Wednesday 21 December 2016

QUEEN: Innuendo

(#422: 16 February 1991, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Innuendo/I’m Going Slightly Mad/Headlong/I Can’t Live With You/Don’t Try So Hard/Ride The Wild Wind/All God’s People/These Are The Days Of Our Lives/Delilah/The Hitman/Bijou/The Show Must Go On

Freddie Mercury’s blackstar, not that anyone who didn’t need to know knew that at the time, but to a degree that the opening song sounds remarkably similar in construction to the song “Blackstar,” though in a different key (“Innuendo”’s root chord is E major, compared with “Blackstar”’s B major), and that both albums end with a kind of protective defiance – “The Show Must Go On” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

If, as surely everybody involved was aware, Innuendo was to be the last Queen album with Freddie, as such – leaving aside entry #541 for now – then everybody appears to have pulled together to go out with a bang. If anything, Mercury’s illness had intensified the group’s concentration, such that they sounded more alive than anything they had done since Sheer Heart Attack. Rockers like “Headlong,” “I Can’t Live With You” and especially “The Hitman” find the group at their best and most dynamic.

More importantly, despite his illness, Freddie sounds as though he’s having the time of his life on the record. Whooping it up, multi-tracking, self-parodying but concentrated, he revels in the music, having a great deal of fun with “I’m Going Slightly Mad” – a song whose lyric was in part conjured up in discussions with Mercury and his friend Peter Straker, and a song which suggests some awareness of what their labelmates the Pet Shop Boys were up to at the time; indeed, Brian May’s guitar sounds positively like shoegazing here.

Elsewhere, the rev-it-up “Ride The Wild Wind” suggests an art-rock modification of, of all things, the Smiths’ “Shakespeare’s Sister” while Mercury clearly enjoys himself immensely on “Delilah,” which turns out to be a song about his cat.

Not that there aren’t more solemn moments. The title song – number one as a single, but hardly played today – is an obvious attempt to do a “Bo Rhap 2,” but is an altogether knottier and more complex affair, taking in parade ground paradiddles, bits of “Bolero” and “Kashmir,” a flamenco interlude with guest guitarist Steve Howe, and an atomic explosion at the end. It sounds like a statement of intent, not so much what is to come for its singer, but more reminding us what Queen were about in the first place. There are no easy “nothing really matters”-type hooks and the song’s agitated angst looks ahead to future labelmates Radiohead, and specifically “Paranoid Android.”

Likewise, the closing two songs are where the band turn their attention on what is on the horizon. “Bijou” is just one verse of Mercury, sung as though he is already beyond this planet or our reach, bookended by two long and pained weeping guitar soliloquies by May. Finally, with “The Show Must Go On,” Mercury reinforces his determination to keep on going as long as he can do so, and to keep his public countenance at whatever cost. From a dying man, the emotions expressed here are commendably lacking in self-pity.

But perhaps the best song is “Those Are The Days,” written by Roger Taylor and one of the simplest and most moving songs Queen ever recorded. A bluffer “Being Boring,” the song’s easy sun finds Mercury musing on his excitable past but finally opting not to live there; the key couplet is “No use in sitting and thinking on what you did/When you can lay back and enjoy it through your kids.” The cycle of life continues, endless and imperturbable, but of course its air of contented achievement remains essentially tragic because of its author and singer, who could have no children and was fully aware that his own time was rapidly running out. And yet, the final impression is one of uplifting hope (it’s very nearly Mercury’s “All Apologies”) – in the last shot of the video (which was the last time all four members of Queen worked actively together as a group), as with the last, dying moment of the song, Mercury glances up, smiling at the camera – a real smile - and whispers, “I still love you.” And then he is no more, yet all around us.

A peaceful Christmas to us all.

Tuesday 20 December 2016


(#421: 9 February 1991, 1 week)

Track listing: Trust Me/Who? Where? Why?/International Bright Young Thing/I’m Burning/Right Here, Right Now/Nothing To Hold Me/Real Real Real/Welcome Back Victoria/Two And Two/Stripped/Blissed

(Author’s Note: Some editions include an extra track, “Are You Satisfied?” Mine, sourced from the charity shop for 50p, does not.)

Start a fire in pop and pretty soon the corporate ambulance chasers will get to the scene. There were Happy Mondays and Pop Will Eat Itself, but the multinationals wanted you to dig EMF and Jesus Jones. In the States these two bands were even marketed as representing “the Manchester scene,” despite EMF actually coming from the Forest of Dean and Jesus Jones being the biggest pop stars since XTC to come from Wiltshire (they were based in Bradford-on-Avon but its members came from places as far apart as Carshalton, Devizes and Kentish Town).

If only JJ had an ounce of the genuine weirdness of DDBM&T. People raved, and in some places still do, about Liquidizer as epitomising a pioneering fusion of indie and dance, but all I hear in it is PWEI without the wit, adventure and uncleared samples (the record is suspiciously clear of any recognisable samples).

No doubt someone at EMI had a quiet word with them about making their second album more “accessible,” i.e. more guitar-based songs. It is fairly evident on listening that Jesus Jones were really a rather conservative – and you may wish to capitalise that last word – rock band with pretences to radicalism. It doesn’t help that Mike Edwards possesses one of the most singularly unattractive voices in pop, generally sounding like he had taken too much Listerine mouthwash and is about to be sick. Moreover, on songs like “Trust Me,” he even manages to conjure up the unlikely comparison of Roger Daltrey.

For all their chatter about newness and nowness…and few things date more rapidly in pop…it’s clear that Jesus Jones cannot escape the urge to sound like mediocre sixties freakbeat, minus the freaky elements. Even when they go for the all-out noise assault (“Stripped”) we spent the duration of the track naming acts we believed did or do this sort of thing better. We passed the fifty mark.

At least “Right Here, Right Now” is a song about something – the Berlin Wall coming down; oh, all that squandered hope – and consequently is their only song much known outside Britain, so much so that the band still regularly reforms to play corporate events – just the one song – and get richly paid. In Canada, however, it is perhaps most famous for being used in a television advertising campaign to attract tourists to Prince Edward Island, a place, Lena reliably informs me, famous only for Anne Of Green Gables and potatoes.

I am sure that many young conservatives of the period revelled in the alleged wonders of “Right Here, Right Now” as a beacon for the future they wanted. But I still find Doubt a dispiriting, enervating listen – and of the four hundred and twenty-one albums we have looked at so far, its cover ranks with that of entry #71 as the worst album cover in the series to date. You do wonder what “big Dave Balfe” and the other people at Food Records were thinking – hey, we’ve hit the big time with Jesus Jones, which is just as well; who the hell is going to listen to a band called Blur? Finally, Doubt reinforces the maxim that putting warnings on the sleeves of albums stating “This album contains extreme sounds which could damage musical equipment when played at high volume” is the crying of rock wolf.

Monday 19 December 2016

STING: The Soul Cages

(#420: 2 February 1991, 1 week)

Track listing: Island Of Souls/All This Time/Mad About You/Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)/Why Should I Cry For You/Saint Agnes And The Burning Train/The Wild Wild Sea/The Soul Cages/When The Angels Fall

In 1974 Alan Price released the album Between Today And Yesterday, which was divided halfway between songs looking back at growing up in and around Newcastle and reflections on what it meant to be a Geordie in seventies Britain. Stylistically the “yesterday” songs owe much to music hall and pre-war Palais dance bands, while the “today” songs veer towards jazz and blues but are still squarely in the mid-seventies. Watching over both is the spirit of Randy Newman – the album could almost be Price’s Good Old Boys and at times the songs’ outward merriment cunningly disguises their inner bleakness: “I’m asking you to give us time,” announces Price at the beginning of “Left Over People,” “And listen to this tale/With particular rrrr-regard (he rolls his “r”s as angrily as Lydon would do a couple of years later)/For folks whose lives are for sale.”

Probably the record’s most famous piece is “Jarrow Song,” a superficially jaunty top ten single which more or less calls for armed insurrection. Price finally finds himself marooned by the present, realising that in forty years nothing has changed with no lessons learned. The title song, which ends the record, is as quietly apocalyptic album-closer as Newman’s “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” “Between today and yesterday is like a million years,” Price sings, gloomily, “And the only truthful man he’s seen was standing there in tears.” He ends the song, and the record, with a terrible gesture of tactful finality: “Enough – I said enough – just draw the shades/Please let me drink black wine.”

