Ten Songs 7
1. Orange Juice - 'Falling and Laughing' (from The Glasgow School (Domino))
Am I even allowed near this? One gets beyond a certain age, and affectation becomes a whole lot less easy - if I were 17, had the toast-rack-ribbed whippet physique I had back then, and was not, as I had been, a social outcast; if I could go back to being a sexless teetotaller with a penchant for exiling himself to corners, this might be easier. As it is, the alternative rock masculinity this first release by Orange Juice minted has passed me by - just as one can't read Catcher In The Rye after a certain age. The studiedly thin, over-trebly guitar tone, the awkwardness of the bass and guitar's interactions, Edwyn Collins' apparent refusal to play the square-jawed lead, his voice sliding into all the unexpected positions, leaves the song floating free - of the acceptable aggression, harshness and melody-aversion of punk and post-punk, and of the clumpy stomp of the 60s beat-groups and pub-rockers Orange Juice admired (am I the only one to hear distant echoes of Wilko Johnson? Or, indeed, the none-less-masculine slur of Elvis Costello in Collins' wail?) - something more abstract, almost weightless, its structure almost strategically collapsing (a problem that would be shored up by the consummate professionalism of Jonny Marr when The Smiths took them as their template). It's almost impossible not to feel embarrassed, as by an old photograph of oneself, in the presence of Collins' pretended innocence, wilful disempowerment - "Avoid eye contact at all costs... All I'm saying/Is I'm alone" - just as it's impossible not to be charmed by the arse-backwards romance of his position, the ridiculous (but all too common) psychology he dramatises - the male subject overtaken (by a love that, notably, is free of sexuality, at least for the moment), as he simultaneously rejects it, the guitars rearranging into a distorted stomp as he disintegrates - "I want to take the pleasure with the pain". Not as if some of us have a choice.
2. Bikini Kill - 'Rebel Girl' (from Pussy Whipped (Kill Rock Stars)) / Le Tigre - 'Deceptacon' (from Le Tigre (Wiija))
If the measure of a song is how whether it inspires co-ordinated dance-routines then 'Deceptacon' is a masterpiece - as Anwyn has remembered, Le Tigre gigs saw break-outs of such frenzy; my friend S., on whom I had a massive crush, has a youtube video of her and housemates in such a routine. She was the first person I met at university to identify as a feminist, and, though more tentatively on both our parts, as queer. Dousing her, in our conversations, drunk or sober, with my ill-considered opinions, was, I thought, less an imposition and more the enthusiastic education of a fellow-traveller - two years younger than me, barely out of school, I felt both protective and jealous: she had ahead of her the time I'd lost. Mingled with the frustrated dreams, sweaty against the interior of my skull, was the thought that love (as I put it rather grandly at the time) could not exist without mutual recognition undistorted by the unreal ideological substitutions and manipulations of patriarchal capitalism. Sex free of the oedipal baby-feeding complex that was the result of the 60s. Wishful thinking: it's something I've yet to find outside of pop records, though one does catch its shadow out the corner of one's eye, more and more so these days. Thus, in Bikini Kill's 'Rebel Girl', between the martial drums and barely controlled cracked-string assault of the guitar, Kathleen Hanna's voice not even snotty, beyond mere defiance or disgust: "The revolution's coming, in a kiss/In her kiss I taste the revolution!" A self-assertion writ in raw electricity, vocal cords twisted with lust for a world yet to come ("I wanna try on yr clothes, yeah!"), smashing apart any notions of angel-in-the-house tastefulness or mere aping of male rock - no men, content in their tepid pool of testosterone, could do this, this repeated adrenaline surge bitten off in less than 3 minutes. 7 years later, and 'Deceptacon' is ramming you up against the wall of the discotheque: Hanna spieling in a distorted speed-freak squawk like she's racing the bass-line to the end of the song ("I'm outta time, I'm outta fucking time"), machine-gun strafed by the synth, punctured by temporal disruptions as brilliant as the Bomb Squad's scratches on 'Night of the Living Baseheads' - the shouts of "One, two, three four", the guitar flurry that sounds almost sped-up on the turntable, the chorus that drops out to just hi-hat, snare and voice. As it simultaneously demolishes the ethic of unproblematic hedonism - more often than not capitalised on as an excuse for phallocentric pleasure ("Let me hear you depoliticise my rhyme") - it affirms the dancefloor and dance - it's certainly impossible to imagine not at least wiggling in one's seat (something the DFA remix, slowing the song to an alter-1977 disco swoon, confirms) - the discotheque, in the arc of bodies, the contact of skin on sweaty skin, nerve on nerve, as a space of resistance. As Hanna sings later in 'Hot Topic', "So many rules and so much opinion/So much bullshit but we won't give in".
