Sunday, July 05, 2009

Number 17: Electronic

Vivid (Parlophone CDR6514)

Chart Debut: 24th April 1999

Writers: Electronic

Electronic are an odd little chapter in rock history, a sort of part-time supergroup formed by two people who never really seemed to want to be famous and never really seemed to have an identifiable image of their own. Even the name is odd - slightly bland and forgettable, but also misleading as a description of their sound. Amid all this confusion though, they managed to release a small but solid catalogue of recordings, and I don't think they ever released a bad single which isn't something I could comfortably say of either the Smiths or New Order.

Some of the singles were really very good indeed, and I realised gradually that their first one, 'Getting Away With It' was one of the best of recent(ish) years, but it's also a bit too obvious for these purposes. So instead we turn to what proved to be their last single: a follow-up ('Late At Night') was planned but ditched at the last minute. 'Vivid' is exactly the sort of hit that I wanted to write about here; at the time it can't only have been me buying it, but nobody ever seems to mention it now and it's certainly not the song that they're associated with now. Maybe it's not the sort of thing that people expected from the duo (as they definitely were by now - no big-name guests at this point in their career) but it's one that instantly appealed to me, thanks to Johnny Marr's insistent harmonica riff. Indeed, the song was apparently written mostly by Marr, who even fronted a demo version of the track before Bernard Sumner supplied the final lyrics and the lead vocal. In truth, those lyrics sound like a typical set of Sumnerisms, most notable for the fact that the words in each chorus are different, possibly not the most obvious commercial move to make. You could certainly make a case for them, but they do seem like the sort of thing he can write by the yard, and this is a record that grabs me more at a musical and performance level than a lyrical one, and I'd like to think he wouldn't mind me saying that.

Official website: Archived version. Try the unofficial Feel Every Beat instead.
YouTube if you want to: Actually, whether you want to or not the record company don't seem to want you to, but it is audible on Last.FM Or you can watch 'The Sweetness Lies Within' by Hefner, which has some of the same actors in it.
Where to get it: I listened back to the album Twisted Tenderness in preparation for writing this, and I must admit I still struggled to get into it, although it certainly has its moments; the version of 'Vivid' on there is a slightly longer and less tight edit. An expanded digital-only version includes several B-sides and remixes. The single cut is available as a download or on the Best-of Get The Message, with or without a DVD for those who really want to see the video.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Number 18: Bill Withers

Lean On Me(A&M AMS 7004)

Chart Debut: 12th August 1972

Writer: Bill Withers

I resisted this choice for a long time, not because there was anything wrong with the record but because I doubted my own ability to write about it. 'Lean On Me' feels like a song that lends itself brilliantly to trite observations.

So, what changed my mind? Well, I was quite encouraged by the realisation that it's one of the few tracks on here that were made by people older than me. But the most important influence wasn't to do with this song at all, but with his first US hit 'Ain't No Sunshine'. When I had to search YouTube for the Lighthouse Family for the purposes of my other blog I was slightly concerned to notice that some of the people who'd done cover versions of 'Ain't No Sunshine' attributed it to them. A couple of weeks later, somebody sang the song on the telly, pushing the Withers original into the UK Top 40 for the first time: but some people seem to have gone for a Lighthouse Family version. Clearly, there are people who don't know enough about Bill Withers!

Perhaps that's always been the fate of this song, though: despite topping the US chart it was a bigger hit here for Mud and then Club Nouveau. The many other cover versions by everyone (even Bon Jovi) seem to suggest that it's become the sort of standard that's no longer really associated with the originator, although perhaps that suits the modest but presumably comfortably-off Withers rather well. With this in mind, I'm going to skip all the obvious observations about the song itself and emphasise how good this version is. Withers is perhaps the least showy of the great soul singers, as you can tell from the title and cover of the Still Bill album where this first appeared, and he judiciously avoids overcooking this, evading the tendency of some singers to turn this into sentimentality. After all, this may be a tribute to the community spirit of his childhood in smalltown West Virginia, but he had chosen to move away from there and perhaps this song is about the hardships that meant people had to work together as well. His touring band back him here as well as co-producing, and they help to create the open, warm-hearted spirit that the song seeks to evoke, as well as supplying an effective contrast between the the more upbeat sections ("Call on me brother if you need a hand") and the the slower verses and chorus. By the time we get to the sung outro it's almost gospel, and indeed the song does seem to have acquired that connotation in some places, although it's not really there in the lyric.

