Friday, 30 April 2021

ELASTICA: Elastica

 


(#522: 25 March 1995, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Line Up/Annie/Connection/Car Song/Smile/Hold Me Now/S.O.F.T./Indian Song/Blue/All-Nighter/Waking Up/2.1/Vaseline/Never Here/Stutter

 

Elastica’s first album came out in the same week as The Bends by Radiohead and Everything Is Wrong by Moby. I bought all three on Walkman-friendly cassette from Oxford Circus HMV at the same sitting but Elastica is the only one being written about here, and in common with the other two, and in pointed contrast to most of the rest of “Britpop,” it meant something in America, where, as here, it went gold.

 

I am not really bothered about the exhaustingly-documented underlying story; who did what to, with and/or against whom. What I care about infinitely more is the band’s music. Lena, as ever, got it right when she mentioned the school-age eagerness which penetrates all the way through Art Brut’s “Formed A Band,” and there is plenty of the same fizzy avidity about the younger Elastica. They crunch their way through fifteen songs in just over thirty-eight minutes because – well, look at us, they’re exclaiming; we’ve formed a band, this is what we do, what do you think, isn’t it fun?

 

(It may be that these were the only fifteen songs they had in their repertoire – “See That Animal,” which materialises in the midst of the U.S. edition of the album, is problematic, given the identity of at least one of its authors.)

 

Yes, it was bloody exhilarating to have a slam-pack indiepop album on an independent label at number one, much more so than if it had puttered out in 1992 and sold in its dozens. It represented a much-needed clearing-out of somewhat stale air. “Stutter,” the band’s first single and this album’s concluding song, remains their apex, seemingly recorded in somebody’s garage on a 1974 Philips mono cassette recorder, Justin Welch’s drums and cymbals chirping like newborn crickets, Justine Frischmann and Donna Matthews’ guitars snapping through the barbed wire cynicism like kissable alligators. They play the song as though they only have two-and-a-half minutes left to exist, hence its hectic and ultimately welcoming urgency.

 

The Camden Town Good Music Society – and certain music business lawyers – were quick to bite with the decayed molars of poorly-received knowledge, and missed the point entirely (the subtext was: who do these upstart women think they are – Springsteen?). There are Wire, the Stranglers and Blondie for all to see but also a tower of other unexpected influences. The scarcely-restrained sexuality of Elastica’s work – they made British indie sexy again, or perhaps for the first (and only?) time – is based on a luscious loucheness which stems in part from Lynsey de Paul (if you can get past its thoroughly non-PC lyrics, imagine the band covering “Getting A Drag”) and in great part from a host of “alternative” names more spoken about than listened to.

 

For instance, the wham-bam rapid sequencing of hit after hit puts us immediately in mind of Pixies (their best manifestation, i.e. Kim-dominant) as well as less ostensibly showy but equally penetrating bands (in particular, Veruca Salt, who at the time were specialising in exactly the same sort of stop/start/go-gone girl bop). There is an obvious Nirvana influence (“Annie”), although “S.O.F.T.” (“Same Old Fucking Things,” since you didn’t ask) experiments with its “Heart-Shaped Box” thrust and comes out somewhere in the region of…Suede. I also note how the (sampled?) deep vocal grunts of “Connection” recur, albeit mutated, in Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” four years hence.

 

A lot of it sounds like Blur – unsurprisingly so, since “Dan Abnormal” turns up to contribute keyboard riffs on three of these songs – but, and possibly on purpose, a Graham Coxon-dominant Blur; “Annie” would also pass as a demo for “Song 2.” Only two songs exceed three minutes, the longer of which, “Never Here,” must be one of the bitterest and most rancorous songs to emerge in this era, whoever its target. Then again, this album isn’t just about Justine, especially when the first voice you hear on it is that of Donna.

 

I am direly aware that many of these songs are responded to and indeed deliberately referred to in subsequent number one albums by another band, one of which occurs later in 1995. I am further cognisant that the quickfire appeal of Elastica was succeeded by a fairly grim five-year silence and that by the time The Menace – a buried gem – emerged, most had forgotten who they had been.

