Saturday 21 June 2008


I never respond to those internet meme things, I’m far too much of a misanthrope. I mean, what would come next, saying hello to the neighbours? But when Rol Hirst succumbed to the lure of listing Seven Songs, somehow I got infected too. Here’s the instructions in full…

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.”

I have left off the curse bit where it explains if you don’t do this your knees will knock, your teeth fall out and you’ll turn up as an extra on Torchwood…and those 7 other people? Tag! You’re one of them. Get to it.

BIG A, LITTLE A by Jeffrey Lewis

The question is - is what we really want right now a whole CDs worth of songs by anarcho-punk ranters Crass, only covered in the new folk idiom? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the answer turns out to be yes. Whilst performing the invectives with absolute conviction, Jeffrey Lewis manages to find toe-tapping tunes long hidden inside the turgid dirges! If you actually bother listening to the words (and there’s enough of them) you’ll soon discover an ideology mired in contradiction. But Lewis also reveals why so many found Crass to be such a transforming experience. Perhaps his secret lies in knowing exactly how much to polish up the diamonds and how much to keep them rough. The voices of Lewis and his collaborator Helen Schreiner may sound musical against Steve Ignorant’s shouting (there is no kinder word), but they’re pitched at an abrasive enough level to still convey Crass’ sense of outrage.

It’s hard to pick a favourite. The slower songs may be more audacious (Punk Is Dead becoming a soft piano-and-guitar lament), but Big A Little A feels like a keystone of the album. Typically it’s not a complaint about this policy or that event, it just plonks the whole of society centre stage and opens fire…

“External control, are you gonna let them get you?
Do you wanna be a prisoner in the boundaries they set you?
You say you wanna be yourself, do you think they’ll let you?
They’re out to get you…”

You will, I promise, be humming those words!

SUZANNE by Fairport Convention

“You don’t hear much from this era”, I thought as I availed myself of Fairport Convention’s Heyday compilation – BBC session tracks largely from before they turned to electric folk. The reason for this, I was to discover, is that they were actually pretty run-of-the-mill back then. But their superlative cover of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne beamed out from the rest like a lighthouse amid rocks.

Now my normal reaction is to reach for the fast-forward as soon as a cover comes on of Cohen, early Dylan or similar. Bands tend to assume the pared-down original is some kind of demo tape magically recorded just for them, and that the world will thank them for rocking it up. It’s as if every pencil sketch was thought to be aching to become an oil painting, every speech an opera. But here it’s changed enough to be worth doing, whilst staying true to the spirit of the original.

Much of its effectiveness comes from the simple device of splitting the verses between boy and girl singers. This is effective partly just by delaying Sandy Denny’s entry, thereby making it more of an event. But it also emphasises the song’s theme of unfulfilment, the boy singing hopelessly of Suzanne and the girl of Jesus. Despite the song’s name I’ve long regarded the Jesus verse as key, depicting a purgatorial earth we wander like the ancient mariner, deprived of the divine spark we seek. (‘All men will be sailors then, until the sea shall free them.”) From those few words I find my mind constructing a whole alternate theology, where Jesus descended to earth to rescue us but instead finds himself trapped among us – “forsaken, almost human,he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” Like the man said, ain’t no getting out this world alive.


Neil Young’s regarded by many as a guitar god, but me - I take to his ballads every time. Perhaps it’s partly that their plaintive quality best suits Young’s high-pitched, almost strained singing. But it’s not least because a rocking-out Young had a typically Seventies taste for self-indulgence.

…and so it came to pass that the great songwriter’s greatest song was either Needle and the Damage Done or After the Gold Rush – four minutes of voice and solo piano with no choruses, and the only ‘solo’ coming from a passing trumpet. (And even that’s not really a solo, the trumpet just stands in for the vocals on one of the verses.) The result is one of the most elegiac songs to the end of the Sixties ever composed. The stuff about aliens coming to rescue us is hippy bollocks of course, the sort of thing Jarvis Cocker parodied, but you can overlook that. Young can sing about fanfares to the sun in such a way as to make you feel he’s demonstrating them.

Over the years Young has had cause to change the line “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.” It’s now standing as “in the 21st century” and counting. Though clearly born from post-Sixties disillusionment, the paradox of the song is that it takes on a more universal aspect – posing today as an impasse between a golden past and perfect future, like a cloud temporarily passing over the sun. Perhaps today will always feel that way, no matter what time we’re in.

BEVERLEY PENN by the Waterboys

Pounding pianos, pummeling drums, swirling organs, soaring vocals and resounding sax solos that all sound not so much anthemic as hymnal – we’re back in Waterboys country again. This track was left off the original release of This is the Sea, and now belatedly appears on an extended CD of out-takes. By now we’re used to all sorts of slush being dredged up by marketing departments of course. But this time the song’s so good it’s curious why it was ever missed out in the first place. One rather prosaic answer is that a lot of tracks were recorded for that album, and in the time-truncating days of vinyl many had to be passed over.

But it perhaps lost the limelight for being too much its own thing, not quite fitting the more metaphysical, allusive style Scott was crystallizing for that album. Like Medicine Bow (a track which did make the cut, albeit an edited version) it conjures stormy skies. But Medicine Bow takes place in a heightened, idealized world –painted broadly so as to be beyond detail. You’re not supposed to be in a place, but the place, which wouldn’t appear on anything so petty as a map.

Beverley Penn paints much more of a picture. “Wrapped she is in furs and sable” is a specifying detail, allowing us to frame the scene in our minds. It even has named characters in it. (I can’t think of a single example on the released version – Pan excepted!) This song feels much closer to literature than symbolist poetry.

