Thursday, January 26, 2006

Number 35: Turin Brakes

Average Man (Source SOURCD 085)
Chart debut: 7th Jun 2003

Writers:Olly Knights/Gale Paridjanian

One of the great lost hits of recent years, I think. As the follow-up to their Top 5 smash 'Pain Killer' (inevitably revisited in acoustic form on the CD single here) and third single off the much-reissued Ether Song album, this track possibly suffered from unrealistic expectations. Nonetheless, it deserved to make more of an impact than it did. Indeed, it's one of the records that helped give me the germ of the idea for this blog.
Although the album as a whole is coloured by Tony Hoffer's glossy LA production and the keyboards of David Palmer (not to be confused with the former member of Jethro Tull, who is now a woman), this particular track is a little closer to the earlier Turin Brakes sound, played largely on acoustic guitars with a fine slide guitar riff and their trademark vocal harmonies.
The lyrics are in a way somewhat cynical and partially self-deprecating: "If I was a farmer instead of a faker/If I was realer and not just some raker", seems like a questioning of the artist's worth in society, but as the song deepens, the perspective shifts and widens. It's a song about the compromises people have to make, and the slyly ambiguous tone draws you into it - this isn't the normal "be yourself" cliche, despite having been recorded in LA, but neither is it a complete ode to conformity; it's about getting older and realising that not quite everything is possible after all. When they chime in the chorus "Have another drink my son, enjoy another cigarette 'cause it's time you realised you're just an average man" [NB The Hit Parade does not recommend the abuse of alcohol and tobacco] they're close enough to it themselves not to be loftily patronising. The middle eight thunders "And if this is darkness..." before slinking back to the comfort of the chorus, which is witty and deathly serious at the same time. In summation, this is all a bit dark and complex for overnight success, but it's got a catchy enough tune.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: video
Where to get it: As I pointed out earlier, there are at least five permutations of the Ether Song album. Mine is the initial double-CD in the gatefold sleeve, but I've also selected for your pleasure the mid-price CD with the later single '5 Mile' added and the classy double LP.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Number 36: Squeeze

This Summer (A&M 5811912)
Chart debut: 9 September 1995

Writers: Christopher Henry Difford/Glenn Tilbrook

I reserve the right to make blatantly sentimental choices throughout this blog, and this just about qualifies as one of our many wedding songs. However, it wouldn't be here if I didn't think it deserved the recommendation, and for extra points it's not always remembered in the classic cannon of Squeeze singles, because it came so late in their career. At this point the lineup featured founders and songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook with Keith Wilkinson on bass and the late Kevin Wilkinson (no relation) on drums.
At this time the record company attempted to promote them as "Godfathers of Britpop" which the band understandably didn't seem too happy about, although ironically enough Difford's lyric tips its hat to one of the bigger acts of the time: "the summer that began to blur/Has put us on the calendar". And just to underline the point, there's a live acoustic version of 'End Of A Century' (one of only three covers they ever released) on my copy of the cassette single. Maybe while they were at it the record company should have tried releasing a single that refers to "This Summer" in the future tense at a more opportune time than late August (a remixed version did appear just over 11 months later and reach 32). At least the slightly late release date gave them time to film a cheery video (at time of writing you can see a clip here) in Eastbourne, with a cameo from no less than John Thomson.
But what about the record, you ask? It's a record I'd be tempted to call chirpy if I didn't know that some people would be permanently put off by that, although those people should be warned about some of the other tracks I've got coming. Certainly it's optimistic, and Squeeze's ability to convey happiness without lapsing into faux-bouncy cliche is one reason why I consider them a national treasure. Apart from the Blur gag, Difford's lyric is full of the joys of new love withjust the merest trace of naughtiness ("Nights we spent out of control/Like two flags wrapped around a pole"). Look out for the solo doubled on high and low guitars which perhaps unintentionally echoes the Difford/Tilbrook vocal interplay that marked many of their early hits.

Modest though it is, the chart position of this release was Squeeze's best showing since 1987 and served as a decent curtain-raiser for their last classic album, Ridiculous even if the openly middle-aged lyrical content failed to guarantee massive sales and the money they did make was swallowed up by a tax bill. The Difford/Tilbrook partnership staggered through a final ill-advised album before calling it a day. This remains an important part of their legacy.

