Bloody Awful Poetry – The Importance Of Lyrics

I’ve never really been a lyrics person. The melodies are what bring this boy to the yard. Even tiny moments where a piano puts in a brief appearance thirty seconds from the end of a song or when two voices combine to momentarily melt my innards tend to take precedence over a witty couplet or a heartfelt character assassination. Which is not to say I don’t appreciate fine word-smithery, more that it’s something I gradually acknowledge as the music becomes familiar. Whilst writing about John Grant‘s new album recently, it occurred to me that much of his coruscating honesty had already registered. So, am I paying more attention to artists whose lyrics I know I enjoy, in the same way I try not to listen too carefully to others, or do well-crafted words leap out at you uninvited?

These thoughts were prompted whilst finally reading Paul Whitelaw’s excellent biography of Belle & Sebastian which has unfairly sat on various shelves for several years. The author explores the time when Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s relationship hit the skids and the latter prepared for an exit from the band she’d once loved. Having been portrayed as something of a pushover, accommodating Campbell’s numerous whims, Murdoch finally snaps and pours out his angry heart into several brutal lyrics: lyrics to songs on which Campbell actually performs. ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ juxtaposes a typically jaunty melody with this blunt assessment, “You like yourself and you like men to kiss your arse, expensive clothes; please stop me there. I think I’m waking up to us: we’re a disaster.” I’ve listened to that song plenty of times and noted the acerbic tones in passing, but never before had I really stopped and processed the cumulative sense of bereavement and bitterness in that lyric.

Waking Up

Click the images or scroll down for a Spotify playlist linked to this piece

When a lyric clicks – whether on first or fiftieth play – I tend to cling to a perfectly quotable line or two, keenly anticipating their arrival whenever I hear the song in full thereafter. This, of course, is once again slightly missing the point. The subsequent explanation in ‘I’m Waking Up To Us’ softens the blows somewhat, but for me a well chosen couplet functions much like a musical hook: a euphoric moment in a track which sets my brain alight.

There are plenty of narrative lyrics which hold my attention from start to finish – not least Clarence Carter’s ever wonderful ‘Patches’, to give but one splendid example – but I was raised on a diet of early 90s chart music and then the linguistic pillage that was Britpop. When Rick Witter and Noel Gallagher are foisting their words into your ears, sometimes it’s better to just zone out. Britpop was all about the tunes – most of them stolen – and bellowing out nonsense like “slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball” or “he takes all manner of pills and piles up analyst bills in the country” without any great focus on what the fuck it actually meant. It’s why Jarvis stood out so prominently at the time and the focus was kept largely on the riffs. As an impressionable teenager, I swallowed the Manics’ shtick whole and rather liked the idea of moulding my own sense of my intelligence via their raft of sleeve quotations and passing literary references in interviews. They were my saving grace, my flag in the summit, my band. Looking back now, still very much in love with most of their catalogue, I’m thankfully rather less possessed of a sense of my own self-importance and can see that endless droning about the clever quotation at the end of ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ and the painful need to try and find some merit in the ill-advised of ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was very much of the moment.

This more mature listener can now be found sniggering at pop smashes laced with not especially subtle innuendo. I shared a house whilst at uni with a lad with a slighty unhealthy obsession with Rachel Stevens and can still remember the day he found out about her webbed toes. His ungentlemanly fantasies were never quite the same again, although I suspect they were reignited a few years later when, chasing credibility, headlines and internet chatter, she released ‘I Said Never Again (But Here We Are).’ It doesn’t take a professor of the double entendre to spot the conceit at the heart of this particular lyric, perhaps best exemplified by the demure couplet: “I feel such a traitor, oh I let you in my back door.” Quite. And while I can barely remember more than the odd line of Dylan’s vast and exceptionally worth back catalogue, I am forever blessed with the memory of a member of S Club 7’s paean to anal sex.