3. Richard Youngs - 'Cluster To A Star' (from Under Stellar Stream (Jagjaguwar))
Perhaps the most evocatively minimal Youngs has gotten since 1998's Sapphie (excluding, of course, the improv albums): brooding bedrock of bass drone, low curlicues of organ, star-shine of metallic ring in the background, voice. And God, what a voice. Youngs seems to do essentially the same thing in every vocal performance (again, minus the improv records): a coppertone trawl through a series of refrains whose imagery and sound overlap like Venn-diagrams, each repetition placing a very slightly shifted emphasis, like a jazz soloist approaching, hitting and cycling back towards the same set of chord changes. His judgement of the abstract weight and feel of sound, inherited from experimental music, remains as impeccable as, say, Morton Feldman's (though his is far less of a barely-there high-wire act). And though the sense of clean, biting freshness in his work, his frightening work ethic (it's no wonder 'Arise Arise' sounds partly like a motivational song: "Arise the slack sun... Arise procrastination"), might erroneously persuade us to lump him in with the cold-baths-and-bare-knees brigade, the voice here, as on the similarly bare River Through Howling Sky, is freighted with both wonder and a deep, cosmic loneliness - at seeing the curve of the earth repeated in the faces of friends, and of knowing that is all we have.
4. The Jesus And Mary Chain - 'Upside Down' (from 'Upside Down/Vegetable Man' 7" (Creation))
It was in one of those Mojo top 100 lists - in this case, the greatest moments in the history of the guitar, or something similarly ludicrous. (Looking back, I'm unsurprised there was no mention of Bailey, Rowe, Sharrock, Masayuki Takayanagi - though they did mention U2's Boy, of all things...) It is, of course, completely incoherent, anticipating the solipsistic burial of the mumbling self in shoegaze; it's hardly even, as the blurb suggested it was, a brilliant pop song coated in feedback, although what you can hear of the melody suggests they'd have made a good West Coast pop-punk group. But merely by their context the electric-air wails of amp-splintering feedback - which no-one would bat an eyelid at in a Merzbow song - become as exquisitely dirty as mainlined exhaust fumes.
5. Ben Frost - 'Leo Needs A New Pair of Shoes' (from By The Throat (Bedroom Community))
In spite of what you might hear, no, it really isn't as bad as all that. Not at the moment, at least - the short, sharp 'Through The Glass Of The Roof', following this, asserts the primacy of nastiness, but that doesn't make this the next Pita album. Rather, distortion, glitch, the burr of hacked-up circuitry, stalks the album like a malevolent shadow: here, it hangs, almost as an undertone, beneath the thicket of banjo and icy cascades of piano and Nico Muhly-esque strings, until, at 3.49, the first sandpaper trickle of granulated synth drops in - sudden, lowering almost to a subliminal flow, dropping out again as the strings rise and flit about. We're suddenly well aware of how lost we are, and alone, should the surroundings turn against us. The sawing grain of cello, the dark voice of the wind looming up out of the forest, and then - teasing it out for another two minutes, leaving us waiting, in its gradual subsidence, for the other shoe to drop.
