Hmm remember a time not so long ago when the 1980s were universally reviled for their incredible lack of palatable music and general hilarity in that anyone would ever be seen dead in legwarmers and a ra-ra skirt. Yet how soon we are to forget... or maybe it was all a media confection anyway, as is much of the so-called popular imagination of the 80s. So I have to admit that I was surprised to find that some of my now favourite bands existed in the 80s and produced surely some of the most compelling music ever committed to vinyl and cassette, now CD and iPod (perhaps even mini-disc if that cute format had not been relegated to the Betamax pages of technology history). It seems that others have been thinking along the same lines and now the lies have been swept away. Saxophone solos are not necessarily the work of Satan as we are discovering - although not strictly from the 80s, Hiroshima Mon Armour by Ultravox! showed that saxophones can be tasteful, it was only over-use by Trevor Horn and others that destroyed its credibility (perhaps). Over-indulgence in the studio (drugs as well as music) would not necessarily result in a cringing unlistenable mess as long as the creative impulse was not completely shot to pieces - step forward Sulk by Associates which is near as dammit the most perfect album ever and it comes out of the 80s ha ha! And so a new generation of young persons are reclaiming the good elements of the 80s that have so long been subsumed beneath the dross loved by the media - so instead of Japan we have Duran Duran, instead of Propaganda we have Frankie Goes to Hollywood, instead of Associates we have Wham and instead of Ultravox! we have Ultravox (okay this is where it gets confusing so post-Foxx Ultravox to be more precise). Why can't we have them all? I say we should fight for an alternative history of music! And fall in love with those falling in love with the true spirit of the 80s... Ladyhawke, Late of the Pier, Ladytron, These New Puritans, Wild Beasts. That should be enough to get the Recession party started...
Some perverse syncronocity is at work, so lets explore the links between three works that perhaps bear no relation to each other yet seem to clump together in my consciousness. Well it's not that they don't share anything... all written in the musical ferment of the early 80s, the wonky new pop influence evident -Club Country (1982) bringing up latent memories of Club Tropicana (1983); picture the scene as the cod flamenco guitars of Alan Rankine strike up, the studios dissolve in a blue haze and past sails George Michael on his lilo, cocktail in hand smiling charmingly at Billy MacKenzie's untamed exotic vocal stylings whilst beside the pool friend Robert Smith dances blissfully, the seeds of Birdmad Girl (1984) being planted inside, he only turning arch cynicism into sweetness. Lets go so far as to suggest that the next link in the chain be La Isla Bonita (1987) only now the sweetness has become cloying, the early stabs at hedonism (even if to sneer) replaced with faux nostalgia for a popstar's dreams...
So my ipod has discovered it's favourite bands to be The Cure and Joy Division. Okay so there is no proof of a conspiracy but sitting here this morning already there have been 5 tracks by the Cure and its not as if they are the most represented band on here... Associates and Japan might enter into fisticuffs to gain THAT title! Not that I'm complaining mind, I have this strange Philip K Dick-inspired idea that the ipod is somehow designed to tap into the feelings emanating from your brain waves so that it tailors the music (when on shuffle) to suit your mood - hence last night when I was feeling a bit down it responsed quite brilliantly with Fight (The Cure) amongst others with it's inspiring lyrics to fight against the gloom that engulfs you in its bitter embrace. Apart from Pornography though - which remains a difficult album for me to digest even in the happiest of moods - I find the Cure strangely uplifting, as with Joy Division, perhaps even with the strange howling of Bauhaus in the flat fields, the recognition that these despondent feelings are not yours alone.
Wow this band... every time I put this album on I just want to spin around the room in mental way singing my head off (although some of the songs don't have words just create fantastic pictures...) I guess if I had to describe the sound it would be a mash of voice and plastic, muzak and laughter, pathos and inebriation, the headlong crash of youth discovering it has no boundaries 'cept itself. All the usual cliches LOL. I found it after the fire at Weston pier which kind of made sense to the name.... 'Space and the Woods' - favourite things condensed into sound with (trying to be profound) lyrics (got to love the pretentiousness of youth) 'I know they don't owe me anything not after what I've done'... but what crime is that except to make a superb album? 'Heartbeat' another stunner despite the lack of actual lyrics. getting work up a treat 'a heartbeat a flicker a line' but does it mean except on a machine (it's just a line after all)? I feel them crawl into the cables... saving the best till last a magnificent stomp along this 'bathroom gurgle' ... it could mean so many things... the gurgle of water, the gurgle as blood is drawn... hey come on they put these thoughts in my head! "we have all been wasting our time" don't worry guys it's just false modesty...
Imagine a bastard child of the Associates and Orange Juice, throw in a dictionary and tales of furtive goings on and you are close to imagining the sound of Wild Beasts. The song titles are a delight in themselves, the imaginatively entitled 'Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants' with its catchy (if a mouthful) refrain and the evocative 'She purred while I grrred ' tells you all you need to know... finally a band with an acute sense of the absurd arrives to brighten a turgid offering from over-hyped indie miseries and 80s copyists. Because for all their subtle similarities there is something new and exciting afoot.... so the Associates link is not lazily made to referencing singer Hayden's operatic yearnings but as a context for the oblique lyrics and obscure sense of humour that is demonstrated (of course there has been bands since but I fail to remember any at the present moment), such beauties as 'take these chips with cheese / as an offering of peace' and perhaps the most arresting as it floats across a crowded field, sung in all seriousness. Lilting guitars and the deeper richness of bassist Tom's voice combine to create a sublimity rightly championed by Steve Lamacq amongst others, for, above all, how could a band not be loved for such lines as 'I swear by my own cock and balls'? It is unfathomable.
If pop was always this obscene and this beautiful, a discovery that only you've made crawling into the myriad sounds conjured up by the machines, selling your soul to the statuesque alabaster carved of English and German uniting in the hands of megalomania of sound... power force motion drive propels its forward on wings of fairlight constructions, is it a sense of humour or wilful perversity that drops a jazz solo for goodness sake into this teutonic wilderness, lives and loves are lost in the blink of an eye, you murdered love 'I was the witness but now I'm the judge... I am the judge! And I judge this to be more than a guilty pleasure, dripping in the decadence of the 80s mania for pop - dance away the shoulder pads and celebrate the melancholy redolent under mascara tinged skies. Sorry for laughing but how can you turn a hyper-mania indie dirge legend to a synth drenched industrial pop dirge only a genius would even have the lunacy to attempt it but to pull it off... there is magic here in spades, the most unlikely spaces thrill with glitter; Jewel the sound of cheese graters if they could sing, its counterpart Duel so ludicrously conventional you have to wonder... 'Frozen faces can always melt' so throw away those assumptions now! Its sooooo 80s but can you forgive just a teeny bit for the marvellous pomposity of it all, feel the drama as everything AND the kitchen sink is flung in (somewhere even synth pop supremo David Sylvian lurks before he turned his back on artifice and reclaimed his soul). Selling my soul, selling my soul, never look back (goodbye the modern age with your dreary copyists)... it has the super shiny sheen of gloss Trevor Horn's sticky fingers by association even if he was too taken by the sleaze of Frankie and the hyperbole of Morley taints it still but a synth pop treat best consumed vociferously.
If you told me a few months ago that I would be listening to music which seems to be inspired by those who live in the endless deserts grassy savannahs and tangled forests away from the superficiality of the western world, the silence in-between the puzzle of existence, isolated communities, ambient jazz noodlings and mystical spiritualism then I probably would have laughed for a long and hysterical moment. Needless to say my changed has been changed from contact with the long and interesting career of David Sylvian. Prior to recent David Sylvian had existed for me in that periphery in the mind rarely explored, a name with such connotations attached as world music, difficult, obscure, a pretentious and aloof chap (also mixed up with David Byrne) but with little actual meaning. So when the name becomes something real it is hard to resist the category being dragged up, assumptions and all, to be re-fashioned into something new and exciting. So the category David Sylvian now means a rich complexity of sound, the only singer I can give time to for ambient jazz (yes really) David Sylvian I have to hand it to him. He has kept me going in the times when I felt down, the rich melancholic timbre of his voice at once soothing and troubling, the gentle hush of twilight in an over-stimulated world. Like Billy Mackenzie he underwent something of a dramatic change from a very mannered, (if not as hysterical as Billy M), approach to singing, finding and settling in with his voice over a number of years, along with the relentless desire to experiment with music and seeming to push himself into new territory with each new release. The one thing holding it all together is his voice, familiar, easing gently into more adventurous soundscapes.
Perversely I started with the album which is considered to be the most difficult to listen to - Blemish - written during the break-up of Sylvian's marriage and completed in a relatively short time. Although the accompanying instrumentals were stark (at times the scratching of a guitar is the only embellishment) and the songs at times could be accused of being rambling, I was surprised how quickly I took to the album. Particularly compelling were the sentiments explored - 'How little we need to be happy' and 'The heart knows better' really struck a chord and filled me with confidence that experimental music does not have to be a chore or a pose but can be enjoyed.
Going back in time Brilliant Trees was Sylvian's first solo album after the split with Japan, interesting in that it sounds almost nothing like his previous work (see the Dolphin Brothers Catch the Fall for a more obvious take on what Japan might have sounded like had they not imploded) but explores different musical textures including jazz (shudder) and acoustic. It could be a mess but musically its coherent and held together by its themes of understanding your place in the world (inspired by reading Sartre's Nausea which accentuates the desire of intellectual pretensions so missing in some music). 'Pulling punches' opens the collection in an exhilarating way, perhaps the most upbeat number, followed by 'Red Guitar' which is my absolute favourite even despite the obvious jazz influenced piano, regarded rather disgustingly by a friend of mine, which only endeared it to me more. More introspective are 'Nostalgia' and 'Brilliant Trees' and no less wonderful for it.
