The Bangles – Eternal Flame
There are moments in his book Yeah Yeah Yeah where Bob Stanley makes an assertion so curious I’m compelled to track down the music to see if he’s right. This I did when he claimed the Bangles as ‘one of the best girl groups of the decade [the 80s]’. Listening to ‘Eternal Flame’ he has a point. If part of his point is (and I think it is) being able to detect traces of the girl groups of the sixties in the Bangles’ DNA. ‘Eternal Flame’ is as dramatic and impassioned as such songs as ‘Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)’ by The Shangri-Las or ‘Baby, I Love You’ by The Ronettes. And sound wise, though the production of those early 60s records is replaced by music box drum machine (a good thing – nullifying any ballad pretensions that ‘Eternal Flame’ might have had), you can hear in the timpani and reverb snare a nod to those first girl groups. It all becomes even more apparent if you watch the video to the song – the beginning’s slow fade and dissolve of each band member ratcheting up the drama. But if the singling out of Susannah Hoffs as lead singer in this video makes you hanker for the more democratic earlier days of the Bangles, watch the video to the woozy ‘Going Down to Liverpool’ (‘[one] of the greatest singles of the eighties’ – Stanley), featuring none other than, and why not, Leonard Nimoy.
Sometimes the saddest songs are the simplest. Sometimes these songs are country songs. ‘If I Could Only Fly’ would be unbearably sad if it wasn’t for that line “You know sometimes I write happy songs”. You can almost hear Foley give a wry smile as he sings it.
Cowboy Junkies – Blue Moon Revisited (A Song For Elvis)
Those already familiar with ‘Blue Moon’, written by Rodgers and Hart in the 1930s, most likely came to know it, as I did, through Elvis’s version. But if I’m being honest all I could remember of ‘Blue Moon’ was its chorus. Now a chorus can get you to forgive a lot in a song, but it can also prove to be so effective it overrides the rest in the memory. I thought this was what had happened to me. But on listening back to Elvis’s version I was struck, not by just how very odd it sounds, but to find that apart from some falsetto the chorus is all there is. And if it is all there is, is it right to call it a chorus?
The Cowboy Junkies interpretation of ‘Blue Moon’ uses the listener’s expectation of this chorus (for want of a better word). The guitar initially hides behind a descending bass line, as Margo Timmins hopes “pehaps…my baby walks back into my arms”, until it finally emerges to pick out a familiar melody. This is followed by Timmins’s voice as a crystal clear cold lake in which the chorus descends. And you realise this is what you’ve been waiting for. Then it’s gone; the song’s images slowly enveloping in on themselves, leaving you where you were in the beginning, listening to Timmins’s quiet unresolved hope.
John Martyn – Spencer the Rover
It’s a fact in my mind at least about any great bassist (Krist Novoselic or Carol Kaye to name two) the songs they played on would most likely have been great without them, but they would have been quite different and, yes ok, not as great. My current favourite bass player is Danny Thompson. He was a member of Pentangle and bass player with John Martyn, playing on many of Martyn’s 1970s albums. It was his attitude to playing music with Martyn, told to a BBC4 documentary on Martyn, which first endeared him to me: “We never ever discussed his poetry, his songs, the music content. We just got together and did it”.
‘Spencer the Rover’ is a good example of how this attitude transferred over to his playing: it’s sensitive but with no sentiment. He bows the double bass, entering on the third verse, and its low sweep anchors Martyn’s treated acoustic guitar and particular vocal delivery. And though the song has Martyn’s name on it, the sound of this traditional ballad is very much reached through collaboration. That it maybe doesn’t often get credited as such is another reason why Danny Thompson is such a great bassist.
Lloyd Cole and The Commotions – Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?