The record’s resonance in 2016 cannot be over-emphasised, of course, but a great part of why it works is because it’s so selfless and knows its own limitations; there is no attempt at a storyline to link any “concept,” and Price’s band are all reliables (Colin Green, Dave Markee, Clive Thacker, with Derek Wadsworth doing the horn and string arrangements) who remain at the service of the music and do not ramble.

It is a record which almost certainly would have been heard and absorbed by the younger Sting. But The Soul Cages proves he learned no lessons from it. Instead of economy, there is endless noodling – a particular offender is guitarist Dominic Miller, who reels off every page of the Ladybird Bumper Book of Rock Guitar Clichés available to him – and the concept, while obviously heartfelt (as far as paternal-related grief in rock goes, it’s preferable to “The Living Years”), is so ponderously and ineptly realised that all you hear finally is the sound of money being spent on the part of a group of people who imagine it is still the eighties. The presence of Hugh Padgham as co-producer was nigh inevitable.

For all Sting’s talk of proud Newcastle and the Tyne and big ships – the story gets rather silly towards record’s end with the sub-Moby Dick fantasia/shaggy dog tale of the title song – we are not really allowed to forget that this was an album recorded in expensive studios in Paris and Italy. Even the instrumental “Saint Agnes” is a flimsy affair which might as well soundtrack a daytime television programme about instructional macramé in Budapest. Throughout he is at pains to retain his “King Of Pain” status – an alternative title for many of his albums could be It’s All About You, Sting, Isn’t It? – and the expensive musicians at his disposal do their best to make the music interesting (particularly Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland in the “free” interludes of “Jeremiah Blues”). The closing “When The Angels Fall,” in which Sting takes nearly eight very long minutes to make his mind up about mourning the past or deciding that the North will rise again, highlights the record’s central problem, in that it is the audio equivalent of those travelogues you get on television, hosted by once dangerous people, or people who acted dangerous, but have since been ironed out to docile compliance – Michael Palin, Billy Connolly, Adrian Edmondson and so forth. Or this could simply be a very long prototype for Who Do You Think You Are?

Either way, as a representation of where someone from the North-East stands in relation to the world in which they find themselves, it falls a very long way behind Alan Price, and certainly Paddy McAloon – I wonder if Sting ever had it in him to create a song as simultaneously ambiguous and heartrending as “Nightingales.” But then McAloon is a genius who has never made a bad record, whereas Sting fatally thinks he’s a genius. He’s a would-be Renaissance man who once upon a time would have been lucky to have been a roadie for Renaissance. Perhaps the most telling comment on The Soul Cages comes from drummer Manu Katché, who bravely tries throughout most of the record’s forty-eight interminable minutes to render the music into something resembling compelling – at the end of a seemingly unending fadeout to “When The Angels Fall,” he brings proceedings to a close by a loud and meaningful drum tattoo, as if to say “Sting, shut the fuck up.” If only someone other than Stewart Copeland had said that to him before.

Thursday 15 December 2016


(#419: 26 January 1991, 1 week)

Track listing: The Voice Of Enigma/Principles Of Lust: a) Sadeness; b) Find Love; (c) Sadeness (Reprise)/Callas Went Away/Mea Culpa/The Voice And The Snake/Knocking On Forbidden Doors/Back To The Rivers Of Belief: a) Way To Eternity; (b) Hallelujah; (c) The Rivers Of Belief

(Author’s Note: I used the November 1991 “Limited Edition” which includes four extra remixes – “Sadeness (Meditation),” “Mea Culpa (Fading Shades),” “Principles Of Lust (Everlasting Lust)” and “The Rivers Of Belief (The Returning Silence.” These are segued from the end of the original album so cannot be avoided or skipped over. Don’t you just love “deluxe” editions?)

One question I sometimes get asked by correspondents is: why not write a book on how to listen to music? I don’t know whether such a thing is possible. There is a compilation of old writing for newspapers and music magazines which impertinently calls itself Ways Of Seeing but is anything but. Furthermore, there is a digest from the 33⅓ people optimistically or pompously subtitled How To Listen To Music.

Listening to music – as opposed to hearing it – is actually one of the most difficult tasks there is, probably because only one of our five senses, that of hearing, is required to engage in it. As Derek Bailey rhetorically asked Ben Watson in the late nineties, what do people do when they’re listening to a record (as opposed to watching a musician perform live, with its own quantity of distractions, including ones which may involve all five senses) – read a book? Make a cup of tea? In that case, all you have is wallpaper.

Instructing, or guiding, people on how to listen to music is also fraught with difficulties because music is not cinema or television, where at least two senses are required, and that of vision is always the primary one. Hence it is quite easy to write manuals like David Thomson’s How To Watch A Movie if you know your stuff, since, as Thomson points out, the attentive film viewer has to spend quite a lot of time looking at people looking at other people (this is also true, to a lesser extent, with live theatre).

But how to indicate that when listening to music, you should be listening to people listening to other people? It certainly isn’t impossible. Jazz, for instance, is primarily constructed of people listening and reacting to other people – and, if you’re a careful listener, so are such musics as folk, devotional raga and gospel. But that is one of the reasons why in the end I think jazz the best form of music, namely that it is a true people’s music insofar as you are witnessing something being constructed from a very basic foundation and put together in such a way that it becomes its own ekphrasis. When you listen to a piece of improvised jazz music, you are listening to people listening to each other. You are listening to a society forming itself, to suggest a way in which humanity might better coexist.

There are other theories, of course. Fear Of Music (Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen) by David Stubbs is a fascinating book which, when not serving as a whistle-stop tour of/rough guide to subversive art and music throughout the twentieth century, tries to find answers to the question of why people can generally assimilate modern art but seem to have insurmountable difficulties with modern music. Stubbs comes up with a number of possible explanations, including the “Original” theory, the thrill engendered by owning something unique and non-reproducible; but my kneejerk response to the question would be that, for better or worse, humans respond far more quickly and readily to visual than aural stimuli. It’s the way we’re programmed and extends into all areas of life. Always it comes down to what somebody or something looks like. Furthermore, painting, cinema and theatre demand sensory engagement – the visual focus is far more overpowering than the aural one. We can’t walk away from a film – but we can vacate the room if a piece of music annoys us. Even when it comes down to the business of music “appreciation” the visuals are of primary importance; look at your music collection and see how it is organised, how careful the colours of the sleeves you chose, consciously or subconsciously. I myself have not admitted several very worthwhile records into the house on the grounds of their atrocious cover design.

None of this, however, gets us any closer to a notion of how to listen to music (never mind “why listen to music?”). Perhaps we were better off in the days when records came with a simple cover photograph or design, track listing and (occasionally) credits. When we didn’t know – indeed, were not expected to know – the history of a record or the person or people who recorded it. One had to create one’s own mythology out of what one heard, find one’s own interpretation. My CD copy of the “Limited Edition” of the first Enigma album certainly carries little other than that – the Play School Caspar David Friedrich of Johann Zambrysk’s cover drawing, three distended quotes (one of which may have been made up) and no credits whatsoever.

Therefore, if my intention were to make sense out of this strange record, I would have little to go on apart from outside research. I would have to trust my own ears and my own experience, and listen to the music. But it’s easier said than done. So much of what surrounds the act of listening to music succeeds in shrouding or otherwise obscuring the act. We come to a piece of music with prejudices and preconceptions which we cannot unlearn or untrain ourselves not to have.

A case in my point are the Eagles (yes, I know they are strictly speaking called just “Eagles” but I suspect nobody omits the indefinite article now). For decades I couldn’t get them, having been endlessly bombarded by four or five of their songs on oldies radio during those same decades, which do distort the full picture of what the group had to offer. Hence it was with some surprise that I learned of “Journey Of The Sorcerer.”

It appears at the end of the first side of the group’s 1975 album One Of These Nights, much of which still sounds to me like a careful gallimaufry of half-decent songs and ideas buried beneath an avalanche of green triangular Quality Street chocolates. “Sorcerer” was composed by Bernie Leadon, who had joined the Eagles from the Flying Burrito Brothers – he is the umbilical link between the two, and would angrily quit the group before 1975 was out – and is a long and patient instrumental with three clear peaks, none of which is exactly identical and all of which are reached by different routes. Essentially a concerto for prepared banjo and string ensemble, very much harking back at psychedelia, “Sorcerer” is a rueful wave of farewell to any elements of country or bluegrass in the Eagles’ music, and its coda, featuring the fiddles of David Bromberg, is testament to this box being closed forever.