Everything and nothing (with its plaintive cover) is a quick way to come up to speed with the work of Sylvian, an anthology of his work whilst with Virgin records, including the albums Dead Bees on a cake and Secrets of the beehive as well as various rarities and singles that have not made it onto previous albums. It also includes the glorious 'Pop Song' which Sylvian apparently wrote in response to being asked to do something more commercial... as you can imagine it is anything but, merging discordant chords with grumbling lyrics and for the possessor of such an emotion-filled voice it emerges that it is possible for Sylvian to sound utterly blank. A superb two fingers to the charts (needless to say it didn't get anywhere but are we surprised?) 'Bamboo Houses' continues the Eastern influences so explicit in Japan's music and it is the diversity of the styles covered that so intrigues; Sylvian has the intelligence to surround himself with excellent musicians that are as eager to deconstruct sound as he is.
Despite the power of his voice, the largely instrumental albums that Sylvian has released are not disappointing in that they lack which is so appealing. Gone to Earth contains some of the most evocative music I have ever heard, conjuring up hidden idylls in their titles as well as the soundscapes created; 'A Bird of Prey vanishes into a bright blue cloudless sky' and 'Sunlight seen through towering trees' leave no mystery as to the atmospheres they wish to create in the imagination. This is the second half of the album, the first half is concerned with songs that are just as beautiful, even the lengthy 'Wave' (over nine minutes) does not outstay its welcome and (excuse the terrible analogy) ebbs and flows with Sylvian's emotional lyrics, very compelling. 'Taking the veil' is much gentler yet throbs with the same power. It is purely an emotional engagement, I find myself at a loss exactly how to articulate the impact... the same too with Alchemy: An Index of possibilities which brings together other instrumentals, the short 'Words with the Shaman, Pt 2: Incantation' (featuring lively percussion from Steve Jansen) is gripping, impossible to guess exactly where all the sounds come from (real or taped) but of this earth. It is grounded, evocative of the difference to be discovered when conventional approaches are abandoned. It is a constant; Japan were playing with difference, even if it seems submerged under style, and Sylvian to me represents the ceaseless roaming of an unsettled soul, seeking for constancy, perhaps not finding (or wishing) to find it...
Having become worryingly addicted to David Sylvian in the interim of writing my last blog post (but more about that later) I found this little gem of an 80s album (1987 to be precise) lurking on itunes accessible through one of those handy little collections that itunes cunningly puts together to tempt you to buy more stuff having, as it does, a tenuous connection to some loved performer (in this case Japan). In this case the connection is not so tenuous as the Dolphin Brothers are bona fide former members of Japan, Steve Jansen (brother of David Sylvian, clatterer of drums) and Richard Barbieri (wielder of synth) sounding here very much like Japan 'gone commercial', Jansen even sings spookily like his big brother. In many ways this album is atrocious, it has that forgettable late 80s production sheen, world music pretensions, too many instruments, obligatory female backing singers but with enough of a smattering of the stuff that made Japan so brilliant, lurking there just beneath the surface... but lacking (really) whatever made them so compelling (also see John Foxx's and the Associates' work around this time which is enough to knock any hero from their pedestal). However there is something endearing about how from the wreckage of a band implosion comes offerings that are not quite but almost... so 'Catch the Fall' floats into consciousness pleasantly enough, 'Shining' wears its POP pretensions all over its sugary saturated sleeves... theres some wonky guitar wriggling through 'Second Sight' ... then I realise that Jansen and Barbieri are standing by some trees, ahem in a very similar (arty) manner to Sylvian on 'Brilliant Trees' a bit too convenient and the pink filter looks naff... well you get the idea I suppose, the guitars get a little bit more bombastic on 'Real Life real answers' but this is a mostly inoffensive affair. 'Pushing the River' ends on a positive if melancholic note, despite its lightweight sound at strange variance to the attempt at portentiousness it has one of those chord changes that weaves it's magic and invites surrender... one of those magical moments that exists in the space between voice, chord, instrument when there's a pause, Steven Jansen sings "I'd die for you" and the music swells to meet him as the lump rises in the throat... and you realise that even trifling obscure 80s music can have that impact and pretentiousness evaporates.
the early incarnation of japan was inspired by the de reigeur roxy music, david bowie and new york dolls, 'obscure alternatives' an apt title being largely ignored by the UK music press (so obscure) as being derided for their outmoded approach to music in the light of post-punk and new wave (so alternative). it rather goes against that quaint British idea that we like to champion the underdog. so there is a certain misery pervading japan's otherwise brimful of youthful enthusiasm and defiance throughout (not least on the cover where they stare dolefully), echoed in titles 'sometimes i feel so low' and 'deviation' and subject matter which deals with colonialism (Rhodesia), as well as more traditional subjects. it is not hard to imagine why the band decided on a complete overhaul in time for their next album (Quiet life) however it is not so bad, instrumental 'The Tenant' revealing a calm and quiet beauty that exists alongside the claustrophobia.
the musical journey continues albeit meandering down another path which appears to be sign posted 'new romantic' but then has been hastily scribbled out by another hand rather crudely. ah Japan, until today only a dimly acknowledged existence in my mind but from today an essential part of a late 70s, early 80s musical odyssey. and yes you have to be quick as japan had a pretty short shelf life, like the associates imploding at the height of their chart success, a long-winded climb which saw many fits and start, break-ups and changes of direction from glam rock poseurs to new romantic visionaries. japan are also credited with producing one of the most oddest chart hits in 'ghosts', its anxious vocals laid over seemingly random, atonal synth creations (like someone messing in the studio) but strangely compelling as these songs always are. 'ghosts' kicks off this retrospective which largely ignores the glam rock beginnings and starts from third album 'quiet life' where they ditched this direction and set off on a far more melodic path augmented with synths, brass, sax, but as opposed to their peers (like Ultravox for instance) setting it off on a creative tangent towards the East. i would suggest that whilst every CD insert wishes to claim some kind of superiority for every single outsider 80s band in inspiring a myriad copyists, Japan is the only band so far where I can hear the obvious. 'Quiet life' for instance resonates with staccato guitar, chundering synth and David Sylvian's rich, languorous, if drawling, voice, immediately showing where Duran Duran got most (if not all) their inspiration from - 'girls on film' is clearly 'quiet life' recycled and re-processed. sure there are also references in the music, most obvious to me from roxy music (sometimes sylvian sounds uncannily like bryan ferry) and probably david bowie as well since every band in this period seems to owe a debt to Bowie (one day I might listen to him to find out how). a glance at the videos on Youtube also shows why japan are credited with the 'new romantic' tag, they are all bouffant hair, lipgloss, eyeliner and quiet flamboyance. apparently david sylvian was thrown out of school for wearing make up and dying his hair, still pretty subversive now since you only have to look at the comments on youtube to see that people cannot cope with such expressions of individualism without having to denigrate them. Like the best pop songs here you will find defiance in the face of indifference, flamboyance shot through with melancholy or something more sinister. the lyrics of 'gentlemen take polaroids' for instance seem to have a creepy subtext but you would not guess that from the way the song floats along woozily from the speakers and into your ears, until the prolonged ending of ghostly sighs. two songs about parties - 'the art of parties' and a cover of 'all tomorrow's parties' - promise disappointment rather than the smiles that come from balloons and jelly and ice cream (add 'party fears two' and 'i'm a party' to make the most miserable party ever!) as i'm keeping a tally i might as well mention that yes there is saxophone, most noticeably on 'methods of dance' which is also the stand out track for me here, blending female vocals, the afore-mentioned high keening noodling sax, moaning bass, glockenspiels, and near-indecipherable lyrics, all of which hit their emotional receptors in my brain with gusto. kudos also to the mesmerising 'taking islands in africa' and 'nightporter' which showcases Sylvian's voice with minimal backing of piano and oboe (or clarinet), very affecting. as an introduction it worked its magic on me and now I am seeking to investigate the japan back catalogue. see you in the racks!
there is something highly claustrophobic about the new wave, post-punk movement; after all the social values against which punk railed, perhaps the only ones brave enough to show the ugly side (despite the condemnation of punk as nihilistic and yobbish, who else has had the guts to reveal the true exploitative nature of the royal family except the sex pistols?), remain seemingly as permanent and indestructible as ever even today thirty years later. for me its encapsulated in the title to magazine's third album (1980) - why does it matter if there is a correct use for soap? who defines what is the correct and incorrect way? should we care, I think so! so whilst you are dreaming up a myriad incorrect uses for soap and revelling in that remaining freedom, allow Howard Deveto (singing), John McGeoch (guitars), Barry Adamson (bass), Dave Formula (keyboards) and John Doyal (drums) to soundtrack such irreverent musings with their brand of nervy, anxiety ridden collection. And does the anxiety seep into everything here! It's a new decade but seemingly there is nothing to celebrate, only the misguided attraction towards being in love which is anything but joyful ('I want to burn again') or based on irrational, negative impulses ('Because you're frightened.') "I'm a party' alludes to the least amount of fun you might have at a party ever - 'a song from under the floorboards' poignantly details the feelings of those who cannot fit in and 'model worker' reveals why because it's about having to fit in with demands of others ("I just want to know while the revolution lasts, will it enable me to swallow broken glass?") Yet despite the disillusion felt, this album avoids drowning in gloom retaining a funky, jaunty edge, with Deveto's often flat, slightly cynical voice the most obvious manifestation of doubt. evident to are all the hallmarks which would eventually be abused throughout the 80s (saxophones, female backing singers, synthesisers) but here are used sparingly to create effect rather than swamp. as relevant today for anyone who feels all at sea in the modern world...
