Sunday, December 14, 2008

Metapost: half-way there. Sort of

Well, we stand here on the brink of the Top 20. That makes this the half-way mark in terms of the total number of records in the countdown, although pedants will spot that I've only written 19 proper articles. In tribute to the days when Mark Goodier used to break the chart rundown at this point to announce the album chart, I've taken this opportunity to launch a new concept on the sibling blog Now That's What I Call A Challenge, where I'm working my way through the entire content of the first ever Now album just in time for the 25th anniversary.

The Hit Parade will return when I've decided what Number 20 is going to be.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Number 21: Delays

Nearer Than Heaven (Rough Trade RTRADS175)

Chart Debut: 3rd April 2004

Writer: Greg Gilbert

There's almost a story behind this one. At any rate, the original release of this single in April 2003 is one of the last times I heard a record on the radio by somebody I'd never heard of, loved it and was determined to get hold of it. And that was back in the days when I was on a dial-up internet connection so it really meant going out and getting the CD single. Except that neither of the shops in Harrow had it - hard as it is to believe, there was a time when there were three record shops in town, although only two bothered with singles at the time. I finally managed to track the disc (bottom right in the photo) down in Sister Ray in Berwick Street one day when I had to go into London for an exam. I have a particular memory of sitting in the cafe in the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones drinking coffee con panna and feeling inexplicably pleased with myself.

When it comes to writing, one regular challenge is to avoid the temptation to concentrate exclusively on the lyric, which is always easier for a non-specialist to write about. In this case, however, the lyrics aren't really something I noticed much when I originally heard it: I don't think I ever knew what they were until I saw them written down somewhere or ever, and even now I'd struggle to recall them all out of context, still less to paraphrase them. With all due respect to whatever Greg Gilbert was trying to say here, it's obvious that the words aren't a focal point, except perhaps sonically, which presumably accounts for those Cocteau Twins comparisons. Co-producer Graham Sutton (of Bark Psychosis) lends some sumptuous soundscaping here, but one reason this really stands out is that it's counterbalanced by other parts of the track, especially the muscular drumming (by the enigmatically-named Rowly) and the shards of twelve-string guitars - it was claimed at the time that Geoff Travis had signed them to Rough Trade because they reminded him of The Hollies. You don't hear backing vocals like that every day either. The combined effect of these elements is to keep the song from being so wispy as to blow away in the wind, but without seeming to bludgeon you with its self-importance.

Needless to say, I was hooked. I like to think that I can claim a tiny bit of credit for their next single 'Hey Girl' breaking them into the Top 40 (at the very bottom rung). I even bought the limited-edition 7" single of their version of Mazzy Star's 'Ride It On'; when I later got them to sign this at an instore event they denied having seen one before. I was even happy for them when this turned up on the soundtrack of the blatantly awful movie Blackball. After the big hit 'Long Time Coming' at the start of 2004, a re-release of this was inevitable, and so I bought the 7" and the new CD (with different B-sides) illustrated here. I'd still have liked it to be a bigger hit, but it was a pleasure to see this land one place ahead of the latest overcooked, overhyped Missy Elliot single. I don't think I even thought twice about paying the extra to get the album with bonus DVD, despite not having anything to play it on.

I've kept on buying the albums and most of the singles since. I can't honestly claim that I've been as enamoured of the more electronic style they've moved towards on later releases, but it still feels like a shame they've never been able to match this level of commercial success, not even now they're on a major label. This early material will always be special to me though.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: official video. And the band themselves have also posted the original demo. Also see a surprisingly amateurishly shot performance for some magazine in a pub in Camden - this audience all seem to know the words.
Where to find it: Even though this blog is meant to be about singles, I reserve the right to gush over albums. And Faded Seaside Glamour is certainly one to gush about.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Number 22: Manic Street Preachers

Revol (Epic 6606862)

Chart debut:
13th August 1994

Writers:Richey James, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield, Sean Moore

Even though I chose this one (and most of the rest of this chart too) a couple of years ago, now that the time comes to write this entry it's lent a certain unfortunate topicality by the recent news that Richard Edwards (Richey James) has now been officially declared dead, almost fourteen years after his disappearance, and thus at least twelve years after people started trying to read the runes of this album The Holy Bible as if it were a last will and testament.

Even without considering that element, it was always a difficult listen and remains so now. Indeed, it tells you something about the record as a whole that 'Revol' is almost light relief in the middle of it. There aren't a lot of laughs here (unless you join in the fan's favourite pastime of misconstruing James Dean Bradfield's unconventional diction) but on an album that also includes 'The Intense Humming Of Evil' and 'Archives Of Pain', a three-minute song with an identifiable riff and a chorus is quite an uplift.

