All entries for August 2005
August 30, 2005
Having written my review of Murmur (below) I was taken to thinking of other influential musical artefacts and came to the conclusion that the Beatles' single Paperback Writer / Rain is quite possibly the most important single ever released. Let me explain why:
Released between Rubber Soul and Revolver this single marked the start of the Beatles ascent into psychedelia. All of their most progressive and inventive music would be created after this point.
This single, particularly the flip side Rain, marked the real beginning of musical experimentation. Although hinted at earlier, the feedback at the start of I Feel Fine is the first know occasion of recorded feedback on a record and the Sitar on Norwegian Wood being another first that would later influence The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones greatly, it is this record that has two major 'firsts'. Rain is the first ever record to feature a tape-loop and is also the first use of having tape played backwards on a record, two techniques which have become common in music today (try and imagine Missy Elliot's Work It without the backwards bits).
The second major 'first' is the two music videos that were made to accompany the two songs. Although the Beatles had made promo clips earlier these were mainly performative or weren't made specially to promote the single (the films A Hard Days Night and Help could be seen to be a series of music videos strung together by a thread of a narrative). The clips for Rain and Paperback Writer are in colour and are not just performance pieces.
Aside from this is the obvious influence of the sound of the record. Listen to Rain and you can immediately see where the Oasis 'sound' came from; Lennon sneering and snarling the lyrics decades before Liam made this type of delivery his trade-mark. The drumming in this song is perhaps, along with Strawberry Fields, Ringo's finest and most complicated drum pattern. McCartney's bass floats throughout the piece and is one of his most distinctive and interesting bass parts. The two guitars chime throughout.
It is not the greatest single the Beatles ever released but it does show the band at their tightest (all their instruments play distinctive, different and yet complimentary parts that constantly sound like the songs could tear themselves apart at any time but are never allowed to. In the instrumentation of Rain you can hear the Beatles starting to go their separate ways and break out of the cosy 'Fab Four' image that they had stuck to for half a decade). Whether it is the most influential single is a matter for conjecture but I can't think of anything that fits the spot better. What does everybody else think?
August 27, 2005
It had to happen. Most people who know me are probably aware of my rather over enthusiastic love of R.E.M. and any regular readers of my blog can't have failed to notice 2 overly long gig reviews and numerous references. However I felt the need to write something more substantial, and a 3 hour car journey has provided just the inspiration.
I've always loved Murmur, however it wasn't until this afternoon that I realised just how great this album is. I like all of R.E.M.'s albums and they are the only band that I can honestly say that there are no songs on any of their records that I dislike, so you could be forgiven for thinking that my claim of how great this album is is biased and simply a result of my enthusiasm. But re-listening to the album twice in a row it really hit me just how important this record is to music in the last 20 years. The fact that 2 books have been written about it and it recently featured at number 87 in Uncut Magazine's list of the 100 greatest icons not just in music but in film as well is testament to its importance in modern music. I'm not sure how long this entry will drag on for but I have quite a lot to say so I apologise in advance if this becomes self-indulgent and turns into an entry which is only of interest to me but hopefully this won't be the case.
First off I can't understand how anybody, music lover or not, doesn't like R.E.M. There are people who describe them as boring or depressing or unoriginal. If you are reading this and any one of those things applies please do yourself and me a favour and go out and buy this album. People who think that this band make depressing music are severely mistaken. Whenever I ask why I get the usual answer of "well Everybody Hurts is a really sad song" or something like that. I just find this incredible. Besides the fact it is one of the most uplifting songs ever recorded it isn't really representative of R.E.M.'s catalogue. As for being boring and unoriginal, again listen to Murmur; it is clear that it has many influences and imitates several other pre-existing sounds but it also creates much that is new and has itself been much copied. Just listen to the Bloc Party album, try and isolate what is original about that album and then go and listen to Murmur and you'll find exactly the same thing. This album is the blueprint for all the current indie bands, whether this is direct influences (Elbow cites Murmur as a major source of inspiration) or simply through the evolutionary processes that result when a good idea is taken and developed. Listening to this album today made me realise just how 'new' it sounds.
