#13 – Black Betty – Lead Belly / Ram Jam 

#13 – Black Betty – Lead Belly/Ram Jam 

“She really get me high, you know that’s no lie.” 

Manners can be interpreted differently. One tribe’s rude is another mob’s greeting. We recognise them as generally a good thing to have or exhibit, but often get it wrong. Done badly, we cringe or take offence. Done well, we’re put at ease, we smile and are made to feel slightly more human.   

If you believe the internet, the ‘Black Betty’ of this legendary folk song’s title could refer to at least any of the following: a woman, a weapon; a whip; a drink; a drunk; a vessel for a drink; a means of transport. The Wikipedia entry is worth a visit for the claimed stories behind some of these. But from the exciting (The Lost Fingers) to the completely bizarre versions (Tom Jones, or ‘TJ’ as he is on here), and everything in between (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Meatloaf, Spiderbait, and so on), you can see it probably meant something different to each artist. And, like manners, all are generally well-intended but often don’t hit the mark, and likely to induce the odd cringe and grudge.  

Whatever your interpretation – maybe an entry in Benjamin Franklin’s 1736 ‘Drinker’s Dictionary’, or a prison wagon – you only really need to listen to two versions: Lead Belly’s early recording and of course, Ram Jam’s seminal cover. Raw power linking the two, coming essentially from the singer’s comfort to just riff with a beat.  

She’s From Birmingham

Why does something so simple make you feel more human? If you cross paths with a familiar face today and they’re rude to you, you’ll begrudge them for the rest of the day. If they have nothing materially important to say, but say it in the most endearing, fun way possible, you’ll take that with you always, that feeling of instant warmth and hope. These two versions – one will be familiar, the other maybe not – are everything you could want from an old drinker’s tale and a juiced-up rock cover.   

They also, brilliantly, meant that most covers after these, sound like they’re either trying to out-rock Ram Jam or over-simplify Lead Belly, both of which are just, if not rude, impolite to say the least, and don’t work. Admittedly, Ram Jam’s track runs out of steam a bit but the near-pointless instrumental bridge before the finale can be excused. It serves simply to tee us up for another cracking, rocking verse to sign off with. Birmingham, Alabama has never been pronounced with more verve.   jeffrey

I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t have a smile on their face and a jig in their hips after just 90 seconds of listening to Ram Jam’s classic cover, and may even want to get Black Betty’d as a result.    

Cover, imitate what you want. Interpret things however you please. But remember, mind your manners.  

What I’m reading:   

Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint – a collection of short stories. Occasionally you come across prose so beautifully crafted it makes you wish you’d known about the author 10 years ago. Stories of characters we could easily have known, lives we could easily have lived, or wish we’d lived (or wished we hadn’t). ‘Baster’, the highlight for me, exemplifying Eugenides’ skill at handling dark and complex issues with humour and lightness of touch. Highly recommended. 

#12 Daft Punk – Homework

#12 Daft Punk  Homework 

File 05-01-2018, 22 02 51

One of my new year’s resolutions was to see things more, look at things differently: food; art; relationships; surroundings. Be aware. Breathe more. Be mindful.   

In all my years at all the Welsh train stations, I hadn’t noticed this before. I mean, obviously times, destinations, platforms and so on are always announced in Welsh and English. This pleases me but must mildly irritate hurried monolinguists trying to hear which platform the delayed 15:26 back to Llundain is going from.  

What I hadn’t noticed until last week, is that even if it’s the same word, the English announcements actually pronounce the Welsh station name in English. Even if it’s the same word! This makes no sense. Especially as the Welsh announcement goes just before it; there’s no excuse that the recorded announcer couldn’t pronounce it or didn’t know how to. It’s literally just been said. Copy it.

  ticketI’m not talking about Brecon/Aberhonddu or Bridgend/Pen-y-bont. That’s clear – one is in Welsh, the other in English. I’m talking about places that don’t have a translation – the Caernarfons, Llanellis. Llanelli FFS! Do they really think non-Welsh-speakers won’t know where or what Llanelli is, but will know exactly when to get off when the Welsh announcer, doing her best Nigella Lawson impression calls “all passengers for Claneckli”? This didn’t really annoy, more baffle me. When departing Berlin, I need to know where Schönefeld is, not Scone-feld. In Paris I want the Moulin Rouge, not the Mole-Inn Rogue, interesting as that may be.  

