty SHOUT IN FAVOUR OF LIFE – he wasn’t intending to die just yet,  he had another album on the go, which we may or may not hear in years to come. I mean, you might as well say that “Oh Mr Gravedigger” was forecasting what was going to happen etc. etc.

* * *

The harmonica (though no harmonica player is credited) on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” straight out of “A New Career In A New Town” and the recorders at the end of the same song, rescued from “Life On Mars?” Taking stock with a wink, and telling us: here it is, it’s up to you to work it out.

* *

On TOTP in 1996, excitedly being introduced by Nicky Campbell, “Hello Spaceboy,” which Bowie performs with the Pet Shop Boys. He holds his microphone stand at 45°, bobbing and swaying like Starbuck on the Pequot. The Pet Shop Boys get all the screams and cheers from the audience, who are presumably wondering who that silly old guy at the front is.

People these days. Talking about Bowie? You might as well be talking about Al bloody Jolson. “Oh, my mum likes him.” “Who?” “Do you mean David ZOWIE, you know, ‘House Every Weekend’?” Meanwhie, of the generations who knew who Bowie was, their Bowie was invariably the greatest one.

Or maybe he learned 1966’s most valuable music lesson – ask John Cale, Scott Walker, Bob Dylan or Neil Young – in that you never stop going forward because nobody told you to stop. Whereas now musicians are told to stop before they even start.


“Space Oddity” is a song which is almost certainly about Syd Barrett, although the character “Major Tom” is likely to have been inspired by Brixton music-hall entertainer Tom Major, whose son John became a Lambeth councillor and later Prime Minister.

The only Bowie album without Bowie on the cover, although if you look carefully at the images at the bottom and see what they spell out, there’s a clue to something or other.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life; we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing.”

He was only seventeen years older than me. You think about these things more the nearer you get.

And in between were over six hundred other albums. Or you might prefer to live a life. And if you do, how long will you play?

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The CARPENTERS: Only Yesterday: Richard & Karen Carpenter's Greatest Hits

(#406; 7 April 1990, 2 weeks; 28 April 1990, 5 weeks)

Track listing:  Yesterday Once More/Superstar/Rainy Days And Mondays/Top Of The World/Ticket To Ride/Goodbye To Love/This Masquerade/Hurting Each Other/Solitaire/We've Only Just Begun/Those Good Old Dreams/I Won't Last A Day Without You/Touch Me When We're Dancing/Jambalaya (On The Bayou)/For All We Know/All You Get From Love Is A Love Song/(They Long To Be) Close To You/Only Yesterday/Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem Of World Contact Day)

As the new decade finds its feet,  no one seems to be sure what to think or where to go.  Popular music seems to be a pull between the old and the new, and as you can see, the old has been winning out lately.  There was nothing past 1984 on the previous album, and there is nothing past 1981 on this one.  It seems as if the 1980s themselves are slowly but surely being erased, that they are too terrible to contemplate, too close.  And so nostalgia beckons, and most of the spring - a time of hope and renewal - is marked here by music that is from the past.  Why is this?

It is easy enough to say that again - as with Karen Carpenter fan Gloria Estefan - it's the women who bought this en masse, or it was advertised on television, etc.  But for seven weeks?  That's amazing, but also kind of frightening, mainly for how The Carpenters stand for something that people can still get nostalgic for - a woman in a dress standing and singing a ballad.  But Richard and Karen, Yankees transplanted to Southern California at a young age, were not ever that simple.

For one thing, Karen plays the drums and sings;* I don't drum myself, but I can imagine that doing both is tough, but rewarding.  (I tend to think of drummers as the ones who really get lost in music, as the beat is so essential that they become the music while it's playing; and drummers are ones who make noise, who can be rebellious, who like a fight.)  Richard, on the other hand, is the studio whiz, the arranger, the one who wants to make everything perfect on all accounts, and that kind of Wilsonian mania is great for anecdotes, but not so much for living a normal life.  Richard wanted to be a musician when he was 12, and younger sister Karen wanted to drum, only coming to singing later on.  Late 60s Los Angeles was their context, a time of jazz/rock and Frank Zappa as much as the complex harmonies of The Association and The Turtles (with the British Invasion/Motown there as the music of their youth, as with all Baby Boomers).