Whichever way the music reaches those peaks, however, the peaks become immediately familiar once they come into view for they form something very familiar indeed to people of a certain age – the music was used as the theme to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and continues to strike me as the band’s most coherent and affecting statement, perhaps doubly so when you consider that it bears no words.

Indeed, listening to the steady build-up of notes, effects and instruments, with Jim Ed Norman and the Royal Martian Orchestra sweeping into sight like a grand, benign mountain range eroding doubt, sixties and seventies finding a common cause and language, I don’t just wonder how well this would have fitted into SMiLE, but also think: isn’t this the Great Cosmic American Music that Gram Parsons once promised in its fullest realisation?

But Leadon left and was replaced by Joe Walsh, and the band proceeded towards a bombastic rock dead-end (Hotel California is Steely Dan if they had stuck to watching The Beverly Hillbillies). Nevertheless, this “Sorcerer” compelled me, even if only for a shade under seven minutes, to reconfigure their art in my mind and to do so by listening.

To this end I have attempted to give MCMXC a.D. a fair hearing. In truth I would hitherto have considered the record fortunate to have been given one paragraph of TPL. However, I was encouraged to give complacency the body swerve by what Mark Sinker wrote about the record on Freaky Trigger. As with all music writers worthy of the name, Mark made me think about the album anew, forced me to come to terms with my own prejudices. Hence this piece.

And hence also, perhaps, one of the many reasons why I was unimpressed with the record at first listen over a quarter of a century ago. Did Michael Cretu really think nobody in 1991 would have bought, let alone heard, track two, side one, of the 1976 album Paschale Mysterium by Capella Antiqua München (conducted by Konrad Ruhland)? I myself had bought a copy many years beforehand to give my then nascent assemblage of records a touch of the “exotic” – every student did that, and if it wasn’t Gregorian chanting it was the songs of the humpbacked sperm whale or Hildegard of Bingen – and so when I heard “Sadeness” (prissily re-spelt “Sadness” for the buttoned-up British market) I shrugged my shoulders and turned my attention elsewhere. The sacred and the secular; the chaste and the proscribed, two sides of the same coin, etc.; I’d been there (musically and artistically) before.

This is what I originally wrote on Popular about “Sadeness Part 1 (everything starts with an ‘e’)”:

The irony to note here is that New Age muzak, and other New Age paraphernalia, are principally, if not exclusively, consumed by the kind of person for whom spare time is an ample luxury, namely, amply rich people. Those who really need stress relief tend to find it in other, more destructive ways. “Sadness” indicates the benign, vacant tabula rasa which would become, in spurious and gratuitous misreading of the KLF, “chillout” music, the equivalent of an ice cube being gently lowered into a less pink Martini. Enigma was Romanian synth musician Michael Cretu, who had been around since the seventies, and “Sadeness” sets it all up – the soon-to-be-obligatory Gregorian chants and whalesong, the polite Soul II Soul beat (though who would dance to it?), the prettiness which could only arise from a profound misunderstanding of “Moments In Love,” and a modest attempt to “subvert” expectations as a Dire Straits guitar revs up, synthesiser chords pile up in a “threatening” manager and a Stars In Your Eyes Gainsbourg wannabe (N.B.: Cretu says only that this was “a good friend” but he does sound like Cretu himself, or, ahem, “Curly MC”) mumbles “Sade, dit moi…pourquoi le sang pour le plaisir…le plaisir sans l’amour?…/Sade, es-tu diabolique ou divin?” “Sade-ness,” you see – and the triple deep breaths which the female singer takes immediately after that question answer it…this is shag pile music masquerading as enlightenment, and about as enigmatic as Ernest Saves Christmas.

Full marks to Mark, however, for having a deeper go at the perhaps not very enigmatic Enigma. What about his proposal that 1991 marked “THE YEAR OF THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED” – you could certainly categorise 2016 as such, and by no means in a good way; if any lesson has been taught to us over the last quarter-century, it is that it would be best for humanity if a lot of things were repressed - ?

The problem with this theory from the perspective of the album charts is that the latter more often than not seem to be the default domain of the otherwise “repressed.” Most, if not all, of the acts Mark mentions as returning to the top in 1991 as though from forced exile were actually TPL regulars in the eighties and in some cases even the seventies. But the fabric of the market differed from even two years before. For the several mega-acts who survived and prospered despite the earthquakes which rumbled beneath them, they were to find that the nineties weren’t quite the playground that the eighties had been for them. Now they had a reduced share of the market, had to plead their case in steadily more confining spaces.

But Michael Cretu had returned from the late seventies, where he had been a bit player in TPL – we’ll get back to them in this piece soon enough – and a lot of what Mark says about the resurgence of what he calls “Eurotica” is, I can vouch, absolutely true, including – or especially including – the best bits, such as Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, which is sampled at several key stages throughout this album, including on “Sadeness” and the Book of Revelations/end of the world stuff in the “Rivers Of Belief” section. By the mid-seventies these roads had diverged but it’s probable that Vangelis’ Heaven And Hell LP and Demis’ The Roussos Phenomenon E.P. were used for not dissimilar purposes. Nonetheless, the use of Irene Papas’ expectant voice on “Sadeness” – in its original setting (the track “∞”) she intones the refrain “I was, I am, I am to come” and everything is as spelled out as, though far more thrillingly than, the average Judge Dread single of the period.

One might say that such as veteran entertainers and legitimate actors were compelled in seventies Britain to appear in sub-Carry On pornographic movies in order to make a living, there was no way forward for “progressive” musicians once the dream was over except by making the apposite soundtracks. But the lines in progrotica (as I messily call it) are less defined; listening to some of the period’s more fanciful, less elusive music, one does feel that the musicians want to get a leg over the universe as well as surf it.

To the album itself, then. It begins with a Charlotte Rampling impersonator – actually one Louisa Stanley, then an executive at Cretu’s label, Virgin Records* -

*and isn’t this actually spelling it out, from the totally not ambiguous original label design inwards? Like, we did Tubular Bells a generation ago – and indeed TPL is not finished with that – when we were “all” eating cold baked beans straight from the tin in unheated squats in Notting Hill…

…but now, when all these people have prospered, in great part because they saw the Thatcher wagon coming at the end of that decade and thought it was THE SAME THING as Branson – as, indeed, did Branson (in 1973 he would never have entertained the tacky and seemingly numberless photoshoots of later times)  – the gaily-coloured NEW THING coming to change and shake up dusty old toffs (people are still being fooled by that in 2016) – who jumped on the self-loving eighties and exclaimed THIS IS ME!, who were smart or poor enough to buy houses or flats cheap in areas which would in the future become desirable, who are now rich and secure in newly-gated “communities” which they would have found unaffordable a generation before, and from which the generation following them would be priced out altogether – well, for you SAME people, here’s a Tubular Bells for the NINETIES! All smoothed out, all the disagreeable discrepancies ironed away…no barrow-spilling Windo discordant reed honks to derail you**

**(and it is notable that Gary Windo himself passed away in 1992, younger than I am now, of an asthma attack. It was as if the world had told him they didn’t want him any more.)

- and, as Mark says, this sounds like the introduction to a yoga tape, or perhaps something more sinister. “Good evening. This is the Voice of Enigma.” You almost expect her to be intoning “This is an Emergency Broadcast from the BBC. Confirmation of a nuclear attack on this country has been received…” “In the next hour,” the voice goes on, “we will take you with us into another world…”

“This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.”
(Orson Welles, F For Fake, 1973)

The voice does its best to hypnotise us – “Start to move slowly…VERY slowly…” – and then we are into “The Principles Of Lust,” incorporating The Hit. As for the alleged “panpipes” – which I initially thought might have been sampled whalesong –they actually turn out to be sampled shakuhachi flutes, the Japanese instrument which evolved from the Chinese bamboo flute of the sixth century, popular with the Fuke sect (yes, I know) of Buddhist monks, who used them not so much as musical instruments but as meditational tools. This section also includes stock breakbeats, noises from wildlife and the aforementioned hot apocalypse action of Irene Papas’ deep breathing.