Deciphering the lyrical content is a challenge, one that seems to have defeated even ostensible co-writer Nicky Wire. It's commonly understood as an analogy comparing romantic relationships and political revolution and finding them both doomed: the title is of course both the start of the words "revolution" and "revolt", and "lover" spelt backwards. The verses are short sharp shocks combining the names of political figures with peculiar sexual imagery ("Brezhnev - married into group sex/Gorbachev - celibate self-importance"). The chorus, meanwhile, is four repeats of the title followed by Bradfield barking (and, perhaps, slightly mispronouncing) "Lebensraum! [Living Space - a Nazi slogan] Kulturkampf! [Culture War - Bismarck] Raus Raus [get out!] Fila fila [get in line]". No English words there, of course, which was possibly not the easy route to radio play, but notice how this contrasts fascist-sounding slogans with the mostly Soviet figures in the first verse. Evidently, this isn't a partisan point being made.

None of the lyrical mystery I'm describing here conveys the sheer musical weirdness of this. Particularly to people who only became familiar with the band's work after their 1996 breakthrough, the notion that something like this could be considered a potential hit single is almost baffling. Even the band seem to have felt that way, virtually disowning the song soon after release, rarely performing it live and excluding it from their singles compilation. But the atypical structure is something I always find compelling, and despite (or even because of) the low-budget production it's one of the band's tightest recorded performances. As if to underline this, there's a remixed version intended for an abortive US release of the album. It's tougher and beefier in many ways, but somehow doesn't entirely capture the excitement of the original.

YouTube if you want to:
Official website:
Where to find it: It's not the sort of record to play every day, but THB is something of a must-have if only to savour the fact that somebody dared to make it. For a little bit extra there's an expanded anniversary edition featuring the complete US mix of the album, selected live versions and an 80-minute DVD. Speaking of DVDs, the promo also appears on the compilation Forever Delayed, although not on its CD equivalent.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Number 23: Otis Redding

Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)(Atlantic 584 049)

Chart debut: 24 November 1966

Writers: Otis Redding, Steve Cropper

I tend to have mixed feelings about very dramatic introductions in pop - the kind that don't just kick into the song but have a life of their own. Sometimes they seem like a showy trick on the part of the writers or producers boasting about their melodic and arrangement abilities. Sometimes they sound a little bit like one of those exercises from school where they'd show you how the same notes sound so different in different keys. And sometimes I just want them to get on with it.
The start of 'Sad Song' is a bit different, though - it opens with a literal fanfare, as if to poke a bit of fun at itself. Self-mockery isn't something many of us instantly associate with soul music, but Otis always seemed to have enough awareness of himself to get away with it - even the title of this cut combines Steve Cropper's pastiche of Otis's attempts to communicate arrangement ideas with a slight dig at his gloomy image. It's natural to bracket him with other "tragic rock stars" but he's not like the ones who died because they were drinking to get over the pain.
The joy of the song is the way he turns it into a communal experience. Perhaps that makes it the ultimate sad song. Incidentally, there is also a 'Happy Song', released only posthumously. It doesn't work as well as this one.

YouTube if you want to: It's part of a live medley from Norway where he's certainly enjoying himself. There's a homebrew video to the studio track too.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Metapost: 1969 Muxtape

UPDATE TO THE UPDATED UPDATE UPDATE: Muxtape is of course no more. Darn.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE UPDATE: Everything now restored. Let me know if anything isn't working.

Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Sweeping The Nation, I've compiled a 12-track Muxtape of tracks from the year 1969, which I chose because I thought it might be more of a challenge than the other years I'd considered. As Muxtape doesn't really offer a lot of room for explanatory text, and the Amazon downloads they link to aren't available here in Europe, I've used this space to give a bit of background, and to show where the tracks are available digitally to Brits without the aid of proprietory software.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to boast about the fact that I didn't attempt any rude puns here. I even left Serge Gainsbourg off, in case he led me astray.

UPDATE (Again!): Due to some sort of backup problem, it's all gone offline. Sorry about that.

