Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Sex Pistols’

Step back to 1978 – Part 1

November 11th, 2010 11 comments

In 1977 I started to build a record collection; in 1978, the year I turned 12, I began to be really serious about music, buying singles by the Sex Pistols and Jethro Tull alike. And I became a Blondie fan before anyone else I knew was even aware of them. In early 1978 I had my first kiss (which also was the last for a while), went to my first rock concert (ditto), and made a friend whom I recently met again for the first time in 29 years (but more of that at a later stage). The first part of my 1978 nostalgia trip – on which songs are chosen only if they have the power to transport me back to the time – covers the first three months or so of the year.

*     *     *

Blondie – X-Offender.mp3
What a difference a couple of months make when you’re 11. In the autumn I had bought a single by teen herbert Leif Garrett; in winter I bought a single by NYC punk scene regulars Blondie. Or, better put, my not yet impressive penis bought it. I saw the cover of the re-released X-Offender single (it had originally been issued in 1976), and fell for Debbie Harry. Like a week or so before with the Runaways record, I tingled with excitement at the thought of hearing Debbie Harry sing. The very sexy spoken intro followed by the rapid drums and that guitar which sounded unlike anything I had heard before instantly broadened my musical horizon. I am still impressed with my nascent trendspotting talents: Blondie’s breakthrough with Denis was still a couple months off, but I already was a fan, even if I knew only X-Offender and the rather good b-side, Man Overboard.

.

Long Tall Ernie & the Shakers – Do You Remember.mp3
A few years before Stars on 45 afflicted us, fellow Dutch nostalgia merchants Long Tall Ernie and the Shakers visited their Sha Na Na stylings upon us in medley format. Actually, it isn’t at all bad, as these things go. In the song lead singer Arnie Treffers introduces the notion of nostalgia and memories of Buddy Holly, and then the rest of the band lets go with songs like Little Richard’s Lucille, the New Beats’ Bread And Butter and the Everly Brother’s excellent Bird Dog (one of my constant earworms), occasionally enquiring of us whether we can remember. Obviously I couldn’t, having been not even nearly alive in the 1950s. In fact, those early days of rock & roll seemed very distant to me in 1978, so that the song was something of a history lesson for me. Considering that the songs in the medley were all about 20 years old at the time, today’s corollary medley might include songs by Tracy Chapman, U2, Kylie Minogue, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Crowded House and Babyface.

.

Uriah Heep – Lady In Black.mp3
Uriah Heep – Free Me.mp3

Originally from 1971, Lady In Black was re-released in Germany in 1977, and became a Top 20 hit. This and Free Me, which I bought in March or thereabouts, are the only Heep records I have ever acquired. But Lady In Black is important for a very good reason: it reminds me of my first kiss. I would like to say that it was a beautiful moment, like Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss in The Wonder Years. Alas, it was more the product of a bet. My friend, who was just half a year older than me but much more advanced, dared me and my “girlfriend” to French kiss. So we accepted the dare, rather unsure about what to do with our tongues once our open mouths met. Our tongues touched lightly before we both withdrew them in mild disgust, yet excited by the sensation. It was dark and it was winter. I felt her warm breath exhaling on my face, which was probably more sensual than the meeting of lips. And, er, her long hair was blowing in the mid-winter wind…

.

Tom Robinson Band – 2-4-6-8 Motorway.mp3
Around the time I bought this, Tom Robinson was causing a bit of a furore with his song Glad To Be Gay, sentiments that were not often publicly expressed. At a time when punk was finally seeping into the German consciousness, Robinson’s proclamation was so counter-cultural as to include him in the movement. Of course, like many others who were included under the punk banner, Robinson was more of a pub rocker. Or pop rocker. Still, his lyrics were militant for their time (Motorway itself has a gay subtext, of course), and I think I can credit Robinson for making an important contribution to my unconditional rejection of homophobia.

.

Bonnie Tyler – It’s A Heartache.mp3
In February 1978 I saw my first live concert, a multiple bill organised by Bravo magazine, headed by Slade. It was not in our city, so my friends Jens and Andreas and I took a train to the town where the gig was held, about 250km away. Jens, the leader was 12, Andreas and I were 11 (and some fraction which I’m sure we were willing to state as an indication that we were, in fact, closer to being 12 than 11). Times have changed, I think. I have no memory of how we found our way from the station to the arena, but we got there. The bill included a British teen outfit called The Busters (whose identifying gimmick consisted of having black hair and wearing identical denim jackets), Schlager singer Bernhard Brink (who had a white man’s ’fro) and Bonnie Tyler, who was just then having a big hit with It’s A Heartache. A year previously – hell, two months previously – I would have liked the song. Now I had tasted Blondie, and Jens and I were into punk. Tyler was for the housewives. We enjoyed Slade though. Dave Hill, he of the stupid haircut, no longer had a stupid haircut: he was now completely bold, at a time when shaved heads were very unusual. I cannot say whether it was a good gig, but I remember emerging from the hall into the cold winter’s evening air soaked in sweat.