I don't know how much of all this was part of the nostalgia for The Carpenters at this time - very little, I'd guess.  Because the painful memory of Karen Carpenter's death lingered on for years with women; the shock of it (though she had been underweight for some time) was intense, even if you didn't particularly care for The Carpenters' music per se.**  And so this album, buying it, is a long-delayed act of mourning.  32 is no age for death; anorexia nervosa is no way to go.  Maybe the women (and men - I don't want to generalize here too much!) remembered how lively and delicate/tough she was, singing and playing, using her whole body to make music.  (This, on the cusp of Riot Grrl, of the decade that saw the rise of so many girls and women making their own noise.)

This is what I would like to think; but of course it could just be  this was indeed a direct link to the past, right back (as with the previous album) to 1969, an anchor year for a whole generation.  Something ended there, something started there, and once again, the story unfolds...

And of course it begins with "Yesterday Once More" - a song about music from the past and being able to go back.  The music industry banks very hard on the public's too-easily-won tendency to, when nothing seems to be happening, go backwards.  Radio stations which dwell in the past will always be around, people will always sing along to them.  To fix time?  To erase the present?  To make something old new again?  The trick is to do the latter, but the line of least resistance brings the music back as sheer pleasure, almost a kind of drug.  Things, people can fade, but the music is still there. (This version, by the way, is the single edit, not the full version with the medley.)   

"Superstar" is also about listening to the radio and hearing a certain song, a certain guitar - and the joy here is mixed with pain (Karen's voice suggests both) - this is what happens when you really get involved in music, with a musician.  The music is live, the guitarist is real, there is an affair, and then distance.  How weak it seems, just hearing the song on the radio as opposed to in person, how tiny the guitarist is, how big the music is.  It is a song that goes beyond a crush, and when Karen sings "I really do" at the end, vowing her love to the guitarist, to music itself, it's almost too damn much to bear.  Having a song that you share with your Other is one thing, but what if your Other wrote the song?  It practically becomes part of your body, I imagine.  And it is always there, even if the Other plainly isn't.

"Rainy Days And Mondays" is a lovely song about being in the dumps and not being able to do anything about it.  Notice how she's complaining, sure, but it's not like she's Morrissey and has the weight of the world on her shoulders.  Karen accepts her sadness (she inhabits her songs; she may not have written them but she makes them her own) and frowns and looks at the calendar - yep, it's to be expected.

"Top Of The World" is a weird song.  I mean, it's nice to hear Karen and Richard (he does come in on harmony vocals at times) all happy, but how can anyone actually look "down on Creation"? There's being exalted in love, and there's hovering over the surface of the Earth itself, like you're an astronaut.  How powerful a feeling is that?  How light, how buoyant, how unreal must the narrator be? The surprise in Karen's voice is real, but the easygoing country feel of the song makes it surreal, brings back the kind of dreamy mellow optimism of the US in the early 70s - all that weirdness is over, the music says.  (No wonder The Carpenters were asked to perform at the White House.)

"Ticket To Ride" is quite something - the song is slowed down, both of them sing, and the gorgeousness is almost - almost - decadent.  She has been abandoned, sure, but the feeling here is not one of agony, as Lennon wrote it and sang it.  That has been replaced by the complete elegance and beauty of the song itself - this is the literal act of hiding inside a song to shield yourself from the meaning of it.  It's not so much as a direct homage but an act of love.  And it was recorded just four years after the original version, showing what a huge leap there was between the mid and late 60s.

"Goodbye To Love" is a song that seems to come at the end of the universe.  Life is mysterious; love is even more mysterious; nothing can be done about either, hence the smile in Karen's hopelessness.  Maybe one day things will change?  Hm.  Maybe.  The rocking guitar solo shows her real agony, her real anger, that things have come to such an unpretty pass.  The aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH wall of harmonies at the end does the same - this is the kind of song the generation to come, Generation X, will claim as their own - the complexity here is theirs, right down to the need to take control of love, as if that could be done.

"This Masquerade" is very jazzy, very cool (Karen's earliest influences as a singer were Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Ford and Dusty Springfield) and she sounds right at home here, even though the song is about deception.  Are they happy?  Not really, but like automatons (is it just me, or is there something kind of unreal about The Carpenters?) they just keep going, unable to find the words, maybe unable to speak altogether.  Together alone, lonely together, alienated as hell but unwilling to part.  Karen sings it as if it's sad and delicious and slightly sensuous...