Official websites:;;
Where to get it: Everyone who loves British pop should have a Squeeze singles collection, though, and The Big Squeeze is an excellent career summary, including the cream of the overlooked Nineties output and a bonus disc features the rather fine B-side of this single, 'Periscope'. It's also available with a DVD anthology of their videos up to 1989, and appears to have been released in mainland Europe as Squeeze Gold.
If you don't fancy that, though, there's no shortage of other collections - since I wrote the original post we've seen the release of The Squeeze Story and Essential Squeeze but perhaps more excitingly, the original Ridiculous album is back in print for the first time is years and with bonus tracks too.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Number 37: Athlete

You Got The Style (Parlophone CDATH002)
Chart debut: 29th June 2002

Writers: Athlete

Although my aim here is to concentrate on relatively less-known tracks (you don't need me to tell you about 'Good Vibrations') this one is a slight expection as it's arguably the most famous track from the Vehicles & Animals album, and certainly better known than its chart performance might suggest.
At the time when this originally appeared, though, I had no particular expectations for it, and I don't imagine many other people did either. The band had created a bit of a buzz with their debut EP on Parlophone's subsidiary label Regal, but that peaked no higher than 85 so even with a bit of radio play this wasn't an obvious chart hit. It was, however, a brilliant single for the summer, one of the few that really captures the spirit of a British summer - there's an obvious cheeriness about it, in the bouncy chorus especially, but there's also a reminder of the less pleasant side, the stuffiness of hot weather and a nod to the UK race riots in Summer 2001: "I've seen the tension on the high street growing/Seems that you have to be careful who you look at". Yet this social comment is subtle enough not to overshadow the song and this succeeds where a more finger-wagging approach might have failed: after all, it's not all that creative to tell people racism is wrong, but this evokes a wistfulness about how wasteful that sort of tension really is. And they were able to make a video with a cute dancing atom in it too. A masterful piece of writing which got them even more noticed; the name Squeeze was mentioned more than once, although the NME likened it to a Cockney version of Pulp.
The icing on the cake was the packaging - although I've bowed to convention and used the CD catalogue number above, my copy is the rather neat etched 10" vinyl, which more than makes up for the underwhelming B-sides.

Perhaps surprisingly, this breakthrough wasn't instantly followed up, as their next single charted slightly lower. Indeed, none of the singles from that first album breached the Top 30 and even a re-issue of this track in 2003 only got to 42. The album itself did good business though, and they finally had a proper hit with 'Wires' in January 2005. But that's another story.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to Live at T In The Park
Where to get it: On Vehicles & Animals, which is possibly better than the new album.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Number 38: The Charlatans

I Never Want An Easy Life If Me And He Were Ever To Get There (Beggar's Banquet BBQ31CD)
Chart debut: 19th March 1994

Writers: Martin Blunt/Jon Brooks/Tim Burgess/Mark Collins/Rob Collins

Let's get the survivors bit out of the way shall we? You know the drill by now, drug, depression, prison, death... anyone could be forgiven for forgetting that they ever made records. But they did, and indeed still do, which is possibly something you'd not have predicted fifteen years ago.
It's probably fair to say that Up To Our Hips is the most underrated Charlatans album, the only one until 2004 not to spawn a Top 20 single, and remembered mostly for coinciding with Rob Collins serving a brief prison sentence. But it's the album that explains why they didn't go the way of Northside and the Mock Turtles after their big hit, with a somewhat stripped-down sound (produced by Steve Hillage of all people) and a greater focus on the darker, psychedelic side they'd always had.
When I bought the album unheard, this track stood out with it its insistent riff, the intro that bursts out of the speakers (after the shuffling fade of 'Come In Number 21' on the album), the bubbling electric piano (R. Collins) the energy and the prominent backing vocals: "How does it feel?" Further listening has revealed the claustrophobic atmosphere of the whole record and the darker side of that very energy - they're up against the wall and they know it, they're both waving and drowning. That's where the defiance of the unwieldy title comes in; they disdain the easy path in the knowledge that it's no longer open to them. And "them" is certainly the word here, because the bond between them is so intensely important. The energy is manic; I have the (not entirely literal) mental image of them throwing themselves at the walls.
Looked at that way, it's pretty heavy stuff and I'm starting to see why even a limited one-week-only release in a special box with three postcards and a demo version of the previous hit couldn't take this any higher than 38. And although that's unfortunate really, it suits this blog very well - this track never gets played on the radio, and although I don't claim it as their best single it's one that deserves more posterity than it has.