 

Unlike Veruca Salt, however – but quite like Blondie, the Stranglers and Wire – my feeling is that Elastica were primarily an art project. There is a certain detachment in Frischmann’s delivery and the band’s overall stride which heavily imply the involvement of inverted commas, as well as the record's subtle acknowledgement of the avant-garde (the Solex-via-OMD harmonic clusters of discordancy cascading along the spine of "Car Song," the free improv fumbles decorating "S.O.F.T."). All to the good, since British pop without art would still be marooned in the Craig Douglas tollbooth. There was, at the time, some concern about whether Elastica, the band, would rapidly fall out of date. Perhaps the concept has dated beyond retrieval. But Elastica, the album, remains an enthralling perfume pump of punk-pop, and we should all still be glad that its monochrome and red curtains put paid to staid.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Annie LENNOX: Medusa


 

(#521: 18 March 1995, 1 week)

 

Track listing: No More ‘I Love You’s/Take Me To The River/A Whiter Shade Of Pale/Don’t Let It Bring You Down/Train In Vain/I Can’t Get Next To You/Downtown Lights/Thin Line Between Love And Hate/Waiting In Vain/Something So Right

 

In her brief liner note to this album of upholstered covers, Lennox is at pains to point out the absence of “any particular theme or concept” in her choice of songs to interpret, but that may strike you as disingenuous. I sense a very careful and deliberate architecture to both the choice and the sequencing of these ten songs, where “Train In Vain” gives way to “Waiting In Vain.”

 

This is not to say that the music here is remotely thrilling or enticing. It sounds professionally glossy – Anne Dudley, Marius de Vries and co. are all opulently present – but centreless. Her “Downtown Lights” is as foreseeable a failure as Tina Turner’s “Unfinished Sympathy” would later prove to be, even though it is probably the one song of these ten which Lennox was absolutely clear about wanting to sing; however, this Aberdonian can’t do Glaswegian, and the song makes no sense if Paul Buchanan isn’t singing it and the music isn’t breathing out from behind, or possibly from within, him. Likewise, despite her protestations about being a Scot attempting to sing Al Green, we should recall that a man born in Dumbarton – David Byrne – took us to a related but entirely different river, which Lennox here simply cannot do.

 

In parallel similarity, her reharmonising of “I Can’t Get Next To You” is rather ingenious, but dehydrated in comparison with Al Green’s drastic gospel reworking, which draws out the Biblical mythology underlying the song. As for Neil Young, you’d never imagine that this amiable gambol through contemporary societal apocalypse were anything more than Rough Guide tourism.

 

At times, Medusa does become intriguing. If Mick Jones wrote “Train In Vain” as a rather petulant break-up song about Viv Albertine, Lennox slows it right down and turns its serial, rhetorically negatory “stand by me”s into modestly bloodied, accusatory spite – some ghosts had clearly not been fully exorcised. The Clash original (which was not left off the track listing on the sleeve of London Calling to deter possible punk purist embarrassment, but because the song was only added to the record after the album artwork had gone to the printers – it was originally intended for an free NME flexidisc, which idea, for some long-forgotten reason, fell through) was produced by Guy Stevens, who not only gave Procol Harum their name but was also the primary inspiration for their most famous song.

 

Ah yes, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” that unlikely marriage of Bach and Percy Sledge – one can imagine the group still being The Paramounts, on the stage of some long-abandoned, empty but still neon-lit ballroom, performing “When A Man Loves A Woman” with so much echo on the organ that it sounds like a hymn – which in its time seemingly drifted in from nowhere; the North Sea of the pirate ships which played the record, the Southend-on-Sea from which the band came, the greying coast of Aberdeen where the twelve-year-old Annie Lennox heard it and maybe realised that she had to escape.

 

And yet, if “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” has a direct descendant (that is, if you do not count the waves which spread across the Atlantic to Jamaica and finally influenced Bob Marley to write “No Woman, No Cry”), it is “Party Fears Two” by the Associates. A deliberately oblique song title and lyric whose only recognisable hook is an instrumental keyboard pattern which sounded like absolutely nothing else at the time and which song appears to be about someone getting drunk, or stoned, at a party and failing miserably to chat up a girl.

 

But “Whiter Shade” drifted into the world as imperiously as pop’s premier ghost ship, and I find the Top Of The Pops performance of the song intolerably moving, particularly in the current context – look at the audience, and think of the time when we can all dance again:

 


 

Lennox’s reading doesn’t amplify any of that mystery (although I would be exceptionally interested to hear her “Party Fears Two”). Perhaps the greatest service that Medusa provides – although, given that the album sold six million copies worldwide, 600,000 of which were sold in Britain, I expect that the Blue Nile were very happy with the royalty cheques – is to make David Freeman and Joseph Hughes, the authors of “No More I Love ‘You’s,” properly recognised. Little wonder that this was Medusa’s lead single, since it is the song to which Lennox sounds most sheerly committed.