Before I continue I must make it clear that Murmur is not my favourite R.E.M. album, that honour goes to Out of Time, but I do think that it may be their best and certainly their most important. Let’s begin with a bit of history. Great albums always have good stories behind them and this is no exception. Four young guys with vastly different backgrounds and birthplaces converge on the college town of Athens, Georgia. Peter Buck meets Michael Stipe whilst living in a derelict church and working in a local record shop where Stipe buys all of the records that Buck had set aside for himself. They become friends and decide to try and write some songs. Stipe can’t play an instrument and Buck is no expert on the guitar but they manage a few simple compositions. Meanwhile Bill Berry and Mike Mills are busy hating each other; Berry the local bully to Mills's nerd. Until the moment that is when they both unknowingly show up to a jamming session with a mutual friend, at which point they develop a firm friendship. The two duos play in various groups (Mills and Berry in a band with Police drummer Stuart Copeland’s brother Ian) before a mutual friend introduces Buck and Stipe to Berry. Stipe likes Berry’s eyebrows so asks him if he wants to form a band. Berry agrees as long as Mills tags along. They agree until they meet Mills who is too drunk to stand up. Eventually they do rehearse together, the drummer and bass player being clearly more experienced than the singer and guitarist and the band make their debut under the name The Twisted Kites on 5th April at the birthday party of the same friend that introduced them. The set includes at least 8 original songs and cover versions such as Patti Smith’s Gloria, The Velvet Underground’s There She Goes Again and The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. They are a huge success and start playing the local bars in Athens and in December 1980 support The Police. They eventually manage to record a debut EP and a single which they use to market themselves; by this time they are a big hit as a live band and Chronic Town the EP is an underground hit, especially in England. The band is finally signed to IRS after record company boss Miles Copeland does a swap with his brother Ian. Miles signs R.E.M., as they had now become, and Ian signs the all-girl group soon to become known as the Bangles. With influences ranging from The Sex Pistols to Abba via Patti Smith, Television and the Beach Boys and with over 40 original songs already written the band enter the studios and this is what resulted:
The album begins with some almost inaudible crashes, thunderclaps and radio feedback which gradually get louder before Berry’s metronomic drum beat of Radio Free Europe erupts along with Stipe’s mumbled vocal: ‘Beside yourself if radio’s gonna stay’. It is clear from the very start that every instrument is treated with the same emphasis. The drums and bass are brought up in the mix, and the vocals and guitar are taken down so that everything plays on the same level. This album more than any other uses the voice as an instrument, many of the lyrics being almost inaudible, flowing in and out of the guitar licks and drum beats. It is the perfect opener, and why? Because it’s so restrained. This could easily be a thrash rock record replicating the violent energy the band unleashed on stage. But what makes this band so special is that right from the beginning of their career they fail to fall into any of the traps that so many other bands have fallen into when trying to record songs that they have perfect on the stage. Those bands in effect go into the studio and record a live album; the problem being that all of the energy is in the performance and not on the record. With this band all of the energy can be heard loud and clear right from the word go. They hit the perfect middle ground, this is not a live album which loses all the energy nor is it overproduced to the point where the excitement is lost (the first Smiths album is a distinct victim of this; the original demos producing a much better collection of recordings than those eventually released).
A discordant piano can be heard accompanied by distant, distorted and echoing vocals as Stipe repeats ‘Take a turn / Take our fortune’ in the introduction to Pilgrimage. As the volume grows another couple of tricks are pulled out of the bag. One of the most effective techniques employed on this album is the doubling of instruments. The discordant piano begins playing a six note sequence. This same six note sequence is picked up by the bass, the two instruments being indistinguishable. The drums come in filling the spaces in the music and as Stipe begins singing Buck’s guitar also plays the same six notes in time with the bass and piano creating one huge rhythm section. The verse as a result is quite sparse however this makes the chorus extremely effective; heralded by Berry’s double quick drumming the piano, guitar (Buck switches to acoustic for the chorus) and bass split apart producing a chorus with incredible depth and subtlety before once again reverting back to the six note cycle. It is a very unusual song and probably my favourite on the album.
Next up is Laughing the most conventional track so far. Beginning with a winding bass line and almost reggae like drum beat the song builds throughout getting apparently louder and more complicated. The opening three songs demonstrate the diversity that is to follow on the record, this song conforming neither to the straight forward rock of Radio Free Europe nor the strangeness of Pilgrimage.
The next trio of songs continue in a similar way. Talk About the Passion begins with a trademark Buck guitar arpeggio (the influence of Byrd Roger McGuinn showing through). Again Buck switches guitars for the chorus. For the fist time the drums are relegated to their usual position of providing a rhythm. The album appears to have finally settled on a ‘sound’. Until, that it the opening of Moral Kiosk, one of the strangest cuts on the album. The discordant guitar chimes are joined by a suitably wild bass line whilst the drums and vocals whirl through the gaps. As the song approaches the chorus the most incredible moment on the album occurs. Whilst Stipe sings ‘So much more attractive / Inside the moral kiosk’ the song achieves brilliance by enabling the listener to hear a melody that none of the instruments actually play. The drums tap out the rhythm between which the guitar and bass play amazingly complimentary parts which somehow create a third series of notes which fit between the notes the two guitars are playing. It lasts no longer than a couple of seconds but it is spellbinding.