In which Billy Mackenzie attempts to re-write Associates history. Well it was probably not his intention but launching into the speedy delivery of Associates' classics minus Alan Rankine offers a very different prospect to the originals, conveying a vague, if not quite there, sense of 'let's get these over and done with.' 'Message Oblique Speech' in particular is twisted into some almost semblance of straight forward (if murky) guitar pop without the strange undercurrents of sound created on 'Fourth Drawer Down' and 'Kites' lacks the delicate sonic flourishes of the 39 Lyon Street version, its gentleness butchered by an un-sympathetic guitar. However, the insouciance with which Billy's voice soars and spins and meanders around with the melody keeps his performance compelling as always on this second volume of songs culled from the Radio 1 archives. So here are sessions for Richard Skinner, Janice Long, Saturday Live and Phil Kennedy. More successful is a suitably melancholic version of traditional weepy 'The Crying Game' where the beauty is all in voice and unobtrusive piano, and a low key 'Dogs in the Wild' which makes it into a kind of jazz version somehow working and likewise 'Gloomy Sunday' retains an incongruously uptempo backing along with a calmer, if still dramatic, vocal. I find the cover of 'Heart of Glass' unfortunately pedestrian. 'Obsession Magnificent' is better, Billy sounding re-energised and begging the question what happened to it? The equally powerful 'Give' would eventually turn up on Wild and Lonely as 'Something's got to give' and hearing it in its earlier form breathes life into what would be trampled into submission by lacklustre production (even if the production here is not the best either). And although I am not a fan of 'Take me to the girl' it endears with its softly spoken introduction from Billy (suggesting he could have had a fantastic career as a Butlins entertainer if that had floated his boat... I'M JOKING) and the casual delivery of the song itself, although the synths in the background spoil things by sounding cheap and nasty. The last three songs also appear on 'Perhaps' in a very similar guise, it might be my ears but I couldn't discern much difference to the finished article except 'Breakfast' sounds somewhat richer, slightly more lavish. But as I say that might just be my ears.
Whilst the 60s and the 70s are usually deemed revolutionary times for music, the poor 80s are usually remembered in the terms of the dross that clogged up the charts. Oh there has been a reconsideration of the early part of the decade when songs like 'party fears two' could ride high in the charts and the 'New Pop' seemed to offer a new hope for literate, melodic and fabulously camp pop that would engender some delight in watching re-runs of Top of the Pops. But why bother when you know you will only get Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Frankie goes to Hollywood or the hideous clones peddled by S/A/W and their ilk? My archaeology into 80s music (following links and connections) however has peeled back the layers to reveal that just below the surface of the glossy horror of the charts is an entirely different picture of artists sticking to their guns and experimenting the sounds in their heads without finding any glory or respectability from the majority of the record buying public, despite critical acclaim. Such is Paul Haig, formerly of the pneumatic Josef K, and about to release his tenth album. Leaving behind the spiky guitars and urgent vocals that characterised the Ks, Paul Haig has (according to my 'net researches) since dabbled in swing, funk, electronica and rock. There is also the collaboration with Billy Mackenzie (Memory Palace) uncovering a vision between the two men to want to swing precariously between genres, not labelling themselves as purveyors of crowd pleasing similarity. I started with 'The Warp of Pure Fun' purely on the subjective connection with the other Associate, Alan Rankine, who helped produce most of the tracks here and contributed guitars and keyboards. Although recorded in the mid 80s the album was never released until much later; like Billy Mackenzie, Paul Haig seems to have suffered from poor relations with his labels.
Enough of the history, which is probably very poorly expressed anyway! Considering my less than positive views of the mid 80s music - partly conditioned by a fear of descending into nostalgia - I approached with trepidation. But I found much to enjoy even if my powers of description are limited at the moment. Haig's voice is not the most romantic, but is dramatic and although it seems he might overpower the lighter arrangements, such as on 'One lifetime away', when the music builds to meet him it creates a pleasing juxtaposition. It cannot be said that you completely escape the typical 80s touches, including (horror of horrors) sax, overwrought female backing and those strange synth noises that they loved so much then, but generally it fulfils what I increasingly appreciate in pop music, conveying an intelligence and flamboyance without losing sight of the ephemeral joys pop brings, so not too clever by half to be horribly ironic and destroy whatever beauty and meaning it had. Most compelling is 'Endless Song' which I am currently playing to death because its combination of squalling guitar, minimal synth and Haig's pronouncements sends me into raptures for the unknown reason that it just does. How can you explain these things? Anyway, other good things come in the shape of 'The only truth' where Haig is helped by Bernard Sumner from New Order and others, and 'Sense of fun' where some poor sucker is lambasted for not having one (perhaps not so poor if directed at the record label ha ha). One to convince those who feel that the 1980s have nothing to offer, along with 'Sulk' and 'Metamatic'.
Personally I had never heard of Resonance FM and probably never would have had it not been for a message on the Associates list that I belong to telling of an interview with the great Alan Rankine! Resonance FM itself appears to be one of those strange arty type things that Bourdieu would have a field day with because god only knows who it caters for. When I dutifully turned on at 7.45 just prior to Alan Rankine's interview at 8pm I was greeted with the sound of wolves howling and then some guy joined in with them on the guitar. Apparently he records his songs live with the animals around him. It was surreal but I could not help but think what it would have sounded like if Billy Mackenzie had ever done a duet with his whippets in tow! Whilst the interview with Alan Rankine was far less surreal, it was great to have the Associates' history from the man himself. Probably having nothing to lose, Alan seemed to have a refreshing honesty - lots of people in the Associates career history were 'shits' and talked about their drug taking without managing to glorify it in any shape or form, unless panic attacks in hospital are appealing! I guess if you are used to Heat magazine revelations there will be nothing new here but not having tracked down a copy of Tom Doyle's book, or sure that I want to, it was interesting to hear the band's trajectory from low budget cabaret stars, to naive young men agog in the brutal English capital full of shifty record company types, beating them at their own game only to freeze at the moment of stardom and reach a point of no return. Although heavy on the history there were enough quirky personal details to bring to life the relationship that the two men must have shared (along with Michael Dempsey and John Murphy who were treated at least by Alan and Billy as members of the Associates) having no money, experimenting at weird times of night, looking for kindred spirits who shared their sense of music and mischief. It is not surprising the pressure got to them and sometimes it seems difficult to enjoy the intensity of Sulk because it signals the beginning of the end. Poignant also to hear Alan Rankine speak of Billy Mackenzie's suicide, but also with warmth from his memories of a man who spent many hours perfecting his appearance before going out but who was also happy to muck out his whippets and be covered in dog shit. And therein lies the surreal world of the Associates of which we can only have tiny glimpses but it helps to flesh out the question when listening to Sulk etc, 'who would have the balls to make this?'
this ALBUM pulls me back in to present times with its irresis- table meld of intense beats, shouty voc als and obsession with numbers a theme whi ch ties this relatively short collection together. It g oes or even harks back to when bands announced their modus operendi in no uncertain terms to fuck with the min ds of their unexpecting public - here for instance despite the ap parent volume of songs the bulk is killer tunes with the odd filler. but it does not suffer for it when the actual contents are so compelling. 'Num erology (aka numbers)' marries a catchy riff with an interesting question that is actually answered (hooray, how many songs bug you with their unanswered q uestions?). Although tied to the new wave heritage I hear shades of rap here, even hot chip in the wobbly synths and young tremble / cocksure certainty of the singer's vo ice which takes the mash up further than a mere exercise in 'how many indie bands can you name.' 'Swords of truth' possibly even references Star Wars ('strike me down') but we'll not hold that against them, neither that they have already become so achingly trendy that they have been as ked to provide aural backdrop for a fashion show - instead just enjoy the twitchy sound of 'swords of truth' and '£4' which runs the bizarre lyric by you repeatedly 'four of your pounds' until it seems quite nor mal and enjoy the fact that they can create musical soundscapes far better than I can create a pyramid of words (because blogger won't let me)
Pulp are mostly famous for their brillantly observed paeons to the marginalised, the outsiders who drift along on society's margins wryly looking in and revelling in the irony that being 'normal' is either overrated or as strange as the freaks are accused of being. Such traits were formed early, however the dry humour which characterises albums such as 'His and hers' and 'different class' appears to have been a later addition. Whatever humour there may be is buried deep in 'freaks.' Take the first song 'fairground.' Here the fun usually associated with eating too many sweets and candy floss and feeling sick after going on the rides and shooting at silly plastic ducks in return for an evil incarnation of zippy in a red dressing gown is tainted with a hideous hysteria, reminiscent of those fears that enabled Stephen King to create an evil clown (It) and convinced fellow Sheffielders Human League to sing about the 'circus of death.' Russell Senior intones in his flat voice the horrors of the specimens in jars he has dragged his sister to see (a dog with two heads) whilst Jarvis and the rest of the band shriek madly in the background. This is 1980s Pulp, a far remove from their shiny 90s incarnation. Tales of madness, malfunctioning relationships, melancholy and claustrophobia, exploitation and dismay abound. Jarvis alternates between Scott Walker type crooning ('I want you', 'they suffocate at night', 'don't you know'), cold and distant ('master of the universe'), frightened/frightening ('I'm being followed home' / the 'never-ending story') and plaintive ('there's no emotion', 'life must be so wonderful'), his knack with a lyric already evident in the sketches he draws. For the most part the music serves to echo the narratives that are built through the songs, such as 'being followed home' which reaches a crescendo as the narrator is chased down a 'cobbled street' that stinks of piss and fish (you have to love Jarvis for the incidental details he furnishes us with), or the simplicity of slide guitar and keyboards for the ballads like 'don't you know' which captures its fragile beauty perfectly. 'The never-ending story' is the total converse of the soft 80s pop-porn of Limahl and nameless female singer, tribal rhythms bizarrely reminiscent of the Rite of Spring and so sounding completely unlike anything else you can imagine, rising and falling with the tale of a (surprise) malfunctioning relationship where the male protagonist is treated / treating with utter contempt. After the intensity 'Freaks' is closed with another tender ballad, even if the sentiment is anything but tender - 'Festering in silence, growing in the dark... and this they saw as love' Oh dear love is evidently a tragic subject in Pulp land if you haven't already noticed here and for ever after. But it has a gloomy reality about it - 'she met his wishes, he found that he had changed his mind' and it is difficult not to be affected by Jarvis' wounded howling as the song winds to a close, backed by squalling violin and a gentle lullaby-like plod. Overall its a schizophrenic album, seemingly unsure what to do with itself and terribly traumatised as a result, but somehow endearing in its desperation.
