A Belated Song for Saturday: dEUS – Instant Street

A belated song for Saturday, it’s true, as today is actually Sunday. But this is a song worth waiting for. For those who don’t know them, dEUS are a sadly under-appreciated Belgian art rock band. They put out three albums between 1994 and 1999, before an extended hiatus which only ended in 2005 with the release of Pocket Revolution. The first three albums showed a gradual progression from lovable but slightly derivative Zappa-Waits-Beefheart devotees to bona fide stars, culminating in the superb Ideal Crash (1999).

Instant Street, the song I’m concerned with here, probably still remains their best known song, and it’s at the core of that album. It’s over six minutes long, which gives you an idea of the band’s ambition, and it represents perhaps their finest achievement, merging the wistful, expansive and accessible with something harder-edged and ultimately quite manic. The first three and a half minutes constitutes a lovely bit of country-tinged rock, dominated by an insistent banjo line, and featuring the kind of lyrics that remain enjoyably enigmatic while hinting at something deeply painful.

Around the 3:30 mark, however, we get a short breakdown before the entry of a sharper lead guitar line, all tight lips and tension, pushing the band into something altogether more urgent. The rest of the song builds and builds and builds until it becomes a juggernaut, rolling onwards until it lifts off and vocalist Tom Barman (what a great name) starts to lose it, murmuring “this time I go…”

It really is breathless, headlong, heady stuff, especially listened to very loud indeed. And it’s equally good live, judging by some of the versions available on YouTube. One of the best is below (watch out for the Stuka-style violin) or you can find the album version on Spotify here.

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A Song For Saturday: Thank U – Alanis Morissette

This single was Alanis Morissette’s first foray back into the charts after Jagged Little Pill. That album remains a very well-regarded piece of work, and justly so; it’s twenty years old, and now sounds of its time, but the themes it dealt with and the bravery of its lyrics remain significant.

I would guess that that album has made many people, and particularly women, think again about their identity and place. As suggested by the name it’s often an angry album, and you sense that catharsis is achieved through that anger.

A few years on and this single showed us that Alanis had reached some different point, some deeper catharsis. The video famously featured her singing completely naked, with only her hair and some CG blurring to protect her modesty. At the time it felt tacky, and it still does. It was clearly an attempt to visualise the openness and honesty of this song, but it was heavy-handed, detracting rather than enhancing.

The song itself remains revelatory. The nineties were the last decade where sincerity was mainstream; this is possibly the acme of that trend. There were a clutch of similarly heart-on-sleeve female songwriters around at the time, but this is a classic of the genre: the soaring vocal in this track elevates it as much as the crunching, semi-industrial drum track grounds it.

The lyrics are a mixture of painfully open and whimsically obscure. But it’s when you get to the chorus that you are hit by Morissette’s acceptance. It’s a wonderful song that understands the proper purpose of pain:

Thank you India
Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you silence

How about me not blaming you for everything
How about me enjoying the moment for once
How about how good it feels to finally forgive you
How about grieving it all one at a time

A Song For Saturday: Warpaint – Undertow

On a sunny spring day, you either need bubblegum pop or something ethereal and dreamy.

This 2010 cut from Warpaint does the latter thing in spades, with a slowly burning build, woozy vocals and subdued guitars gradually moving into a more aggressive second half.

A good example of how a drummer can drive the feel and momentum of a track, solely through variations in cymbal play – the shift to sixteens on the hihats signals a change to a more frenetic mood without seeming tacky.

It’s also a good track for late nights.

A Song for Saturday – The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Today’s Anzac Day, and the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. It is perhaps Australia and New Zealand’s most important national commemoration – similar to our Remembrance Day. More than 11,400 Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) troops died during the campaign.

The BBC has a good piece outlining what will be happening today to commemorate this important occasion.

Gallipoli, like many other failed campaigns, has perhaps inspired more successful and richer responses in art than military successes tend to. It’s probably unsurprising that artists respond better to concepts of suffering, pain, failure and death. There was an excellent 1981 film, made by Peter Weir (also director of Dead Poets Society), which was unflinchingly harrowing in its portrayal of wasted young lives. It was also one of Mel Gibson’s best performances.

But I have always been moved particularly by the song “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, by Eric Bogle. Written in 1971, it tells the story of an anonymous “rover” who is conscripted by the Australian government. It is a powerful indictment not only of war, but of attempts to glorify or romanticise it, even directly addressing Anzac Day itself: “The young people ask what are they marching for, and I ask myself the same question”.

Perhaps the best version is by the Pogues, although there are many others.

The Five Worst Bands to Enjoy Major Success

There’s a little meme doing the rounds on my Facebook where people are posting up lists of the five worst bands to have had major success. I thought I’d join in. The danger of this, of course, is that you peeve a lot of people who consider these bands to have secured that success deservedly. But I laugh in the face of such danger.

I’ve defined “worst” not merely in terms of bare output, but also in terms of the legacy they have bequeathed, and particularly the influence they have had on other bands – most of whom have been considerably worse than the original. It doesn’t mean, then, that I consider these the worst five bands to have achieved commercial success full stop.

So here you go, without further ado:

1. The Velvet Underground

The only difficulty here was whether they had “major success”. Obviously they didn’t make much of an impact commercially while they were active, but I imagine that the royalties they’ve accrued over the 40-odd years since they stopped have been fairly substantial.

I quite like the Velvet Underground, but listening now to the barrel-house clatter of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, it just sounds amateurish, especially when you consider it was released in the same year as Sergeant Pepper, Axis: Bold as Love and Forever Changes. The beauty achieved by the band on tracks like “Candy Says“, if it had been replicated, would have made them something more. But if you want that, you have to look at John Cale’s solo work.