Thankfully nothing is lost in translation when it comes to Daft Punk’s incredible 1997 debut studio album, Homework. You may not speak ‘dance’ or know how to translate majestic techno beats, but it doesn’t matter. This is the ultimate cross-over, novice to maestro, veteran-introducing behemoth of an electronic dance album.   

 

 

 

You’ll know Around the World. Melodious and poppy, by now classic Daft Punk. Da Funk is a powerhouse that makes you want to ram your head inside the speaker for when the bass hits. The beats and genre-defining sounds are relentless – hi-hats on Phoenix making the most interesting 90-second drum intro you’ll need to hear.  

Rollin’ & Scratchin is a 7½ minute soundtrack to an epic game of giant Jenga, nerves falling like pine needles from a Christmas tree by the end. It comes as a mild relief in some ways that the back end of the album is marginally weaker in my view and doesn’t quite sustain the emotion of the charged first half, Burnin‘ being the intense exception.  

The entire feast is enticing and compelling. For a dance album that screams loops, samples and repetition there’s something new every time, on almost every track. I’ve listened to it straight through 4 times in the past few weeks including once in my living room, twice on a train, once in Llanelli.  

It made me think again about travel, and about music. Not much does that these days and this is 20 years old. It made me think about life, the mark of a great work of art. More than anything else, this album makes you feel like fun.   

It made me re-think all my new year’s resolutions. They could be simplified. They should be everyone’s.    

2018: Be daft. Be more punk. Listen to Homework.  

 

#11 East of Eden – John Steinbeck

Stein

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I’m back. The real slim shady. Please stand up. Maybe not… 

I stopped blogging for about 6 months. I didn’t even reach my self-imposed, measly aim of 12 blog posts first time round. Why? Nobody read it. Or very few people read it. Which I took to mean that nobody liked it. Which surely meant it wasn’t any good. Shell dented, pride wounded, I withdrew. If nobody read my blog what was the point? Who was interested in what a 30 year-old album made a 35 year-old child feel like on a Sunday morning crying into his coffee, wishing he’d made less of his weekend and more of his ambitions of his artistic life? But that would be an excuse.

We can all suffer from hubris. It has advantages, but it can hold you back. I mean, seriously, what did I expect? To pour my heart out a few times over something that excited me but most people couldn’t give two damns about, and overnight turn into Deliciously f*cking Ella getting rich off 3 million hits?

Ella
The dream

Come on. Anyone who has done this, or tried this, or succeeded or failed at this will tell you getting any sort of interest in a brand new blog, even something as heart-racingly pant-soiling as “clean eating”, takes around 2 years. And I’ve just wasted 6 months feeling sorry for myself. Or being lazy. Or both.

Clacking away

In those 6 months I came to realise a wonderful thing. What does it matter? What does it matter if nobody reads this? What difference will it make to anything or anyone on earth if this gets read or not? I realised, too late, in my lonely, teary state that I’m not doing this for you. I’m not doing it for any money. I’m not even doing it as a wind-up or to annoy The Boss by clacking away at the keys while she’s trying to concentrate on her MiC catch-up, as amusing as that is. I’m doing it for myself.

So here I am, after a long holiday, writing something that no one will read and even fewer people will care about. Because it makes me look at things differently. It makes me notice, in a time when so little of value truly gets noticed. Because it connects me in a completely different way to some of the things I love. Records and writing.

I’m not normally one for biblical anything let alone unexpected parallels, so it may seem peculiar that I’ve chosen East of Eden to kick-start the second coming of the blog. But I only came to the book recently, and it took me on a journey. From the despair and anguish to wild ambition and hope. In a way, some would argue, that only religion, or passion, can. And sometimes that’s all we need. 

Steinbeck’s soft, tender tone belies the brutality of what’s at hand. Murder, betrayal, prostitution, depravity, family, place and love. And I was hooked throughout all 601 pages. 

His descriptions of the valley & the farms. The smells and sights of this stunning backdrop set you up for your ride and give you comfort, when perhaps you should be on your guard. 

Wonderful, exceptional characters. To despise, to love. Cathy and Caleb, Sam and Lee. Characters you wish would make different decisions. Some you wished weren’t quite as real or familiar as they seem, some you wished could be real.

Timshel 

In addition to all these contradictory emotions, it provides a poignant, simple philosophy that we could all do well to recall from time to time. Lee’s version of ‘Timshel’ – thou mayest. Not, ‘you must’, or ‘you shall’, but ‘you may’. And, therefore, you may not. It’s in your hands. Think about this next time you’re unsure of which decision to take.