from the first throbbing chords and howling guitars 'kiss me kiss me kiss me' sets my nerves on edge; this 'kiss' is not nice and pleasant and soft and warm, its intense and hungry and draining and demanding your concentration, near drowning you in despair one minute, bringing you to intense highs the next. its a schizophrenic masterpiece, always too much and not nearly enough, the closest description of obsession and torment as maybe committed to music; smith sings 'I never wanted any of this I wish you were dead' and you wonder what you have let yourself in for.
a delight definitely despite the less than joyful titles such as 'torture', 'if only tonight we could sleep' and 'the snakepit'. after the hate of 'kiss', 'catch' is laconic and wistful. 'torture' is all melodrama, gothic bass and high chiming melodies whilst Robert Smith sings like a Poe story - but despite the relentless gloom ('hanging like this, like a vampire bat') the melody is ridiculously catchy and I even find myself humming along to the synthetic horn section (?) around the 3 minute mark which for me has to be one of the most sublime moments in music as Smith sings desperately about his unknown torture. it seems wrong though to be entertained by someone's suffering but isn't that the essence of pop music? and why such singers as Mary J Bilge continue to be popular because their life is a soap opera? i would like to think that the cure play on that morbidity if only through the sheer lengths they seem to go to depict the darker sides of the human psyche. 'if only tonight...' has an eastern flavour, a haunting reminder of the (stereotypical) exotic-ness of the Orient with its mystery and melancholy in dark eyes. 'Why can't I be you?' along with 'just like heaven' are perfect pop songs, a headrush of love subverted in some way either through a slightly unhinged desire to submerge into someone else ('I'll hug you to death') or doomed love ('I found myself alone, alone alone, upon a raging sea, which stole the only girl I loved and drowned her deep inside of me'). 'How beautiful you are' has to be the most vivid song I heard about the loss of faith in human nature so starkly detailed in narrative form and startling beginning 'you want to know why I hate you, well I'll try and explain.' the romance created by the words, rustic violin and piano, only serves to bring the world crashing down further, we feel the narrator's crushing reality check as though it were our own.
'the snakepit' is a far less pleasant experience musically, underneath the dirge guitars there is tune seeking to escape but gets lost in the wreaths of echo. 'all i want' sounds raw, guitars slicing through the fragile synths and Robert Smith doing his best to unsettle us with proclaiming tonight 'he's feeling like an animal' and all he wants is to 'hold you like a dog.' Lucky girl! There is clearly more fun times to be had however in the Cure camp as 'hot hot hot!!!' attests; I could even push the boat out and say its funky, a way to sneak the cure into the disco, as could 'the perfect girl' which rambles along prettily. I admit here the appeal of Robert Smith's voice is its indulgent sound, if that makes any sense at all! 'Icing sugar' is even bizarre, a rollicking rhythm built on a high bass line and - of all things - a saxophone moaning away in the near distance (they get everywhere). it ends with 'fight' a pugilistic call to arms, at turns stodgy and repetitive, yet curiously compelling. I have given up trying to understand why I am drawn to particular songs over others ('a thousand hours' and 'shiver and shake' pass me by for instance) yet here I like the chord changes that sound vaguely eastern, conjuring up images of ancient mongol warriors like Attila the Hun. i think he would have agreed with the sentiment 'never give in' at any rate.
Humankind has spent quite a few of its thousand years or whatever on earth devising little boxes to organise the word into. Whether or not these boxes help us to understand it better or simply serve to create deviseness , cliques and misery is not a question to easily answer. I for one despise the concept although I spend a lot of my life organising it into neat little lists which I can then feel miserable at not achieving and I suppose its the same with boxes, we can organise everything to a certain point before we realise there is always something which will not fit. And then they or it are made to feel miserable. Anyway in a spirit of deviousness I present 10 reasons to love this album and 10 reasons to set fire to it and dance around its ashes. Whether I mean them all or not is my little secret.
Here with ten reasons to love this album:
1. 'Munich.' Enigmatic song title but relatively straightforward ditty about the need for sensitivity because "people are fragile things". It also amounts to the closest they get to a jibe - "you should know by now, be careful what you put them through" - although of course singer Tom is far too earnest for it to sound too nasty. Sage advice for everyone who breathes.
2. You like jangly indie guitars? Great, so do the Editors! You like mostly gentle songs discussing love, life, relationships and the misery of living in a Midlands town (with the worst railway station in the world)? Hooray, you might find solace in its atmospheres created.
3. The Editors aim to be EPIC in their endeavours, which results in some anthemic tunes. But not anthemic in the Oasis-beered-up-hug-your-drunk-mate kind of manner, oh no, in a manner that is far more sedate, more about grandeur, reaching for the stars rather than for the pint glass. In the words of 'Camera' - "you fall from grace, but fall with such grace."
4. If you enjoy songs which collide melancholia with hopefulness you may very well enjoy these.
5. There are moments of frenetic rush amidst the calm, "All Sparks" echoing the sentiment that the subject is rushing to their doom all too soon as the embers fall from their dying cigarette whilst "Fingers in the factories" sees a level of desperation kept under wraps until that point but which rails against the tediousness of a life we are expected to be thankful for.
6. "Bullets" is majestic, its repeated refrain 'You don't need this disease" conveying a real sense of urgency over guitars spiralling heavenward.
7. There are no saxophone solos.
8. There is a pleasing flow to the arrangement of the songs, for all the hits of intensity from songs such as 'Lights' and 'Munich' and 'Blood', we are seduced into calm with "Fall' and "Open your arms".
9. "Blood" is not only a viscous scarlet material but the name of one of the best songs here, an energetic romp about someone living in dubious circumstances: "you're with the red lights, your side of town." Yikes, sounds familiar...
10. After taking your heart and subjecting it to various lashes, highs and lows, they have the wit to end on a note of serenity with "Distance" which is quite spectacular. Lulled by tender voice and gentle guitar we feel a fulfilling end to the listening experience.
Alright that was actually harder than I thought. Here then, are ten reasons to light this album with one of the life sparks and watch it burn, dancing and laughing, until a pile of pathetic ashes.
1. There are some real highlights, however as a whole it gets a bit samey. This is particularly the fault of the guitar which does not radically alter its sound throughout and maintains the same jangly monotony.
2. Like Coldplay, Embrace, and all those dour serious bands, earnestness gets a bit dull after a while. And who are the Editors to keep preaching to all these people? It seems to be a catalogue of telling people off - treat people better, stop being self-destructive, blah blah
3. Why is Munich called Munich? There seems to be no explanation as to why its named after the German city and its annoying me. A justifiable reason to want to burn it.
4. On a good day, the ballads sound tender and warm. On a bad day, they just sound dirgey.
5. Its pleasant but that can be pretty damning. There is little mystery. Its easy to hear what they sing about (although I swear 'Lights' begins with 'I still love the lino baby'), all the songs have recognisable verse chorus structure. Its hardly challenging or creating any provocation.
6. There are loads of indie bands like this, take your pick. Do we really need another? Especially since the Editors do not necessarily bring a new perspective to the themes considered here.
7. They might be a good live band, and the live atmosphere might enable some of the more tedious songs to breathe, become more lovely, but I have not been able to find out, humph.
8. It makes you long for something more experimental. It wears its influences and intentions too much on its sleeve and, although such honesty is endearing, you cannot imagine them coming up with anything different (and the second album is pretty similar). Perhaps a kazoo or a glockenspiel would have livened things up a bit?
9. The songs are pretty enough but as I am finding after returning to this album after some prolonged absence, I am finding it hard to recapture the reason why I felt attracted to this album in the first place. The magic seems to have gone.
Radio hasn't been the same without John Peel. He was one of the rare DJs who managed to transcend the usual constrictive categories that bedevil how we must identify the sounds that entertain (or not) our ears. If anything he was promiscuous, playing anything and everything that took his fancy. It made for an interesting experience! And throughout all the ramblings about the Associates I think I have more than enough times conveyed that is something I liked about their approach to music - they did what they liked and, for the first three and a half albums, it worked. So bring these two worlds together, the environment of the Peel session and the brains of an inventive, willful couple of artistes and there is hopefully fireworks, loud sizzles and bangs and ooohs and aahs.
Collected here are four sessions, three for John Peel (with Alan Rankine 1981, 1982, without Alan Rankine 1983) and the last for Kid Jensen (1983). Stripped of obsessive compulsive production tendencies the first two sessions are Sulk made raw, anarchic even, without the shiny glossy polish which would pronounce them POP! Yet its never shambolic or indulgent. Growing addiction to spangly 80s guitar (check!) is well served here (too much girl, I can't do technical terms) 'Me myself and the tragic story' complete with feedback and spooky oooohs from Billy Mackenzie sounds less like a current affairs programme as it does on 'Sulk' (as Arrogance gave him up). If Billy Mackenzie seems subdued then he is BACK in full force for a hectic 'Nude spoons' and 'It's better this way'. For some reason unbeknown to me I never really warmed to 'A matter of gender' however it improves with the addition of shimmery guitar and slightly more anxious vocal. By now the late nights and hedonism must have been setting in. 'Ulcragyceptimol' has its sense of fun, 'Put me down, I'll be a good boy, honest' sings Billy and you don't quite believe him so he gets increasingly squeaky about it (it worried me when I looked at my iPod recently and realised how many squeaky male singers exist there, maybe its a subconscious affectation of mine?) Skip forwards to 1982 for the second Peel session or, it's alternative title, 'some more reasons to weep for the break-up of messrs Rankine and Mackenzine.' Instead of its resultant cheesy 80s stomp, 'Waiting for the Love boat' is far more subtle, although obviously starved of a sufficiently deep enough drum Billy Mackenzie is forced into sombrely proclaiming 'bombombom' at regular intervals over muted guitar and what sounds like a glockenspiel. 'Australia' too is less frantic, instruments wreathed in fog, whilst half chewed words emerge like spectres in the distance. Nothing pedestrian about 'Love hangover' either with its sparse beginning, voice and piano, sounding like some arty performance at the Barbican with cats wailing in the background before funky song proper. By 'A severe bout of career insecurity' there has to be something really spectacular to keep up the subversiveness. Its not enough that the lyrics seem to be detailing some kind of breakdown (although inevitably its probably about something else entirely). Exhibit A - affected, sullen accent to singer's voice. Exhibit B - breaking into the Sound of Music halfway through. I am definitely a fan of the misuse of hideous musical 'songs' (grumble had to sing them in school choir grumble grumble).