6. Chic - 'Good Times' (from Chic's Greatest Hits (Atlantic))
A song that actually seems more familiar from sampling than from first-hand listening - but that's unsurprising. The only Chic songs in my childhood accompanied drive-time disco slots (multiple plays of the short version of 'Le Freak'), and, I thought, Celebrations adverts (only years later did I find out this was in fact Kool and the Gang) - hence I never heard anything less than innocent in them. When I first heard the middle-eight bass-line and group chant severed by scratches, cut with fragments of other voices in 'Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel', as a 15-year old barely acquainted with black music, exiled in the suburbs of a provincial south-coast town, it seemed impossibly strange and glamorous, the audio-remnant of a world accessible only through records (although the idea of liking pop music-as-such was just as strange to me at the time). I now can't listen to it without hearing those cuts, without knowing what would be extrapolated from this eight supremely finessed minutes by the poor kids in the next borough. I remember reading a Mojo article interviewing Bernie Edwards and Nile Rodgers, a scattering of clues I'd only later be able to divine: the social milieu of New York's disco-districts, the influence of Roxy Music, the sense in which they were inheriting a tradition of sonically and rhythmically innovative black music (James Brown's iconoclasm, Norman Whitfield's Motown productions, Funkadelic, electric Miles), the sweet tang of freedom hot and close as discotheque sweat. And none of this is irrelevant as the song locks into a groove as inevitable, as clockwork-perfect, as anything more outwardly 'respectable' (Neu!, Harmonia), the bass progression so flush with a Zen rightness that you wish it were your own heartbeat, pulling you ever onwards, through guitar, laser-slashes of strings and group vocals placed seemingly by maths (droppin' science indeed) - almost as if the body's movements that would inevitably follow were pre-programmed into its composition. It is, indeed, an invitation to the dance (prefacing as it does the LP's closer, the even more stately 'My Feet Keep Dancing'), a declaration that all is well in the moment of flux that is dance, the life you (by which, as always, I mean I) were always exiled, thought you would never know - "Don't be a drag/Participate".
7. Sparks - 'Number One Song In Heaven' (from No. 1 In Heaven (Virgin))/'Lighten Up Morrissey' (from Exotic Creatures of the Deep (Lil' Beethoven))
The other part of that utopian-sex equation (see above): machines. The neurotic precision of the Mael brothers' hits - glam-pop engines fine-tooled to a manic perfection - seems to have inevitably guided them to the alter-human intensity of disco - and, more particularly, the machine-divinity of Giorgio Moroder's arpeggiated synthscapes, whose work on Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love' had long since put him at the centre of the trans-Atlantic disco world. The centrepiece of their album with Moroder is both an interesting deviation from, and absolute realisation of the Sparks aesthetic - a song so dense with puncta it's like glancing, for a second, the Platonic ideal of the pop song, from the irresistible escalator of the central synth-pattern, the lights-up blare from the synths as it approaches the chorus, Russell's nuts-in-vice falsetto, turning to a literally angelic glide over the trembling lights of the song's final minute, a sky streaked by laser-beams of electronics. (Lest we forget, Dante's description of the sun in heaven, ascending with Beatrice: "an endless jubilee of light with light"). Then there's the Eco-friendly meta-textuality of the song, reminding us, as the needle counts down the grooves of the record, that what's being transcribed to air is literally top of the charts in paradise, enriching earth by osmosis: "The song filters down, down through the clouds... In cars it becomes a hit/In your homes it becomes advertisements/And in the streets it becomes the children singing". At the middle eight, the synths break down into subaqueous swarms of single notes, a demonstration of how "Gabriel plays it"; Ron Mael, all three of him, turns to the camera, a delicious asynchrony between the drum-machine pounding and his handclaps (presaging, perhaps, the handclaps that would fill the electro productions Moroder spawned, and on to house) - in bursting out of the fourth-wall templates pre-created for it, pop fulfils the Nietzschean dictum "Become what you are", crystallises the out-beyond-the-stars drive so many of these records encode. Like 'I Feel Love', it is the kind of record that makes you take pop at face value, that forces you to believe that these sounds, taking over your body and night-thoughts, are important. The fact that, though the Maels themselves are oddly sexless, they did all this in the company of the producer of perhaps the most sexually alchemical records of the 20th century, in whose hands the synthesiser became an orgone accumulator, is itself significant - and who can deny the final-minute soar of voice and synth, almost melding together (the old myth of subject-object in congress), as like standing on the edge of getting it on? I'm put in mind of my friend L.'s recent remark that sex was "like being told 'Welcome to the human race'". Hence, on the same album, 'Tryouts For Human Race': a menacing synth cascade out of a slightly jazzier John Carpenter film, Russell desperate and hunted, Ron impassive, more synth than man - "We're just a gleam in lover's eyes, steam on sweaty bodies in the night... Pressure building, gettin' hot, give it, give it, give it all you got/When that love explosion comes, my, oh my, we want to be someone". The knowledge that not everyone makes it, and that the price of inconstant vigilance is exile - years stacking up with the dust in the bedsit, the cats the only living thing within contact: "One of us might make it through, the rest will disappear like dew". And thus also, the counterweight: the spectacularly flippant first single from Sparks' don't-call-it-a-comeback album, reminding us that gloom only begets more gloom, that we remain alive by the knowledge that human life is a comedy. Oh yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.