GA OOOOH

I like to think that the various characters responsible for writing many of the nation’s biggest chart hits spend hours daring each other to get ludicrous phrases into their lyrics in the same way we also used to offer a quid to anyone who could manoeuvre fatuous pairings like ‘irate penguin’ into history essays*. Where else could things like ‘let’s go, Eskimo’ come from? Indeed, Girls Aloud deserve a special mention at this point. I loved almost all of their singles as a result of them being utterly and irresistibly catchy, but the lyrics were all over the place. The Rachel Stevens award for pop music traitordom went to ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ for ‘“Something kinda ooooh, bumpin’ in the back room,” whilst recent best of filler, ‘Beautiful Cause You Love Me’ contained one of the most unintentionally hilarious couplets ever to make the charts: “Standin’ over the basin, I’ve been washin’ my face in.” Oh yes! Still, isn’t it funny how I’m so willing to make excuses for that, raising an eyebrow and proffering a wry smirk, but get my critical arsenal out for the likes of Shed Seven and the Stereophonics?

It’s possible that I draw a line somewhere between brash pop music and the notional integrity of indie rock, but even writing that makes me think that’s quite a pathetic standpoint to occupy. And, frankly, those two bands are very easy targets. I did own a few Sheds singles at one point but quickly grew tired of lyrics like: “She left me with no hope, it’s all gone up in smoke. She didn’t invite me, rode off with a donkey.” Truly, what the fuck is that all about? But is it any different to talk of Eskimos or pushing the button? Some bands even make a virtue of their lyrics being woefully undercooked, Kelly Jones seeming quite happy to dish up baffling non sequiturs for a bit of rawk gravel every couple of years. For recent comeback merchants Suede, it seemed that petroleum and gasoline were never far from Brett Anderson’s lyric book.

During their first reinvention, the band released the glorious ‘Beautiful Ones’, which kept Shell happy and managed a burst of imagery which might go down well with Rachel Stevens’ team of writers: “high on diesel and gasoline psycho for drum machine, shaking their bits to the hits.” The true nadir came during the utterly off their tits phase of ‘Head Music’ and ‘She’s In Fashion’ with the profound couplet “and she’s the taste of gasoline, and she’s as similar as you can get to the shape of a cigarette.” Everyone knew those lyrics were shit, but everyone nodded along and enjoyed the tunes. Suede would be mocked mercilessly for such slap-dash songwriting in the same piece as being awarded Single Of The Week. It’s just what they do, you see. ‘Bloodsports’ would suggest that things haven’t changed too much during the cleaner years.

Suede BO

But what of the bands almost immune from criticism, revered at every turn and held aloft as artists of a generation? Clearly, Radiohead have come out with some very peculiar lyrics over the years but I took as my example one of my absolute favourite songs of theirs, ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. I love it, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, particularly because of the vocal interplay in the third verse. Couldn’t give the most minute of shits what is being said, I just go all wobbly when that moment hits. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And what of the song’s lyrics? “I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes,” is neither especially good nor especially bad, but in the track itself Thom is doing his level best to use his vocal as simply another instrument anyway. Straight out of the Michael Stipe school of art-rock mumbling and in no way detrimental to the power of the song.

But look back at old school folders and you’ll see band logos and fragments of lyrics all over the place. Do they matter more at that age? Is our increasing exposure to pretty much anything ever made as soon as we want it robbing us of the opportunity to absorb the true heart of the songs we hear? The feeling of being blindsided by a great bit of writing is still one of joyous intensity, whatever the frequency. I can still remember listening to ‘Karen’ by The National and thinking, ‘hang on a minute. What did he just sing?’ at the lyric, “It’s a common fetish for a doting man, to ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand.” How’s that for imagery, tutu jumpers and back door monitors?

