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Thursday, 9 July 2009

SEVEN (MORE) SONGS: Part One



Following a previous experiment, here’s seven more songs that have been “shaping my spirit” lately. (Or at least four of them, Part Two will follow... um... sometime.) You can listen to them via the Spotify link below. (If you don’t already have Spotify, you’ll have to download the player from here - don’t worry, it’s free!)

Lucid Frenzy Playlist



‘SURROUNDED BY THE STARS’ by Amon Düül II

I sometimes think there must have been something in the water in Seventies Germany, enabling the bands to take the standard American rock influences and make them their own. Take for example this track by the kozmische (don’t call them krautrock!) outfit Amon Duul II, opening their 1972 album Wolf City. In terms of lyrics and tone it’s clearly stealing a page from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, throwing a ‘straight’ into a world of weirdness then poking a stick at his struggling with some second-person denunciation. Like Jospeh K, you’re not quite sure what you’ve done to incite such disdain - which somehow makes it all the worse. It has both Dylan’s Carnivalesque Medievalism and his fixation with encountering archetypal figures (a streetsweeper, a clown, a cop, even his patented Napoleon)!

However, Dylan’s song harangued the unhip. (“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?”) AD II (as their fans call them) up the stakes by upping the scale, contrasting the puny human ego against the immensity of the universe. The song warrants its ‘kosmische’ tag, building things up with a cosmic sweep and majesty - dwarfing sunrises and unheeding “gates of night”. The title itself is a perfect reversal of the standard Science Fiction fixation with escape; here an unfamiliar universe is pressing in upon you.

As much as anything from American rock music, I associate it’s imagery with the new-look comics of this era, such as Metal Hurlant - with it’s “complex graphics, cinematic imagery and surreal storylines.” Though, typically, this comic magazine was French it may well have been available in neighbouring Germany. Both use science fiction as a springboard to the cosmic, with a hefty side-order of surrealism. (The song provides only one actual SF device, the ‘are-you-tired machine.’)

Renate Knaup-Krötenschwanz’s cold-as-Nico vocals are the icing on this grandest of gateaux; while Dylan still sounds part-combative there’s not a trace of antagonism in her serene and lofty disdain. She’s as aloof as the stars themselves, peering pitilessly down on our petty hubris. In particular, the musical surges around her declammatory cries of “sunrise” have an exquisitely epic feel.

This marks the band in their classic era, advancing from their original free-form jams (check out the title track of their first album Phallus Dei) to something more closely resembling structured songs. In his Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope called this a “transitional group, but somehow in a state of very inspiring flux.” Not that such a free-form spirit had departed, for instrumental breaks continually thrust themselves into proceedings as if vying with the vocals. But, rather than disrupt the song, the tension between the two actually makes it. The sudden leaping from one to the other not only adds to the disorienting unpredictability, the instrumentals erupting also creates a cosmic soundscape. (Singing about “the gates of night” is fairly ineffective if you don’t feel it from the music. Here I’m driven to imagine gargantuan King Kong doors, big enough to hold back the sun.)

Later, and sadly, this unhinged element would disappear and the perfect balance would be lost. You can see it even on the covers, which would abandon psychedelic freakshows for (yes really) airbrushed cars.

This review describes it well, as “Amon Düül II's tightest, most economical performance yet... For the first time, ADII seemed to base the songs around the vocal melodies instead of just working the vocals into instrumental passages... later albums would have slicker, more modern production values and the music itself would be more easily traceable to its influences.” (Let’s not get factional that those words come from a prog site!)

Finally, wasn’t that guitar opening ripped off for Here & Now’s ‘This Time’?

‘THE BALLAD OF THE SOLDIER’S WIFE’ by PJ Harvey

Songs aren’t heirlooms; you’re not obliged to sing them in the style they were recorded. To do a Brecht and Weill number, for example, you don’t need to put on a dodgy German accent or duplicate the original cabaret-style instrumentation. In fact a cover should always strike off in a new direction, or else it’s just a pale photocopy. But what you do need is to understand the spirit of the original, know where the song was in order to take it somewhere else where it’ll fit in.

Maria Friedman’s version for The Proms (back in September ’98) was jaunty & celebratory, the soldier’s wife receiving gift after gift as her husband travels and despoils Europe. Only in the last verse do things take a desultory tone, as the song draws towards its weighty conclusion. Conversely, Harvey sings the song almost emotionlessly, reciting the words in a near-monotone with the remorselessness of a ticking clock, against the sparest of backings.