8. Astral Social Club - 'Smash Crater #1' (from ASC/Glockenspiel split 7" (Krayon))
More of the sodding same. And we love it: Neil Campbell's mxmlst techno solo project continues to spill forth goodness, perhaps even more frenetic, and more centralised, than the swarming, sprawling overloads of Octuplex earlier in the year. Dropped, as usual, in media res, and cutting out as if the track were merely one excerpt from an infinite strip of sound, we're confronted with a liquid piston-pump of a central beat, increasingly layered with what sound like Oval-glitches slipping in yr right ear, sub-aqueous arpeggios of detuned synth, and, over all, a miasma of noise that sounds like he close-miked a children's waterpark slide. What's remarkable is, firstly, the way in which these apparently disturbing ingredients gel into a composition as tight, as pop, indeed, as this turns out to be - it's obvious that it's the same artificial intoxication behind the bent synths of wonky and this - and secondly, the sense of multiple perspectives mashed together in one sonic artefact - that what we are hearing is both a towering kinetic sound-sculpture, and a microscopic look at tiny processes; the minds-eye picture is of cell-reproduction, the flood of chemicals and creation of energy. Every time we listen to it, the ear focuses at different moments on varying layers and points of sound. The flip by Glockenspiel, an almost-ambient piece very different from what we've come to expect of them, is also extremely fine.
9. Robert Wyatt - 'Old Europe'/'Tom Hay's Fox' (from Cuckooland (Domino))
The first taste of Robert Wyatt I ever heard was on a Rykodisc sampler free with a magazine when this album was first released - the relatively sedate and straightforward (in surface at least) 'Lullaby For Hamza'. Of course, relistening it becomes more obvious just how much darkness lurks the surface of mere melancholy, the horror intensified by being backgrounded; in that sense, it was a kind of prequel to Comicopera's Otto Dix diptych, 'A Beautiful War' and 'Out of the Blue'. After the austerity of the 'truth-telling' records of the 80s, the lush thickets of horns and woodwinds, shuffling through their usual elegant two-steps, were rather comforting by comparison. Indeed, the second track from Cuckooland is all about that sense of comfort: the mid-century black-and-white Paris of be-bop, Gauloises, "Juliette and Miles", "the strains of a ghost saxophone" - the exoticism of a world existing in photographs and imported records. But also a world now consigned to memory, the mood indigo of regret and remembrance - "I'll be dreaming again/Always dreams of yesterdays" - for a man stranded in a present dominated by the Iraq War. Over as languid a shuffle of brushed snares and piano as one can get without their being actually horizontal, Gilad Atzmon's tenor doodles verging-on-cheesy licks. Wyatt is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a crooner in the classic mould, his voice too flattened and attenuated for even the role of the smoky-voiced older gent, but that's the point: voice doubled, he sounds like a half-heard record hissing in the corner of the room, his luxuriant nostalgia tinged by doubt, by the present darkening the corners, as his cornet and Atzmon's saxes engage in an ever more frenzied dance. A darkness that slips into full view just afterwards: 'Tom Hay's Fox' opening with piano that seems to resonate from the bottom of a well, a whoosh of forlorn synths, and, eventually, Wyatt's chilling, exhausted mutter, a character escaped from Beckett's Endgame. "The alley's never been blinder. What light there is, is too diffused to indicate any direction." Old Europe may be a bone-heap, but at least represents a semblance of humanity (as Marcello Carlin noted at the time, France's refusal to participate in the Iraq War seems to have been in the back of Wyatt's mind), a world, in his memory, undarkened by the dust of bombed houses. A world in which we may still find "the ghost of two people in love".