Just as the whole ‘but what does it really mean?’ question at school nearly put me off poetry for life, I increasingly realise that I don’t need to understand what they’re on about, preferring to simply bask in the occasional majesty that nonchalantly drifts out of the speakers. Whether it’s new stuff like Martin Rossiter’s ‘I Must Be Jesus’ – “If life’s unkind, then you must be divine. And, yes, I do mean literally” – or the returning triumph of an old friend – “Oh, I didn’t realise that you wrote poetry. I didn’t realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly” – I rather like not looking too hard. If it takes a rock biog to finally make me realise that something clever has been going on under my nose without me ever noticing, then so be it. The alchemy of great songwriting is way out of my reach and, while I’m never shy about casting the first (or second or third) stone when critiquing a record, I’ll always keep listening with the hope and expectation that I will find something truly magical. No problem so far.

*E.g. Disraeli was left, like an irate penguin, snubbed by Peel despite Gladstone’s appointment to the government

The Importance Of Being Idols

As amusing as I find the idea of Oasis limping along as they are, I think it’s safe to say that the departure of the weekend of the band’s creative (stop sniggering) force, Noel, marks the end of one of the great Britpop bands and, thus, one of the best bands of recent years. They were never hugely original, frequently unable to put together a complete album of great songs and prone to more gaffes than Carol Thatcher watching reruns of The Black & White Minstrel show, but still they meant so much to so many. I’ll confess that, while they’ve never been close to being my favourite band, I’ve always had a lot of time for them. It seems slightly weird that in 2009 you have to justify your liking of Oasis in the same way you might need to if you had a penchant for vegetarianism or paedophilia. In 1994 they were the name to drop and in 1995 pretty much everyone got caught up in the infamous chart battle with Blur, and yet here we are, fourteen years down the line, with Oasis still hugely popular and yet critically precarious. I bought the deluxe, over-priced, same stuff on multiple formats, box of their last album, ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a good record. A few shite tracks, but a few that make you thump the oasis doys air and unashamedly bawl along to nonsensical lyrics that read like something that’s been translated on one of those free internet search engines from English, into German, and then back again. But then who expected anything else? That’s what you get when it comes to Oasis albums and most of us have learnt not only to accept that, but to cherry-pick the best bits each time and continue to enjoy the moments when Noel gets it oh so very right. ‘Falling Down’, from that last album, is a monster of a song, partly harking back to his work with Chemical Brothers, partly representing a change in listening habits from Gallagher senior.

As so many ever so slightly annoying cultural commentators have been saying all weekend, Oasis captured a certain time and, as a result, occupy a small space in the hearts of many. Certainly, a listen to ‘Definitely Maybe’ or ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?‘ shorn of 90s context is pretty much impossible. Those songs evoke a time, an attitude and a type of music that for many was thoroughly enjoyable. Even ‘Be Here Now’ is still something I have fond memories of, to the extent that out of all of the recent vinyl reissues, the one I plumped down the cash for was this behemoth of a record. It receives almost as little love as the songs have audible basslines but it nevertheless contains forgotten belters like ‘I Hope, I Think, I Know’ and ‘Don’t Go Away’. Even ‘Magic Pie’ would be great if it had its last three minutes surgically excised. This willingness to see the good in everything is a prerequisite for any non-rabidly obsessive Oasis fans and it has kept us on side through the dark days – ‘Heathen Chemistry’ – and the very, very dark days – ‘Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants’ – so that when rather better records such as ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ come along, they don’t go unnoticed.

Having said all of this, what I loved most about Oasis was their approach to singles. Noel’s purple patch was undoubtedly across the first two albums and so he was naively oasis smshappy to toss away great songs as b sides, resulting in some great moments getting tucked away behind chart-shagging monsters like ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Some Might Say‘. Indeed, one of my all-time favourite Oasis songs snuck out on that latter single. I know what you’re thinking. You reckon I’m going to say it’s ‘Acquiesce’. It’s not. It’s ‘Talk Tonight’, an acoustic number with no fanfare, no big production and no snarling Liam. Noel’s voice is absolutely perfect, the understated sound is quite beautiful and it never grows old. Its appearance on ‘Stop The Clocks’ would suggest that it’s more popular than I had assumed, but it still strikes me as a bit of an overlooked gem.