.

Sweet – Love Is Like Oxygen.mp3
My affection for Sweet was such that I bought the Level Headed LP when they made their comeback on the Polydor label, a big financial outlay which requireed much sacrifice (that is, at least that of three singles). By now, Andy Scott was wearing a middle-aged men’s beard, as though he was going to join the Beach Boys; Steve Priests looked sober and serious, and Mick Tucker and Brian Connolly were about to shear their locks. The music now was much more prog than pop rock. The lads obviously wanted to be taken seriously. Well, they might have been, had they not produced an album that was even more boring than one by Barclay James Harvest, and less deprived of the Zeitgeist than Emerson Lake Palmer. The lead single, however, was pretty good, like a song by the Electric Light Orchestra.

.

Darts – Come Back My Love.mp3
The inclusion of Long Tall Ernie may have tipped off the reader that I rather enjoyed the odd bit of retro-rock & roll, even if I fancied myself at the time as a bit punk (though I didn’t dress punk, or act  punk, or hated society any more than my non-punk mates). Among the revivalists, The Darts were the greatest. I remember buying the Darts LP, alongside The Tubes’ What Do You Want from Live, on a trip to Stockholm. I still have the Darts album; the Tubes LP was lost long ago. Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It was the bigger hit, and it was that song which turned me on to Darts. But soon I preferred the cover of the Wrens 1954 song, which featured in The Originals Vol. 3 (as did the original of Daddy Cool by The Rays).

.

Sex Pistols – No One Is Innocent.mp3
Sex Pistols – My Way.mp3
At the time it seemed the height of impertinence: Sid Vicious – we didn’t know yet just how undeserving of adulation that miscreant junkie was – first warbling and then quite amusingly violating My Way, by way of telling Sinatra: “Oi, old geezer, your song is shit!” We had no idea at the time that Sinatra himself hated the song and, if he had cared to acquaint himself with Mr Vicious’ interpretation, he probably applauded its defilement, in the principle of it, if not in execution. My Way just is too easy and obvious a target to be subversive, really. Roping in Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs for what was initially presumed to be the a-side was a touch more seditious. Musically, the song was, well, not very good. Biggs deserved to be locked up just for singing in public.

Of course, at the time I also had The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks LP. It is fair to say that my brother, two years younger than I, did not like their music much. So one day he scribbled on the vinyl with a ballpoint pen, apparently in retaliation to my alleged act of iconoclasm involving his poster of Winnetou, the noble Native American friend of Old Shatterhand dreamt up by the 19th century German author Karl May (who had never been to the USA, never mind the Wild West, but whose stories are still hugely popular in Germany). As far as disproportionate responses go, my brother belonged in the camp of those who sought to exterminate and subjugate Winnetou and his people…

.

The Stranglers – Nice ’n Sleazy.mp3
My friend Jens had a fine collection of punk albums, which I tried to match with punk singles. Of course, time would show that most of the stuff we called punk wasn’t punk at all. Still, Jens had albums by the Damned, Boomtown Rats, Ultravoxx and so on. I had Holiday In The Sun and later No One Is Innocent/My Way. And I had this single, a fine track with expert sneering featuring one of my favourite rock riffs ever, though I had no idea what sleazy was (till I looked it up and found the answer richly satisfying). The pun, of course, passed me by, seeing as I was still learning English. Same day I bought a single by an outfit called The Killers (not to be confused with the currently successful band). That single — it had a German shepherd on the cover – was utterly horrible.

.

Brian & Michael – Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats & Dogs.mp3
One of the great discoveries in 1978 was the weekly radio broadcast of the latest UK charts – it might have been the Top 10 or Top 20 – by which I got to know all the latest tunes (like Brian & Michael’s number) before they would finally make it in West-Germany. So I would sit with my grandmother’s cassette-radio portable and recorded most songs. The recorder very usefully had a fade-out button, so the shock of the inevitable cut forced by jabbering DJs was not as brutal as it otherwise might have been. At the time, I might have bought records by the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers, and by Gerry Rafferty and Kate Bush and the Rolling Stones – but I was still 12. Of course I liked Matchstick Men & Matchstick Cats & Dogs, even if I didn’t buy the record, because that certainly would not have been at all cool. And how could a song featuring a children’s choir be cool? Here it was the St Winifred’s School Choir, who would later torment Britain with songs about their collective grandma. On Matchstalk Men, they are singing the children’s song The Big Ship Sails On The Alley-Alley-O. Matchstalk Men, incidentally, was a tribute to the northern English artist LS Lowry, who died in 1976 and is mentioned in the song.