10. Wham! - 'Last Christmas' (from If You Were There... The Best of Wham! (Epic))
The winter nights seem to recede, one by one, back into eternity. The oversized jackets, the red hat, closer to a tea-cosy, pulled down over ears too big for the head, hands red and aching as soon as you hit warmth. The suburb lying still, frost building up on the car like a horn skin. In the back garden, the pond a white sheet, fish translucent, suspended. When I came back to university after the Christmas holidays last year, every body of standing water was locked in place, white and solid (traffic cones and shopping trolleys, detritus from student hijinks, stuck in the sheet, snow piling around them). I had been glad to see the back of 2008: an anti-climax of a year, in which I'd been reduced from a responsible adult to a barely-functioning recluse - thwarted, frozen by frustration, and now returned to "this inanimate cold world." One wonders, still, whether there was any world waiting beyond those frozen moments - whether the promised thawing, the green of spring was not, in the end, the spectre of an addled brain, there and gone again.
I remember nothing of the Christmas number ones of my childhood. The only records my parents owned were tapes in a box, bought in their younger days; their choice of local radio station meant the same bouquet of (semi-)oldies in constant circulation, the debris of the recent past, back before it came into its hipster-nostalgia cache: the cheesier end of disco, novelty pop (Renee and Renato, Xmas no. 1 1982), The Human League, Kylie, Bananarama, Soft Cell, Madness, Spandau Ballet. Almost nothing from the latter half of the decade slipped in. My mother was, in particular, a massive fan of Wham! and George Michael - and so, every year, there was this: the half-cheery nodding-dog synth-riff, the snow-cushioned drum-machine, the cheddar-whiff of chimes on the chorus, George Michael straying, as usual, nearly the wrong side of 'operatic'. When it was first released, my parents - married at about the age I am now - were still in the better half of their 20s, living in a town they'd only known, from their tiny village, as the weekend destination for thrills. I was four years away, not even a twinkle in the eye. I can see what attracted them: Wham! had been, since their first single, 'Young Guns (Go For It!)', the half-unwitting spokesmen for yuppie-culture - bright, brimming, a choreographed advertisement for get-on-yr-bike positivity. (Think of all those exclamation marks!) 'Hotel Tropicana', flooding a wholly ersatz brightness and material excess into the charts of the Thatcherite deep winter, foreshadowed the polyester suits-and-cocaine City culture that followed the stock market boom. And, playing the Typical Pop Band - and if there ever was a pop band who could claim to be typical, it was Wham! - there was the Christmas Single. I can almost picture my parents - young, working-class, aspirational - slow-dancing to it in their poky flat in the glow of their undersized tree.
There's a tearing bittersweetness to the narrative, even down to the video: the fit of passion, in the close warmth of the ski lodge and the shortness of the season, sundered "the very next day". And now, the two of them trapped again - proximity, the possible spark of contact, only heightening the fact of distance: "I'm hiding from you/And your soul of ice". And, underpinning it all, the knowledge that the heart deceiveth above all things: "Now I know/What a fool I've been/But if you kiss me now/I know you'll fool me again". Almost blatantly Petrarchan in its fire-and-ice tropes, its twisted contradiction, it emerges in spite of itself as a map of damage done by desire, by lost opportunity: "A man under cover, but you tore me apart". Christmas comes only once each year: we can count each step towards the grave in Yuletides, each one slipping visibly by. Total entropy - the world's energy dwindles to nothing: we're two years and a long way from the hopes of New Pop. 'Last Christmas' came second in the Christmas 1984 charts to the first Band Aid single, the solidification of spectacular power that would culminate in the vast non-event of Live Aid; one can almost hear, in the glossy hiss of the synths, the world ossifying - as striking miners huddled around braziers, houses frozen for lack of the very thing they hauled from the ground. How many radios in pit villages, steel towns, dead blots on a ravaged landscape, were playing this?
I watch the video again. Outside, a slate-grey sky unleashes rain. The reported snow coating the south-east has avoided Bournemouth, where, my sister in Switzerland and my alleged friends here refusing to answer my emails, I'll be spending Christmas with my parents. I'll also be spending it mostly drunk, probably. I can't help thinking of that unintended stolen glance next to the tree, the careless whisper of that verse: the look at the crowded dinner-table, the loss regretted before it even came to be, the future, in scenes that might or might not be fantasy towards the end, that never was, or will be. Not this year, nor last year. Next year, perhaps. For now, we listen.