Prog-Fusion would be a good means of categorising this music. Like that damnable genre, it turns out to be all promise and no deliverance, all expectations and no fulfilment. The tropes are set up – and nothing is done with them, in order not to upset the newly rich neighbours. I imagine Malcolm McLaren must have smiled at “Callas Went Away” and at how much better he’d done this sort of thing (and helped popularise vogueing!) on Waltz Darling in 1989, an enterprise involving Actual Musicians who were Around At The Time Of That Prog Dawn (Jeff Beck, Bootsy Collins, even David A Stewart). Here we hear the great Maria singing what sounds like something from Massenet’s opera Werther – the aria “Ces Lettres! Ces Lettres!” to be specific, while German pop star (and Mrs Cretu) Sandra indulges in more deep breathing. The conflict between what is deemed right to want and what is forbidden, perhaps? But it goes nowhere – the keyboards do not sing, there is no reaction, no listening (thus the notion that this is the first “major” album to be based around samples alone. But on something like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing you are given the notion that everybody is listening, or at least Josh Davis is listening to everybody).

It goes on. If the rainstorm at the beginning of “Mea Culpa” sounds familiar, it’s because it has been sampled from the opening of the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath – but, crucially, stripped of its shock, otherness and, yes, punctum, as though the seventies were a crime for which we must all pay in one or another way (the final nail in that socioaesthetic coffin is not the passing of Greg Lake – if only Cretu were able to improvise, to genuinely create [note the rhetorically-justified split infinitive], then he might understand a bit of what Tarkus strove to be about, which was the oddly logical juxtaposition of apocalypse and comedy; hence it is entirely fitting that ELP should wind up writing songs for Jim Davidson pantomimes, and if only poor Keith Emerson had better understood the ramifications of his own juxtaposition he might have been persuaded to stick around – but Kelly Osbourne asking the gay community to give Trump a chance. That, more so than an overpriced repressing [omission of hyphen intentional] of Never Mind The Bollocks crowding up the window of a discount gift shop/chainstore on the King’s Road, is the terminal cementing of Deadhead sticker onto Cadillac bumper). Instead of Iommi’s crashing chords and Ward’s stumbling-out-of-the-apocalypse drumming – or even the threatening bells – we get “Kyrie Eleison” and flutes.

The best track is “The Voice And The Snake,” 99 agreeable seconds of dislocated non-tonality and non-rhythm; or, as I better know it, “Seven Bowls” by Aphrodite’s Child. The breaking bowl leads to “Knocking On Forbidden Doors” but instead of Peter Wyngarde making sick jokes in a variety of comedy foreign accents, we are encountered with…yet more Gregorian chanting; “Salve Regina,” without any acknowledgement of the crying children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this land of exile.

Finally we get back to “Back To The Rivers Of Belief” and catharsis comes apparently in the guise of…the Close Encounters theme, said in some quarters to have been inspired by the philosophy (such as it was) of Sun Ra. But you will search in vain here for a Marshall Allen or John Gilmore to blow the complacent temple down. As with Escalator Over The Hill, earlier themes and motifs return for a final bow, though to underwhelming effect. Instead of the genuine catharsis of a Jack Bruce, we get a dreadful Renta-RockVoice hack blurting out clichés with some even more dreadful Rock Guitar. Then the inevitable Revelations stuff about the seventh seal and so forth (yet again sampled from Aphrodite’s Child, I’m afraid) – and what, as the music blandly dies in our underfed ears, have we learned? Without the remixes the record does not even last an hour, nor do we hear the returning Louisa Stanley, like the voice of Lowell Thomas surging through the finale of This Is Cinerama, telling us to switch off and hoping that we have enjoyed our “journey.”

“I did promise that for one hour, I'd tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I've been lying my head off.”
(Welles, op. cit.)

The project appears to have been one where, quite apart from confirming everybody as equals, all art has been confirmed as constituting elements of the same beige broth.

The sleeve of the album contains three quotes; one from Freud, another from one “Father X, Exorcist, Church of Notre Dame, Paris” (who I’m not convinced actually exists) – and a misquote from Blake, demonstrating how little Cretu has understood (if he has even read) The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell.

But perhaps in the sampled elisions of 1991 music, there are more intriguing roads for Blakeisms to travel. That thing Mark said about “cheeky sonic pseudo-magick” for example.

Love’s Secret Domain appeared a little later in 1991 than Enigma, and to – at the time – little or no notice, the mainstream music press already busying itself with prioritising a refreshing return to basic, raw, honest, indie guitar rock. Its reputation steadily grew in time, however, long after it had vanished from disinterested record racks, and although it remains available as a download from Coil’s website, the CD or cassette editions now command prices liable to cause your bank manager to shudder. I don’t know where all these people were when dozens of copies, priced at £1.99 each, were sitting in the cheapo section of Selectadisc in Berwick Street for the best part of a year but there you go (the only time I have ever seen it in a second-hand record store was in Toronto in 2007, where it was retailing for a mere forty dollars).

Anyway, the initial obligatory shrug of “another Coil album, yawn” should be overcome because the record – its acronym should be obvious – is a lot of things that the Enigma album isn’t; celebratory, humorous, striking, provocative, consciousness-preserving, adventurous and at times very affecting. It begins with a slow stutter of backwards effects, like a dormant stomach reluctantly coming to life, before moving into an aural speed-read of quickfire untraceable samples and functional jazz/New Jack Swing-lite beats (“Disco Hospital”) before leading, via rocket launch noises and post-Tin Drum ritual gongs, into the first “Teenage Lightning,” actually the first of three different readings on the album of the same basic piece. This version is elementally the most basic of the three – you do get the feeling of a younger and happier Joe Meek in the Holloway Road knocking this up out of sheer Gloucester chutzpah – although I also note the extremely familiar bassline, from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (via “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), a piece of music inspired by a trip made by its author to Brazil. Later on in the record, the second version (“Teenage Lightning 2”) is perhaps the most “complete” of the three, while the third (“Lorca Not Orca”) adds some Ibiza-friendly flamenco guitar- that reading represents a crawl out of the tunnel of suppression into bright freedom, all the more cherished for having been harder-earned.

It is probably reasonable to note that, although the album was systematically praised at and after the time for coming to terms with Acid House, the two core members of Coil had a keener ear on dance music trends of the time, and in many ways help anticipate some here, most noticeably in “The Snow” – like Enigma, it uses Gregorian chants, but unlike Enigma it has purpose and punctum. Some familiar-sounding piano work comes from Mike McEvoy – who once appeared on Scritti Politti’s Songs To Remember – which is a major relief following Cretu’s minimalist-to-the-point-of-inertia piano “work” (Much of the Enigma album suggests what Serge Gainsbourg, who died a couple of months after it came out, might have sounded like minus all the Serge Gainsbourg elements).

Better still is the majestically patient “Dark River” which three-dimensionalises ambient music to the point where it becomes its own omnipotent, but living, statue or monument. Like Whistler’s Chelsea riverscapes there are differing but related details in the far distance, in the middleground and close up, and all are captivating and transcendent. As with later masterpieces from its decade such as Aphex Twin’s “Stone In Focus” and μ-zik’s “sick porter,” it transfixes its listener with modest imposition, and could be as old and timeless as the song of the gods.

Other highlights include “Titan Arch” which guest singer Marc Almond holds together through sheer strength of character as the music collapses loudly around him (“Under shivering stars/The sickness is gliding” – it was probably the most avant-garde Almond had been since Psychic TV’s “Guiltless”; Peter Christopherson evidently understood him the way so many other musicians and producers didn’t). “Windowpane,” sung by Jhon Balance himself, suggests the Moody Blues outlook escorted towards a further dimension (“If you want to touch the sky/Just put a window in your eye”), but his mainly monotone-with-brushes-of-exclamatory-revelation vocal style actually points a finger directly to what Karl Hyde would be getting up to with Underworld just a couple of years later. “Chaostrophy,” despite its terrible title, is an absorbing passage from slowly-decaying elements of what might once have been described as “music” to a peaceful, oboe-led pastorale, as though the light had finally been reached and attained.

But even this music is not free of its own clichés. Little Annie (a.k.a. Annie Anxiety Bandez./etc. – her 1987 Adrian Sherwood-produced album Jackamo, currently available as credited to “Little Annie,” is ridiculously yet merrily ahead of its Björk/Goldfrapp time) turns up for “Things Happen” and has a nice time in the standard Grace Jones/Marianne Faithfull role of the woman of vague European origin caught in an exodus, or a riot, or is it just her backyard, last helicopter out of the embassy etc. (despite somebody – Balance? – uttering a desperate cry of “Kill the Creator! Send them the Bomb!” right at the beginning) chit-chatting semi-drunkenly with an old friend in Ohio (not Scott Walker or Chrissie Hynde) but there is definitely a 1983 heard-this-all-before feel about the piece. “Where Even The Darkness Is Something To See” is three or so minutes of pointless didgeridoo ambience (and not a patch on Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo”). The listener’s ears strain to identify the dialogue at the beginning of “Further Back And Faster” but sadly it turns out to be from that old Video City indie standby Performance, and once we get to the HATE and LOVE tattoos on the knuckles it is definitely Saturday all-nighter at the Scala time.

