Friday, 10 June 2016

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


(#408: 2 June 1990, 3 weeks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

* * THOSE WORDS!!!! * *

declaration of no principles, or anti-principles.

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the early nineties you had this choice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 comments:

David G. Shaw said...

Brilliant as always. Thanks for confirming my decision to give the Ratliff book a wide berth.

The version of "Salt Peanuts" burned into my brain is The Quintet at Massey Hall.

And, of course, you know A Genuine Tong Funeral.

jasl said...

Excellent.
It is now obvious to everyone(or it should be) that Blue Lines chart performance really doesn't show the impact of this record. Which was the one who brought a new decade for UK soul music(soul aka from mind and heart)in spite of Soul II Soul's good record. And its impact in European non-UK was far higher and extensive than in the UK itself I guess, although this is a bit out of scope of TPL.
Perhaps, as a wild bunch of talented musicians and artists, it was never to be repeated when it came out(that's what I felt after listening to this record so many times in 91). But, for the better(for us and for most of them), they went on, moved on and massively became the one "love" to "rule" them all. One of the most (if not the most) important band of the 90s.

Stuart Macpherson said...

I'm so happy you two have found it in you to carry on with this mad enterprise. I completely understood and respected your reasons for stopping, but seeing you back is such a joy(and I haven't even started reading yet) Bravo!

Robin Carmody said...

What you say about Ray Davies here pretty much sums up what I think about quite a few creative figures who are associated with a certain idea of "Englishness" - my problem very often isn't with the work itself but with the spin certain people put on it, denying a lot of its real influences (denying the Kinks' R&B influences is the Tory/UKIP boomers' equivalent of their parents or grandparents denying Elgar's dance band influences). I often find myself fascinated, but on a different level and a different way which has more to do with "hanging on in quiet desperation" than any kind of blind patriotism, with a lot of the work that ploughs those furrows, while hating a lot of its fans - the way both of us feel about Ray Davies, I at least also feel about John Betjeman, a fascinating and paradoxical man whose work has more depths than a lot of people think and who similarly deserves better fans than he's got.

Agreed that this blog returning is A Good Thing on all kinds of levels.