Perhaps I've made this description sound a bit like he did a cover version of his own song, but in a way it almost doesn't matter that he wrote this song, so much as that he lived it.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: WMG have silenced all copies of the studio recording, even though they don't seem to own the rights. There remain plenty of TV performances, including one introduced by Kenny Rogers.
Where to get it: There are too many compilation albums to count, but a quick scan suggests that Very Best Of is supposed to be the current one, whilst Ain't No Sunshine is a lot for a budget price and Greatest Hits is the one we used to listen to in the car.
I have the entire Still Bill album on a two-on-one CD with Just As I Am
but it is also available alone with two bonus tracks from Live At Carnegie Hall: you'd be better off with the whole of that though.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Number 19: Pulp

The Sisters EP (Island CID 595)

Chart Debut: 4 Jun 1994

Writers: Pulp (lyrics by Jarvis Cocker)

"Your Sister's Clothes" features the sisters from "Babies" four years on. Now the younger sibling finally gets her revenge for earlier years. "Seconds" explores the idea that perfect people are... well, perfectly boring to be honest whilst "His 'n' Hers" is one man's fear of domestic interiors set to music. What are you frightened of? (And remember - shove it in sideways).

With sleevenotes like that, it's hard to add much with my own scribblings. And yet Pulp are an act I was determined to sneak in here - not only a very good band, but one who were a major pop success for a while and seem almost tailormade for this feature. They're also the band I keep coming back to, never the first name I'd think of but every now and again I go through a phase of listening to them fairly intensely and wondering whether they're the best pop group ever. Of course the downside of this is that several of their hits fail the Hit Parade test because they're still too familiar to be worth writing about, so I've chosen a four-song EP.

Babies is of course by far the most familiar of the songs here, already enjoying a second lease of life by the time it made the chart: it was originally released as a single in 1992, on an indie label but with the cover backing of Island. Once Island had officially signed the band, they unsurprisingly wished to make the most of it, squeezing a remixed version onto the His N Hers album; the EP features an edit of the original mix, reportedly at the band's insistence. It's musically somewhat atypical, being more than averagely guitar-based, but at the same time unmistakeably Pulp: there are few acts who'd have written a song about spying on teenage girls from a wardrobe, and fewer still who'd do it well. Apparently the young Jarvis Cocker really did fall asleep in a wardrobe once, during a family holiday.
Whatever misgivings Pulp might have had about returning to the song, it certainly made a major chart breakthrough for them after the fondly-remembered-but-it-only-peaked-at-33 'Do You Remember The First Time?', and led to their debut Top Of The Pops appearance, something Cocker must surely have been looking forward to for a very long time. Although it's not really visible in the clip, he celebrated by revealing a sign inside his jacket that reads "I HATE WET WET WET", a reference to that act's weedy version of 'Love Is All Around' having just climbed to Number One. Little can he have known that it would stay there for another 14 weeks...

The real value for money comes with the three previously unreleased tracks. Well, those and the print that came with the 12" single, anyway. Your Sister's Clothes is the one with the closest connection to the lead track, and between the two of them they presumably account for the EP title. Given the sleeve note, it seems that the younger sister is taking her revenge by sleeping with the older sister's boyfriend, who might logically be the character singing the song - though if so he seems to be using both of them. Musically, it's notable as one of the last Pulp tracks to feature Russell Senior's, er, unique, violin style so prominently. It's laid over a minimal synth line (so minimal, indeed, that the working title was 'Glass', after Phillip Glass) which leaves plenty of room for Jarvis to be Jarvis. Mind you, I don't remember Phillip Glass ever writing as catchy a chorus as this.

Seconds is more of an exercise in song-writing, perhaps, revelling in the many possible meanings of the title word: "second rate", "seconds turn to hours", "slides into second place", "he said he'd last all night then gave you seconds"... But the key concept is about second best - is it something to fear or something to look forward to? Cocker himself described the fear of refusing so long to settle for second best that you end up with fifth best. Funnily enough, when I was a kid I used to think Curtis Mayfield was singing "take nothing less than the second best" on 'Move On Up', which I found quite an interesting idea in retrospect. Also apparently referred to is the notion of second-hand people who've been around the track a few times, which of course is most of them. It's no surprise that in terms of the band's worldview, that's not treated as a bad thing. After all, they were famous for their second-hand clothes, and enjoying their first Top 20 success over a decade after their first recordings (albeit not with the same lineup) they must have felt like a second-hand band themselves sometimes.