Turns out, the song’s based on a novel – Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. The significance of that comes from an apparently throwaway line – “tell me the story again.” Scott reaches more of crescendo at other points, such as:

”It was dawn and it was December,
And Peter Lake loved Beverly Penn.”

…as if human emotions were just as physical and as powerful things in the world as the seasons and elements. But the purity of Peter Lake’s love comes from the fact he’s a fictional character! In Scott’s romantic vision, he exists entirely to express this love, never distracted by tawdry or hundrum matters. It’s perhaps significant he is never involved in the events within the song, we’re just told of his love at the end of every verse. For Scott, characters in literature are not sparklers, bright but short-lived distractions, but beacons, blazing the way for the rest of us to follow.

I’ve never read a word of Helprin in my life, but I know Scott was a CS Lewis fan. There’s a scene in The Silver Chair where the Emerald Witch traps our heroes in a cave, and convinces them that not just their mission but all life outside the cave was merely a delusion. But her spell’s broken by the lowliest of their party, Puddlegum the Marshwiggle, who insists that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones."

”I would dive in a freezing river,
Set fire to a hundred men,
If I could for just one time,
Love somebody the way that he loved Beverley Penn.”

COME ON IN MY KITCHEN by Robert Johnson

And talking of stormy skies… Johnson’s chiefly known for his devil songs of course, but from his collected works it was the understated menace of this much more domestic track which I kept coming back to. “Well can’t you hear that wind howl?” As conjured by a few spare chords, you can – it feels like ice water down your back. In fact my favourite sequence may well be the hummed opening, before a single word is said.

Marc Bolan once said songs were spells with the power to change our mood. Johnson’s songs, even the ones without Old Red, are all black magic. Here the pathetic fallacy is operating at the height of his powers, the oncoming storm a projection of the singer’s rage. It’s as if he’s vested the whole world with his vengefulness then, in a sinister twist, presented his own home as the only refuge from it. You don’t need to keep banging on about the devil to have an effect. Would that many a black metal band had learnt that lesson…

HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW by Mahalia Jackson

From Satanism to Gospel in one simple bound! “I sing because I’m happy”, Jackson cries here, “I sing because I’m free.” But what would undoubtedly be zippy and exuberant in a pop song is here slow and measured, an accumulation of held notes, in front of the most minimal backing. Jackson isn’t merely singing at a slower tempo than we may be used to, she’s so self-assuredly unhurried it feels like a foreign tempo to our rushaday world. This must have sounded timeless the very day it was recorded!

While Marc Bolan was talking about spells, David Byrne claimed the appeal of music was that it created its own time, outside of clock time. The tempo here reminds me of a passage in Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop where the heroine Melanie meets two Irish lads in a bustling Victoria station. “Her attention was caught by two young men who leant against a hoarding, drinking tea from cardboard cups with unhurried, slow, rustic movements. Their stillness attracted her. They created their own environment around them…They were country people in a way Melanie was not, although she had just come from the green fields and they might have lived in London all their lives. They were brothers…They drank their tea and did not talk to each other. They kept quite still, although all the commotion of the station swirled around them.”

Devoutly religious, Jackson wouldn’t have approved of many of the goings-on in Carter’s novels of course. I, to put it bluntly, take Carter’s side. But when she sings it feels an outpouring of love, the certainty without the fanaticism, the Christianity that stood for civil rights not the hate-filled fanatics who gloat when a gay man dies of AIDS.

LAST DAYS by Max Richter

Richter was wont to record with Future Sound of London, a fact which sometimes comes to the fore on his Memoryhouse CD. But it was the neoclassicism of the closing track which won me over. I’m not even particularly keen on the genre, which can often feel like mere pastiche, but here it’s pulled off with magnificence. The track gleams as it bounds along. Listening to it is like watching a piston-powered steam engine, it’s energy only matched by its grace. An electric train might run faster, but never with so much style.

Obligatory one complaint – neo-classicism has almost become a byword for film composition, something Richter himself has dabbled in. Of course film scores have to be epic but brief, expressing themselves in short bursts between the dialogue. This is probably a good discipline for composers, for short is often harder to achieve than long. But the downside is that everything is then obligated to come in at film or pop song length. It’s like adverts have set the pace of our lives. This track runs for four-and-a-half-minutes, but it’s not enough! Had it been the final movement in a symphony it could have won itself more elbow room.

PS Not sure the last one is strictly speaking a song, so maybe if you don’t want to be tagged that’s your get-out…


  1. Nice list, nice writing... and I didn't even know about the curse. Wondered what had happened to my teeth!

  2. Speaking of Mahalia Jackson, I heard the most beautiful bit of music on Radio 3 the other day - a suite dedicated to her by Duke Ellington. It's late ellington, around 1970 I think... need to track it down and hear it again. Reckon it would be a big current listen.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Though generally I don't like jazz (too muso-ish for me) I would like to hear enough to work out who I do like from it. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Mingus... maybe Ellington will be in there.

    There's probably few genres that don't have the exception to the rule. I don't like heavy metal, but you dare say something against Motorhead in my presence!

  4. Oh yeah, you have to get into Duke Ellington, Gav! I'm not a jazzhead and I know only a fraction of his stuff, but it's one of those 'must haves.' My favourites are the tracks he did in the forties (I think) like Cottontail, Concerto for Cootie and Koko... Pure tunes and rhythm, no indulgence. An amazing creative man.

    Something else I'm into at the mo is a trendy folky band called Noah and the Whale. They've done two great summery singles this year. Check out the video for 'Shape of my heart' on youtube - it features a Communist wife-beater!

  5. I'd like to hear more Ellington...