Then it gets all serious. No more larking about in the studio. Two what might be called 'Torch songs' (or those songs people now might wave their lighter too, guess that's safer than a torch but must also be dying out now with the smoking ban) 'God bless the child' and 'This flame'. Theoretically such things should move my stone eyes to tears but despite the beautiful Mackenzie voice, sparse piano, it ain't happening. Maybe because I just watched a film about a gigantic scary monster taking over Manhatten and my mind is full of images of monsters biting people before they die a horrible death from explosion.
The last session for Kid Jensen in 1983 covers four songs which would end up on Perhaps. Due to the increasing reliance on mechanical means of instrumentation (although I can hear guitars, they're alive!) there is little discernible difference between these and eventual album versions, though it could also be my cloth ears. 'Helicopter helicopter' would benefit from being trimmed as a crunchy bassline does not for an interesting experience make. 'Theme from Perhaps' is Perhaps minus singing so you have an opportunity to appreciate the wobbly synth rhythms which curiously sound more dated now then the earlier stuff. 'Perhaps (Schizophrenic version)' was not broadcast and it is evident after one listen why not: prefiguring Prolapse by several years (Scottish band with strange shouty male singer and melodic if combative female singer) a strange Scottish man shouts and (kind of) sings his way through a rambling story which seeks to offend on every level. This is Steve Reid. Somewhere in the background Billy Mackenzie sings away to himself (fittingly in the explanatory notes it explains that he was lying on the studio sofa with the microphone between his knees, evidently he was only half awake and so did not realise the butchery going on). Lurching from mess to the subdued grandeur of 'Don't give me that I told you so look you' is one of those classic Associates moments, sadly spoilt by murky cheesecloth dropped over the speakers. And closing with 'Breakfast' was a good move, although it doesn't quite hit the giddy heights it deserves.
Wednesday is gloomy, despite the crisp winter's day there has been only a focus on excessive workloads to which there seems to be no end. So instead of reaching for something to lighten to mood I decided to descend into the darkness of the world of the Knife.
Brother and sister, the Knife have worked hard to keep their identities a secret (although looking them up on the web it becomes clear that they can be unmasked however I prefer to retain the mystery) through a series of elaborate masks and refusing to embrace the commercial side of the music industry. They produce astonishingly twisted electronica, often with synthesised vocals which can be playful as well as disturbing. Very rarely do they have any relationship to organic sound - 'Silent shout' is perhaps the darkest of their three albums so far in the atmospheres created.
Opening song 'Silent shout' pulsates with shimmering waves of sound beneath lyrics of loneliness and frustration. 'Neverland' is more garish, its stomping, repetitive beat prefaced with simple descending chords and and offbeat clatter. 'I'm dancing for money that burns in my hand' - it goes without saying that this vision of neverland is not a pleasant one. Standout tracks are 'We share our mother's health' with its crazy popping synth loops and grating vocal sounds, and 'Like a Pen' which has an adorable frenetic bassline, the background swoops and whistles very eery on top of this (both songs also have sweet cartoony videos to accompany them). As for the rest, 'Marble House' is stately cabaret; 'One hit' sounds like Zippy (un)masked as a pervert singing about the fate of women to a ludicrously catchy beat (sample lyric - 'for a reasonable salary I will wash the world'); 'Na na na' builds gentle lullabies from the machines and 'Forest Families' describes some sort of enforced flee - 'they said there were communists in the family, I had to wear a mask' - the sounds bubbling under convey dark wintery woods dusted with snow. And such is the world of The Knife, 'far away from the city' with 'trees... apples, fruits maybe' and 'clean air' but the flip side that it almost in perpetual shadows, maintaining an effective ambiguity.
Describe the words that come into your head when listening to this album? Melancholy, introspective, gloomy, mournful, languishing, obscure, hopeful, complicated
How would you describe Paul Bank's singing? Not lacking in emotion as such but seeking to detach himself from anything that messy, often failing to do so. A cross between a human and a dalek.
How would you describe the instruments? The guitar parts are melodic and tuneful, often pondorous (like on Leif Erikson) which is connected to the sense of melancholy. I have not paid much attention to the bass line but it rumbles pleasantly beneath the surface. The drums are not a huge feature either, not sure if they are that exciting as drums go?
How do you feel about the lyrics? I am not sure if they are wilfully obilque but most times I have no idea what they are going on about. Poetical you might call them, or two clever by half if you dislike that kind of thing. It doesn't lessen my enjoyment as I am fond of bands who try to be too clever, maybe it's kind of an endearing failing. I would say that my favourite lyrics are in 'Obstacle 1' which I cannot decide between 'she can read, she's bad' and 'she can't read she's bad' which would bring two completely different meanings to the song. I cannot bear to find out what the lyrics are actually are as I am more inclined towards 'She can't read, she's bad' and I suspect it's all wrong.
What would you say were your favourite songs? 'Obstacle 1' , 'Untitled' (immediately upon hearing this I knew I would love the album), 'Say Hello to the Angels,' 'PDA' and 'Leif Erikson.' Obstacle 1 and PDA are the most upbeat songs however they unsettle in terms of the lyrics (e.g. 'we have 200 couches where you can sleep tonight' - is this referring to a traumatic stay in hospital?) yet they puzzle me the most in terms of their subject matter - just what is being sung at the end of PDA? 'Say Hello to the Angels' is more schizophrenic with its changes of pace and surprisingly cheeky lyrics 'I can't control the part of me which swells up when you move into my air space.' This combats the idea that Interpol are dour and lacking in humour. Leif Erikson on the other hand is affecting and tender.
And your least favourite? Probably 'Stella was a diver and she was always down' which has a fabulous title but I quickly tired of the actual song since it seems to go on and on in an uninteresting manner. I haven't listened to it for a long time however so I might revise this harsh opinion.
Would you think there is much mileage in the accusation that Interpol sound like Joy Division? I guess there are more similarities than differences in terms of the atmospheres and moods created in the songs. However I think Joy Division are more abrasive and unsettling. Interpol can be intense yet they lack the spirit of punk I think which seems to permeate Joy Division; although not being that familiar with Joy Division's music as I only own one album I would have to reflect for longer about my response to this question. I would say that Interpol draw on the late 70s, early 80s new wave/new pop influences which I am currently diving head first into and that is not a bad thing!
Any final thoughts? I bought this album after reading a review in NME and seeing an image of the band in their suits and I was not disappointed. There are some good ideas and it struck a chord in me at the time, which continues to reverberate now. I don't think it will become one of those CDs I am embarrassed to own!
I bought this CD on the premise that it was cheap and seduced by the 'alternative' in the title, as my memories of the 80s were of pretty crap music and bands with bad hair. However as I have since discovered not that many of the bands represented here are very alternative at all in terms of being alternative to the 'mainstream' - indeed they may actually only be alternative to other 80s complilations! And not all of the tunes are strictly from the 80s, although a few sneak in via reissues. However it's somewhat refreshing - you won't find the usual suspects such as Wham, Duran Duran, Human League and Culture Club here.
Some of the reasons to give this complilation a willing ear: 'Boys don't cry' by The Cure before they became completely miserable; Echo and the Bunnymen's serene and sulty 'Killing Moon'; the best song ever to get in the top 10, 'Party Fears Two' by the Associates (their inclusion finally answered the puzzle of whence came that naggingly gorgeous piano riff from Radio 4's Weekending); 'Birthday' by the Sugarcubes with its daft, childlike lyrics; the rumbling 'There's a ghost in my house' by The Fall. 'Blue Monday' is a bit obvious from New Order but it's still a good tune. I remember my history teacher at school tried to introduce us to the Icicle Works on one of the last days of term and we all sneered but 'Love is a wonderful colour' is appealing in a bombastic kind of way. There are also not too many songs with the dreaded honking saxophone solo, although 'Brilliant mind' by Furniture sneaks one in. There is no respite!! I won't admit to having a soft spot for 'The King of Rock and Roll' by Prefab Sprout and will blame it instead on the giant hot dog in the video.
Yet there are also plenty of reasons to give this a wide berth. For a start it has the Blow Monkeys, Elvis Costello and the Style Council, peddling their horrible light soul funk jazz whatever... such artists should be kept far away from me. So should the Bluebells with the hideous 'Young at heart' which has troubled the charts for too many weeks in its time - they make me want to vomit, although not as much as Marti Pellow or Simply Red. I also cannot understand the inclusion of Erasure, surely they have always been mainstream? The rest are tolerable but I wouldn't rush out to overdose on information about the Passions, Bauhaus, The Only Ones, The Primitives, The Lotus eaters or the Psychedelic Furs or a whole host of bands with the prefix 'The'. They probably all use saxophones too.
As with all these compilations its rather frustrating that they could have included so many more bands who actually deserve the title of 'alternative' but then it's probably just a lazy cash in to coincide with some resurgance in the popularity of the 1980s. Still it has its uses especially if my idea for an 80s disco comes to fruition...
Boring fact - Michael Dempsey is possibly the most featured bass player here, appearing as he does on 'Boys don't cry', 'Party Fears Two' and 'The first picture of you.'