And so back to the blog. You can take it or leave it. It really doesn’t matter. I’ll no longer agonise over every pointless word or worry that sentences don’t make sense, as I’m sure many won’t. I won’t pore over every fact or reference or worry that I’m making a fool of myself.

I got it wrong. The response to low readership should not be to withdraw, to write less, but to double down. Try harder, get better. So my aim now is simply to produce. To make something. To write.

So read it. Share it. ‘Like’ it. Laugh at it. Or don’t. Timshel.

 

#10 – Prince, Controversy

#10 – Prince, Controversy 

Life is just a game, we’re all just the same

Sex. Like booze, it’s a great leveler. Of class, of society. If you’ve ever wondered what links the aristocracy to the proletariat, ask them about their drinking habits and their sexual preferences. 

Will there be an individual as sexual as Prince to ever walk the earth again? I doubt it. I recently argued that ‘L.A Woman’ by The Doors could make you feel cool even if you weren’t. ‘Controversy’ on the other hand, will make you feel horny, desirable (to men and women, whether you like it or not) and just downright sexy. And not just from the track names that don’t leave much to the imagination – ‘Sexuality’, ‘Do Me, Baby’, ‘Private Joy’ and ‘Jack U Off’

What else could have followed ‘Dirty Mind’ as a 3rd album? Musically, it’s what we’ve now come to expect from the master whose brilliance should never be taken for granted – inspired fusions, limb-shaking beats, snaking and striking melodies, horns and synthesizers combining to make extraordinary music to make you feel extraordinarily sexy. 

Prince 2

The tone of his voice (urrrhhhh). The brashness of the lyrics. The production, the seduction. He has an inexplicable way of making you feel like he’s singing just to you, like he’s actually hitting on you, taking you home right there & then. The complexity of the rhythm on the title track makes you walk with just the right kick of knees. The funky-ass punch of the bass-line on ‘Let’s Work’ magnetises your hips back and for uncontrollably.

Incidentally, Prince and I have more in common than you might think. We both had unusual problems with our hips for our age – his apparently from wearing high heels, mine allegedly from…sports (I’m sticking to it). We were dependent on opioids to function and to sleep, for him, tragically, fatally so. We both play(ed) lead guitar. He supported the Rolling Stones on their 1982 tour, the year after ‘Controversy’ was released. I supported them by going to their 2015 tour.

As the name suggests, ‘Controversy’ dabbles in religion and politics. And with prayer, gun control, nuclear war and Russian relations it does so in a way that it’s as relevant today as it was 35 years ago. Prince sadly never lived to see Trump in the White House, but I suspect if he had he’d have done more than sing “Donald, Talk to Russia” in response, ironically or otherwise. 

One of the things I’ll always love about Prince’s music is the sudden insertion of the deep notes of his voice interjecting with the floating highs, hitting you like a slap on the arse, with just the right firmness and suggestiveness. The album oozes funk and soul while keeping it all highly sexual, as it should be – we’re mammals after all.

There are many noteworthy facts surrounding the album, the interest of which will depend on how much you love Prince or how in awe you are of him. For example, it was the album which began his association with the colour purple. He plays most of the instruments on here, with the exception of some keys and backing vocals (mainly on ‘Jack U Off’ because of course he couldn’t do that alone). It’s when you listen to how incredibly accomplished the musicianship is, you reflexively bow to what a talent we were graced with, and how sad and tragic it was that he passed away last year.

Whatever your politics, your background, your beliefs or your preferences, we could all do with having more music like this in our lives from time to time. And just be a bit more…Prince.

#9 – The Doors, L. A. Woman

    Motel, money, murder, madness,

Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness”  

Since Miles Davis’ 1957 seminal works, ‘Birth of The Cool’, the word ‘cool’ has best been used as a noun. It’s, well, just a bit more cool. When describing something, it’s should be thought of in the same sense as, say, a place name can sometimes, irritatingly, be used as an adjective. As in, “that sound is so Los Angeles.”  

miles

I seem to recall a judge once said of pornography, “it can be hard to describe, but you know it when you see it”. When I say recall, I mean I read about it in a law book, rather than actually heard the judge say it. From the dock.  