 

Freeman and Hughes recorded the song under the umbrella name of The Lover Speaks. It was inspired by elements of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, but their reading sounded rather formal and fidgety next to the breezy naturalness of Martin Fry or Green Gartside. As a Jimmy Iovine-produced single, it received modest critical acclaim and fairly heavy radio play but ended up not being much of a hit, despite being released on two separate occasions. Lennox regarded this as gross neglection and sought to put things right with her reading – she does manage to draw out the realisation that this is not a lament of a song, but rather a polite proclamation of liberation; no more bullshit, no more pretending that something is working when it manifestly isn’t. The song cries, hurrah, I am FREE, and Lennox appends the inevitable exclamation mark successfully.

 

Her reading of “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” is striking, and sinister, as indeed was the Persuasions’ original with its slow dissolve from suppressed fury disguised as politesse – the “language of love,” if you must – to apocalyptic retribution. Chrissie Hynde took the song one step further and sang it from the perspective of an angrily amused third party. But Lennox performs the song as though she herself is the revenging protagonist, that she is the one who has almost killed this shit of a man – and her improvised additions in the song’s coda are brutal. “C’mon,” she taunts. “C’mon, baby, baby – you don’t give a damn about me…you don’t really care about me.” Rage has boiled over and it is payback time.

 

This catharsis is succeeded by a strange but logical and rational sense of peace – and, more importantly, the closing song bookends the opening one. “Something So Right,” a song about how some people find it impossible to say the words “I love you,” and how consequently it takes “a little time to get next to me.” It sums up the rest of the album so rationally and benignly, as though to proclaim; the hurt is done, all is now resolved, it’s over it’s over nineties albums of autobiographically-retooled covers by eighties stars no more I know.


 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Bruce SPRINGSTEEN: Greatest Hits


 

 

(#520: 11 March 1995, 1 week; 15 April 1995, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Born To Run/Thunder Road/Badlands/The River/Hungry Heart/Atlantic City/Dancing In The Dark/Born In The U.S.A./My Hometown/Glory Days/Brilliant Disguise/Human Touch/Better Days/Streets Of Philadelphia/Secret Garden/Murder Incorporated/Blood Brothers/This Hard Land

 

I was born in Dennistoun, in the East End of Glasgow, and grew up in the superficially more prosperous suburb of Uddingston, surrounded by people who for the most part thought, acted and behaved as though it were still the nineteenth century. Fear, sin and reprisal ruled like three forks of behavioural acid. My mother, who was Italian, loved and scolded, and the two were always symbiotic. My Glaswegian father taught me a lot of lessons in both good and bad ways. I had visions of the type of life I wanted to live, and at an absurdly early age – there are 1965 press cuttings from the Scottish Daily Record which will confirm this – I fell under the spell of music. Literature, art, theatre and cinema too; but primarily, it was music which tempted and guided me.

 

One feels this passion more pressingly and palpably when you are in an environment which would seem to offer you no scope to explore and develop such passion, indeed thrives on suppressing it as harshly as possible. Thus did I slowly slope away from parents and schoolmates, and at weekends explored Glasgow and other places in order to enable me to explore myself more wisely. Unending Saturday afternoons in the Mitchell Library, or Bridge Street Library, near the Gorbals; scanning the racks of record shops and the shelves of bookshops, trying to put together a more compelling portrait of myself, all the while reminding myself with increasing, though still quietened, vigour: “I will be a writer.”

 

Writing was, and is, my talent, my thing, rather than music. So I have to be careful when approaching the premature living statue of Bruce Springsteen because he likewise grew up in a placid dead-end of a town where one obeyed and asked no questions, least of all of oneself, with a mother who adored and worshipped him and a father who…well, we never really know too much about Douglas Springsteen except, like my father, he was an exceptionally unhappy man who I suspect detested his family for steering him away from the life he would have liked to lead – and he also married an Italian. Unlike Douglas Springsteen, my father did not have bipolar disorder or suffer from depression as such; the young Bruce endlessly came home to find his father sitting, in the dark, at the kitchen table, wordless, unreachable, untouchable in the wrongest of ways.

 

It ruptured Bruce, and I am unsure whether he has ever managed to escape that shadow. Over and over in his work, we witness the big, grand gestures, to be swiftly followed by an apologetic retreat to passive pacificity, as though he feels sorry to be viewed or deemed as being so great. He asks you to consider the nature and essence of what might be perceived as “greatness.”