Mr Balance brings the proceedings to an end with the title song. He cites Blake again (“O Rose thou art sick” although we get an agonised “URGH!” from the vocalist rather than invisible worms flying in the night) as well as, very predictably, Orbison’s “In Dreams” (not scary). It’s quite enjoyable in a tittering-to-onself way but overall, I would say, ends the record rather flatly. There has to be another solution.

Beyond its cover – and the subtextual notion that, with at least some Pink Floyd, musicians in the nineties were knocking on still-forbidden doors – Chill Out doesn’t really have much to do with entry #83, even though it appeared in the context of a similar period for music and art, one that KLF biographer John Higgs has termed the “liminal” period, where nothing and nobody really is in charge or setting the pace, and hence where anything and anybody can really happen and have some degree of an impact.

For the KLF this was the interregnum between Acid House and Britpop – a point at which some claimed proof that evolution was reversible – and the fact that throughout the early nineties, and during the year 1991 in particular, they were in commercial dominance. The moot point, they might have observed, is whether things were so up in the air that a couple of merry art chancers like Drummond and Cauty could be permitted to have their way.

Yet Chill Out – the KLF’s first non-compilation album under that name – can’t squarely be placed in any tidy “tapestry” or “canon” of pop or rock or even dance music history. In an interview at the time, Drummond explained that the purpose of the record was to act as a soundtrack to the day after a rave – when everyone and everything had packed up and gone and all that was left was the countryside. Remember what I said about Our Favourite Shop being music for the day after defeat – and let us not even think of the 1983 American telefilm drama The Day After, starring Jason Robards – and consider that these forty-four minutes of music might signify the day after a victory (albeit possibly a temporary, pyrrhic one).

There isn’t much to Chill Out, and yet there is everything to it – enough, at least, to convince me that this music avoids the traps in which both Enigma and Coil encase themselves. Superficially, it is the aural soundtrack to a journey, one made across the Deep South of the USA, specifically along the Gulf Coast – but, as Drummond later admitted, he and Cauty had never been anywhere near Louisiana or the Tex-Mex border (at the time) and the names and descriptions were picked randomly from an atlas, the whole being allegedly recorded in two days on anything that wasn’t nailed down in the basement of Cauty’s squat in Stockwell.

However, as Dolphy once astutely noted, once the notes are in the air, released, they are for us to breathe, and this Chill Out still seems to me to answer a lot of questions about ways of hearing which both Enigma and Coil avoid (intentionally and unintentionally, in that order and in my opinion). On the face of it, nothing much happens during the record; we hear the sounds of the outdoors, trains whistling by, automobile engines on the road, the distant noises of nature, the transient random noise bursts – or, to put it more precisely, drifts, like the continental drift – with announcements. Songs and radio broadcasts loom, shift into momentary focus and disperse into space.

From the point of view of an American journey, and given the multiple voices and references to other songs within its structure, Chill Out may even be compared with Brian Wilson’s SMiLE insofar as this may be the soundtrack to the journey of the electronic bicycle rider. There are long and languid passages of pedal steel, courtesy of “Evil” Graham Lee of the great Perth band The Triffids – and consider what we heard on the very first song on their album The Black Swan from the previous year:

“And from this window, I can see the street below
I can hear the hit parade on the radio
There's dirty dishes piling up in the sink
But it's too hot to move, and it's too hot to think.”

A similar feeling pervades Chill Out. Not until we reach the second half does anything approximating a beat appear, and then only relatively momentarily. There are separate reasons for that. But all is not as it might seem. On the radio we hear a growling man yelling to someone unspecified about the kingdom of God and money (“You have so much money, you’re gonna get scared”). There is a news report of a fatal and bloody drag racing accident (“His body was pulled from the car by a passing motorist after which the car, in flames…destroying stores...” – it sounds like the last broadcast). We get a Bible quote (“Be of good courage and be of good comfort,” inevitably making me think of Welles’ “Be of good heart, cry the dead artists out of the living past” in F For Fake), a DJ voiceover and that growling man again, who now reveals himself to be a rather ominous-sounding preacher (“Bronx New York! Get on the telephone! Call 50 of your friends! Tell all your friends who need some help! Doctor Williams comin' to the Bronx New York…I’m talkin’ to you, baby, I’m talkin’ to you, sucker…”). We also hear broadcasts from Russia and Britain.

Another layer of Chill Out is disclosed with some hindsight. At the time of its release in February 1990, the KLF had had no hit singles - if you discount “Doctorin’ The Tardis” – but the music here subtly signals to us what is to come. There are references to, amongst others, “3 A.M. Eternal” – the bathysphere bleep becomes a moving siren to lost drifters everywhere – “Last Train To Trancentral” and “Justified And Ancient.” It is a disguised greatest hits compilation before the hits had even happened or existed. Had anybody done this with pop before?

There are recurring electronic motifs, but also…the sound of pop music, the aura that it gifted on those listening in prefabricated post-war bedrooms, or tuning into pirate stations on their Walkmen. In many ways, Chill Out commemorates lost pop, and maybe some of its umbilical ties to what became progressive rock – there are Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, playing “Albatross,” that unassuming Santo and Johnny in Chess Studios tribute that needed so words and whose tom-toms sounded like the biggest possible heartbeat, which the Shadows wished they’d thought of first – they split not long after the record came out – which went to number one towards the end of a decade where everybody was beginning to feel lost, whether the crippled, dying Vietnam vet of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” or the plaintive, self-sacrificing father of “The Deal.”

In that latter chart – almost the last of the sixties – we also find “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac. A year after “Albatross” and Peter Green is clearly troubled. But the elements which turn up on Chill Out are those of the seldom-played “Part II” – the slow, patient guitar adagio with eventual Morricone-type orchestrations, from the album which helped give Then Play Long its name. As with some of Derek Raymond’s protagonists, one gets the feeling that Green is approaching his willed burnout, his end (and yet, at the time of writing, everybody involved in that record is still alive and well!).

But the aura here is increasingly troublesome. Also from 1969 we hear, in the distance, Elvis with “In The Ghetto,” and I am back in my orange sunlit bedroom, lying on my bed and listening to Fluff Freeman counting down that week’s charts, absorbing what is going on and attempting to make some kind of sense out of it before dinner is ready. The lost Elvis, or the Elvis who temporarily found himself before becoming lost again, singing a song of loss, about losing even by being born (Bobby Womack plays the guitar) – the lost past, coming back into focus. Other interjections, such as the repeated “After the love has gone,” come from a Boy George record (“After The Love” by Jesus Loves You), remind us that somewhere it is turning into the nineties.

There, however, unmistakeably coming into view, the source of all the pain – “Stranger On The Shore,” a hit record before I existed and one of the first pieces of music I learned to play. The tune was not specifically written for a children’s television series – it was initially called “Jenny” in honour of Acker Bilk’s daughter – but was used as the theme to one. Stranger On The Shore was actually about a young French au pair coming over to live and work in Brighton and having to deal with the striking cultural differences (one of its leading actors, Richard Vernon, would later appear in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) but the music far outlived the show’s premise and became a symbol of the wonderful new world that 1962 seemed to promise (prior to the brutal near-quietus in October), a future that promised to be better than the one which people got, and yet the record was also a connecting vessel to the past – the unexpected and ambiguous final chord change suggests “Sleep well, Britain” as surely and uncertainly as Mantovani’s “The Theme From Moulin Rouge” had done nine years before.