"Hurting Each Other" is not a song I had heard before, and I was immediately reminded of Scott Walker (so much of the orchestration here is like his Stretch period, in a way), only to find The Walker Brothers had recorded this!  Well of course - it is big and dramatic and foursquare and responsible.  They are so good together, why are they suffering like this?  It is damn refreshing to hear Karen sing about wanting to stop being miserable, to stop this self-destructive behavior.  What with Karen's weight problems and Richard's insomnia and subsequent addictions, well, you know.  So many times musicians predict things in their songs, though whether these are self-fulfilling prophecies, I don't know.  Irony kind of breaks down with these two.    
"Solitaire" is a huge song, one of a man who has deliberately turned his back on everything, on all others, on love itself.  (Sigh, so many songs here about being alone, voluntarily mostly, or being in a state that is just as good as being alone, if not worse.)  But what's this?  He loses his love because he's...indifferent?  WHAT?? No wonder Karen sounds, quite frankly, a bit angry here.  This is a man who lost his love due to his silence, and she sees him and his little hopes and his bossy ways and how he pretends he'll never love again and scorns his suffering.  Oh, she seems to be saying, I feel compassion for you, but not forgiveness.  You could love again if you opened yourself up and really felt something, yes it hurts but without that actual grief, nothing is possible.

I mean, look at the couple in "We've Only Just Begun"!  They are happy, optimistic, content.  The world is theirs, and if there is fragility in the song - melodically, not just in Karen's voice - it's that this won't last.  The moments have to be seized, that place where there's room to grow isn't going to appear soon, but if they keep going, it will.  This is the smiley face button with a tear in its eye, naive but knowing, fresh and self-aware.

"Those Good Old Dreams" is about love, about fantasies that come true; once again in the beginning she is a child (as she is in "Yesterday Once More") and is a daydreamer.  Well, now she is grown up, singing a mild song - happy, but less perky than "Top Of The World."  From 1981, and sounds as if it could be 1975, really.  You'd never know Karen made a disco record hearing this (one that her label refused to release, and only saw the light of day in 1996).  Her voice sounds a bit rough here, deeper somehow....

I'll be getting to their version of "Please Mr. Postman" on Music Sounds Better With Two, but once again here she is being patient, waiting and waiting....

"I Won't Last A Day Without You" is about being in love, but about disappointment too - the world is cold and mean, and her Other is the only thing that can make her smile.  It's "nice to know" the Other is there, but how huge is this dependence?  "Touch me and I end up singing" she says, as if the Other is actually Music itself.  "I can take all the madness the world has to give" she sings, and that is also huge.  How could anyone hear this as easy listening?

"Touch Me When We're Dancing" is yacht rock, all swishing strings and romance, stolen kisses and "you've got me up so high I could fly coast to coast."  Again, there is a breezy sense of joy here (and the obligatory 80s saxophone solo) and how weird is it to say you want to be "touched" when you are dancing?  Unless this is more suggestive than it first seems?  And how eerie is it to hear her sing in 1981 about feeling light?

"Jambalaya (On The Bayou)" has always seemed like an odd song for The Carpenters to cover, unless they really liked Hank Williams.  Too neat, too sweet (do I hear a flute solo?), it's just...nice.

"For All We Know" is from the movie Lovers And Other Strangers***.  It is joyful and sad and "love may grow...for all we know" is the killer lyric here.  The two are strangers "in many ways" - but as they get to know each other, they will become closer.  Or will they?  The music here is ambiguous, but hopeful.  (The Carpenters were told to see this movie by their manager while waiting around in Toronto to play as the opening act for Englebert Humperdinck, enjoyed it, and as soon as they got back home recorded the song; it's not in the movie as such.)

"All You Get From Love Is A Love Song" is such a meta title, and once again we are in yacht rock - "love was washed away" and it's a "dirty old shame" that her love is over.  "The future lies before me - I cannot see" is the abyss of the song.  This seems to be some kind of sequel to "Superstar" as she is the one who broken his heart, and he is going to write a love song about it, because "the best love songs" are written by someone who is broken hearted.  Well no wonder she sounds smug!  Oh poor songwriter, how do you like things now?  Sure, my future is over, she is crying and cannot appreciate the sunrise, but all you, musician, get is a song.  That's nothing to be too happy about, compared to being in a relationship is it?