 

For the young Bruce, rock ‘n’ roll was great and everything that preceded it frustrating and swiftly wiped out. What was it like for there to be nothing and then, suddenly, Presley and then The Beatles and then Dylan arise, not to mention a thousand other purply optimistic chance-takers? We’ll never know unless we were there, and even then we’d probably have to be Springsteen. Nobody else, not even Nick Cave, takes on the burden of being rock ‘n’ roll so heavily, yet so willingly.

 

At school he was in a covers band, one of a million, called The Castiles, and then went heavy with a band called Earth, and then a group named Child, which was later renamed Steel Mill; even then, observers and fellow band members knew instinctively who had the ideas and the aura for leadership. Then he came into touch with Mike Appel, and they sought to touch John Hammond and Clive Davis at Columbia Records. What became known as the E Street Band was also stuttering towards a recognisable form.

 

Springsteen initially appealed to Columbia as a potential new Dylan, a solo performer, and so his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973, #41 – but it did not chart at all in the UK until 1985), shuffles uncomfortably between restrained solo songs and loud ensemble pieces, and its two best-known songs, “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night,” were written hastily to placate Davis, who liked the album but heard no hits – Springsteen readily admits that the former was put together with the aid of a rhyming dictionary. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973, #33 – again, not a British hit until 1985) was a little dithering in its timid experimentation but slightly more focused, bearing several early setpieces (“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”). None of this work appears on Greatest Hits but not to mention it would represent a dereliction of duty.

 

It didn’t do Springsteen much good, though. By early 1974 his career seemed to be as tedious and journeyman-like as this piece has been so far, and if a book of this blog were as glumly historical, its publishers wouldn’t be able to give it away with a packet of tea. Columbia Records, by then under different management, appeared to have a similar viewpoint. There were stories of A&R people going around radio stations and record shops demanding that Springsteen’s songs be withdrawn from airplay and sale and replaced with records made by their far more malleable recent signing, Billy Joel.

 

In May of that year, however, Jon Landau went to see him at the Harvard Square Theater and said in Boston’s The Real Paper that he was the future. Appel managed to convince Columbia to give Springsteen another chance; they said he could record a single. It took six months to bring that to fruition, and a total of fourteen months before an album could be released.

 

“Born To Run” was the elastic emancipation of rock fuck-it. Springsteen knew he had to do something better, grander and bolder than he had ever done before, something which sounded as though the preceding twenty years had been leading up to it. I used to think that “Born To Run” was a photocopy of a great pop record, as opposed to the thing itself (actually, no I sodding well didn’t, enough of that smug hindsight bollocks – I loved it; as someone who didn’t really experience Pop History directly, it felt like the previous twenty years of pop ganging up to embrace me. Richard Williams in Melody Maker called it the best pop single since “The Tracks Of My Tears.” And it never got into our charts, kept out by such aesthetic giants as “Fattie Bum Bum,” “Big Ten,” “Can I Take You Home Little Girl” and “Una Paloma Blanca”).

 

However, “Born To Run” did turn out to be the bloodiest of custard pies thrust in the gaily glum face of “American Pie.” Its roar raged like audio leatherlipped Stanley Spencer, all the spirits arising from the tombs of Cookham, and its epic sonics demonstrated that this wall of sound could be constructed from simpler fabric (only to a point, however; the final mixdown involved seventy-two tracks). Springsteen had dropped by Spector’s studio, while in the process of recording the Born To Run album, to see him at work on Dion’s Born To Be With You (the title track of which latter sounded like a gloomily celebratory elegy for rock music – neither record hit big commercially at the time; audiences continued to hunger for more elementary fare). He quietly freaked Spector out, but learned quite a bit about which buttons to push, when and why.

 

Despite its rancorous optimism, “Born To Run” is fundamentally a pessimistic song; its two protagonists are fully aware that they are stuck in the world of nowhere and imagine getting the hell out, though know in their bones that they will never really sum up the nerve to do so. This was not the way to act in a post-sixties climate which still craved easy “yes”es. Born To Run, the album (1975, #17 - although in Britain, it took a decade to reach that peak), documents a day in the life of a degrading city; “Thunder Road” promises escape as surely as “Jungleland” shuts the promise down at schoolmasterly length. In the album’s textures, it appears as not so much a rock record, but a pre-postmodern smorgasbord of rock tropes, giddily quoting from the music’s entire history with the same damn-you brightness in which Daft Punk would subsequently indulge. It is the cautious light to the contained darkness of its blood sister, Patti Smith’s Horses. It is gleeful, insolent and consolatory, and nothing in Springsteen’s previous work had indicated it, just as his entire life had been palpably leading up to it.