Cool 

I’d argue the same can said of ‘cool’ – you’ll struggle to pin it down in words or capture its meaning with any effectiveness. But as sure as you know you can’t be cool chasing a ping-pong ball down the street, you know that when you see it, you know something’s cool. And if you want to know what cool sounds like, then listen to The Doors’ exquisite 1971 record, ‘L. A. Woman’. The very quintessence of cool. 

Jim Morrison’s gravelly vocal laid against Robbie Krieger’s horn-inducing, seductive guitar lines and the beautifully minimalist rhythm accompaniments will make you melt or growl, depending where you are or who you’re with. In the coolest possible way.  

The roaring opener, The Changeling, sets you up for the groove-fest that follows. Been Down So Long is not just instrumentally spot on, but lyrically moving in a way that actually draws your gut in, but very slowly. The sheer class and quality continues all the way through, with belters like Crawling King Snake and The WASP keeping things raw, emotive and quite brilliant.  

The best blues 

Never mind being the best Doors album, I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best blues albums from non-pure-blues artists of all time.  

This blog is easy to write at times as all I do is listen to an album and write about how it makes me feel. And listening to ‘L. A. Woman’ just makes you feel cool, no matter how uncool you are, which is quite something.  

It’s being a nobody, strutting down Berwick Street feeling so confident you think you could take out Anthony Joshua in the 11th. It’s drinking a round with Brad Pitt, listening to his woes of divorce, thinking that if you’ve survived a bust-up or two with your partner and are still in a half-stable, half-happy relationship you’ve somehow achieved more in life than he has. It’s buying a blue denim jacket in your mid-thirties and feeling like you did when you wore one in the mid-nineties.  

I’ve done two of these three in the past week. And I know none of them are that cool. But if you do pretty much anything to a soundtrack of this, Morrison, Krieger & co’s finest hour then you may even feel like you were Brad Pitt taking down Joshua in the last and stealing his denim jacket after it just for the crack.  

At over 7 minutes long you’d think you’d want them to end, but the closing tracks of both sides of the LP – ‘L. A. Woman and ‘Riders of the Storm are so engaging, so gripping, so absorbing and so much fun you just want them to go on and on. 

Miles Davis may have given birth to it, but with ‘L. A. Woman’, The Doors epitomized cool for generations to come. A fitting send-off to and from the great, the legendary Jim Morrison, who died 3 months after the album was released.  


howard

Pussy 

Howard Jacobson appears to be the first to have put pen to paper to satirise the horror show that is the post-election United States administration and has done so with a parody of Trump and various other unsavoury characters’ earlier lives in the run up to the vote. 

In his inimitable and unmatchable style, Jacobson uses precision of detail and beautifully crafted language to tackle the serious issue in a funny but devastatingly castigating way. And it leaves you thinking, thank god real life isn’t like this…until you remember what he’s writing about and it makes you wish some of the politicians society is offered as a choice were only a tenth as competent as Jacobson is a writer. Bravo, Mr Jacobson, your fury is shared. 

#8 – The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 

“Yours sincerely, wasting away.” 

Abstinence. It’s good for the soul, they say. I once abstained from alcohol for 113 days about 10 years ago. It was for a bet – I wish I’d abstained from gambling instead. I’m pretty sure I once abstained from sex for just as long, though that wasn’t necessarily out of choice.  

Listening to a Beatles album today is like returning to a vice after years of abstinence, and Sgt Pepper is the dirtiest, most gratifying of the lot.  

“It was 20 years ago…”, actually it will be 50 years ago in June the album was released, so in honour of that and all the reissues, remasters, remixes and re-reviews of this masterpiece, here’s my blog about it.   

The best of all time?

I won’t dwell on the frequent claims that it’s the best album of all time. I find that view difficult to concur with as I just don’t believe such a thing exists. I would argue, however, that no album, has opened with 3 such mind-bendingly majestic tracks. The sequence of the title track, followed by ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ then ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, if you haven’t heard them for a while, is the auditory equivalent of a twenty-something single lad ending a 9-month drought with Angelina Jolie. You want to fist-pump the world it’s that good, and the wait is forgotten  

And like Angelina, the album is stunning and spectacular in many ways, but not perfect. But then who or what is? A guilty part of you wishes they’d just left it as the classic pop album instead of interpolating harpsichord melodies and sitar nuances, but then music would be stuck where it was before this revolutionary art was made and we’d all be worse off.  