Is it?

"Close To You" is one of those songs that suggests romantic adoration that is kind of crazy, but then lovers can be a bit crazy, and it's Bacharach and David, so it sounds magical, and Karen is soft and the whole thing is like being hugged the whole way through.  It's a song with real jazz changes (as easy-going as it sounds) and it was covered with tremendous verve by Errol Garner on his album The Magician in 1974; the pastel teddy bear waaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHhhh of The Carpenters is replaced by a full-on rainbow of joy.

"Only Yesterday" is about loneliness - "in my own time nobody knew the pain I was going through" stings here, for certain.  The morning light she can't see once she's dumped her musician comes back - "maybe things will be all right."  The same guitarist from "Goodbye To Love" is here, now that she is happy, at home in his arms..."the best is about to be."  And his love is making her feel "as free as a song, singing forever."  In all this narrative, has she now found happiness?  This song is too tentative for that conclusion, but it's a kind of girl group song, one where hope beats experience yet again, where long-term contentment may be possible, even... 

And then there's "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" which is Canadian weirdness and a sure sign of something itching inside both Carpenters to go a bit south, if only their public would let them.  In the narrative here it's as if she's gone through all this romance only to look to the skies for a greater love, somehow.  At the time I didn't quite understand the whole Close Encounters/UFO mania of the late 70s, but here is the hapless LA radio jock and the alien, here is the magnificence of the whole universe, and Karen speaking for the Earth's citizens by saying "we are your friends."  (It also led to this weirdness, which I didn't watch but cannot help but imagine.)

And there we are, left looking into space with The Carpenters, who maybe really were the aliens who came down, did their business, and then disappeared, in Karen's case too painfully literally.  That the public wanted this more than anything as the new decade began shows how uneasy they were, how frightened - and, I would guess, how profoundly attached to their past (and therefore, youth) they were, as well.  Even if the past represents two people giving themselves to music so fully that it seems to have ruined them both for a while, that, that is what the public are happy to buy the most for weeks on end; ignoring their fates, ignoring the implications of the songs, lost in the melodies and the undeniable greatness of some of the songs and nearly all of the singing (Karen's voice does get a bit weaker by the end).  But the end result is a denial of the present, a preference for the past over the present, a paralysis that comes when the public cannot get a handle on what is happening; we are now fully in that period when everything is up in the air, and many will reach back for something, anything, rather than squarely deal with what is here, right in front of them....

...which is never a good idea, in the ocean of sound....              

Here in London, on Regent Street, not that far from Piccadilly Circus, is a literal ocean.  It is in the display window of a clothing store, a big chain, but the display isn't clothing.  It's a huge screen showing...the Pacific Ocean.  The live feed of shore at Huntington Beach, California.  It's a big screen, and it has a blue filter on it so it's all indigoes and shades of white and black, an idealized ocean.  It is by far the most beautiful advertising in London, as nothing can outdo nature, and if you're lucky you can see surfers paddling out over the waves and then surfing back, at one with the Pacific itself.

It is one thing to look at this as someone who has never actually seen the Pacific in person and regard it as nice or clever; it is something else altogether to look at it as someone who has seen the Pacific, in person, and remembers it very well.  It is like a tonic for me to see it; I claim it, without saying anything to anyone, as mine. It seems silly to claim something so huge, but that is how it feels.  Even some of the ocean, filtered and used for advertising, is enough to give me that vital connection, so truly profound that I cannot say anything when I see it, save to remark on it being there and joy at seeing someone there on the screen, paddling out, the memory of salty fresh air and the peace of such a place...

The ocean is the end of things, but the beginning as well; and the Pacific is so big that it extends right down to a place I didn't know much about in 1990 called New Zealand.   But once I heard Submarine Bells by The Chills, well....

 (Dig the drawing and autograph by Martin Phillips himself!)