After his flirtation with (mainly) synthetically created sounds on 'metamatic', John Foxx offered up in 1981 'The Garden', abandoning the starkness and clean lines of moderism for lusher songs inspired by the beauty of nature, romantic overgrown old ruins, Catholicism, the warmer weather of southern Europe, superstition... its complete antithesis. However its not so simple as a break, more a contination of 1979's 'Systems of romance' (recorded when in Ultravox). Not only does it combine conventional instruments and song forms with creative useage of synthesised voice and instrument, it features Robin Simon on guitar and, most cheekily, it contains a song with that very title! There are enough ideas in 'The garden' however to prevent it from becoming repetitive - and if it does stray towards recognisable themes and textures, that is partly my own fault for binge purchasing. Highlights are surely 'Systems of Romance' and 'Night suit' which nudge closer to the jauntiness required for dancing, whilst 'Europe after the rain' is a gorgeous song to open with, its seductive imagery not quite hiding a plaintive air that longs for the warm nights and fountains Foxx sings of to replace the grey sodden cities left behind. And even better, although this is an album of the 1980s there are no saxophones to spoil the atmospheres created, hurrah!
metamatic (1980) speaks to me of the consequences of modernist excesses that continue to constrain so many town and city centres in their concrete grip. remnents of the clean, bright future shock that so quickly turned sour (10 to 20 years or so) leaving fearsome dark subways reeking of piss, tower blocks of crumbing panels and needle gardens, souless neighbourhood shopping centres heavy with metal shutters and choking on litter. a country on the verge of collapse sold to the economy and selfishness.
they may at first, appear so very bright and shiny. 'plaza' is almost a hymn to queues for cinemas, seminars in lounges, giant 'hoardings of italian cars', smoke glass, outside escalators (like childhood memories of san diego, the amazement of the outside escalator!). i can almost imagine being 'on the plaza' shielding my eyes from its white concrete glare. but an undercurrent of violence exists here - 'i remember your face from some shattered windscreen' - and its meaning suddenly becomes a whole lot darker. in the offerings presented here, it seems as if john foxx becomes the machine - his voice as synthetic as the music which skitters in the background. he stands alone too on the cover, gazing blankly into a screen of bright light as he reaches to touch it. listen closely to catch the unsettling atmospheres he creates; at turns jittery, sometimes atonal, often harsh. it's not pretty even if the textures created are striking. unsettling too are the lives of the anonymous, unknown inhabitants of this dystopia - 'he's a liquid', 'someone's gone liquid in the sheets', 'melt into a mass,' 'he was a new kind of man' 'faces blurring, faces merging' 'they read the bible about a flood'. whilst the 'underpass' might represent progress it comes at the cost of collective amnesia - 'well i used to remember / now its all gone / world war something / we were somebody's son' - set to a catchy refrain. still, it's all harsh shapes, supremely masculine, no tenderness or romance to speak of - for every poetic couplet such as 'she was dressed in a white suit / she looked like a bride too' is juxtaposed with the image of 'it's a burning car.' its all too real to be escapist with the legacy of the future world experiment still mouldering around us.
at times it can be relentless, especially with two CDs worth of material to peruse, and the music can at times sound distinctly dated or reminiscent of computer games, yet it has worn quite well. i would also suggest that the themes are still pretty relevant - the cruel anonymity of the city, the feeling that violence is never far away, the fear (real or manufactured), the search for meaning in a relentlessly changing world (just look at the evolution of the ipod / iphone for god's sake). i guess it fits my love/hate relationship with the city perfectly coz sometimes even in the hideousness of grey-streaked concrete can be found beauty.
After the quiet introspection of 'Systems of romance' Ultravox's debut arrives to blast away any notions you courted of them being fey dreamers or detached onlookers of a society descending into its own scumminess. Here they seem to be in the thick of the horror as 'Satday night in the city of the dead attests' all raging guitars and not-at-all-sedate singing from John Foxx as he spitefully lists all the manner of mundane violence taking place on our nation's streets (ring any bells?). Here the roots of punk and glam-rock are more evident over the later love of swishy noises from synthesisers, although they creep in here and there alongside gorgeous stabs of violin. Most arresting is 'I want to be a machine', a lengthy ballad to the desire to cast off messy complicated emotions for the relative security that detachment brings. It starts off quietly enough, only an acoustic guitar to accompany Foxx's plaintive vocals, bringing in subtle violin and slowly building to an exhilarating, if unsettling, climax.
Concerned with themes of alienation, disgust and the desire to either disappear or adapt in the face of confusion, these are all perhaps resonant today at least for those who feel out of place in society, unable to see how it reflects their desires or needs.
After the spikiness and hyperactivity of 'Ha! Ha! Ha!', Ultravox's third album is palpably different. A collision of atmospheric guitar and clunky synthesisers, tinged with elements of dreamy psychedelia, it seems to suggest that they were heading towards a softer sound, whilst retaining the energy and spirit which defined their earlier offerings. However, Ultravox were pretty much unable to ignite much interest in the minds of the public in the late 70s, although moving into the next decade such a sound was to forge ahead as part of the 'New Pop' and 'New Romantic' movements. Instead they only found their visions slighted, so much so that the band were dropped by their record label, struggling on for a while until singer John Foxx left the group to retreat into studio seclusion (resulting in the entirely synthesiser-led 'Metamatics'). It was not until their second incarnation (via the adoption of Midge Ure) that Ultravox were able to find success. The world would finally catch up but by then, some might argue, their sound had been diluted as to become risible.
In the twenty-first century 'Systems of romance' sounds surprisingly less dated than I expected, considering the preponderance of now-dated electronica. Perhaps because of the recent resurgance of electro-pop and related detached musings on the human condition (okay, maybe there is less of that) it is not so alien. The opener 'Slow Motion' is frankly astounding, swooshing in on electronic waves and bravely setting the agenda for anyone who wants to effectively meld machines with guitars. 'I can't stay long' is my favourite, John Foxx's at times clinical, at times melodic, always bizarrely rational, singing style here is perfect, capturing evocative moments in the sparsest of poetical couplets. The theme of dissolving / disappearring is one which crops up repeatedly: like for those who are content to be under the radar ('The quiet men'); playing with identity ('Someone else's clothes'); changing states of being... throughout an underlying sense of unease pervades everything. Just what are we? Even the most energetic tracks such as 'Blue light' incur an anxiety in its disturbing almost-disco, though it is most evident in 'Dislocation' with its moody, echoy backing and distant, heavily altered vocals (setting the template for early Depeche Mode perhaps). There is nothing fixed here. However, despite the cleverness I can't help thinking Ultravox don't always take themselves too seriously, the playfulness demonstrated by 'Maximum acceleration' which features whistling! Furthermore, they haven't been completely devoured by technology as most of these songs retain the band's post-punk roots, the glides and swoops of (new guitarist) Robin Simon's guitar remaining prominent. And 'When you walk through me' reminds me of something like 'Arnold Layne' with its syrupy-sound and surreal narrative. Finishing just perfectly with the sublime 'Just for a moment', which loses none of its magic for being recorded in a barn of all places (one good thing about remastered albums are the extensive sleeve notes which offer up such nuggets of information), and it slides away, leaving dreamy thoughts of the 'long green light of a July afternoon / sliding down a vague conversation.'
i'm finally nearing the end of my odyssey to purchase the album back catalogue of the associates (note to self - its not wise to give into an obsession!) thanks to a combination of shops, ebay and internet shopping sites. there are gaping holes - still waiting for Amazon to find perhaps the only copy of sulk in existence! how exciting and the nightmarish is it to live in a world where you can have almost anything you want, when you want! sadly it took the death of singer Billy Mackenzie for this state of affairs to be realised. for 'true' fans of the Associates it previously was but a dream to be able to get their hands on past glories, and in the case of 'the Glamour Chase' it was never even released by the record company after their relationship with the larger than life chanteur,not that good during the making of 'perhaps' (1985), went from bad to worse. something about him spending a shedload of money and not producing anything they deemed commerical enough. but lets leave the messy complicated bits to rest and let the music speak for itself.
With 'Perhaps' you can kind of appreciate the dilemma that Billy Mackenzie was in at the time. He had been involved in making what many describe to be a masterpiece (Sulk) and his long-term musical collaborator Alan Rankine had departed after various insurmountable problems surfaced between the pair. No pressure then to follow it up with something equally amazing and to show that he was not dependent on the magical and inventive musical soundscapes dreamt up between him and Rankine! And to give Billy his due, he has a pretty good go. I was prepared to be quite disappointed by this considering the sort-of consensus that deems Mackenzie and Rankine became lost without each other, descending into musical decrepitude, but... I actually liked it!
However nothing can compel me to like 'Those first impressions' which to me sounds uninspired - I am glad I had not been in the position to have to judge the associates on this song alone. It's fine as a pop song but it doesn't engage me at all, possibly because Billy sounds (to my ears) so bored singing it. 'Waiting for the loveboat' is better, bouncier with amusing lyrics although it goes on for faaarrr toooooo long at the end with Billy apparently being tickled or attacked somewhere subterranean (apparently they chopped off an interesting finale to make it fit on the LP). It could also do without the annoying honking saxophone, never an instrument I can connect with emotional subtley or estactic raptures. 'Perhaps', 'Schampout' and 'Helicopter Helicopter' continue in the same vein, pop with a deliciously wonky feel, although the lyrics can be a bit silly and the musical accommpaniment perversely jarring. 'Breakfast' in contrast comes flowing ludicrously easily into the ears, a tender and beautiful ballad (and I normally hate ballads) with minimal fuss which suits Billy perfectly. 'Thirteen feelings' is radically different again with its dramatic strings, driving beat and soaring vocals. I find that I prefer Billy's singing on the last four offerings, like on 'The stranger in your voice'; luckily he is on top form because most of the musical arrangements are forgettable. I am hard pressed to find anything is as appealing as Alan Rankine and his glorious guitar work. 'The best of you' is a duet with Eddie Reader, however there seems to be no point for her to be there for, as with most of his duets, Billy's voice stamps all over hers. If I was being evil I would say that the theme of this song perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the Associates' career... Still, I'm not evil so I will only say that I was happy until the dreaded sax reappears (eek!) wailing away with its evil intent to ruin my listening experience. Still, it's redeemed by the discordant chords of the strings at the end. The sax is back on 'Don't give me that told you so look' however it is easily ignored for the fantastic title, which Billy also manages to sing very suavely. Overall it presents quite a downbeat ending to the album as a whole and leaves you rather despondent as to what could have been.