It’s been said George Harrison never played an unnecessary note or chord in his life and here is no exception. One of the joys of blogging on albums like this is it encourages you to listen to every note on every track; the subtle sparsity of the guitar for example on ‘Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds‘ or ‘Getting Better‘ are just what’s needed, no less, no more.  

Musicality

The vocals and sheer musicality throughout remind you just how damn good these guys were, at everything. McCartney on Sgt Pepper…’ epitomises what the modern rock singer should aim for.  

The dancing melody of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite perfectly teases you through the psychedelic story that you become immersed in. She’s Leaving Home is the weak link in the album but if you listen to Kasabian, whom I love, and their string-backed tracks immediately after listening to this you’ll still see how unavoidable the Fab Four’s influence continues to be.  

Within You Without You is an excess too far and drags like an erection after an orgasm – still pleasurable but you get the sense the Beatles are enjoying it more than you are.  

With the help of some irresistible clarinet When I’m Sixty Four beautifully paints a picture of the scene being described. The lyrics, the melody and the sentiment, even today, bring a lump to my throat. The near-perfect finale of ‘A Day in The Life’ is probably the thing that leaves people thinking this is the best album of all time made by undoubtedly one of the greatest producers of all time.  

What I learnt from my limited, but sorely memorable, encounters with abstinence is that the best thing about it is its ending – that’s where soul really lies. So go ahead and abstain, from anything, but be sure you have an end in sight. And when that happens, have someone, or something special there to enjoy it with you. And there’s nothing more special than Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 



amis

 The Pregnant Widow

The overtly sexual references in this blog may partially be due to that fact I’m reading Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow at the moment. He’s one of my favourite authors and I would put Money, London Fields and Dead Babies all in my top 20 favourite books. I picked up The Pregnant Widow out of laziness more than anything as I didn’t know what to read next so reverted to MA without too much thought. It’s witty and biting, has an achingly-desirable female character named Scheherazade and a protagonist called Keith, so if you love Amis you won’t be disappointed. 


 

#7 – Blondie, Parallel Lines

"Once I had a love, and it was a gas,"
"Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass" (Blondie, Heart of Glass)  

I saw a man breakdown on the Underground last week. Not on his train, as happens daily. And not one of those feeling-faint episodes that are a bit of an embarrassment after drinking too much the night before. No, this was a full-on heart-wrenching, emotional-outpouring of a breakdown.  

In my experience only a death or a woman can do that to a man, or maybe both. I hoped it was the latter. Especially as I carefully observed him getting out of his seat to wait by the doors, still sobbing, not really having any idea where he was. It’s an unfortunate truism that if one were to find oneself in that situation on the Underground, one is literally only 3 minutes from the next quick and presumably painless suicide opportunity. Or maybe 6 if you’re on the District Line. So I was concerned about this chap.  

But he gathered himself moments later. Breathed in deeply, and again, then gave a resigned smile. He wiped his face, straightened his headphones and got off the train, presumably back to, or away from the source of the pain, or the solution.  

Blondie2

I got home that evening and for no apparent reason other than I’d recently bought the record, I put on Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines. If you ever wonder why Blondie are as big a name as they are and can’t quite put your finger what made them so remarkable, listen to this album.  

It’s an absolute zinger of a pop album. It has it all – chest-filling energy; soul-lifting passion; guitars and bass to dazzle the ear and rock the globe; and of course, Debbie Harry’s exceptional vocal and raunch brining it all together.   

Obviously ‘Heart of Glass and ‘One Way or Another‘ stand out as the classics purely through the extent to which they’ve been played since. But the album as a whole is nothing short of a masterclass in composing and producing some of the best pop tracks that have ever been put together and evidence why the bygone format of a full album was so, so powerful.  

It is rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and dramatic. Boy, is it dramatic! Who knew Blondie told such great stories. Or rather, could tell the same story in such beautifully varied, witty and lyrical expressions. Because it’s essentially an album of serenely musical love songs. ‘Picture This’s‘ falsely assuring chord pattern; the classic bassline of ‘Pretty Baby‘ pumping your feet and your heart the whole way through; ‘Sunday Girl‘s’ soft melody perfectly capturing the song’s message.  The discordance and reggae-esque ending of ‘Fade Away‘ keeps you on your toes and the angularity of ‘Know But I Don’t Know‘ gives just the right jolt to what could otherwise be  almost too pleasant an album. Which brings me back to feeling… 

If you’re feeling in a slightly emotionally fragile state, as I imagine the man on the tube must have been, then beware – Parallel Lines will take you from heaven to hell, but possibly back again. 