The final song of the trio (and of side A if you have a tape / vinyl) is Perfect Circle. The first, and only, true ballad on the album. Every aspect of this song combines to create a perfect song. A song written by the drummer! How many bands can claim to have a legitimately equal division in song-writing credits between its members? Well this one can. Again the doubling of instrument, this time two pianos played simultaneously by Mills and Berry form the basis of the song. Berry tells how during a tour he was looking out of the venue at twilight and watching some kids playing the last game of touch football before dark and the moment brought him to tears. He asked Stipe to convey this moment when writing the lyrics and as Berry says “There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight, but it’s all there.” Unlike most of the other songs on Murmur the lyrics are up front in the mix and are fairly intelligible which is a bonus since they are the best set on the record.
Then there is Catapult, possibly the weakest song on the album. It isn’t a bad song, just ordinary, although the guitar part during the bridge is another great musical moment on the record. Next up is another trilogy of songs; Sitting Still, 9–9 and Shaking Through. Sitting Still is another highlight of the album. It is an up-tempo rocker and probably the song that could be said to be most ‘typical’ of the album. It has mumbled lyrics, a strong, clear drum part and jangly guitar. Only the bass part deviates from the norm, providing a much punkier, straightforward backbeat than elsewhere on the album. The chorus is sung with such enthusiasm by Stipe it is difficult not to sing along and the backing vocals provide tight harmonies.
9–9 is the strangest song on the recorded by some length. All of the instruments seem to be playing totally separate parts which if heard individually would seem impossible to fit together. Yet it works. The stop/start of the verse giving way to a more even flow during the chorus. The vocals are perhaps the most indistinct on the album. It is songs like this and Moral Kiosk that Bloc Party could easily pass as their own. Shaking Through is another up-tempo song that shares many similarities with Sitting Still.
Between this song and the next there is a short musical interlude which neatly separates the previous three serious songs from the song that is to follow. We all know that R.E.M. can do pop very well. Shiny Happy People is so bubblegum that the band themselves have disowned it. Stand and Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight are two other radio-friendly tunes which the band wrote with their tongues firmly in their cheek (during their world tour in 1989 Stipe introduced Stand by placing it alongside the theme tune to Chariots of Fire as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by man). We Walk is a lot of fun. Its playful guitar part is complimented by the simple lyrics. It is a relatively forgettable song but serves to break up the seriousness of the rest of the album and demonstrates a clear sense of fun before the finale, another fast rocker called West of the Fields. All of the instruments propel the listener through the song to the chorus, the lines being shouted by Stipe and echoed by Mills and Berry. An uplifting middle 8 returns us to another frantic verse and final chorus which ends on a hanging note doubled by the guitar and an organ. It is a great way to end the album and as with almost all of the R.E.M. albums that followed leaves you wanting to go straight back to track one and start all over again.
Everything about the album is special. The album cover is mysterious; an area of land in Georgia covered in kudzu; a Japanese weed that spread at lightning speed. The track listing on the back of the vinyl is out of order and the type face difficult to read. When IRS asked for a lyric sheet to be included, Stipe took his favourite lines from songs, some of which weren’t even on the album and arranged them in the form of a paragraph and presented them to IRS who decided a lyric sheet was not needed after all, beginning a tradition that continued up until 1998’s Up. The videos that the band were forced to make to accompany the singles are extremely oblique; if they were going to have to make videos they wanted to make them their own way and not pander to the marketplace. In fact everything about Murmur is geared away from the mainstream. The band wanted commercial success but only when the public were ready to receive them and as a result they lost none of their integrity and were able to make great records which sold reasonably well with very little pressure from the record company.
Nothing like this album existed in America at the time. In 1983 the era of punk was over and the American music industry was swamped with British synth-pop bands like Haircut 100, the Human League and Soft Cell. Murmur (an appropriate name given that at least three of the songs on the album deal with trouble communicating and the lyrics themselves are mainly murmured) filled a gap in the music scene both in America and in England. Joy Division had come and gone, U2 had not found their feet yet and were still trying to put their own spin on the Joy Division sound and the Smiths (the British equivalent of R.E.M. critically, culturally and musically) had yet to reach their full potential. This album became the only real alternative to the dying days of disco, the new wave and the new romantic, synth-pop movement. It was indie and there was very little else around like it at the time. This is the music that the Kurt Cobains and Eddie Vedders of the world were listening to and were inspired by. Only now is its influence really being felt as bands like Coldplay, Elbow, Wilco and Idlewild amongst others cite R.E.M. and particularly Murmur as major influences. In my opinion it still stands (alongside the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa) as the most important rock album of the 80s coming as it did at a time that was crying out for experimental, energy filled music to fill the gap left by punk.
