Sunday, March 26, 2006

Number 32: The Undertones

You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It!) (Sire SIR 4024)
Chart debut: 20 October 1979
Writer: John O'Neill

They had more than one song you know. Brilliant as 'Teenage Kicks' is, it's slightly unfortunate that in the last few years it seems to have obscured entirely the fact that the Undertones ever made any other records (except maybe 'My Perfect Cousin') Yet in a brief career they packed in a handful of pop gems, several others of which got them into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops and all. Right, that's that off my chest, now let's get on with the article.
My brother was kind enough to give me the remastered and expanded CD of their debut album a couple of birthdays ago and an impressive little thing it is too; but this non-album single is a hint of where they were heading. Simplistically put, the original career of the Undertones is a swift (four albums in five years) progression from low-budget punk-pop energy ('T*****e K***s') towards a sort of blue-eyed soul, which arguably laid the template for Feargal Sharkey's briefly popular solo career. We're still close to the start of that curve here, but bass player Mickey Bradley was right to describe it as a progression, and to suggest that they'd "left the Ramones thing behind". And, as he notes approvingly, "there was a slow middle bit." The lyrics are not exactly sophisticated: "I'll pick you up in my car/Take you home, it's not far" but they work ideally in context, capturing the sense of romatic desparation with enough vulnerability to seem more charming than threatening (unless it's just sparking off too many memories of my own youth of course). And at the risk of over-using the word "energy" in this post, the strength of the ensemble performance here gives it a pace (even in that slow section) that makes the pleading less annoying than it might otherwise have been. It doesn't seem as melodramatic as it would on the page because it's so convincingly done, and it sounds as if it really is that important to the protagonist, instead of being played up. At the same time they have enough spring in their step to make it sound cheery - perhaps the lesson we should draw is that only having girls to worry about is a fairly lucky state.
What makes this track really special (over and above the quality of the song) is the way it's topped and tailed. Three seconds of tuning-up seems just to increase the drama when a thump of Billy Doherty's kick-drum ushers in the guitar riff that is effectively the refrain here (the song title appears in something more akin to a verse). At the other end of the song, we come out of that middle section, a one-note piano vamp fades in from nowhere at about 2:24, the guitars start to punch harder until Sharkey finally yells "why don't you USE IT?" and the band stops a second or two later - it's easy to imagine them all falling on the floor afterwards as if they've put all they have into less than three minutes and couldn't play more if they wanted to. Of course that's very unlikely to be the case, but it doesn't really matter as long as they capture the feel. And that's possibly the real sign of progression here, the fact that they (with the help of producer Roger Bechirian) were learning how to make records as well as play songs, which was a direction they certainly followed on the second album Hypnotised.
It's interesting to note that the sleeve design seems to have picked up on the ending of the track too, with the phrase "use it!" underlined, as well as the neat joke of printing the catalogue number on the front. Whether the die-cut rear cover was as necessary is another question. This may not be the best Undertones single, and it certainly isn't the most famous, but in a way it's their quintessential work.

Official website: will even play you the intro to this track, though a redesign is promised.

Where to get it: As I mentioned earlier, this was never included on an album at the time, but of course things are different in the CD era, and having been included on some re-issues of Hypnotised it now finds a home on the value-for-money 26(!)-track edition of their debut album. For a single-disc retrospective, the current The Best Of The Undertones - Teenage Kicks looks hard to beat, though it's not to be confused with an earlier album of the same name. The double-set True Confessions - (Singles=A's+B's) was a good idea somewhat spoilt by the fact that not all the tracks are the actual single versions, though of course this song is unaffected.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Number 33: David Holmes

Don't Die Just Yet (Go! Beat GOLCD6)
Chart debut: 10th January 1998
Writer: Serge Gainsbourg

As some may have divined from the gap in postings here, the choice of a Number 33 single wasn't the easiest in the list: it may be worth explaining that I roughed out a list of possibles before I started, but reserve the right to chop and change until publication point. In fact, I've broken a self-imposed rule here by including a track I don't own in its single version.
David Holmes (born 14th Feb 1969 in Belfast) had already demonstrated some of his interest in fusing hip-hop sounds with the atmosphere of movie soundtracks (as well as his aversion to the apostrophe!) with debut album This Films Crap Lets Slash The Seats, but it was the follow-up set Lets Get Killed that made him a name to be reckoned with, and brought him a Top 40 hit with this surpising Serge Gainsbourg cover. This is, in fact an instrumental version of 'Melody', the opening track from Gainsbourg's Histoire De Melody Nelson (Holmes claimed that he'd hired someone to translate the lyrics but decided against recording them due to their "pervy" content). The choice of title (including, you may notice, the first ever David Holmes apostrophe) was presumably intended to suit the mood created here; the lack of vocals aside, the arrangement is close to Gainsbourg's version, but the atmosphere is slightly more ominous, though it retains the funk tinge thanks to guitar and bass work of former Warm Jets member Paul Noble.
The album is a fascinating work as a whole - there are no conventional vocals, but the basis is tapes Holmes made whilst walking the streets of New York at night in 1996. It's dark, yes, but in its way a more compelling and endearing portrait of NYC than any number of more conventional tributes (well, as far as I know anyway - I've never been there myself and there's too much swearing for me to play this to my Granny). There are tunes you'll know too: not only is 'Radio 7' another renamed cover version (of the James Bond theme), but 'Rodney Yates', 'Gritty Shaker' and the other hit 'My Mate Paul' have been almost ubiquitous in adverts, trailers and similar. Holmes also used some of this material on his soundtrack to Ocean's Eleven. For some reason, I'll always remember Mary-Anne Hobbs playing a track on her late-night show in the early days of September 1997 and not being allowed to announce the album title.

By the way, the single included a slightly shorter edit of this original version, a remix by Arab Strap (audible, at time of writing, here) and one by Mogwai which had to be withdrawn due to sample clearance issues.

Official website: - or see Gritty Shaker for slightly more info. His profile at Yahoo also has the video for this track.
YouTube if you want to: video
Where to get it: Lets Get Killed.