And that’s the whole point of music for me, particularly pop music; and there is no better example of this than Parallel Lines. I don’t know what it was that made the man on the tube breakdown in tears, or equally what gave him the strength to compose himself before going on his way, but I suspect I felt the briefest of trembles of all those waves of feeling pass through me as I listened to Debbie Harry ride flawlessly through Blondie’s ultimate album.  

You may laugh, you may cry, but at the end of it, you’ll wish music today had even half an ounce of the emotion and brilliance of composition that Parallel Lines has. 


 

#6 – Kraftwerk, Die Mensch Maschine

#6 – Kraftwerk, Die Mensch-Maschine(The Man Machine)

I felt uninspired. Uninspired by the music that’s selling big today. By the programmes on television. Uninspired by Brexit, Trump and what’s going on in the world around us.  

In these situations, I often turn to new books and old music, as evidenced somewhat by the existence of this blog.  

Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception makes the case that we can all be artists in our daily work-lives, from the nurse on the hospital ward, to the accountant, to the mechanic, to the office clerk. But to do so we actually need to make art, face and overcome the resistance and dare to be different. It’s an approach rather than a talent. To oppose industrial efficiency and the lizard brain, to connect to society in a way that is entirely human. Not to fly too low to the ground.   

When you’re uninspired this is harder. But that’s no excuse, argues Godin, and he’s right. Go and look for it. Seek it out. Just look around.  

unspecified-7

There are such things, I’m told, as futurists. Attempting to predict what society, technology, our culture holds for the future. I doubt anyone will have been able to predict the slow but sure change we are seeing in our brains as not only does the addiction to flat, touchable screens become unstoppable but the thirst and hunger for new, instantly gratifying information become a built-in response, an irresistible reflex for us all. But this doesn’t need to be bad, for we are men and women. Not machines, robots, or models.  

Where better to turn for some Europhilic, techno-embracing creative inspiration than Kraftwerk,  the electro-punk-krautrock group formed in 1969 and their artistic masterpiece The Man Machine.  

Unbelievably, this was released in 1978, nearly 40 years ago! And guess what? It sounds as fresh as ever. Which is ironic, as, unlike that sometimes over-used cliche, this album really does. The beats, the space, the synthesizers, the minimalist vocals. The precision. The conveyance of a theme so beautifully crafted and captivating. This is as much a testament to Kraftwerk’s genius as it is an indictment of much of the dross that’s been pushed out for the last 10 years.  

What the audience make of it

People who know about or are interested in music history will know Kraftwerk well and be familiar with the immeasurable influence they’ve had on everything ever since. If you think you’ve never heard  Kraftwerk you’re probably wrong. Listen to ‘The Model‘ and I suspect you will know the main synth riff instantly. I can’t think of a flurry of notes that is at the same time as haunting as it is jubilant as this exquisite keyboard composition. It’s uplifting but cautionary, rallying and energetic. 

But then again, is it? I listened to the album and felt excited, intrigued, fresh and adventurous. Dare I say, inspired? The better half of me, however, sat across the dinner table this week listening to the exact same record, thought it was slightly dated, melancholy and forlorn.  

And she’s usually right on these things. But that’s the point, there is no right way to receive art, which is what Godin eloquently puts in his book. Art is only what the audience make of it. Kraftwerk must’ve known at points in their career they were going to be criticised for what they were making. That many people would think it was just electronic trash, and wouldn’t buy their records. That to some, they may be seen as failures. But they made it anyway and changed the world.  

Kraftwerk could never have predicted that Man Machine could one day have been made available in a form of digital bits accessible via the touch of a screen whether you’re sat in a tent in Sri Lanka or dancing at a warehouse bar in Kreuzberg, Berlin. If they did then they probably wouldn’t have also thought that a record store in Soho would still be selling Man Machine and it would still be being produced on vinyl in 2017. But they are and it is and I’m thrilled and it was enough to spark a brief combustion of inspiration for me to write about this week.  

What Kraftwerk do here for me, above all, is remind us that technology can and should be used for good. For art and for inspiration. And for connecting. The negative consequences we see all around every day, the lack of conversation, the lack of eye-contact, the automation, hindered creativity, can all be countered if we look hard enough. If we believe, if we create. If we make art in the way that Kraftwerk so brilliantly did in 1978.  