1. Bobby Womack 'California Dreaming' (from The Last Great Soul Man [copy protected])
Actually a minor US hit in 1968, but scraping in here as it was unsuccessfully issued in Britain the following year; it was revived after appearing in a TV commercial a couple of years ago. Bob Dylan played it on his radio show a couple of weeks ago and reminded me how good this track was just as I was looking for tracks to put onto my new MP3 player. In some ways I like this more than the original.
2. The Beatles With Billy Preston 'Don't Let Me Down' (not legitimately available as a download - I have it on Past Masters Volume 2)
Because I couldn't not have The Beatles, and this one was already on the computer. Originally the flipside of 'Get Back' of course, and one of their more underappreciated tracks of this era.
3. The Bonzo Dog Band 'Mr. Apollo' (from Tadpoles)
The follow-up single to 'I'm The Urban Spaceman', though obviously not another hit for them. Although not everything they did has aged well, there are plenty of other Bonzos tracks this year I could have gone for - but this one wins out thanks to Viv Stanshall's monologue at the end; I'm resisting the temptation to quote as that would only spoil it. There's another version where he does it in German.
4. Marvin Gaye 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' (from The Complete Collection)

I hesitated to make such an obvious choice, but ultimately decided it was so superlative I couldn't avoid it.
5. Johnny Cash 'Wanted Man' (from The Man In Black )
The best-of collection gives this a 1969 copyright date. Anyway, it's a Dylan song not recorded by the man himself (his most prominent 1969 release was 'Lay Lady Lay', and that was never going to make the cut) very much betraying the influence of Hank Williams.
6. The Isley Brothers 'Behind A Painted Smile' (from Universal Masters Collection)
Another personal favourite, which is why I couldn't leave it out even though it was already a couple of years old by the time it charted. The Motown years may not have been the most enjoyable experience of their career but it had its moments. I even love the ending.
7. Horace Andy 'Skylarking' (from Skylarking)
Reggae isn't a part of the music world where I feel very much at home, but I know a good voice when I hear one. 'Wonderful World, Beautiful People' and 'The Israelites' were both hits in 1969 too, but I didn't have those to hand.
8. The Kinks 'Victoria' (from The Singles Collection)
I remember hearing The Fall's version a few times and thinking how remarkably they'd managed to remake the song in their own image. Then I heard the Kinks version and realised it sounded like The Fall already. Dave Davies claims that they once sang the entire song backwards on stage; "People thought we were mad. In fact, we probably were."
9. Cream 'Badge' (from I Feel Free)
According to George Harrison's I Me Mine, Ringo turned up at his house while he and Eric Clapton were struggling to think of a rhyme for "I told to you not to wander round in the dark". And the one he came up with is the one they used.
10. Fairport Convention 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' (from Unhalfbricking)
If I'd realised this was on the computer when I put the original set together, I probably would have included it over a couple of the ones I have used. But the blessing in disguise of my Rolling Stones track not working was an ideal opportunity to sneak it in. Sandy Denny had brought this song with her when she joined Fairport, so this is arguably not the original version but it seems safe to call it the definitive one.
11. The Beach Boys 'Break Away' (from The Warmth Of The Sun)
A contractually-obliged final single for Capitol, which proved to be a bit of a last hurrah for Brian Wilson (at least for a while) and a UK Top 10 hit to boot, although it flopped in America. Although it's not their most-lauded 45 even in Britain, and is often ignored entirely in the US, it's always been a bit of a favourite of mine, even if the lyrics can make for uncomfortable listening now we know what we do about his mental state at the time. Oddly, he split the publishing rights with his father.
12. Louis Armstrong 'We Have All The Time In The World' (bizarrely hard to find as a download, although it's easy to obtain on CD)
Like my first selection, a rather late developer here, finally charting in 1994 off the back of another advert.

The one that got away - The Rolling Stones 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' [B-side version] (from Rolled Gold Plus [album version,])The version I uploaded was the edited mono version from the B-side of 'Honky Tonk Women', but for some reason I haven't found that on download, so I've linked to the longer album cut. Between you and me, though, I've never been too keen on those choirboys at the start.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Number 24: The Verve

History (Hut HUTDX59)
Chart debut: 30 Sept 1995
Writers: The Verve

If there's a reason why I haven't posted a lot on here, it's been a spate of writer's block about this song: it's an obvious disadvantage of this particular blog setup that I have to post in order.
Even the band reuniting hasn't done the trick, inspiration-wise. So - to get it out of the way I'm going to embed the video. Make up your own minds.

See you at Number 23!

Official website:, not that there's a lot to it now.
YouTube if you want to: Extra! Live in 1998.
Where to get it: A Northern Soul remains my favourite Verve album; the track appears in remastered form on the singles compilation This Is Music, now available with or without a DVD of videos.