Perhaps the most famous example of the band chucking away a classic as a b-side was ‘The oasis wwMasterplan‘, which didn’t even appear on most of the formats of ”Wonderwall’. So bizarrely quietly  was this song snuck into the world, that it appeared as track 4 on the CD single. As history records, this monumental screw up was subsequently acknowledged and it gave rise to the rather wonderful b side collection of the same name. Noticeably, this is also a Noel vocal, but it couldn’t be much further removed from ‘Talk Tonight’ in terms of both delivery and production. This one is much more epic, suggesting that Noel even knew at the time how good it was, possibly even eclipsing the song whose CD it was simply intended to pad out. It has since been awarded its deserved place in their canon, but I still remember the day I played the CD single through in full and realised exactly what I had bought. It’s a beautifully stirring song and a further example of just how good Oasis could be when they weren’t desperately trying to rock like mad bastards.

Not that they couldn’t rock like mad bastards. ‘Definitely Maybe’ is a great album. The mostoasis dm consistently strong set of songs of their entire career, it took them straight to number one back in 1994 and is the one album of theirs which even rock snobs allow themselves to listen to. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Columbia and ‘Slide Away are all wonderful, life-affirming, bloody huge songs. None of them singles. And what singles they were. ‘Supersonic‘, ‘Shakermaker’, ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’ and the almost unfeasibly good, ‘Live Forever’. While ‘Shakermaker’ was hardly rock gold, it’s still a decent sing-a-long tune, which isn’t too bad when you think that it was probably weakest release in an incredibly strong run of great singles that lasted from ‘Supersonic’ right the way through to ‘Go Let It Out’.

oasis w Two singles stand above the rest for me. The first, perhaps predictably, is the never again released, Whatever, which ended up costing Noel a fair few quid in songwriting royalties due to a more than passing resemblance to Neil Innes‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’. Hence, its subsequent failure to appear on any compilations. At over six minutes long and with the London Session Orchestra going flat out for its duration, ‘Whatever’ is not an understated piece. It captures the youthful exuberance of early Oasis perfectly and yet clearly hints at the much bigger things to come from the band’s next album, ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?‘ The other single is far less popular and may strike some as an odd choice.oasis smc ‘Sunday Morning Call’ was the third and final single to be lifted from the 2000 album, ‘Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants’. The group’s nadir, this album was under-cooked, poorly written and severely lacking in oomph. ‘Go Let It Out’ was a fine lead single, but things tailed off pretty quickly thereafter. Apart from this track. Sung by Noel (spotting a pattern are we?) and very much mid-paced, it’s a charmingly understated cousin of ‘Talk Tonight’, only with more instruments, a bigger budget and a comedown the size of the DFS sale warehouse. I’m sure that, at the time of its original release, I clung to it slightly as a brief highlight amongst some turgid, chugging rock, but that lustre has not been lost and it remains one of my favourite Oasis tracks. If these post makes you do nothing else, at least allow yourself four and a half minutes to reevaluate that track.

Recently, Oasis had shown signs of a creative recovery with ‘Lyla and ‘The Importance Of Being Idle’ from ‘Don’t Believe The Truth’ and the aforementioned ‘Falling Down’ from ‘Dig Out Your Soul’, with that last album being a pretty consistent listen from start to finish. Having said that, the oft talked of Noel solo album was something I was keen to hear. It would seem that such a thing is rather more likely after this weekend’s showdown. As many have said, it’s more than a little likely that five years from now, solo careers fully out of the system, a reunion tour will magically occur and the Gallagher brothers will record together once more, but even so it’s still worth a moment reflecting on what was great about Oasis. There was much to sneer at, plenty to listen to only the once, but there was also a great deal to love.