“Stranger” was also heard on the Apollo 10 lunar module and perhaps its reappearance on Chill Out signifies a marooned satellite, doomed to orbit around our sky forever. But this is largely a story of pop without the rock ‘n’ roll – until right at the end, when we hear a looped guitar figure which turns out to be a sample of “Eruption” from the first Van Halen album – Van fans will know that this segues straight into their “You Really Got Me” – which in 1978 was the nearest most of America got to “punk rock.” Above them we hear the reassuring tones of Tommy Vance – “Rock radio…into the nineties…and beyond…”

But wait! Tommy Vance? Out here on the Gulf Coast? And what are those Tuvan throat singers doing there…and when did we hear sheep in the Deep South? The cover betrays more than it thinks you know, for towards the end of the album, although we still hear interjections from, inter alia, Jerome Moross’ theme to The Big Country, we also hear the sound of a very un-American rain and windscreen wipers – and we realise that it has become dull and overcast and that we have been in grim-up-north-and-south Britain all the time. The incremental autumn is as unexpected and moving as the second side of New Gold Dream. The journey moves on, but at an increasing distance, as though the disappearing world were saying goodbye.

In retrospect, it is probably best to view Boney M as an art project. Here is a world where the base matter of pop music – be it “No Woman No Cry” or “Heart Of Gold” or “My Cherie Amour” or “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” or even “Dreadlock Holiday” – is treated as a catalyst for commentary on pop music. The concept probably rocked better than the reality, but from “Nightflight To Venus” onwards there was this obsession of escaping the world, the planet – and a few years later in the eighties something like “Exodus (Noah’s Ark 2001)” will reinforce this urge.

Boney M – a group whose backing musicians once included Michael Cretu – were, as far as Britain was concerned, on a dying fall in 1981. An album with the unwieldy title of Boonoonoonoos was recorded, but by the time of its release Bobby Farrell – effectively the mouthpiece of the group’s creator Frank Farian, in a Charlie McCarthy sense – had left or been fired (depending on whose story you believe) with no meaningful group left to promote the record.

No doubt “We Kill The World (Don’t Kill The World),” released in November 1981, had its eye on a late Christmas number one, but it wasn’t to be – without promotion and with the single too long for regular radio airplay, it stalled at #39, and the group did not register another original single in our Top 40 thereafter. The song comes in two parts – the first begins with some odd, deep electronic thunderclaps, and then Farian’s voice of bass doom enters: “I see mushrooms. Atomic mushrooms. I see rockets. Missiles in the sky.” It could almost be Killing Joke.

The music builds up and then breaks into…an early Bucks Fizz trot. The singers bark out protests against the destruction of nature, etc. before a curiously uplifting-sounding chorus. This carries on for a bit before it stops dead, and then a child’s voice, having some problems with pitching, enters with a plaintive “Don’t kill the world” plea. He is joined by a children’s choir – actually it was just two singers, Brian Paul and Brian Sletten, plus lots of overdubbing and then we get into a “We Are The World”-anticipating handclap hymn song.

One understands what Farian is trying to achieve here, but the English-is-not-one’s-first-language trope is harder to overlook than Abba or Kraftwerk. “Do not destroy basic ground,” “Don’t just talk/Go on and do the one,” “Pollution robs air to breathe” – there is a fumbling sense to all of this which is quite touching but the production holds back too much, the rock guitar stays in the background and aesthetic salvation isn’t quite attained. “The Land Of Make Believe,” which Bucks Fizz released in the same month and which went to number one in the New Year, is much tougher, scarier (there is no real happy ending) and overall hipper. Nonetheless, this is one of the roads which leads to Enigma – an artefact whose religion isn’t holy, whose sex isn’t sexy, whose music is more wallpaper than music. Ultimately Enigma failed because its creator couldn’t keep his eyes off the mirror. Coil at least endeavour to trespass and question, and even have some worthwhile fun in the process. But if you want to know why the world shouldn’t be killed, in the last two seconds when you might only have time to notice the sirens sounding, then Chill Out – of all artefacts! – best maps out the reasons why it, and life, and progression and punctum, might still matter. We simply have to reach out – and find our ways of listening.


Thursday 17 November 2016

MADONNA: The Immaculate Collection

(#416; 24 November  1990; 9 weeks)

Track listing:  Holiday/Lucky Star/Borderline/Like A Virgin/Material Girl/Crazy For You/Into The Groove/Live To Tell/Papa Don’t Preach/Open Your Heart/La Isla Bonita/Like A Prayer/Express Yourself/Cherish/Vogue/Justify My Love/Rescue Me

"Sometimes, though, you want something more:  work so intense and compelling you will risk chaos to get close to it, music that smashes through a world that for all of its desolation may be taking on too many comforts of familiarity.  Sly created a moment of lucidity in the midst of all the obvious negatives and the false, faked hopes; he made his despair mean something in the midst of despair it is all too easy to think may mean nothing at all.  He was clearing away the cultural and political debris that seemed piled up in mounds on the streets, in the papers, in the record stores; for all of the darkness of what he had to say and how he said it, his music had the kind of strength and the naked honesty that could make you want to start over."

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, pg. 89

The shock.  The loss.  It has been a hard few days now, with more, I know, to come; and the immediate response here was to be alienated, utterly, from music.  The ocean of sound was silent, waveless; or even if it did have waves, I was too numb or worried or angry to be able to hear them. 

A shock like this (if indeed you experienced it as shock, and not sad confirmation) can throw you off of a lot of things, but for me it brought into almost unbearable contrast what Marcus talks about here – there is lucid music, music that helps in one way or another, and there is mere entertainment that gets washed away in the aftermath.  Music becomes, everything becomes, terribly personal, but also bigger than life.  New ties are forged, alliances made, tentative uneasy things are now impossible.  Everything is in a new light. 

I was part of something like this once, on a personal level, and while I won’t go into details – it is the feeling here that counts – I recall enough of it to remember the embarrassment, the trickle of details that became upon my questioning a flood.  I wasn’t supposed to know about any of it, presumably until after the event.  My ignorance was required because my loyalty was to the person who really wasn’t supposed to know.  I was not just uninvited; I was not trusted, nor was the person trusted.  Suddenly all became clear, and I wondered, had I not been there that night, who would have told me. 

But the upshot was, there were people there, and I wasn’t one of them.  Us vs. Them.  The disdain of the ultimate Us over all the others. Supposed unity becoming  disunity, disarray.  The only way out is to say, out loud even, “Well now I know” and not be intimidated, should the time come and you see that ultimate Us again.  But you do see those who, if you had met them, would have said nothing, very differently.  And they respond, by not even replying to a hello, or being friendly themselves.  Because you are, in whatever social order is left, beneath them.  Maybe you always were, in their eyes. 

In the face of this, writing about Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is difficult.  Perhaps for some it meets Marcus’ qualities of toughness and naked honesty, but listening to her remixed greatest hits does not help with my engagement with the world.  She is not able to speak to me, and then I realized not quite blithely that for the most part even back when these songs were new, she wasn’t really speaking to me.  I was not a Madonna fan in the '80s/'90s apart from a few songs, ones where I felt she actually was feeling something and seemed to be speaking from some personal experience.   The fact that this is the best-selling album in 1990 in the UK or her biggest album period worldwide is interesting, but doesn’t really matter to me here; however I will look at it long enough to perhaps figure out why.

The liner notes, by Gene Sculatti, are pure praise the entire way; mysteriously, he has written them in such a way to enthuse endlessly about her, without actually telling the reader that this is a bunch of remixes and as such the remixes don’t do much for the songs except make you want to hear the originals again.  I am under the impression that he was given a list of songs, a word count and a deadline, or maybe he did know and didn’t bother to tell the reader, as fundamentally it wouldn’t matter anyway.  Look at the cover; she is not there – she whose face was ubiquitous, not there.  (There are plenty of the equally ubiquitous Herb Ritts photos inside, where she looks like a glammed up Chico Marx, or perhaps Pinocchio.)  She is Brand Madonna now and does not need to put her face on this collection. 

Sculatti defends True Blue, he burbles on about “Hot” radio formats (mentioning Shannon’s immortal “Let The Music Play” which just makes me want to listen to it, and not this).  He mentions how “Vogue” was originally supposed to end the album, but two new songs finish it instead; I will get to those in a moment.  What is more interesting to me is one of the quotes (unattributed) that starts the piece: “an outrageous blend of Little Orphan Annie, Margaret Thatcher and Mae West...”

Oh I see.