Uninspired? Are you a man or a machine?

#5 – Rival Sons, Pressure & Time

5. Rival Sons, Pressure & Time

"I come for revenge for my broken dreams. 
Didn't come to wait tables or park limousines."
(Rival Sons, Burn Down Los Angeles)

Stepping out of the train station, the taxi cab, or the hotel lobby onto the streets of any of the world’s great cities, it’s likely at some point, this line may briefly go through your head. Even, or especially, if there’s no limousine in sight.

Cities. The lifeblood of society? More like the tachycardic left ventricle. Of economies, of revolutions. Of thought, feeling, culture, creativity. Everything that matters, everything that doesn’t. Religion, politics, hedonism, hard work. Destruction, salvation. Pressure. And Time.

Arriving for the first time in a city you’ve heard of but never been to before requires and ignites a certain degree of pace.

I recently read City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel set in ’70s punk scene, New York. A perfect backdrop, a good read. It would’ve been a great read had it not been so damn long. It’s impossible to express in over 900 pages the sheer pace that makes great cities what they are. It misses the point. Our cities will outlive us all, but the magic in cities happens quickly, unexpectedly, in a flash.

The chance meeting of an old friend on the subway. The deal you weren’t expecting which lands you a monkey, the mugger you didn’t see that strips you of it. The first date that leads to a second. The quickie in the park at lunchtime that doesn’t. Even the 3-day benders pass in a blur and are over as quickly as the hit from whichever drug got you through it.

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It’s all about pace, and you need to keep up. If you stumble, think you can’t make it, the city will grab you by the neck like a cat picking up its litter and throw you against the wall – ‘keep up, kid’. Loving or laughing, it’s hard to tell.

Don’t like it? Leave

The album on my record player this week is Pressure & Time, by Rival Sons. It’s 10 songs only, over in 31 booming, cymbal-crashing minutes. For me, it perfectly encapsulates what cities are all about. And it brings back all those blistering, awe-inspiring moments you’ve had which remind you why you live in a city, or why you don’t.

Strolling at dusk down the streets of Soho. Remembering to breathe while crossing Fifth Avenue. Haggling your dignity in the souks of Morocco or betting it all on the tables at the Bellagio. The restaurants of Paris, the markets of Beijing. The lavishness of Dubai. Hong Kong’s…well all of it. The sights, the tastes, the smells all rushing through you like Scott Holiday’s defibrillating guitar lines.

The album is fun yet sophisticated, brash but refined. If you were brave enough or stupid enough to ride a gold-plated limo through Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa, dressed in an Elvis onesie washing down a plate of wagyu beef with a bottle of Chateau Margaux, Pressure and Time is the album that should be playing on the stereo. You get the picture.

Cities can be dark places, they can be scary as hell. At times there’s a menacing edge to Pressure & Time, from burning down LA to graphically showing how the West was won. But it just reminds you that you’re listening to a proper blues-rock album and if you don’t like it, go and live in Chipping Campden.

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The city will beat you

An inescapable observation made about Rival Sons is that they sound like they’re trying to sound like Led Zeppelin. But who cares when they do it so well, with Holiday’s non-stop Firebird riffing from the-off with ‘All Over the Road‘ and Jay Buchanan’s larynx-rupturing vocals – the title track being the highlight here. And all without the quiet subtleties that everyone says they love about Led Zep but deep down just want more of the hard stuff. 

The final tracks wrap it up fittingly, but it’s over way too suddenly, like the last night of your city vacation; hearing ‘White Noise‘, asking who’s gonna ‘Save Me‘.  ‘Face of Light‘ has its ‘date with the moon’ only to ‘wake up with its wings.’ The lyrics on the record, while not masterly, just kind of work, in the same way our greatest cities, with their own inconveniences, just work.

Gypsies, dreams, arson, girls, boys, factory jobs, debt, down, out and up. The album like any city worth its salt, takes a bite, chews you up and spits you out.

No matter what you think, or how hard you try, make no mistake, the city will beat you. But when you’re done scrapping, when you’re broke & broken, coming down and coming home, you’ll brag and boast about your shift and say it was your best yet. You may even raise a smile and turn to the next brave, lucky soul stepping off the plane and say ‘take my keys, kid, go park my limousine.’

Burn Down Los Angeles if you dare. It will rise again, as the Rival Sons surely will.