 

EDIT – 01/09/09 A quick update to the original post in order to include this rather amusing video:

Be There There Later

Radiohead are playing Reading Festival tonight and it will be live on BBC3. I am, it must be said, quite excited about the prospect of watching one of the greatest bands of modern times doing their thing from the comfort of my warm and dry living room. To whet the appetite, Sky Arts have been showing a Dave Fanning interview with the band from 2008, the ‘OK Computer’ tour documentary, ‘Meeting People Is Easy’, a set from Eurockeenes 2003 and the episode of ‘From The Basement’ upon which the band featured on a near constant loop. All of which are bloody great and if you’ve not had a chance to watch the Dave Fanning interview, do so before it disappears. Thom and Ed are in good form and Fanning asks some quite decent questions which, in turn, prompt some quite decent answers. ‘Meeting People Is Easy’ appears in an edited form, but it still riveting viewing and ‘From The Basement’ features some wonderful renditions of tunes from the last two albums. In addition to all of this, VH1 are repeating the ‘In Rainbows – From The Basement’ show, which can be purchased from iTunes, tonight at 10pm. One to Sky + whilst watching the live show on BBC3. Make sure you have an ornament of choice identified in advance to look at whenever Bowman appears on screen. Don’t want to upset yourself just before seeing what should be a pretty impressive set.

Here’s some bits and bobs from Ver Tube to enjoy:

On the subject of the greatest bands of recent times, if I really want to conform to expectations, I suppose I should take a moment to deride people for caring about Noel leaving Oasis. But, I care. And they were, more often than not, a great group. I shall dwell further on the topic tomorrow. I shall leave you with one of their finer tunes.

Boxing clever (and why I love Tindersticks)

The Monkey album, ‘Journey To The West’ came out today and it’s really rather good. I’d anticipated having to give it a number of listens before warming to it. I figured it’d be awkward and difficult to get my head round, but it’s actually pretty accessible. There’s some lovely little Albarn melodies and flourishes throughout and, while there’s still far too much to get your head round on the first listen, you’ll certainly find yourself going back for more.

The only way you can get this on vinyl is via the special edition by The Vinyl Factory, which is £65 before P+P! As much as I love Damon’s music, I’m not shelling out that kind of cash on a one album. It’s one of many, similarly insane, projects that have been put before the record-buying public of late. When Radiohead announced the ‘In Rainbows‘ project, back in October of last year, the media made bold claims about the impact it would have on the music industry and how free music would be the way forward. Far from it, it turns out. The actual legacy of the experiment is the ‘discbox’ effect, with prices ranging from ‘a little steep’ to ‘taking the piss’. Primal Scream have one for ‘Beautiful Future’, also created by The Vinyl Factory. You get the album, on double vinyl, plus a 12″ with one remix on it, a poster and a fancy, but flimsy booklet. All for the knock-down, bargainous price of £50 + P+P. No, seriously! There’s one for the new album by The Verve, which features the CD/DVD and double vinyl (featuring two bonus tracks) and a booklet with ‘exclusive artwork’. £40 to you. Likewise, Portishead‘s ‘Third‘ came in a box with double vinyl, an etched 12″ of ‘Machine Gun‘ (available elsewhere for £4) and a USB stick with digital files of the album and some videos. Once again, £40. The new Oasis album will also be available in a £50 special edition and there are plenty of others that you can seek out in your own time. As nice an idea as they initially seem, it’s starting to feel like the record companies have grabbed at this concept as a way of trying to prop-up flagging sales by fleecing the hardcore fans for as much as they’re willing to pay.

Obviously, I’m in the minority in that I buy a lot of records and thus I’m exposed to a lot of these ‘special’ editions, whereas perhaps the casual fan is less aware of how common these are becoming. However, that doesn’t make them any more palatable. The original Radiohead discbox is a delight. Worth £40? Probably not, but it was justifiable as a ‘one-off’, a treat, a nice item for the collection. But, now they’re coming thick and fast, I’m finding myself tempted by many options and therefore choosing to buy none of them. The minute these become an acceptable indulgence, my record-buying budget goes out the window. I know, I know; I’m moaning about something I can just ignore. If I think they’re too pricey, I can just not buy them. But they’re so pretty!