It used to be after no reply to two texts, and just as the third text was sent, came the sense of a little bit of pride or whatever disappearing. The development of other mediums of communication has meant that for those who feel inclined they can now delay this a little longer. Songwriters have frequently used this kind of anticipation as a subject for their songs – ‘Please Mr Postman’, ‘Hanging On the Telephone’ – but it’s on the chorus of this Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ song that the one question that inevitably has to be asked is asked; and it if can be done against the backdrop of backing vocals and acoustic guitars all the better – “Are you ready to be heartbroken?”
Kiss – God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You II
This version of ‘God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You’ by Kiss ticks a few boxes for me. It’s bound up with a memory I won’t bother you with here; it’s one of those song about, and extolling the virtues of, rock ‘n’ roll; and it’s also a cover song which does something quite different from the original. It‘s not a difference immediately obvious as it is with Devo’s cover of the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’, but there are small elements in Kiss’s version that set it apart, and indeed above, the original Argent version. And with the addition of that preposterous II at the end of the song title I think those involved in the record recognised it as well.
In the Argent original, after the intro, there is a lengthy guitar solo before the chorus enters. Kiss truncates this solo and get straight to the chorus (why hide the best bit a minute in). The organ is also absent in Kiss’s version. I’m not saying the organ cannot be rock ‘n’ roll, but in a song about Rock ‘N’ Roll the guitars really need to be pushed to the front. Luckily Kiss understood this and do exactly that.
This doesn’t mean Kiss’s version is all bluster and no subtlety. The section where it breaks down to just guitar and harmonies is a good example of where it‘s more subtle, more thought out than Argent’s. Within Kiss’s harmonies I can hear a greater nod towards that rock ‘n‘ roll instigated by The Beatles and the Beach Boys in the sixties. And there‘s also another nod, with the slightly (purposefully I‘d contend) over the top spoken outro, to girl groups such as The Shangri-Las.
So when this song was on the radio yesterday, it felt it a bit odd when the DJ said you don’t hear that “on this radio station very often”. They may be right, but you can hear Kiss’s influence on a band such as Super Furry Animals (‘For Now and Ever’ off their first album, and not just because of the spoken outro); and SFA are a band you hear plenty of on this specific station. And if you don’t credit this link between the two bands, well, then I point to SFA’s propensity for dressing up for gigs and their elaborate stage presentation. It‘s not such a great leap from that to Kiss and ‘God Gave Rock ‘N’ Roll To You II’.
John Cage – In A Landscape
This is ‘In a Landscape’ by John Cage. I was played this piece on Saturday. I knew nothing about John Cage, or his music, except I knew of him. Consequently I had no idea what or how to write about it. I’ve experienced this same sense of doubt with other genres. Dance music, for example, I’ve listened to, and have some knowledge of, but never have really felt I could write about it with any sense of depth or authority. It’s not that I couldn’t write about how ’In a Landscape’ makes me feel, or write of the solo piano there’s a kind of still beauty in it, it’s more I couldn’t substantiate these feelings by discussing the music itself, the composition. I mean it took me a while to decide, in that second sentence, if I should write ‘In a Landscape’ was a piece or a song. This question then threw up other questions around if certain styles of music need certain styles of writing. In trying to work this through I produced, in an initial draft, an ill thought out, not worked through and possibly inappropriate penis / drawer metaphor to use in a post about the music of John Cage. I did this ostensibly to keep the reader’s mind from the thought that perhaps I was merely transcribing initial thoughts on to the page about a song I’d chosen to write about at the last minute. But also I was perhaps trying to make a point that though I feel certain styles of music need, or lend themselves, to be written about it a certain way, this shouldn’t be the case, especially if it stops me thinking I can write about them. My hope then was by using this necessarily crude metaphor I might circumvent and challenge my own notions that were hobbling me. However, I removed the metaphor because even with that end result in mind, I persisted with the metaphor, I admit, beyond what was necessary (one sentence) which I couldn’t excuse. By taking it out now I’m not sure whether I’ve caved into that doubt. But I’ll leave out and leave it at this: though it’s sometimes good to have that authority, on other occasions something might be reached by not having it.