Whilst His 'N' Hers failed to make the cut for the album of the same name, it embodies the main lyrical theme of the album, and indeed of much of Pulp's material at this time - a fear of domesticity. This is tricky territory for rock music, because most songs that try to do this end up sounding merely smug - and the standard ideas of "rebellious" "not like everybody else" lifestyles embraced by most rockers are every bit as conventional and unimaginative as that which they affect to disdain. What marks out much of Cocker's lyric writing in this period is partly the eye he had for detail and the sense of humour with which he describes this world, but mainly the sense of vulnerability he shows. He's not walking around boasting about how he's so much cleverer than people who work for a living: he's fearing the idea that his life might go nowhere. Indeed, this song seems distantly derived from a demo called 'Frightened', unreleased at the time but recalled here in the section where the protagonist is asked post-coitus what scares him: "Belgian chocolates... James Dean posters... endowment plans..." and so forth. He does admit in a 2006 sleevenote that this may have played on his mind all the more because their rehearsal room at the time was a warehouse of pottery figurines. It also prefigures later songs like 'I Spy', where sexuality is used as an escape from everyday life. It's not necessarily a convincing point of view, and its somewhat tawdry nature makes it a difficult place to spend a lot of time, but it's certainly a compelling one.

Even allowing for the fact that they'd gone four years between (recording) albums, it says quite a lot for the amount of music Pulp were writing at this stage that they were able to leave such high-quality material for what were, effectively, B-sides - for that matter, even 'Babies' wasn't on the original LP version of His 'N' Hers. In fact, I'm hardly the first to say this but the B-sides of this time are rather more impressive than those from the bigger and better Different Class.

Official website: Pulp People (not very up to date).
YouTube if you want to: The original 'Babies' video features more of Cocker's chest hair than was strictly necessary, but look out for a cameo role by Fred Pride. This release occasioned a more glamorous remake and for some reason a spoken-word version. This latter-day performance by a bearded Jarvis makes it easier to understand why Mrs Brown is so keen for me to shave. Somebody's also uploaded the audio of 'Seconds', and a live version of 'His 'N' Hers', complete with audience participation.
Where to get it: Your first port of call should surely be the 2006 deluxe version of His 'N' Hers, which includes all four of the songs discussed here (and 'Frightened') although the version of 'Babies' is the 1994 mix, as is that on Hits. The original single version shows up only on Pulpintro .
Also recommended are the DVD edition of Hits, rather more carefully put together than its compact disc equivalent, which includes both promo videos and the spoken-word edit. And Mark Sturdy's biography Truth & Beauty was very helpful and a genuinely entertaining read.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Number 20: 808 State

Lopez (ZTT ZANG87CD)

Chart Debut: 2nd Feb 1997

Writers: Bradfield/Wire/808 State

If the writing credit doesn't give it away, this is the second song out of three to feature the lead vocals of James Dean Bradfield; but as I'm writing this in a week when Beyonce has two singles in the Top 10 and eight other acts are in the Top 40 twice, I have no qualms. In fact the one thing that did put me off writing about this one was that I don't think I really know what it's about. The lyrics (by his bandmate Nicky Wire) are full of fascinating imagery: "Ultramarine, everything vanishes," "Joy gives me my last regret," and the one that makes it to the single cover "Every sun feels like the last"; but I certainly couldn't paraphrase them. Inevitably, it crosses my mind that the lyrics might be about Richey, and the armchair psychologist in me can imagine that he might have been more comfortable discussing the subject in a side-project than in the full glare of a Manics record that he knew would be examined in great detail. But I have no evidence at all of that.
Whether or not the lyrics are literally elegiac though, the music seems to have some of that quality about it, prefiguring the sound that the Manics would attempt (with varying degrees of success) on such albums as This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and Lifeblood. It's very swoopy, with judicious use of beats to create a somewhat cavernous atmosphere, that suits the despondency of the song. You can find the instrumental version at the bands's website if you so wish.It's different from most of the other 808 State material I'm familiar with ('Pacific State', 'In Yer Face', 'The Only Rhyme That Bites'). However, it did become their first Top 20 hit in a long time (helped no doubt by the newly-acquired starpower of the Manics, who'd had four Top 10 singles in 1996), even if it now seems almost entirely forgotten.
I have to admit, though, that none of this really meant much to me at the time. I have a vague idea that I heard the song on the chart rundown and failed to appreciate any of it. Only about four years later did I happen upon a copy of the CD single for £1 in one of those random cheap shops you see in towns - and I still might not have bought it had there not been a Propellerheads mix on the disc. With hindsight, one of the better pounds I've spent.

Official website:
YouTube if you want to: promo video.
Where to get it: As above, I bought this on single, but the Don Solaris album where the track first appeared has now been re-released in an expanded form. Alternatively, you can find it on the cumbersomely-titled retrospective 808:88:98