Official website:
YouTube If You Want To: The promo video, which may have cost almost £20 to make.
Where to get it: I've talked up the Up To Our Hips album more than enough, I think, but those wishing merely to dip their toes in the water are advised to pick up the "best-of" collection Melting Pot. Meanwhile, the B-side 'Subterranean' crops up on Songs From The Other Side and the video (which I've now seen) features on their first DVD.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Number 39 - Roots Manuva

Too Cold (Big Dada BDCDS078)
Chart debut: 2nd April 2005

Writers: Rodney Smith/Ralph Lamb/ Andrew Ross

The only record I'm including from 2005 in this selection: which isn't to say that it's the only record I liked last year, it just fits. Rodney Smith (you can see why he needed a stage name!) became about as big a star as an underground UK rapper could with his second album Run Come Save Me, and by the start of 2005, after the Streets and Dizzee Rascal had made names for themselves he looked set for a big breakthrough.
It hasn't quite happened yet, but the year did bring him his first Top 40 singles chart action with 'Colossal Insight' and this slightly surprising track, built around what sounds remarkably like a sample of the Dance Of The Nights from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet although unlike Sia's 'Taken For Granted' the usage wasn't sufficient to require a credit. Over this, Manuva raps with his typical humour about the dangers of Mammon, though he can't resist the boast "I touch breasts with my money". And here's a line you don't often hear in a rap track "I ain't the best MC..." though he does claim "I got certification I'm the first MC" which I doubt would stand up in court. He even denies being the saviour of UK rap, which possibly reflects the pressure he felt in the previous years: the title track of the Awfully Deep album is a darkly joking account of his mental health problems.
The CD single itself is as decent a value-for-money package as can be expected: 'Too Cold' itself appears as a Radio Edit (like the album version but shorter and with less swearing) and remixed by Sa-Ra, Nightmares On Wax and the Go! Team. I'm not typically a fan of remix packages, but these get bonus points for sounding very different from each other, with the Go! Team one a particularly impressive lo-fi recasting, hitting the spot for me where their own records never have. There's an admittedly dispensible B-side, plus the video starring - ahem - Lord Manuval in an 18th century setting with comedian Jim Tavare as his butler, as well as a little game which allows the listener to create their own remix. And if that doesn't sate your appetite for different versions of the song, look out for the dub version on the 7" and the demo on the limited edition version of the album. Speaking of which, here's a little exclusive for you: the Hit Parade Mix of 'Too Cold'. For evaluation purposes only, of course.

YouTube if you want to: promo video
Where to get it: Although the album isn't quite the masterpiece that might have been hoped for, it's still well worth having for the singles and 'The Haunting' alone. Alternatively, grab the single if you still can. The remix companion release Alternately Deep offers the B-side 'No Love'.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Number 40 - David McAlmont

Look At Yourself (Hut Recordings HUTCD87)
Chart debut 9 Aug 1997.

Writers: David McAlmont/Guy Clark/Boo Hewerdine

A talent who's never quite found his place, David McAlmont (born 2nd May 1967) is probably best known for his collaborations with Bernard Butler in the imaginatively-named duo McAlmont & Butler. Despite the quality of the records, though, this pair were famously fractious and their initial partnership failed even to produce a studio album; prior to that, he had been in Thieves, who managed to record an LP but split without releasing it (those tracks were issued as McAlmont's 1994 debut).

This, then was his first intentional solo single, and it's lyrically connected to the most famous McAlmont/Butler song 'Yes', a triumphant stomper which it's tempting (but almost certainly wrong) to relate to Butler: "Don't look at me as if you wish me dead/ Why have a problem with my self-respect?" Perhaps surprisingly, though, the style is different, a frenetic pounding track that's closer to gospel (apart from the words!) than the softer soul with which his former duos were associated. Special mention is due to the wailing harmonica, although no player is credited.
At the time of release, I remember puzzling over which format to buy and wondering why the Radio Edit (3:21) was longer than the Album Version (3:12). As I discovered upon obtaining the latter version in the Rough Trade shop a couple of years later, "edit" was something of a misnomer with Dave Bascombe having retooled the song extensively, with an extended drum intro and a much more energetic effect, so that's the version to track down. Sadly, "album version" proved to be even more of a misnomer, as this track has never appeared on one - the rather good A Little Communication finally appeared in 1998, but omits this track in favour of a moodier and slightly more organic sound. Before that, his collaboration with David Arnold on a version of 'Diamonds Are Forever' did even better than this. It got to 39.

Official website:
Where to get it: as above, it's not on an album, it's on no compilation I'm aware and the single is long deleted, so all I can say is Good Luck! You can still browse
the available McAlmont catalogue at Amazon.