So I would suggest you follow the link above and buy yourself a copy of the album to sit on your shelf alongside your copy of Automatic for the People (which you bought when it came out), Monster (which you bought under the mistaken opinion that this was a stagnant and unexperimental band, expecting Automatic vol.2, and as a result only played it once) and Greatest Hits (which isn’t). Sorry to take up so much of your time and consider yourself informed.
August 24, 2005
Just a quick entry to say Happy Birthday to my blog. As of yesterday it joined the ranks of the old.
For anybody interested it is grim and rainy in Leamington and there is one less £5 shelf in Fopp; it's a bitter/sweet day.
August 21, 2005
If the Bucket family from Charlie/Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are really as poor as they make out how can they afford a TV licence?
Also how could Everlasting Gobstoppers ever make any kind of commercial sense?
Well the lethargy has set in. I have plenty of work to be getting on with but for the first time this holiday I really can't be bothered. At the moment I don't want to do anything at all, and that includes lying around doing nothing. I really am decidedly discontent at the moment. There's nothing that I want to read, nothing that I want to watch, nothing that I want to listen to and nothing that I want to do but I still want to do something. I think I'm just biding my time till September; that can't come soon enough. I keep picking my guitar up but since I don't know many songs that gets tedious after a while. I wish I'd had time this holiday to get a job, at least then I would have something that I had to do during the day but since I've only been free for 3 weeks this entire holiday and a good portion of that has been spent doing dissertation preparation that hasn't really been possible. Thusly I also have no money.
Is Russia considered to be part of Europe or Asia? I did A-Level geography and am still unsure about this.
Also sitting around so much makes you think about things, mainly things you don't really want to think about and that just makes it worse. I remember a time when the holidays were the best bits of the year. Now I enjoy seeing my friends and family back home but after a week just want to be back at uni, I miss it too much.
To sum up exactly how I'm feeling at the moment I think I'll borrow a line from a Woody Allen film I was watching for the umpteenth time the other day: "I know exactly what I think about this, but I can never find words to put it in. Maybe if I get a little drunk I could dance it for you."
Hopefully I can uplift this somewhat uncharacteristically emo entry by asking what everybody's three favourite songs are at the minute. These can be old songs or new songs, jut whatever 3 songs you are playing most at the moment. Here are mine:
1. Head Games – Five O'Clock Heroes (even 3 months after its release this is still my favourite single of the year)
2. Pin Me Down – Luxembourg (sounds like a cross between melancholic Erasure (The Circus, Ship of Fools etc) and Brian Eno era Roxy Music (it almost turns into Do the Strand at one point) but modern)
3. Unsatisfied – Nine Black Alps (still probably my favourite on the album which is well worth checking out and much more than a Nirvana tribute album as some have made out. I may get round to reviewing it at some point)
August 07, 2005
It's been a month since I last posted. Man where does the time go.? It's been a busy few weeks mainly involving a significant lack of internet access due to 1. working on a film and 2. being on holiday in Italy. Rather than bore you with a full description of the last few weeks here are a few observations:
1. Driving in Italy is a nightmare. They have such an intricate set of rules that it actually appears that they have none. Either that or they don't actually have any rules at all, although the sign on the side of a mountain road that said 'Give way to oncoming, overtaking traffic' would suggest otherwise.
2. There's a town near Sorrento called Crapolla.
3. Working on a film is every bit as difficult, tiring, chaotic and fun as I thought.
4. The new Coldplay album is better than I thought it would be.
5. But isn't as good as it should be.
6. I have a huge list of music that I really want but haven't the money to buy.
7. Mickey Blue Eyes is actually a good film and may actually be useful for my dissertation next year.
8. I have absoluely no idea how I would go about licencing a music video clip to use in a documentary I am making without spending lots of money on both the license and on an agency to help me get the license. If anybody has any ideas please let me know. I only want to find out how much it would cost me but even finding that out is apparently going to be expensive. And even if I can afford it how the hell do I go about obtaining the clip?
9. For the first time in living memory I have more pairs of shoes than I know what to do with.
10. It's the summer holidays and I'm actually enjoying doing preparation work for next year.
11. Apparently the first series of the Sopranos is good but the menus won't work on my DVD player so as yet I can't verify this.
12. In 16 days it is my blog's 1st birthday.
13. My bedroom is in exactly the same state as is was in my very first blog entry.
14. Some things don't change.