It made all kinds of sense to eventually work out that their town, Dunedin, is on the Pacific - sure, it's thousands of miles away, but it's the same ocean, at least.  And the music was different from the Australian music I had already heard; I wasn't sure how, though living in a place so close to the Antarctic and so fundamentally away from everything else (Dunedin is on the southeast coast of New Zealand's South Island) I was amazed to eventually read about there being a whole scene down there.  I shouldn't have been, though; music often comes from places where there is nothing else to do, save for sport, and the small town (by American standards) of Dunedin fits this perfectly.  Martin Phillips started The Chills in 1980 as a teenager, spurred on by the DIY post-punk thing, and after lots of configurations and losses, singles and EPs and European version of The Chills came to the UK in 1987, toured around, and eventually recorded Submarine Bells.

And thank goodness they did....

Because even if this wasn't a huge album in the US or the UK, I did hear "Heavenly Pop Hit" on CFNY and it had (and has) the same effect on me as that Regent St. advertising.  The music is pure Pacific warmth and joy and welcome, that first blessed glimpse of water and sky beyond any buildings; when Phillips sings "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH" in the chorus, I know what he means.  The song is about the joy of music itself, but its bigness is due to nature, to the Otago Peninsula, to the freedom being away from it all.  Though this was recorded in the UK, Phillips' soul is in Dunedin, is there on that beach, and it is the best Beach Boys-influenced song I've ever heard.  Which is to say that though he seems to be from far away, the Pacific unites us; I felt an immediate kinship here that I can't feel with The Carpenters, who seem so closed off from the elements, so perfect; with this song I can too feel floating and happy and FREEEEEE, and after such years as '88-'89 ("we've passed through the dark and eluded the dangers") this was something I needed, and it was new....

....another thing about this song - and the album - was the open sincerity of it; it was not trying to be cool or hip.  Phillips is not assuming roles or characters in these songs; they are him, pure expressions of his heart, with no side....

...which is just as well, as the overwhelming feeling here is longing - longing for so many things, and fear as well.  This is not a good-time party album, as ecstatic as the first song is....

"Tied Up In Chain" is about neo-Nazis, about prejudice, but mostly about unthinking habit.  The "children of gloom" are ignorant and don't care, and "we feel we must be others and this is more than that/if egos are inflated they can crush a people flat"**** - I can well imagine how someone from a place so remote can feel crushed, and have sympathy for those who have been, as well.  But the roots of these chains go back through generations, so what seems simple at first to criticize widens and widens...All this over a melody that is nervous but confident, rolling and arching and then resting at the end...

"The Oncoming Day" hurls itself, rocks along, and Phillips rides it like a rollercoaster; he just about keeps up, too.  He sings to her, to the glade where they once made love, to the past; he is trying to write a song to say that he still loves and remembers her, but comes up with "nothing worth anything - nothing worth nothing - nothing left in this lump of grey" - how rare this is - "that even vaguely says I love you in a way that pleases me so I'll let the oncoming day say it for me" - this isn't so much New Pop as something else, and we are right there with the day here and the sun rising, and that is enough for him to say, to insist "no one can take your memory away from me!"  Nature itself, powerful and cyclical, is the best, the only thing big enough to represent his love, and he cannot be afraid of it, because in a way he is it.  The song finishes, but the main question of "Is sustaining past illusion just insanity?" is there.  There are fine lines between that and hanging on to the past reality, the pain of it there in the music and words...

"Part Past Part Fiction" is Phillips there in London, feeling alone, "so far from home here" - and now his wordless sounds are of sorrow, loneliness.  He hasn't meant to go away for so long, but here he is, knowing things are wrong but unable to do anything about it.  (Sigh, the guitar solo.  I mean, SIGH and AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH.)  "Where could we dwell in a past alive and well?" he sings, and then the line, the LINE: "You cannot drive and steer rear view."  That it takes an expatriate living in London to express such a fundamental truth about life - you can look backwards, but "to hide in fiction and nostalgia can be eerie" is something maybe only us expatriates can really understand.  If I feel far away from Toronto here, I can only imagine how lonely Phillips was; at least the Australian contingent of musicians could hang out together, but I sense The Chills were very much on their own....

...and in a 1990 sense, I knew mom and I were going to leave Oakville, we could not stay in a house that contained so many memories, so many things...

"Singing in My Sleep" is a drone that muses on how terrible the world is, and how his singing and music are a protest, a bulwark, against those who hate, those who are blind leading the blind, against "the pressures of musical life."  The songs fade when he wakes, but even when he is asleep he is creating music, "songs of such beauty and sadness."  These songs are of the Earth itself; once again, there is little division between him and nature...