'The Glamour Chase' came a few years later but you could be mistaken for thinking it was from an entirely different artist. It was never released during Billy's lifetime which much have been extremely frustrating for him, more for the politics surrounding it rather than it being a terrible album. It's not always to my taste, definitely straying into more what I would call conventional pop territory, more sleek than raw. After the often scatter-brained lyrics and sometimes petulant attitude of 'Perhaps' (like that godawful saxophone) it seems that Billy is presenting himself here as more mature, more sophisticated, more smooth. A reincarnation that results in some pleasant enough sounds like opener 'Reach the top' and a cover of Blondie's 'Heart of glass' but they glide by pretty unremarkably. 'Terrorbeat' has that 80s bass which reminds me of Level 42 so yuck. 'Set me up' is pondorously slow and has a potentially cheesy voice over - where Billy betrays hardly a crumb of his lovely Dundee accent - but finally a song works for me, mostly because a pleasing harmony is achieved between voice and tune and it doesn't overstate itself. 'Country boy' is like 'what'?? - it would make better sense without the obviously clunky bass/drum and the lyrics about a 'pretty virgin' who should be a 'lure' to the narrator's 'prey' is a bit ick. 'Because you love' is the kind of ballad I would avoid like the plague - I cannot help but think of the 'power of love' by Jennifer Rush which upsets me unduly, as does the squelchy bassline. 'The Rhythm Divine' is infinitely preferable if I had to be stuck in a room with it - also famous for being sung by Shirley Bassey, my irrational prejudice against her means that I can happily assume that Billy makes a better job of it. I felt nothing like hatred towards 'Snowball' but its too close to jazz/ swing for me to want to listen to it repeatedly - again Billy does a good job but its not going to convert me yet. Back on safe ground with 'You'd be the one' and 'Empires of the heart' - no need for irrational prejudices against these. 'Empires...' is my favourite because there is emotion in the singing and for once the music does something interesting, although it is still too glossy. Of the last, 'In Windows all' is another ballad, pleasant enough, 'Heaven's blue' a short poignant piece of piano before PAM!! the energetic stomp of 'Take me to the girl' provides an upbeat finale. I cannot listen to this song however without thinking of the video where Billy looks bored out of his brain - find it on youtube and weep at the terribleness of this and most Associates videos - so its kind of tainted. Easy to sing along to however if you like that kind of thing.
With the computer battery counting down this will have to be a super speedy whip through. Reactions to this collection of demos and bits of discarded songs culled from here and there in tribute to Rankine and Mackenzie (the musical odd couple that somehow made wrong things sound so right) has been pretty mixed. Even though I snaffled this off ebay with some trepidation (who wants to be thought a complete obsessive after all that they resort to buying albums of demos, tsk) it was with some excitement that it turned out to be okay - more than okay. Meandering through sick cabaret (Billy's touching way with a lyric already evident even in early demos, rhyming things such as gangrene and vaseline) through to early takes on favourites such as 'The Affectionate punch' and 'I never will' the early incarnation of 'Party fears two', which are interesting as an insight into the song-creation process. At the risk of sounding pedestrian (ticking clocks are for once no good for creativity) It is also notable for the inclusion of Billy and Alan's aborted reunion in 1993 which resulted, for me at least, in a few songs of note, including the wonderful 'Edge of the world' which here is more guitar heavy and in my opinion the better for it. The collision of the more mature sound (the craziness of early years is lacking possibly because of that history) from both resulted in something promising but that is how it must stay, merely as a promise not achieved or going anywhere (as many of the songs included here found their fate). After all that, its probably most useful as a piece of musical curiosity which otherwise might have been lost.
Take these together - it becomes clear quite how eclectic and varied Billy Mackenzie's gift to music was. It's not always an easy or straight-forward journey (even if you would desire it so!) At times it can be frustrating - especially when 'Outernational' goes too far into the kind of 90s laid back electro that has you fast approaching torpor rather than feeling anything remotely approaching interest (something which also inflicts 'Wild and Lonely'). It's all a bit too sedate at times and horribly smooth. You long for a stumble, an ounce of imperfection. But just as you begin to despair Billy rewards you with gems such as 'Colours will come', which, despite its admittedly soppy sentiments, never fails to lift my spirits on a dull day, something to do with the sense of conviction with which it is delivered (why it works on this and nothing else is a mystery I am still unravelling). I find the rest of the album a bit of a blur, songs seem to segue into each other with little distinction, oddities such as a cover of 'Pastime paradise' could perhaps be more jarring, but, the torpor wins out. A curosity more than anything else.
'Transmission Impossible' and 'Auchtermatic' crystallise Billy's plans for two separate collections of songs, which Nude buggered up by trying to combine all the 'best' bits onto one album (Beyond the Sun). Both enable more of Billy's final work to come to light, presenting slightly different versions of songs like 'Beyond the sun' and 'At the edge of the world', on the whole slightly more raw, stripped down versions which showcase Billy's voice perfectly - after the melodrama and vocal distortions of earlier albums like Sulk especially, its refreshing to have more clarity around the magic his voice weaves with its stunning textures. 'Transmission Impossible' is best heard alone in the dark, without distraction; a series of tender ballads, mornfully delivered in the richest of voices, simply accompanied for the most part with piano. And that is all it needs. I would hesitate to call 'Auchermatic' more upbeat; it does have 'Sour Jewel' to kick things off, however this is tempered by 'Pain in any language' and 'the soul that sighs', the former particularly seems to me an exercise in anguish set to music. Billy also does an Elton John with a song about Marilyn Monroe, 'Norma Jean', however it is nowhere near as cloying and horrible as 'candle in the wind' so I breathes a sigh of relief. With relief the lyrics on both albums veer from quite accessible to quite baffling (one favourite is 'the wall was high / and the gallery seething / at times like this / all I want to do is spin) the pensive, 'um', face expressed by Billy on his own cover to 'Transmission...' sums it all up perfectly.
Lastly there is 'Memory palace' a joint collection of songs Billy made with Paul Haig (former of Josef K) when they had no career to speak of and some time hence to noodle about in a studio and make the music that they wanted to make with no interference. Rather then it being horribly indulgent (which it could be), it's actually a lot better then some of the record company sanctioned stuff. On a first listen, styles veer wildly (and I am rubbish at categorising such things so probably get this wrong) from melodic pop-type songs (take a chance) to more electronic-led efforts (stone the memory palace) to rock (listen again, give me time).
Expect the unexpected... and even then, expect something else. The most compelling singers, the most interesting bands, for me, are the ones which keep you guessing, remain a mystery as to what drives them, what stimulates the creative output. Where the music is more important than anything else, not the life which goes with it or the kudos it brings. Something must have kept Billy going until it all became too much. It is that which these, and his other albums, celebrate and even if its all we can 'have' (posession seems such a vulgar desire after all) of his unique talent its perhaps more than enough.
The reasons for choosing to puchase an album are many and varied, well that's bleeding obvious, yet it is interesting to reflect on why. Why that moment? Maybe it caught your eye in the rack, maybe you remember a half-mentioned anecdote which rendered the band suddenly fascinating? Delicatessen were of the latter proposition; in my student days much time was spent in Record Collector, a store in Broomhill, Sheffield which had rack upon rack of second hand CDS, a treasure trove of obscure delights. I chanced upon (amongst other things) this 'hustle into bed' - the only thing I knew about the band was that the singer was allergic to water or something equally bizarre. It also had a song named after a letter sent by Jack the ripper and a suitably seedy vibe from the moulded greens of the front cover artwork. Re-emerging from isolation amongst a pile of unloved singles (now off to the charity shop) it is a strange album, full of asthmatic gasping singers, gin-soaked violins and deep melancholia. Not one for a quiet Sunday afternoon unless there is a bloody knife on the butcher's block.
Ahhh Vienna... raincoats... ice machines working over time... strange moustaches.... pianos in huge rooms.... singers named after annoying biting insects.... my mum doing the hoovering to 'dancing with tears in my eyes... these are the things that pop into my head when I think of a band called Ultravox.
'Dead in the streets / who's that girl? / Ireland screams / Africa burns!'
Ultravox are chiefly remembered for the one song, the aforementioned 'Vienna', a slow pondering affair which fails to make much sense but seems to have struck a chord in the British public for laughing at the collapse of a rival empire. If there was any justice in the world they would be remembered for their work pre-Midge Ure, however there isn't so it languishes in obscurity and means that you can buy such evocatively titled albums as 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' for only about £6 in HMV.
'One day I'll just erase the tape, wave goodbye, and fade away / Get lost in the frost again'
Conceived in 1973 by John Foxx, Ultravox! like many bands went through various lineup changes which would be tedious to pursue here. Except to say that they emerged as one of the vanguard of new wave bands, a heady mix of punk, politics, glam, synths, apocolyptic visions, violin, and, of course, sex. They produced three albums of which Ha! Ha! Ha! was the second. Repeated lack of interest from the British public however, tension and unhappy record companies contributed to their demise. Foxx left the band, Midge Ure was invited to take his place, and... well Ultravox (minus exclamations) went on to become one of the most famous bands of the 80s. Foxx was either gutted or felt he had a lucky escape from all the dry ice and raincoats...