Two more things before I go. Firstly, I was flicking through the Later – The First 15 Years DVD the other day and came across a truly joyous performance from Al Green. Sure, at times he does Grandad dancing and smiling that much is probably bad for your health (well, your jaw at least) but he just oozes enjoyment and I found myself grinning like an idiot by the end. Watch it yourself right now:

I’ve spent most of the last few days listening to the music of Nottingham’s Tindersticks. Why had nobody told me about them before? I knew they were there but I’ve no real recollection of hearing much of their stuff previously and I’d never read anything that made me want to investigate, but I’ve really been missing out. Delicate but ambitious indie music that isn’t ashamed to wear its soul and jazz influences in public, their back catalogue is an absolute joy. The first two albums, both, confusingly, called ‘Tindersticks‘ are avilable now in expanded, double CD format and I cannot recommend them highly enough. That said, I’d also recommend all of their other studio albums, so you won’t go wrong, whatever you go for.

Here’s some YouTube-age to begin the love-in.

This is the track, ‘For Those’, rendered so beautifully on the Bloomsbury disc that accompanies the reissued version of their second album and in demo form on the debut’s bonus disc.

A vintage Jools performance – firstly, ‘No More Affairs’

and then ‘Talk To Me’.

Finally, this is the much-revered, ‘Tiny Tears’, accompanied by some random footage, as it average You-Tuber’s wont.

Good, aren’t they? If you’ve just fallen in love, thank me later. If you already knew, why didn’t you tell me?

A curator, if you will

I’m not even sure what radio show it was, back in the day, one of the stations I listened to used to do a music press review on a Wednesday. Actually, it might have been in the early days of 6music when Andrew Collins‘ afternoon show (RIP) was still called ‘Teatime‘. Anyway, I used to love hearing the cherry-picked highlights and treated it as a buyer’s guide. Sadly, there isn’t enough music press to make that particularly worthy these days, but, on this occasion, indulge me.

There are two things I’ve been meaning to share with you. The first is the rather excellent list of ‘Things heard at the Latitude festival‘ in this month’s Uncut.

Some of my favourites:

  • “Pimm’s me up to the power of two!”
  • Heard over a walkie-talkie: “Child control to the Poetry Arena!”
  • “Seriously, I thought it was called Ricky Pedia. I assumed it was a bloke with a really popular MySpace page.”
  • Woman on phone telling her friends where to meet her: “I’m directly below the cloud that looks a bit like Cyprus.”

Splendid stuff.

The second item of note is in today’s NME. Now, I know that every few months I keep saying almost nice things about this magazine but it really has shown signs of improvement recently. For a start, the woefully pretentious letter from the editor – and his picture, for that matter – has disappeared from the third page and the writing just seems sharper and funnier. Mark Beaumont having a weekly column can only be a good thing. Anyway, this week, the main feature is a huge interview with Noel Gallagher. Say what you like about Oasis, and most people do, Noel is fantastically good value when it comes to interviews. Never one to disappoint, this time around it’s regarding Jay-Z.

“I never dissed that guy. But there’s no point going on about it or you end up sounding like Heather Mills.”

Fair point, well made. It’s worth £2.20 to read the whole thing.

And finally, today’s new music mutterings:

They describe themselves as ‘ambient/electronica/pop’, which’ll do for me. That said, one track, ‘Handcuffs‘ is pure indie joy from start to finish. If you’ve already visited the VJ myspace then that’s the track that blares out at you when the page loads. Good, innit? They’re good Welsh boys, are Man Without Country. That’s who I’m on about, by the way. There are delightful moments in the aforementioned track where you’re left in no doubt about the band’s country of origin and I can’t deny that I love it all the more because of that. The other tracks that you can hear on their Myspace and iSound pages have a little more of that ambient feel to them, but if you love innovative, energetic songs then you should give them a few minutes of your time.