#4 – Pink Floyd, The Wall

Hopeful surfing

If ever there were an act that required uncompromising perseverance, yet yielded maximum reward, learning to surf is surely it. If that sounds too physical, or you simply can’t be bothered, then watching someone you care about learn to surf will do the trick. You may feel a sliver of dread, tinged with hope. Or maybe just enough hope, tinged with some dread.
I watched my wife take a surfing lesson last week. It was her third ever so not a total novice, but still beginner enough to give rise to the odd chuckle and grimace. Watching a loved one learn to surf is more exhilarating than it sounds. There are prolonged periods of being on-edge. Brief spells of boredom. You watch each swell that passes thinking ‘that’s the one’, only to be disappointed. When they finally catch the perfect wave, are on their feet cruising, the surge of pleasure you know they are experiencing is unrivalled and you think to yourself, there must be nothing better. When they crash and burn face-first into 2 feet of water and a second wave puts them under again for good measure, Schadenfreude momentarily supplants admiration as the foremost sensation you’ll feel.

Watching someone you care about learn to surf and seeing them do it quite well, and quite badly, can, I found last week, be compared to listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.

This is my 4th blog, there are millions of albums to choose from. Why in Dave Gilmour’s name would I choose to write about ‘The Wall’ and all its celebrated eminence?

PhDs may have been written on interpreting the meaning of ‘The Wall’. I’ll spare you, therefore, the operatic grandeur of destructive isolationism that is the journey of Pink’s detachment from life and society. Although with the recent election of a certain President partial to a wall of his own, the appeal of depression-relieving analgesia to make one comfortably numb has arguably never been greater.

I was going to write about ‘The Wall’ because I was recently bought the album on vinyl as a gift. The sleeve, the ‘hand-written’ lyrics inside, brought back all the magic I felt holding my parents’ original copy of it as a teenager.

More profoundly, I was going to write about ‘The Wall’ because I recently met a 91 year-old man on a train. An hour later, after hearing tales of his life dating back to the late forties, we reached our destination. I then met up with some dear friends and their 1-year old baby boy. The dichotomous contacts with a 1 and 91-year old, friend and stranger within close proximity made me question whether any piece of music, any album, can adequately capture the journey from cradle to grave in the way that, say, great literature can. I need only to think back to the last 3 books I’d read to recall ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’, by Anne Tyler. An outstanding example, illuminating the extremes of both joy and sorrow that mundane, everyday life can bring. Books map these journeys far better than music does almost all of the time. ‘The Wall’ being, in my view, the one great exception.

I had the pleasure of seeing our friends all weekend, in awe of the little one’s curiosity. When I got home I listened to ‘The Wall’ and concluded that no piece of music better captures the endeavour and achievement of learning to walk quite as well as ‘In the Flesh’ does, the opening track of the album. The shock of getting to your feet. The triumph. Like standing up on a surfboard. The upbeat melody coming at just the moment you realise for the first time you can walk, or nearly walk, then fall, then try again. A riff that stays with us throughout the album, a gait that stays with us throughout our lives.

On the edge of collapse

But now, I find myself writing about ‘The Wall’ because watching my wife surf last week, I went through much of what I went through listening to the album for the first time. The briefest tedium. An unsatisfactory ending. A chuckle, a grimace. Dogged perseverance. But my, what extremes those tracks can take you to. The hope. The dread. The angry thrills. Sadistic elation with “my favourite axe.” The guitars, the lyrics, the melodies, the groove, the lot.

When it gets there, when you’re up on that metaphorical surfboard, teetering on the edge of collapse, it’s among the best, most emotionally charged music ever produced.

One of the last things the kind & humble 91-year old stranger said to me on the train after I’d listened patiently to his heartfelt stories, was:

“Before I go to bed every night, I now think to myself, am I going to wake up, and still be here tomorrow.”

I’d never felt such sorrow for someone I’d only just met.

I wonder whether one day I’ll wake up and this album will no longer be relevant. I slightly dread that generations to come won’t get to experience the beauty that is ‘The Wall’ in its entirety. I mostly hope that musical masterpieces such as this will be there forever, transcending the fickle and cyclical modalities we’re forced to endure of communicating or listening to great works of art.

Be it learning to walk, or learning to surf, or learning to age, ‘The Wall’ can accompany you through the highs and the lows of such great adventures.

With a sliver of dread, tinged with hope. Or maybe just enough hope tinged with some dread.