It has suddenly hit me that the cover of The Face – the one for January 1990, with the '80s summed up as half-Madonna, half-Thatcher – is accurate, depressingly so.  So many girls grew up at this time admiring both (and boys as well) that any subversiveness that Madonna may be trying out there, any defiant gestures, get swept away by  the notion that She Who Must Be Obeyed isn’t just Thatcher, but Madonna herself.  Only one song on this album is addressed to girls, and that’s “Express Yourself” (even here she a gym teacher).  Sculatti complains that when Madonna got the cover of TIME and was questioned about things, no one asked her about music.  I felt like hitting my head against the nearest blunt object.  Madonna is a musician and songwriter, sure, but she was just as much a sizzling look at the time; fashionistas loved her and still do, in part because of that She Who Must Be Obeyed business as anything else.*  Clearly if you like that kind of woman, then here she is; but if not, not.  But I cannot ignore the fact that when Thatcher was made to step down from her position as Prime Minister**, this was the number one album.  The end of an era?  How many bought this for the new songs, or bought it out of some intense hit of nostalgia?  After all, this album sums up that go-get-‘em “hard-hitting” '80s spirit perfectly well, as Madonna – and this isn’t mentioned – just rolled up her sleeves and ACHIEVED and had a tumultuous marriage and made some terrible movies but TRIUMPHED IN THE END and then spent 1990 making one bossy single after another.  People love that kind of story too, and hence, big sales.

If she wasn’t appropriating the voguing scene for her own ends (the voguing scene is still a thing, by the way) she was taking a song by Lenny Kravitz (credited) and Ingrid Chavez (not credited, though eventually she was) and adding a few words to make “Justify My Love.”  Madonna as spectacle; Madonna as a woman in a perfume ad-style video, intoning the words and trying her best to be all sexy...does it still work?  I am not sure.  It is tough to see this song as sexy when the lyrics are all about what she wants to do, lyrics that seem to assume the one being addressed is a hapless male who will fall for something as repulsive and clunky as “tell me your dreams, am I in them?”  I can sense Camille Paglia*** and a whole host of other feminists talking about turning the tables on male objectification (well, maybe not Paglia, come to think of it, though she was obsessed with Madonna) and the whole strong-female-demanding-pleasure-and-not-feeling-guilty-about-it thing, but in the end “Justify My Love” is still a song with a woman demanding love (like “Open Your Heart” with an R rating), but we never find out what he thinks, reacts or feels.  Ultimately it is a song to the listener – there is no Other.  She demands, but that is not enough.

“Rescue Me” is also a song of demands, one where Madonna goes on and on about how difficult she is, like a European heiress in New York who is looking for someone very special, darling:  she is “silly” and “weak” but also “ferocious.”  How ferocious, you might ask?  To this possible Other she can say “With you I’m not a fascist.”   Well now.  What does this mean?  She has an “angry little heart” (immediately I think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) and this Other can “forgive” this heart.  He can also bring her to her knees “while I’m scratching out the eyes”**** of a world “I want to conquer and deliver and despise.”  Oh, that kind of fascism.  Yes, I can see why so many Thatcherkids were Madonna fans; Thatcher wanted (as far as I can tell) some sort of world where society didn’t exist, but Proud Individuals did; and here is Madonna, Proud Individual, demanding that a man indulge even her worst excesses.  She wants another Proud Individual to care for her (interestingly she doesn’t care if he is “good” for her, just that her understands her and loves her for herself).  I think anyone could have told her this is no way to get a new boyfriend, let alone husband, and just about anyone reading the lyrics here will already know Madonna is pretentious but almost literally impossible to be with....and so the album ends, starting out so innocently with “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” and ending with a woman admitting that she has no ability to get herself out of her mess, that she must be rescued, which is not exactly what a “hard-hitting” woman is supposed to be saying.  Is it? Oh, but she has so much so wealthy and She Who Must Be Obeyed...then this must be okay, right?

Is there anything left to say?  Madonna wrote her best songs here with Patrick Leonard (the title track and “Cherish” from Like A Prayer).  There is, on the cassette, a big blank space at the end of side one that shouldn’t be there – it could have been used for “Angel” or “Everybody.”   And yes, it is the end of an era; the liminal period for Madonna is a difficult one, and she comes out of it as an Official Pop Star who has no time for what is about to happen.  A part of Madonna is stuck in the 80s, or you could say her persistent Catholic symbols are also part of her brand.  And her impact is huge; this album is that impact in audio terms, but there’s a whole world of fashion, videos, movies and  live performances that compounds it.  Are the songs good?  I wish I could say that now I get them, now I understand, but I have not been able to; in high school I didn’t sense they were for me, and I don’t feel it now, either.

And after such a loss, I can’t really take any comfort from this, even though she campaigned for the right side, up to the end. 

Oh wait another minute.  Was “Justify My Love” kind of....pointing to Public Enemy?  Well, in that case...let us ride The Immaculate Collection into 1991, where it’s #1 at the start of the Gulf War, and look forward to....

The sound of thunder; and a deep voice comes out and says:  “The Future Holds Nothing Else But Confrontation.”  A droning noise straight out of shoegaze, looking to beginning grime; and the drums and Chuck D and so many bits of samples and scratches that they scatter around like a popcorn machine going full tilt.  “Lost At Birth” is a reclamation, after much strife; Public Enemy are about the cause “we’re all in the same game.”  Not just Proud Individuals here, but also and especially Proud and Strong Unities. And if you’re down with PE, then they are down with you.

“Now the KKK are wearing three-piece suits.”

This is what I needed to hear, after such a loss.  And it is RELENTLESS.  I cannot even keep up with them, it is next to useless; there is a momentum to this album that is exactly what Marcus is talking about.  Here is naked honesty, tons of energy, more than enough to get the listener to keep going, no not just keep going but to actively do something, to educate themselves.  “Can’t Truss It” presents slavery and oppression that is “inconceivable” and yet unnervingly still present. Have times changed all that much?

“The story I’m kicking is Goree.”  “Yipes.”  Ofra Haza.  This is music that sets music free; endless possibilities and beats and messages are here.  “Lyrical Content May Offend!” says the sticker on the cassette, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga” is pure Lenny Bruce in a way Bruce could never be; conversational, blunt, funny (it is Flavor Flav).   But can PE’s message be heard?  Not according to “How To Kill A Radio Consultant” (PE are taking NO PRISONERS).  But the interlude – Chuck D telling like it is, looking at the church and liquor store as equal foes of the neighbourhood – is depressingly familiar. 

Eventually PE just give up on being played on the radio.  “I can’t live without my radio!”

And now a song about...well, about the “psychological discomfort” that is there and still there. “ByThe Time I Get To Arizona” is about Martin Luther King Jr., about jails, about the desert – “what’s a smiling face, when the whole state’s racist?”  “The same old ways that kept us dying.”  All to  something that sounds like Sly alright.  BUT THEN THE SCREAMS OF THE CROWD!  The loop of excitement.  “Talkin’ MLK, gonna find a way...This ain’t no damn dream.”  “The hard boulevard I need it now more than ever.”  Reparations, anyone?  One day is just the start. *****

Some critics think that the second side isn’t as good as the first.  Cough.

“See, the black race can’t afford you no more.”  What is “Move” about?  “I’d rather rush a television reporter.”  And it’s about speed, about the truth, “I’d rather spend my time spitting on a bigot.”  What is the truth?  Who has the money?  “If you ain’t with the program....”   “This is a new day!”  Countdown to a new world, where PE still exist despite so many people who would like them to quietly go away.  “’91 PE in full effect.”


“1 Million Bottlebags” goes back to the world of liquor stores, advertising and the inordinate amount of it aimed at the black consumers in the US – “slaves to the liquorman!”  Flavor Flav is trying to get a man to stop drinking his 40 – “another gun to the brain.”  This is like an update of “The Bottle” by Gil Scott-Heron.  Profit and greed....

“They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”   

“IIIIII Didn’t Die Right.....IIIIIII Didn’t Dieeee Right” sings Flavor Flav, doing a bad David Bowie (perhaps).  “More News at 11” brings in Harry Allen, Media Assassin.  Don’t believe the hype, part two...

A lot of rumors refuted....

“Shut ‘Em Down” is a particular fave of mine, because Chuck D says something like “Ted Hughes, gettin’ me sued” even though he doesn’t.  That aside, it’s about economics, the truth, and shutting down....oh come on now, how could I not mention this....

“Fashion Week and it’s Shut Down, Went To The Show Sitting In The Front Row in A Black Tracksuit and it’s SHUT DOWN” – yes, Skepta, he knows what this about...just slow it down to a rough funk...

“We spend money to no end, looking for a friend.”  Stop Funding Hate.  Stop Voting For Politicians Who Don’t Care For You. 