"I Soar" is a view from high up above Dunedin (I think?  it is a steep place) that fills him with great emotion, but he is alone and has no way of expressing himself, outside of describing what he can see, flying with the wind, soaring and seeing that his family have flown away, away from the crumbling homes.  The past is gone, his "emotions are imploding" but there's "nothing to say."  (So much of Submarine Bells is about communication, about trying and trying to find a way to express things.)

"Dead Web" is superficially jaunty, but is about those who contain their emotions, bury them, pretend they don't exist; they are in a dead web, a world of the past, mourning that that world is gone; Phillips understands this, to a point, but shakes it off, and the song ends sharply, the past best left to those who want to focus on it; he's got enough problems as it is...

"Familiarity Breeds Contempt" is as tough as The Chills get, rocking as Phillips snarls about the perils of coming from a scene so small that backbiting and meanness are everywhere, even within himself; that contempt is as withering and damaging as obsessing over the past, and the song rages against cynicism and hard people, ugly assumptions and "when the past is thought irrelevant our destiny is black" - you cannot go forwards without knowing and appreciating where you've come from, but how stinging was it for Phillips to bear the burden of essentially being The Chills, now a band a decade along with not much success outside of New Zealand?  It must have been damn hard to be the band that had to do well in order for the label Flying Nun to do well....and so this is a song that comes out of this constant pressure, as angry as you like....

...and there is the private sorrow of having to be away from the Other, too.  It is, to use a word overused these days, devastating.  "Don't Be Memory" is a song that flows and halts, falters, and then picks up again, grasping on to something, wanting so much more. "I would tell you love's eternal, but eternity is such a long time" - and the clock is ticking, "we've this greenhouse on"***** - and he wants to forget her, get away from this pain, but he knows he can't.  The memories flood back:  "Cozy in the north wing, taking turns at Swamp Thing, listening to The Byrds on the tape recorder..." In order to keep his love, he must get back to her, but then OH - "sensing your essence so reminiscent - a forgotten flavour..." and once again I am wordless.  He doesn't want her to be just a memory, to feel unrepresented, lonely, because she is there all the time, unbidden, unexpected.  And this overtakes his song, that she is there; they will be together soon ("if nothing goes wrong" he worries time and again) but in a way she is there already.  "The uncaring power of memory/So crippling in its clarity"  - and damn it, there's the whole problem right there, and the only solution, too.  The clarity of something means you can see it and understand it, if you have the strength to do so; to get over the "spiteful spikes" of the feelings, to find a place of peace....

"Effluoresce And Deliquesce" is about a couple fighting; but with such poetical words (like the title) that beauty of the song (and it is elegant) can mask the pain, the conflict, but make them like dance, a back-and-forth (the song pauses regularly, as if we are watching the argument like a dance of sorts) that rises to admit the "anger flows like fire" but on such a watery album, it goes, extinguished, and in an hour "they burst into flower."  They are slow to ice over, quick to turn into a supernova, but the happy end is always there, and they reach it and the song ends, neatly.

"Sweet Times" is a holler and a strum about how the world, no matter how useless things may seem, still hasn't ended....a holler that times are sweet....

And then comes "Submarine Bells."  And suddenly we are in the Pacific again, deep inside the inner ocean******, with a lullaby so beautiful that like the first song it reminds me of the live feed from Huntington Beach, the soothing waves, the ease, the gentleness...the slowness of the song like a descent into the water itself..."I slice the surface here beside you/lungs filled liquid yell I love you/sound moves further underwater..."

I wish I could remember how it was when I first heard this, but the fact that I listened to it more than any other album in 1990 should tell you enough.  It was my solace; it was and is one of my favorite albums of all time....

"Deep and dark my submarine bells groan in greens and grey/mine would chime a thousand times to make you feel okay..."

This, this is just one example of what was actually happening in 1990, but was ignored in favor of the past.  It is wise, tender, aware, current.  It deals with that tug of the past, of sentiment, and ends with something deep and profound and great.  Is Dunedin fundamentally so far away?  I didn't feel it was in a way, which ended up with my buying a guide book to New Zealand and reading and rereading an article about The Chills and willing myself into that experience, especially once my mom and I did move to Toronto that summer.