Though the pared-down sound fits well after the grandeur of the AD II track, there’s more to it than segueing. The simple truth is that Harvey has it right and Friedman wrong. It’s not that the ‘twist’ is really quite obvious, that the final ‘gift’ is going to be the soldier’s body delivered back from the Russian front. It’s that the ‘twist’ is intended to be obvious, a conclusion foregone from the start. Like a public information film about playing with matches, there is no other way the song could possibly end. The point of the song is that it has a point, with everything else clearly designed around expressing that function. (At times Brecht even took this so far as to tell audiences the end of his plays at the very beginning, feeling anything else might lead to distraction.) Luvvie frills do not add, they distract from such a purpose.

Harvey’s version is from a tribute album to Weill. Like most of these things, its pretty patchy and uncohesive overall but has its highpoints. (William Burroughs’ closer is a joy!)

‘TIMES SQUARE’ by Marianne Faithfull

Of course this is one of those alcohol songs that isn’t actually about alcohol. However, how much it is about Faithfull’s own years as a heroin addict is at most marginally important. For one thing, she spent those years in London and addiction doesn’t lend itself to jet-setting. For another, the song’s not written by her but guitarist (and long-time collaborator) Barry Reynolds. At the most, it gives things an extra piquancy.

“Take a walk around Times Square
With a pistol in my suitcase
And my eyes on the TV.”


The song sums up a junkie’s life with successions of juxtaposed images - combining the constant feeling of danger with the perpetual sense of being on the periphery of things (“in a car taking a back seat”). Removed from society, at the mercy of both habit and dealer, you’re never actually in charge of your life. Times Square is both the notorious lowlife hangout in New York and a metaphor for the repetitiveness of the addict lifestyle – “take a walk around Times Square”, “standing in a circle”, reinforced by the repeated references to minutes and hours.

Yet unlike the Velvets’ ‘Heroin’, the circle may be unbroken in ways other than death. Like many songs the end is actually found in the beginning, for “watch 'Don't Walk' to 'Walk'” prefigures the detoxing. The last line, “staring at the ceiling” contrasts with the movie screen and the car window. This time you are share the space with what you see. But instead of the chorus returning the song ends suddenly and openly, less a triumph than an ellipse...

The ambiguity of this un-Hollywood non-ending is something of a masterstroke. Addictions are commonly described as never beaten, at most contained. Indeed, though we shouldn’t read the song too much as biography, Wikipedia suggests that her addiction hadn’t been entirely contained even at this point in her comeback.

This song first appeared on Faithfull’s 1983 album A Child’s Adventure, but this is a live version from the 1990 Blazing Away.

‘POOR OLD TOM’ by Richard Buckner

As I’ve argued before, the purpose of country music isn’t to galvanise you against the injustices of the world. It’s to induce in you the requisite resignation until you’re able endure this world as it is. Its like the slug of whiskey before the kitchen-table amputation.

Peter Case’s ‘Poor Old Tom’ would be a good case in point. Tom’s predicament is presented as a fait accompli; he’s broken before the song begins, the song’s built around learning how he got that way. One line mentions “typhoons and calms on the great Pacific”. I can’t help but think of the typhoons as Tom’s fractured fallibility (“at the drop of a coin he starts to ramble/ and the whole damn thing becomes a mystery”) and the calms as the points where the clouds start to part and we get to see what’s been going on. Some lines are so flatly descriptive they become almost comic – “he worked hard on board and got promoted/ he got VD but it went away.” The oft-repeated “poor old’ title becomes a perfect microcosm of this, in every instance hinting at a terrible problem yet at the same time reinforcing the diminutive term.

However, while not changing a word of this, Richard Buckner’s cover adds a whole new dimension. His delivery is the very opposite of insistent, each couplet closing with a descending tempo, like the song’s perpetually on the edge of ending. This is a tale that’s already done.

At the same time, to pursue the song’s nautical metaphor, the arrangement carries something of an undertow, swelling back up whenever the couplet seems closed. The song’s bookended with an agitated guitar sound, which would seem to suggest something far more expressive without it ever actually appearing. Buckner’s voice is also befitting – weary and mumbling, but with a touch of tremulousness. Between them these suggest an inchoate rage lurking under the surface of the song, threatening to break the surface but never quite coming forward.

Both versions deny this rage expression. But while Case demonstrates a rage-shaped hole which he defies us to fill, Buckner allows us to glimpse its shadow. Ironically this suggestion of rage makes it linger in the mind more than its actual expression would, we can’t help but wonder what have happened if it had reared itself above the waterline. (Case’s own version is on Spotify too, if you want to check this comparison out.)

“Poor old Tom, his story’s true
He’s got nothing to show
No-one to show it to
The word for him is nevertheless
He fought for freedom
Never took a free breath.”


Coming Up Next!: Something completely different. (Well three somethings, to be precise...)

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