Thursday, 16 July 2009

SEVEN (MORE) SONGS: Part Two

These three songs complete my description of “seven songs which have been shaping my spirit lately." Part One here.

Spotify Playlist here


‘AIRSCAPE’ by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

Inevitably for me, I tend to prefer the darker more menacing side to psychedelia. The softer stuff tends to the fey and twee, rich kids prancing about in parks and frilly shirts whilst rejoicing under names liked the Crocheted Donut Holes. Perhaps we more readily recognise the existence of bad drugs nowadays, but my favourite Hitchcock tends to be from his early, punk-era outfit The Soft Boys. But as his later work often demonstrates there is an upside, a light psychedelia that isn’t just psychedelia-lite. In fact ‘Airscape’ would be a strong contender for my favourite Hitchcock track of all. (And, according to Wikipedia, Hitchcock himself concurs.)

This song isn’t named for nothing. It infuses the sound of psychedelia with the feeling of weightlessness, for the pealing guitar and wind-chimes don’t sound like they possibly could have come from any earth-bound instruments. (The album was titled after the line “element of light.”) Hitchcock uses this sense to conjure up the perfect summer song. (“And in the element of summer/ The cliffs suspended in the heat/ The air in columns.”)

It’s the observation that in the haze of summer objects seem to lose their substance and become nothing but forms of light, then fed into the poetic fancy that an eternal summer would bring with it the end of all physical separation –we’d become just floating elements of light. (“Where angels hover, I’ll hover too.”)

(For the importance of those psychedelic sounds in conveying this sense, check out this live version from YouTube. Without them the song keeps something of it’s beauty, but more narrowly escapes being another post-Byrds jangle. With them comes the lift-off.)

And like much psychedelic music, there’s something indefinably English about the whole thing. “The tiny figures of the world are walking/ Underneath your feet” makes me think of another supernatural world, existing in parallel to our own yet passing us by. In today’s bid for Pseud’s Corner, it could be said to be reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.”


Of course such conceits have a purpose beyond mere fancy. The supernatural world is really nothing but the natural world, ceaselessly trodden by us but in our daily bustle never noticed. The music’s a means to reacquaint us with it. In fact, in the finest tradition of romantic poetry, the song was written about Hitchcock’s favourite beach, as featured on the cover art.

’RISE ABOVE’ by Black Flag

In in an e-mail group to which I belong, a recent exchange awarded Black Flag’s ‘Police Story’ the coveted prize for dumbest punk lyrics of all time. (With special points awarded for the opening: “This fucking city/ Is run by pigs/ They take the rights away/ From all the kids.”) But a close contender might be ‘Rise Above’, also from their debut album 'Damaged' (released in 1981).

In fact this virtually became their signature song, normally opening their notoriously confrontational live shows. Lyrically its a debunking anaylsis of the capitalist mode of accumulation... no of course it isn’t. It’s a great two-and-a-half-minute fuck-you to the in-crowd kids who disdained them. ”We are tired of your abuse/ Try to stop us, its no use!” is made into a band chant. (There’s even the line “think they’re smart”!) As original singer Keith Morris (gone by this recording) put it: “We were going to make as large a racket, piss as many people off, go apeshit as we could, and we had no choice but to play to please ourselves and a handful of friends.” (Quote from Clinton Heylin’s 'Babylon’s Burning'.)

Its dedication to defiance is juvenile but awe-inspiring, risible but brilliant, cheesy but coruscating, petty but life-changing. All of which is completely punk. Punk’s blanket insistence that “you can do it” led to some pretty terrible efforts, if also some good stuff. But the truly great punk is good and terrible simultaneously. I laugh whenever I hear it, both at it and with it, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. “We are born with a chance/ I am going to have my chance.” What better messaged could you hope to hear in your teens?

MEMO FROM TURNER by Mick Jagger



I normally dislike posting a video link when the subject of enquiry is actually the song (remember them?), but this time there’s a method to my madness. Before music video was established, this song was stuck surrealistically in the middle of the cult film 'Performance' (in which Jagger starred). It fits the film so well it’s astonishing to hear it was an old demo, only utililised by Jagger after he failed to come up with anything new. Both compare and contrast the world of the rock star with the gangster in myriad ways, but let’s home in here on one more specific to the song.

It’s a sleazy blues number, typically sneered through and smeared with slide guitar. (Courtesy of Ry Cooder, this isn’t a Stones song.) Richie Unterberger describes it accurately enough as “spinning bizarre mini-snapshots of decadent, cruel gangster behavior...” However it also sets up a chronology, beginning with lowlife tussles “eating eggs in Sammy's... on a hot and dusty night” before leading up to grey executives “at the Coke convention, back in nineteen sixty-five.” (Then just three years ago.) Moreover, the personalised and conversationally familiar speech (“Didn't I see you down in San Antone..?”) is also juxtaposed with the more formal choruses (the repeated “Come now gentlemen...”).

Rock stars had once been outsiders, doing little more than providing a soundtrack to delinquency. No-one had been a better poster boy for bad-guy status than the young Stones. But by ’68 (when the first demo version of this song was laid down), the Beatles’ 'Sergeant Pepper' had happened and rock music was now relabelled Art. (It was reviewed in the Village Voice under the header ‘The Album As Art Form’.) Perhaps consequently, the Stones remained keen to play Altamont against the Beatles’ Woodstock.

Hence Jagger delivers the song suited from behind a desk, reminding his contemporaries (and quite likely himself) their roots lay in dives like Sammys rather than Coke conventions.

”Come now, gentlemen,
I know there's some mistake.
How forgetful I'm becoming,
now you fixed your business...
...straight.”


Less-than-PC lines like “you drowned that Jew in Rampton” would be the equivalent of reminding the Beatles of when, broke in Hamburg, they attempted to mug a sailor. There’s even a coded reference to the idea they might all be getting on a little - “When the old men do the fighting/ And the young men all look on”. (Which compounds with James Fox’s line to him in the film, “You’ll look funny when you’re forty.”)

Of course these days that’s hard to remember. There’s (to put it mildly) something of an irony in hearing Jagger warn about the corporatisation of rock music. (Or for that matter the redefining of rock music as art whilst starring in an art movie.) But perhaps we should treat it less as warning and more prediction.

"So, remember who you say you are,
and keep your noses clean...
"The baby's dead," my lady said.
You gentlemen, why, you all work for...
...me!"



Admission: With the above write-ups I seem to have taken the term ‘song’ quite prescriptively. Descriptions either don’t mention the music much at all, or explain how it illustrates the lyrics – like it lacked its own motivation. Its analogous to the way criticism about comics homes in on the writing, with the art just some kind of side-order. Like goes to like, and words go to words. Ah well...

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