'This whirlpool's got such seductive furniture / It's so pleasant getting drowned'
This is the sound of someone laughing as the world collapses around them. It is the glee of someone revelling in the chaos they see all around them, seeing the desperate people trying to be normal but only in denial of their own hideousness. 'Rockwrok' sets the agenda. Its filthy and its rock! Despite its ponderous beginning, 'The Frozen ones' continues the breckneck pace, brilliantly sending up the modern condition of apathy - all well and good but what happens when you want someone to care? Foxx's voice has the right edge of detachment although at times you sense he is close to revealing a feeling, maybe under duress.
'Your picture of yourself is a media myth / Underneath this floor we're on the edge of a cliff'
Civilisation topples, the world is not what it seems... oh hang on we've heard all this before, ha ha ha! Despite the cliched doom-mongering 'Fear in the Western world' is a delight, all grating, shrieking guitars, discordant violins and portent sentences, still only too apt over twenty years later. I would listen to this as the Titantic sinks. Whilst 'A distant smile' is deceptive, opening with an oh so haunting piano riff, seguing into super charged guitar workout and descending into a confused mess of found sounds.
'Our secret destination / touch down in the haze / As the cameraman pans away'
'The man who dies everyday' seems to be a good title for a Bond film, conceiving of the world as stage set populated by the strange and the freakish dressed up as the norm, like the protagonists of the 'Artifical life' , which also contains my personal favourite of all lyrics thus:
'She turned to perfection once / But realised she'd only turned to pain'
If only we could have that pinned up above all school halls we would save a lot of bother.... Our narrator though is under no illusions, he knows that this time is the only time he has so lets make the best of it! While he's still alive! We won't ask what prompts the fatalistic conviction, its probably better not to know.
'A shock in the dark can be good for your heart, oh yeah'
Perhaps, but so can a soothing end to an album and after all the jittery pokery, 'Hiroshima mon amour' is captivating (much attention is focused on this song for apparantly spawning the New Romantic movement), pervaded by sadness for what is lost - 'Future's fused like shattered glass / the sun's so low / Turns our silhouettes to gold' - not least the mournful saxophone solo (harnessing the gentler tones of the much maligned instrument). And so it fades away like so many memories.
It is not difficult to become overwhelmed with how so much music remains in ignorance. Imagine all the music that might be perfect for you yet languishes in obscurity! However the discovery of a new artist(s) often brings with it newfound delights which would have remained shrouded in obscurity. And so to Stephen Emmer, a Dutch artist, who in 1982 made an obscure little album called 'Vogue estate' - described (somewhere) as a film score without a film. It is reminiscent of the music I remember as a child in the car driving late at night, such as that by Jean Luc Ponty, his haunting electric violin in my ears as neon lights skipped by; exposure to the Associates also came then which is why it is some coincidence that I only found out about 'Vogue estate' because Billy Mackenzie appears on one of the songs. It seems that Michael Dempsey (bassist) and Martha Ladley (backing vocals) also appear (Martha sings on one of the songs) however the creation of this album (and the presence of any other Associates) otherwise remains a dense mystery. For once the 'net is proved useless.
Four songs caught my ear - 'vogue estate theme', 'wish on' (with billy mackenzie), 'eleven and then left', 'never share' (with martha ladley). If it was a film.... the opening would be in the mountains, the credits rolling over fir trees (somewhere like Switzerland with clean, crisp air) as pretty piano melodies float by. 'Wish on' is an altogether darker affair (should we not be surprised with Billy on board?) with rasping, hunted cello laid under discordant chords whilst Billy thunders away like an outtake from 'Sulk' - by now we are cruelly lost in the forest and he has no sympathy for us ('wish luck, wish on' he says). Conversation with him seems futile so we hide behind a tree until he vanishes in a burst of falsetto. But there is light amongst the trees in the shape of 'eleven and then left', following the pretty melody to the edge of the forest, where we discover a lonely, abandoned Martha Ladley (also of the muffins) singing her heart out. And there the film gets cut....
With Billy Mackenzie it always seems to be a wrench from the ridiculous to the sublime (which makes for exhausting and complicated relationships with his music), however I doubt it was his intention to leave such a bizarre trail of outputs. It comes to my mind (at the moment addled with guilt for dallying on the Internet all night trying to find evidence for the 'Vogue estate' album, rather than doing any serious work! (more on that another day) and mingled with exhaustion) that he always worked best with fewer people, although that is based purely on my assumptions made about 'Wild and lonely' which features no less than 22 collaborators besides Billy, and rumours about 'perhaps' which went through a number of producers. Before it was the stellar partnership between he and Alan which brings to my mind the hideous cliche, too many cooks... and probably too much money! It would be tremendous if it had all been intentional, some terrible joke concocted against an industry Billy reputedly hated. Maybe it is linked to the sad fate of the former 'rebel', the outsider who, when they become part of the system they struggled against, cannot help but succumb to its worst excesses in some kind of horrible inevitable perversity - given too much it becomes harder and harder to capture the magic of the 'struggle'... I cannot help but think of Foucault (the softer, finger puppet version though) who would probably say that it is part of the tension, the once dominated, in seeking the righting of their wrongs against the system, only becomes the system once they are in 'control.' Or I think it was Foucault anyway... Enough, lets think about music instead of this vain posturising of idle thought.
Prior to Billy's tragic demise, it seemed that he was about to drag himself out of the artistic mire he had fallen into. In a typical move for this consumer-orientated world it took his death for the back catalogue to be taken seriously. So emerged this collection of songs on Nude records (also home of Bowie-obsessed Suede for inevitable comparisons although Brett Anderson's voice is more of a thin wail than the rich outpourings of our favourite) which Billy signed to just before his death (unfortunately most of my research is from the 'net so I cannot verify it's truthfulness). However it seems that this collection was pretty truncated and represents only a small number of demos, tarted up posthumously by Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins) amongst others. Still it is a lovely collection, slightly mired by some bizarre juxtapositions of songs, mainly drenched in mournfulness. Retrospective listening cannot help but make some banal comment about the sadness in Billy's voice (also the strange mixture of anxiety/confrontation expressed by Billy on the cover image) and lyrics with regards to his eventual suicide but I do not see the need to do so. It hangs over the songs heavily enough for no further explanation to be needed.
Lets go backwards, as with posthumous albums it is difficult to ignore talk of endings. 'Nocturne VII' is deceptively quiet to begin, Billy almost mumbling, barely audible above a tender piano, slowly rising to a crescendo of voice, strings and piano until it fades away to whispers once more. Utterly moving. And then we get an example of the strange jarring musical juxtaposition that either delights or annoys (for another one try listening to 'Skipping' from Sulk and following it with something like 'Calling all around the world' from 'wild and lonely') - '3 gypsies in a restaurant' a rant about Hitler set to electronic eastern european tinged melody. It sounds as bizarre to write it down as it is to listen to. Next is definitely a return to form - 'Sour jewel' (such an image created by two lone words put together) a glammy, poppy, almost rocky (!) stomp which would not sound out of place (then, meaning 1997) amongst groups like Suede, Pulp, even Oasis if they were fronted by someone who could actually sing! For all his talk of chance, suddenly Billy comes over all fate - 'were you aware that we had to meet?' Perhaps it was a hidden command to all his past, present and future listeners? Then inexplicably 'and this she knows' is back to piano / voice ballad before you can say 'ulcragyceptimol' leaving you wondering if you had hallucinated the previous tracks. Still it has A fetching lyric about living by the sea - 'She lives by the sea / The sea gives her everything she's ever dreamt about.' 'Beyond the sun' is my favourite Ballad by Billy, a sweet paeon to a regretful life/end of life (?), although the allusion to 'crystal ships' is lost on me, it is his wounded plea to 'help me to understand / why others seem to plan / their memories' which appeals to me. I can't help thinking it's a good question as well. I was interested to see that Alan Rankine is listed in conjunction with 'At the edge of the world' which thrilled me a little - there is something about a lost partnership, for hoping that they still liked each other at least. This song has grown on me, partly for its low-key, soft rumble of bass and almost trip-hop- (sorry to use that horrible word) like melody. It's hard to describe exactly but there is a particular section where after an instrumental, Billy goes mmmm, returns to the refrain 'at the edge of the world / where the cold wind blows / in a sea of dreams / that seem to know' - its the last line when the bass kicks back in and something very special happens (another moment like this in 'Skipping' when Billy starts to sing 'Embarrassed etc.' for a second time, seems bored and gives up, makes a kind of half-hearted attempt at mmm-ing, returns to 'marvellous, lousy, could this be your safest way' with definitely more of a scottish burr than normal and then gives a small chuckle as he starts 'Ancestral etc' which for some reason makes me love this song to pieces). It the kind of moment which compels you to re-listen... '14 mirrors' is memorable for its strong chorus and meandering guitar although by now the lyrics are starting to concern about the narrator's state of mind. 'Blue it is' moves into un-quenchable sadness, just listen to the way he sings 'blue it is but I'll be there' and by 'Winter Academy' it is almost too much; in goes cynical detached listener, out comes a quivering wreck. Then we reach the beginning of our journey (although this is really the end) - 'Give me time' is tainted, fragile pop - now we know time is running out and there needs to be some certainty but will our hero ever find it? It is hard to tell if the atmosphere is made harder for what happened later; it was never finished, and because Billy never heard it as it is now. Was it meant to be so haunted? It is impossible to ever know.
So a tantilising might have been... but much more, one which should not be consigned to the fate of a ghoulish curio. Maybe I am getting soppy as I get older (and as I get more squeamish - I wonder if there is a link?) but I cannot help but feel there is real heart here. Rest in peace, Billy xx
(As an aside, writing this I was greatly indebted to the Billy Mackenzie Tribute site http://www.billymackenzie.com/ which has most of the lyrics to the Associates / Billy Mackenzie albums, very helpful for checking that you are hearing things correctly (which obviously I was not!). It also has a wealth of information including fascinating interviews with the Associates and Billy from the 80s and 90s.)