.

Wings – With A Little Luck.mp3
I admit it: I liked Mull Of Kintyre, which I bought the week it came out in 1977. By the time With A Little Luck was released, Kintyre was still a massive hit in Germany, and I was beginning to get sick of it. In fact, I liked With A Little Luck better; so much so that I bought the London Town album (or it might have been on the Greatest Hits album, which I think came out before that, and which I also bought. Anyone know which came first?). It’s a charming little tune, with a synth that actually sounded warm. I liked the “with a-little-luck-a-little-luck-a-little-luck” bit, and the double “we can do it”, which sounds like it was a production mistake. Now, do I have an unnecessarily dirty mind when I detect a sexual meaning in this line: “With a little love, we could shake it up, don’t you feel the comet exploding”?

.

More Stepping Back

Perfect Pop – Vol. 8

May 9th, 2008 3 comments

Here are a few more perfect pop records which brings the number of featured songs up up to 100 (by my rough count).

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.mp3
This song has been covered a zillion times and by some of the finest singers ever to commit their voices to record (Sinatra, Fitzgerald). And every one of these covers has failed to translate the sweet vitality of the original. It is a shame that this gem of a song has become a muzak staple; few major songs have been as poorly understood at this one. Written when Stevie was just 20, this mid-tempo samba number seems unassuming, until you listen to Stevie’s vocal inflections and, even more carefully, the deceptively simple arrangement. This song needs no big orchestration to fix its simplicity; indeed, strings or a big band treatment poison its sweet intimacy. And this is the key: it is a loveletter, not an epic declaration. Give it an orchestra, and the sentiment is varnished with cliché. All Stevie needs is keyboard, bass, drums and percussions. And the joyous exuberance of his voice (with the help of Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves, who sing the first verse; listen to it over earphones). Stevie sounds like he is in love, because he is: with Gloria Barley, who sings backing vocals here. And isn’t that lovely?
Best bit: “Mmm-mmm-hmmm-mmm (2:22)

Frankie Valli – Can’t Take My Eyes Of You.mp3
The Four Seasons had a number of great pop songs, but Valli’s finest moment came as a solo performer, albeit with the help of his old pals Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, who wrote this song. Can’t Take My Eyes Of You begins as a mid-tempo ballad, unremarkable except for Valli’s beautiful phrasing, frequently lagging half a note behind the beat, enunciating some vowels as if to provide an off-beat percussion. Suddenly staccato notes signal a change in tempo; jolly strings (not unlike those used on many disco records a decade later) suggest that Frankie is going to get quite excited now. And then Valli launches into a giddy chorus. He’s in love all right, but our fears that it may not be reciprocal, hinted at in the first verse (“but if you feel like I feel…”, “You’d be like heaven to touch”) are realised as the chorus tails off, and Frankie gently, anxiously asks: “let me love you”. We return to the mid-tempo verse, and are quite aware of Frankie’s doubts and that the giddiness (thanking God he’s alive) may just be the oxytocin talking.
Best bit: The way Frankie chews the final vowel in touch (2:17)

Jens Lekman – Your Are The Light.mp3
Among indie-pop fans, the Swede Jens Lekman is a semi-deity. He writes catchy, quirky tunes. His lyrics are invariably hugely entertaining, sometimes touching, sometimes off-beat. You Are The Light has a great tune, introduced by a Earth, Wind & Fire-ish clarion call and supported by a beat that seems just a little too fast for the song. The chorus is proper singalong stuff. The melody and arrangement, with its occasional blasts of horn now and harmonica there, are hugely attractive. But it is the lyrics that captivate. In the opening verse, he uses his one phone call from jail to dedicate a song to his girl (who landed him in this predicament in first place) on the radio. Later the cops are “sad” because they can’t prove his act of delinquency. This song has much by way of completely likable charm — which sets it apart from much of contemporary pop.
Best bit: The horn intro (0:01)

Matt Monro – We’re Gonna Change The World.mp3
If Barack Obama was into the British crooners of the ’60s and ’70s, he might well have adopted this as his campaign anthem. Monro, whom Sinatra described as the only British singer, might have been an easy listening merchant, but this song has a socially conscious edge which was not usually reflected in the genre, even in the late ’60s (the song itself was released in 1970). The song tells of three women, two of them going on a protest march, presumably for peace, while another sees the demonstration but doesn’t join. In the punchline, the non-joiner is a war widow, crying in her office over her dead husband. Monro’s chorus suggests that her option is the wrong one as he calls, as if from within the throng of marchers: “So, come with us, run with us! We’re gonna change the world. You’ll be amazed, so full of praise, when we’ve rearranged your world. We’re gonna change your world.” And don’t these words sum up the message Obama has been trying to sell? Add to that a wonderfully jaunty tune – try not be lifted by it – and Monro’s enthusiastic vocals, and you have a perfect campaign pop song.
Best bit: Monro nearly shouts the word “run” in his call to action (2:54)

Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3
Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Hound Dog as teenagers for Big Mama Thornton, apparently in ten minutes. Meditate on that for a minute. A couple of teenagers write what will become a timeless classic for an intimidating blues singer, and do the job in ten minutes. The way Thornton sings it is the way the composers conceived it. Hound Dog became a local hit, and inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to produce Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis Presley. It took Elvis a few years to get around to Hound Dog, which had been brutalised in a series of covers which dismantled the original lyrics and added doggerel to it (such as the rabbit line) to become the nonsense we know today. In the 31rd take we know today, Elvis made no attempt to sing the lyrics, symbolised by the way he chews up the pronunciation of the title. He shouts and sneers through the song with his band rocking to the beat of the handclaps, while the Jordannaires gamely try to instill some civility over the raucous guitar solo. Guitarist Scotty Moore’s final chords are a breath of post-orgasmic release. It seems clear while Hound Dog threatened the USA’s repressed sexual morality: Elvis is fingering America’s daughters right there.
Best bit: Drum roll, Elvis groans something, and a guitar chord closes the song (2:09)

Sex Pistols – Pretty Vacant.mp3
The Sex Pistols were the poster boys for the British punk revolution; more than their music, it was their exploits and, more to the point, their image that made Middle England nervous. They swore on TV; they insulted Her Majesty with a song that was banned from radio and yet reached #2 on the UK charts (some have smelled a conspiracy to keep the Pistols off #1, to the benefit of Rod Stewart’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It); they used a naughty word in their album title (it was later established in court that “bollocks” is a non-vulgar Olde English word) . And now hear how Johnny Rotten supposedly pronounces the second syllable of the title’s second word. Ooooh, the threat. Ooooh, the publicity! The Sex Pistols invented punk as much as Elvis invented rock & roll. In many ways, they were the Spice Girls of their day: a phenomenon managed by a clever svengali, whose music was secondary to the image. That’s why Glenn Matlock, the really talented one, could be replaced by a disorientated thug who’d become the most pathetic junkie in rock history. It was all about presentation. But that also glosses over the music. While the primary sales pitch was the image, the product – the music – was very good too. For all the punk posturing, the Sex Pistols had some fine pop tunes. Other than John Lydon’s hysterically sneering delivery and the nature of the lyrics he sneered, there was little revolutionary about the Pisxtols’ music. Never Mind The Bollocks, a very well produced LP, was a harder-edged, faster version of glam rock, with an additional debt to the likes of the Kinks. Of the handful of hits, Pretty Vacant has was the best pop song. Shook your head at the glam reference? Matlock said the riff was based on Abba’s S.O.S.
Best bit: “And we don’t caaaaaaaahre” (1:44)

Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination.mp3
The Human League’s Dare probably was the most perfect pop album of its era. But when I pondered which Human League song to feature, I kept coming back to Fascination, which was a single release only. An EP featuring to mixes of Fascination came out later (it also included the excellent preceding single, Mirror Man). Fascination kicks off proper with the swirling, horn-like synth hook which runs through the song and, in the intro, instructs the listeners to get on their feet and dance. The band members take turns singing lines, including even guitarist/keyoardist Jo Callis.
Best bit: “…and so the conversation turned, until the sun went down” (1:00)

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3
Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit.mp3*
Cobain’s Pixies moment (he admitted consciously copying them) sounds as much as the uncles of grunge as it sounds like an angry glam rock song. Cobain tried to write a pop song, and succeeded. Tori Amos might have fucked it up, but when Paul Anka covered it as a big band swing number in 2005, the pop sensibilities of Teen Spirit revealed themselves from beneath the grime of discontent. The anthem of non-conformity had, by dint of its over-exposure on MTV and radio, acquired the status of conformity; much of what came after – all the “feel my pain” emo gubbins – was no more non-conformist than the industry and its hit machines Teen Spirit was railing against. Anka stripped the song of its suburban rebellion sheen, turned it into a swing song, and perpetrated an act of subversion one hopes Cobain would have approved of: turning on its head the conformity of Nirvana’s own followers. It may not be the best Nirvana song, but it certainly is their best pop song.
Best bit: Apologies for being boring, but it’s the “yay” bits (1:31)

More Perfect Pop