There was, of course, another album of this time that counselled against nostalgia, and it couldn't have been more different:


Oh yes.

Flood (that watery theme again!) is so good, it's ridiculous, and the UK public eagerly took to it, because of the hit single, "Birdhouse In Your Soul."  If the sheer gorgeousness of Submarine Bells hides the tough messages it has (and in part it does) then Flood's great humor can mask its equally tough messages.  "Why is the world in love again?  Why are we marching hand in hand?  Why are the ocean levels rising up?" ask TMBG in the first song, and the only answer is that "It's a brand new record album for 1990."  New decade, y'all, and it's not small in any way...

"Birdhouse In Your Soul" is pure dorky happiness, beeping and trundling along, happy, going forward.  Is is a parody of R.E.M.?  I don't know, but the "bluebird of friendliness, like guardian angels it's always near"  - and it's a tough little bird, this blue canary.  Is it a love song?  Is it the future singing to us in the present?  The word makes it spiritual too, eternal even....

"Lucky Ball & Chain" and "Twisting" are both songs about a woman who has left her guy; the guy is baffled, sad, the woman is free, and the man is left to his own railroad apartment, her old copies of Young Fresh Fellows and db's records back....

The first argument against fixating on the past - it's too late, it's gone! - is their cover of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" - "if you have a date she'll be waiting in Instanbul."  Why the change?  "People just liked it better that way...."  The world changes, and you have to change with it...

There are two...well, I hesitate to use the word "perfect" here, but let's just say really really awesome songs and leave it at that, on Flood. "Dead" is the first one, a simple song with a piano, the two Johns and a lament that "I returned a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date" and then "I came back as a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the date stamped on myself."  It took me a while to figure this out, but "I will never say the word procrastinate again/I'll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed" is was straight enough for me at the time.  There is no time to waste, to give up before your time is over.  Otherwise you may as well be dead.  "Was everybody dancing on the casket?"  "Now it's over I'm dead and I haven't done anything that I want/Or I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do...."  If Martin Phillips wasn't as drastic as this, this is still his point - that getting caught in a dead web is something to be avoided, at all costs...

"Racist Friend" is about racism, but also about a party, about drinking, about conformity and feeling like a hypocrite "bobbing and pretending" that what is happening is happening.  It is about as hard-rockin' as TMBG ever get, with a Latin trumpet solo in the middle perhaps nodding towards the racist's prejudices...."can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding."  The party is over, 80s hypocrites!

"Particle Man" is a song so simple and easy you can close your eyes and see the animated short in your head (as my father would have, had he lived to hear this song).  Particle man is Generation X, Universe man is MASSIVE, Person man is hopeless - "who came up with Person man?" - and then there's Triangle man, surely one of the greatest fictional villains, who fights and always wins, who hates for no reason....

And now the other great song - "We Want A Rock."  I don't think there is a thing wrong with it; and it is all so casual!  "Where was I, I forgot the point that I was making....I said if I was smart that I would save up for a rock to wind a piece of string around."  (Is it just me, or does this sound like a Walkman?  An iPod?)  In short, "throw the crib door wide" the time this completely hummable earworm of a song gets to "Everybody wants to wear a prosthetic forehead on their real head" then the complete madness of conformity and doing something just because everyone else is doing it (the two Johns' singing here is utterly straight and with no side, as if this behavior was just as normal as any) could not be more clear.  (The prosthetic forehead costs seven dollars, by the way; a rock to wind a string around must cost a lot more...)  Accordion!  Fiddling!  As usual, TMBG makes outsiders, those who don't fit in, feel a bit better about themselves....

"Someone Keeps Moving My Chair" is of course about Mr. Horrible, the ugliness men, the many things they do which annoy him, but he's so so horrible none of these things bother him so much as he can never find his chair.  One of the many songs They Might Be Giants have about work...which leads straight into "Hearing Aid" and the about-to-burst anger ("don't say the electric chair's not good enough for a king-lazy-bones like myself") with Arto Lindsay himself on the guitar, scraping and giving the song - otherwise weirdly reggae like - the paranoid messed upness it represents.  Is there a reason for this employee to be so angry with "Frosty the supervisor"?   No, it's "BECAUSE....BECAUSE!!!!!!"......


