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.