 

There was, as I mentioned, some hype, and associated disappointment. Then a legal management dispute with Appel shut him out of the studio for nearly three years; a coincidental backdated tax bill – in all his years of gigging, Springsteen had never given a thought to paying any taxes – meant that he was essentially working to assignment until the 1980 River tour. This may have influenced his subsequent musical thinking, but note that Born To Run already delineated the characteristic Springsteen stance of hurtling towards a future, then guiltily crawling away from it, as though he himself were unworthy of escape.

 

Hence Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978, #14), half-lit, subdued and fiercely pessimistic, the Truman Rock ‘N’ Roll Show; the atypical “Badlands” is the only track to make it to this Greatest Hits collection. Its other, brighter half, The Promise, appeared twenty-two years later (2010, #7). The River (1980, #2), produced during a period of artistic prolificity which necessitated at the very least a double album, sounds more ebullient, but its songs largely remain tragic, and sometimes bloody. “Hungry Heart,” his first major hit single in the USA, and originally intended for The Ramones, sees him driving away from everybody and everything (I note how both “Thunder Road” and “The River” are sung, or growled, in the manner of his unlikely doppelganger Tom Waits).

 

Springsteen began work on Born In The U.S.A. in 1982, but interrupted it to record the determinedly low-key Nebraska (1982, #3), autumnal tales of doomed rebels taped seemingly from another world (only “Atlantic City” reappears here). Then came Born In The U.S.A. itself, a triumphant double-Born screw-you of a pop record, and Springsteen’s finest work – there is still the stench of desperation (“My Hometown”) but the misappropriated rage of the title song – Max Weinberg’s drumming encompassing Clem Burke and Andrew Cyrille - cut a swathe through the smug balladry of its surrounding affluent times. “Glory Days” was a kick in the browning teeth of pub nostalgia, “I’m On Fire” sounded as old and lost as “Mystery Train” (which then was barely thirty years old) and “Dancing In The Dark” appropriated New Pop tactics as its singer searingly pined for his entire self to be erased and redrawn, with its closing quote from Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” – Delbert McClinton’s harmonica on the latter having directly inspired Lennon on “Love Me Do.”

 

By 1985 Springsteen and the E Street Band were as big as they were ever likely to be, and Weinberg for one saw that the heights were unsustainable. The slab that was Live/1975-85 (1986, #4), though highly and controversially selective, was as titanic an irruption into the amiable aortic valves of 1986 as the drum thunder of Tackhead. Then Springsteen pulled back, and back down into the electronic desert of Tunnel Of Love, in which the other band members appeared singularly or hardly at all.

 

The E Street Band took their revised division of labour on that record somewhat badly, and it is perhaps not accidental that one then had to wait five years for another Springsteen album – and then two came at once. Human Touch was the “proper” considered record but left little impact, while Lucky Town (1992, #2), represented here by “Better Days,” was the more “spontaneous” record and perhaps felt “truer” to the artist’s quest – but still leaves me unmoved.

 

There followed a protracted attempt to make a purely electronic album – the distressed post-OMD helicopters of “Streets Of Philadelphia” indicate how that might have sounded – but Columbia convinced him that this was taking the trust of his fans a little too far, and instead this less than satisfactory Greatest Hits album, including four new songs recorded with a regrouped and reluctant-sounding E Street Band, appeared. There is the restless pacificity of “Secret Garden” – the elegant Garbarekian drift of Clemons into its uncomfortably still space is perhaps how a full-band Tunnel Of Love might have sounded. “Murder Incorporated” is would-be ferocious bar band protest, “Blood Brothers” quiet, acoustic and considered, and the harmonica decorating the otherwise humdrum “This Hard Land” suggests he hadn’t yet got past, or over, Mr McClinton. Later in the present year, The Ghost Of Tom Joad’s dozen songs, mostly laments for contemporary sharecroppers and seemingly recorded in a previous century, made people wonder exactly who Springsteen was (#16). Perhaps he still only found himself in the mirror, staring at nothing, as his father had evidently done all too often. This story will, in time, be continued, and possibly renewed.