The impact of the band is legendary. In short, this was where rock music left behind its roots in blues and jazz and do-wop and became something dominated by skinny white boys. It was where lyrics became dominated by neurosis and tension, and the music, far from being a release, became something just as often sinuous and constricted, with singing that sounded so casual it was almost comatose, and spindly, droning guitars. On balance, they belong in this list, for sure.

2. Sonic Youth

It’s probable that even now, many fewer people have heard of Sonic Youth than the Velvet Underground. So, again, there was a question here over whether their success was sufficiently “major” to merit inclusion in this list. Sonic Youth represent a strand of American rock that encompasses hardcore punk, noise rock, and no wave, which eventually gave birth to the full flowering of “alternative rock” that subsequently became the mainstream, or something approximating it.

The problem is that their music largely isn’t very good. Take “Teen Age Riot“, for example, the lead single from Daydream Nation – often regarded as their most successful album. It has an endearing sense of energy to it, and a structure that approximates something akin to what we would expect of a modern rock song, but it’s hard to hear it as anything other than a quite joyful messy jangle. When I tell you (assuming you aren’t a Sonic Youth aficionado) that this is probably their most accessible single, and that it’s actually a lot less challenging than the majority of their output, you might get a sense of the failings of this highly influential but painfully overrated band.

3. The Sex Pistols

The band that released only one album, inferior to many other contemporary works even within their own genre. The same year, 1977, saw David Bowie put out both Low and Heroes; The Clash had put out their own eponymous debut album in April.

Yet Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols remains a classic to this day. Each time I put it on – which isn’t very often – it sounds phoney to my ears. Perhaps it’s knowing that Sid Vicious, the man recruited to replace the only “middle-class” member of the band, Glen Matlock, couldn’t even play a note; that Matlock was drafted back in for the recording sessions. Or maybe it’s the highly muscular sound of the Pistols, which in one sense compares favourably to the scratchiness of the Clash or the Jam, but in another feels… dare I say, glammy?

I think the worst thing about the Pistols was the fact that they convinced everyone they were thicker than they were. The lyrics are often witty, sardonic and cutting; the musicianship is far more accomplished than the champions of the punk aesthetic would have liked to admit. Listening to Never Mind the Bollocks now, I get the uncomfortable sense I’m listening to a band jumping on a bandwagon, and certainly not one starting a movement.

4. Joy Division

Following neatly on from the previous entry, Joy Division were formed immediately after a Sex Pistols gig. But they soon outgrew their punk roots and developed a sound that was far darker and more complex. They were a truly “post-punk” band, relying on new instrumentation and production, and led by Ian Curtis’ troubled personality, dogged by depression and epilepsy.

That aspect of Joy Division is why it often feels cheap to criticise them, even though on the other side of things it arguably explains the cult-like status afforded to their two albums. The first, Unknown Pleasures, has become a defining artifact of British popular culture; the sort of album whose cover now graces a million tee-shirts worn by people who probably can’t name a single song on the record. (They might suggest “Love Will Tear Us Apart“, but that famous single featured on neither of the band’s long cuts.)

But it is precisely the themes of alienation, darkness, despair, etc, that make Joy Division so difficult to listen to. As a teenager I really tried to like them. Even now, I admire them, and recognise the power of their sound and what they achieved. But ultimately it isn’t for me, and it worries me when I see others obsessed with them. Their contemporaries U2, who are much-maligned, represent a better and more optimistic side of the post-punk movement; one that didn’t close in on itself but kept an open mind and offered an open heart to the waiting world.

5. Coldplay

The worst thing about having gone to University College London is that I was aware all through my time there as an undergraduate that a few short years before this was where Coldplay had begun.

They started out as a decent enough post-Britpop band. Taking their cues from Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and especially Travis, they ploughed an honest furrow purveying average-to-good songs, which occasionally featured piano (hey! different!) and always featured “soulful” vocals and lyrics that shot for profound but always landed on pretentious.

Somehow, though, this became so monumentally popular that they had to innovate. After the good Parachutes and the decent A Rush of Blood to the Head – both of which I enjoyed at the time, as pleasant enough records – they began to reach. On their third album, X&Y, it became apparent that they had run out of real melodic ideas and had settled, instead, for piano riffs that verged on ringtones and straight plagiarism from true visionaries – most painfully, lifting the jingly, instantly recognisable intro to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” for the awful sub-U2 earnestness of “Talk“.

The less said about the later albums the better. When a band has to find a new wardrobe to go with a new record, it’s never a good sign – unless you’re David Bowie. And let’s just bask in Wikipedia’s synopsis of Mylo Xyloto:

Mylo Xyloto is a concept album and a thematic rock opera. The album tells the story of a war against sound and colour by a supremeist [sic] government, set in the world of Silencia, an Orwellian society. Silencia has been taken over by a supremacist government, led by Major Minus, who controls the population through media and propaganda.

Their collected output makes me feel like Ethan Hawke here:

Finally, it should never, ever be forgotten that Coldplay were originally called Pectoralz. I’m just saying.

A Song for Saturday – Nico/These Days

Jackson Browne wrote “These Days” when he was sixteen years old. That is a fact that never fails to stop me short and wonder what I’ve been doing with all the hours God sends.

But the version he recorded with Nico is the best. The unusual combination of a classic finger-pickin’ style guitar, but played on an electric, mixed with strings and flutes that stay just the right side of maudlin, plus Nico’s oddly flat delivery, should make it something of a clash. But actually the lyric would be too folksy were it not for her detached cool, and the arrangement too smothering without her earthiness.

These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do

And all the times I had a chance to