And now, a friendly word from your local KKK – Bernie Crosshouse, who is pleased to see “gangs, hoodlums, drug pushers and users” destroying black communities, so he doesn’t have to.  All with country violins and yahoos and hollers in the background.  Yeah, and who did a lot of country stars vote for?  My question, and I don’t know if it can be answered.  Unfortunately, I can’t ignore such things.....

“A Letter To the New York Post” is perhaps what those critics objected to;  both the Post and Jet get it in the neck; “it always seems they make our neighborhood look bad.”  You can hear Chuck D’s glee in getting his own back, and Flavor Flav as well; so much controversy had been around PE that they had to take (or not)....

“Get The F--- Outta  Dodge” is about Chuck D driving somewhere in the South, getting pulled over by the cops and being told to turn down his radio – and drove out as soon as he could...then being pulled over again in NYC, because he was driving a pick-up truck.  Then the rookie raps, eager to shoot, eager to arrest.  Lest we forget, this album comes at a time when the L.A. Riots are mere months away....

As gravy, the glorious return of “Bring Tha Noize (w/Anthrax)” which is just as rocking and joyful and OH YES as “Rock Box” was back in the day.  Anthrax yell, rap, rock and the Golden Age of Musical Understanding is happening, oh YEAAAAAAAAAAAH BOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.

And then back to the tough “hear the drummer get wicked” loop, and the ending, a wordless tough beat, as if they are moving way ahead of “Justify My Love” to something more inclusive, more responsive, though just as demanding, in its own way. 

Yes, this is the music Marcus meant; the focus is sharper, the angles more acute, but this is the point – this music does not draw back or flinch, and it gives the listener a lot to think about, to get angry about, and a kind of propelling oomph that gives hope and determination, that possibly may even unify.

And now, to the present, and two Canadian albums of note:

One quality of There’s A Riot Goin’ On That Marcus talks about is the fact that not everything is very clear, that there is a sense you have to lean into the album to really get it.  Brendan Canning’s album Home Wrecking Years comes closest to the eerie and yet familiar feelings I get when I hear Riot; it doesn’t have the same menace, but the more you listen to it, the more obvious it is that there are stories galore in it, enough to build a whole novel out of, I suspect.  And there is a languor about it that threw early reviewers off, who just heard another summertime-fine  laid-back Brendan Canning album.  It is that, but the complicated thing is, it’s telling a story of deceit and betrayal, cheating and being caught, as well.  All the qualities of Canning’s voice work well here – he is close to you, very quiet at times, and you have to listen intently, crouch down, to get what he is saying.  I don’t know how much of what he is singing about is from him, from his friends, how much is autobiographical or if it is made up.  But it doesn’t matter, as it feels genuine and all the language of “Vibration Walls” and “Keystone Dealers” is at once normal and just weird/creepy, and by the  time he sings about “I found us some cheap seats in the balcony” you know something very wrong is happening, yet the music is gentle and spaced-out...

...that is, until it gets to “Nashville Late Pass.”  I don’t care if this is just music that he jammed with his band to, this about being caught out, about the pause between the knowledge and the reaction, about the awkwardness and the words may be “accidents, they will happen” but Justin Peroff’s drumming lets you know the thunderous reactions, the explosion, the music roars along and everything is being connected, falling into place.  There is nowhere to hide.  It skips and starts, it is anything but laid back.  Canning becomes almost inaudible, as the music just takes OVER and then stops, cutting off suddenly, like a door being slammed shut.

 The songs are different afterwards – “Work Out In The Wash” is about guilt, using others, taking off clothes....there is a resigned quality to this, as if he knows it’s over but is going to act normal until something is figured out.  So it sounds a lot happier than it is....”keep it coming, love”....”Money Mark” is so much a song about things going downhill, as the bass does.  A knot is being undone musically, and she sings “you’re the young gun anyway.”  How many relationships are falling apart here?  Hard to tell, but it’s happening.  “So long to the innocent comes the evening train, goodnight.”  And so the train pulls away, the tracks and train making the noise “money mark, money mark, money mark...”

“Sleeping Birds Like Lasers” is about that quiet moment when things are said.  “No more room in the spotlight....can we stop at this next light....okay, want me to....”  Or is it “you want me too”?  But I think it must be “you want me to go...” The fact of going is too awful to say. (You see how complicated this album is.)  The song clatters along uneasily, breath heavy and drawing in slowly.  It is over.

“Baby’s Going Her Own Way” is self-explanatory, save for the fact the narrator is asking her not to leave, now.  And yet is sounds upbeat, settled.  Everything is on an even keel again.  Who is this Anna in this song?  Yet another girl?  (There’s an earlier song called “Hey Marika, Get Born.”) But no matter what the narrator says, she is going and not coming back.  Even a “I’m sorry” doesn’t work.  So he turns mean, says she will “fade away” if she goes.  And the bass gulps like a thirsty person, and the guitars and drums gently disappear...

For an album which is essentially – as far as I can tell – just an example of what Canning and his touring band can do, this is a remarkable album and not one that has had much if any coverage in the UK at all.  I only found it by accident a month after it was supposed to appear, tucked away in a mall I’d never been to before. Now, I realize it might annoy some people that this album asks you to listen and make up a narrative, but it is therefore making you participate in its meaning – you can  become part of the album if you wish, and if you’ve lived in Toronto then its easy to think of all this taking place over one hot, humid summer, and resolving in the cool of autumn, when sleep is easier...

It was always the plan. Patrick Leonard had worked with Madonna, so of course Leonard Cohen had to be included.  It was only right.  I hardly know what to write here.  I tweeted about Montreal, the river, the bridges, the languages.  Cohen knew he was coming to the end,  that he had to look back to Montreal again, to Greece, to the synagogue where he first heard music.  The whole sweep of so many places and people.  Patrick Leonard does right by him, giving his knowing, bleakly funny at times writing the gentlest and most understanding of frames, and Adam Cohen deserves our thanks for encouraging his father and making this album possible in the first place.  It can seem depressing at first – the darkness, equal to Sly Stone’s darkness – but Cohen wishes the listener well, and longs for love and peace, actual love, genuine peace.  This was also good to hear, after the loss.  He is leaving, he knows things are inconsequential to him – but then how much truly is consequential in actual lived life?   

Truth will out; time will tell what it is that counts.  Cliches?  Maybe, but Cohen stickhandles around these things very slowly and surely, as if he is showing us a map and noting places, dangers, decisions.  This is his life; this is his wisdom, this in his way is his Unpopular Solutions.  He is “out of the game” but still watching and able to comment; the old player who sees that the game may have appeared to change superficially, but really hasn’t at all.   Cohen knows in a way that can be utterly trusted, and you don’t have to risk anything to reach it, other than looking to the world with more intention, of being more mindful.  Unlike Canning, you know what Cohen is saying, there are no complex narratives that could be rewritten with each new hearing.  Cohen is setting it out straight, to meditate upon, giving the listener just enough before going.  It is as if he is giving us this one last time, as close as he can be, as accurate as he can call it.

And so I return to Madonna and wonder if she could do this, with Patrick Leonard’s help.  Hmm.  We shall see.  It is 1991 now, the palindromic year, and as Cohen writes the songs for The Future (including the ever-hopeful “Democracy”)  and the liminal period is reaching its peak.  Anything is possible, or so it seems.... 

*”I love the way that she clearly enjoys her clothes, and that she’s this very hard-hitting, tough seeming person.  She holds her own in a man’s world and she’s doesn’t want to be granted any favours because she’s a woman.  But at the same time she had really great red nail polish on when she opened the Tory party conference, and lipstick.” – UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman on Theresa May, ES magazine, October 21, 2016 The same things could have been said about Thatcher, and certainly are about Madonna.

** Alan Clark:  “You’re fucked, you know that?”  Margaret Thatcher:  “Oh, Alan.”

***Honest to God, the only time I’m going to mention her here. The split face thing The Face did with Thatcher and Madonna is also there  (this time it’s Emily Dickinson and Nefertiti ) on the cover of her most famous book, Sexual Personae. 

****Considering how much endless looking into eyes Madonna sang about in the early 80s, this signifies that she is all done with looking into eyes and trying to understand people, I guess.

*****When PE were the support act for U2 on their ’92 tour, they played this song in Arizona as the last song in their set.  Chuck D was a bit nervous about doing it, but at Bono’s insistence he did.  I can only assume U2 went on to do a storming “Pride (In The Name Of Love).”  Considering how controversial the video was, it was brave of both of them.