(whipcrack) (60s tv theme about the poorly paid)

And now, for a moment, back to love...

"Letterbox" is a crowded song - speeds by with the speed of a sparrow - "and I never know what I never know what you are what you are, oh...."

"Whistling In The Dark" is about the haplessness of being yourself in a world that so often tells you to be yourself, but is that enough?  The narrator is "having a wonderful time" (even though he's in jail - due to being himself?) but would rather be whistling in the dark - and the song thumps along like a marching band going down a cul-de-sac, turning and then turning again, finally figuring out there's only one way out....

"Hot Cha" is about missing someone who never really acts normally - maybe he acts like himself?  And the details are glorious - "left the bathtub running, stereo on and cooking bacon, never came back to tell us why." A jazz song about someone who just leaves, comes back, leaves again....

"Women And Men" is about nothing more than the ocean of sound as it's reflected in the many people of the world (echoing the beginning of "Heavenly Pop Hit" and the many millions mentioned there).  "Three by three as well as four by four" the population on the land grows, and the river of people eventually becomes an ocean with ships bringing more women and men....

"Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love" is one of those haiku type TMBG songs that are lovely and sweet but I am never sure what they are "about"; it just is, and I will leave you with the mystery....

"They Might Be Giants" is just awesome, though, as a theme song.  "Hang on, hang on tight" says the narrator (I don't know who it is) who elaborates later: "so everyone has to hang on tight just to keep from being thrown to the wolves."  Who are they?  Well, they might be anything, small, big, who knows, but what to do besides hang on tight?  "They might be big big fake fake lies - tabloid footprints in your hair."  But can we be silent, Generation X?  No!  Because they might be giants....

The album ends with the sobering "Road Movie To Berlin" - "Can't drive out the way we drove in..."  Much later in the 90s I remember listening to Flood on a trip back to Oakville; visiting the graveyard, the old record store, and agreeing with the driver that being "the nicest of the damned" was about all Generation X - or our little social circle - could hope for.  "Time won't find the lost" the song says, as if to say, yet again in a different way, that now is now and the past is the past.  Berlin isn't what it used to be; the old road back home is the old road, and there is only the past to find there....

Though this was an actual hit album in the UK, I don't know if anyone who bought Flood also bought The Carpenters; I doubt it.  As friendly as it starts, it leaves on a note of cinematic doubt and worry; the bluebird of friendliness seems a long way away.  But it is a fiercely realistic album, the sort children would understand much faster than adults, all over the place musically but hanging together with great humor, wit, intelligence and fun.

Both The Chills and They Might Be Giants act as a counter to the seemingly endless nostalgia represented by The Carpenters, and I would like to think they were at least heard and understood by some people, but again I also sense a generation gap here, between those who are looking back and those who find it eerie, creepy to look back too much, lest they get stuck there.  Those who are wary are in the minority for now, but soon enough will begin themselves to have hit albums, and wrestle with the past in their own way....

...but for now, rest in peace, Karen Carpenter - this is the last time The Carpenters grace Then Play Long, and for better or for worse, we must move forwards....     

Next up:  more nostalgia?

* A rarity even now, and something to admire her for, really.  

**I grew up hearing them in places like the dentist's, the doctor's, friend's houses, and then on my own radio, once I had one.  I had no ideas about them, really, besides that she could really sing.  I can't get nostalgic about them as I don't associate them with the 70s in any big way.  But I know so many female singers who did listen - Jann Arden, the aforementioned Estefan, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Gordon...who wrote an open letter to Karen once that ended, "Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs?  Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinarily beautiful, soulful voice?" (Girl In A Band, pg. 173)

***In one of those odd coincidences, there was (and still may be) a nighttime radio show in Toronto called "Lovers And Other Strangers" which plays soppy songs and has the broadcaster telling poignant stories about love.  Is Don Jackson still there on CHFI, soothing the romantic pains of the masses?

****The way Phillips pronounces "flat" is very New Zealand, and being an American susceptible to foreign accents, I liked it right away.

***** This is the first time the greenhouse gas problem is mentioned on Then Play Long, and there's lots of info in the album's booklet about this, nuclear bomb testing and other problems of then and now....

******This is no more the "real" ocean than the "Wide Open Road" of The Triffids was an actual road.