Ok, we begin with Elastica’s Connection. This is one of my all-time favourite bands – I was buying their records from as far back as 1995. They consisted of three girls: a posh, privately schooled lead vocalist called Justine Frischmann who wrote all the songs and lyrics, a heroin addict bassist and a smack addict lead guitarist. The smack addict guitarist’s boyfriend played the drums. Despite all this excess, their music was a direct progression from The Fall – full of intense, spiky angles that came and went within the three-minute mark. Their first album, simply entitled Elastica, from which this song is taken, propelled them to such giddy heights that they quickly imploded. Soon even sober Justine was on drugs, once being quoted as saying “If your boyfriend gets up at 6am to go jogging, it just makes you want to stay in bed ‘til three doing heroin.” The boyfriend in question was Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, who we’ll get on to in a minute. Elastica would record one more album, the excellent The Menace, and then fold. My abiding memory of them is being fourteen, listening to Frischmann sing about things I couldn’t possibly understand: using Vaseline as a sexual lubricant, laughing at a male companion’s impotency, having sex on a car bonnet – but being totally seduced by the songs nonetheless.
Elastica became part of the “Britpop” musical revolution of the mid-Nineties – which was basically a huge revival in British music after the Nirvana period where everything exciting had hailed from the States. Leading this Britpop scene were Blur: who took their influences directly from The Kinks, The Beatles and getting very drunk at the London School of Art. Here were the urchins of Camden Town, sleeping in derelict buildings, keeping warm by insisting on being drunk all the time and creating careful pop melodies that granted them chart success. Unfortunately after the hype surrounding Blur’s fourth album The Great Escape, they fell into a state of anti-climax. They had hit a glass ceiling after failing to crack America despite touring there for almost a year. So they made the Blur album in response to all of this. Heavily influenced by Pavement whom they had heard while touring in the States, they created something a lot edgier and paranoid than previous works. Since singer/songwriter Damon Albarn (who would later mastermind Gorillaz) was going out with Justine Frischmann at the time, he too dabbled with heroin. Beetlebum is about that very drug, with the final refrain of “He’s on It / He’s on it” alluding to the gossip that surrounded the couple as to whether they were junkies or not. Also worthy of note on this track is the absolute guitar genius of Graham Coxon, who creates the thick, blurry riff that runs throughout the song, before descending into a frenzy of static and noise at the end.
The next band invented Nirvana and Radiohead, yet only existed for a brief five years and failed to get the mainstream success they deserved. Pixies had a very simple idea: have the verses really, really quiet, and then go very, very loud for the chorus. In Aberdeen, Seattle a twenty-something Kurt Cobain was taking notes. When asked where the inspiration for Smells Like Teen Spirit came from, Cobain simply replied that it was his best attempt at ripping off a Pixies song. The Pixies had so many interesting qualities: an overweight, bald lead singer/songwriter Frank Black, who discussed alien abduction and redneck incest in his lyrics. There was the gyrating female bassist Kim Deal who provided the ethereal “oo-oo” backing vocals, and then there was Joey Santiago, who attacked his guitar with bottles and fists to create a guitar sound Radiohead would emulate for the next ten years. The Pixies recently reformed to great acclaim, and are now finally getting the recognition they deserve. This song is off their first full-length album Surfa Rosa, and also appears at the end of the film Fight Club. Have you seen it? If not, you must. It’s lethally good.
When Radiohead made OK Computer, their third album, Britpop was dying of heroin addiction and so the British music press promptly proclaimed Oxford five-piece as the Great White Hopes of rock music. The album was awarded Best Album Ever by any publication going, and a fourteen month tour ensued. Frontman Thom Yorke (swoon) promptly went completely insane with all the travelling, media hyperbole and sheer boredom at having to play the same songs every night. He returned to Oxford, got writers block and debated whether he should disband the group. Their label told the band that they could have as much time as they wanted to make their next album, and coaxed them back into the studio. Yorke, manically depressed and determined to never touch a guitar again, spent the next three years making some of the greatest, most inspired music I’ve ever heard. I’m intoxicated by it. Influences of Aphex Twin, Sigur Ros and Kraftwerk all fed into a band that up until now had relied upon power chords. Freed from the guitar, Yorke broke free of his writer’s block and in 2000 they released Kid A – my absolute favourite album of all time – which basically confused the hell out of all the music journalists expecting more guitar anthems. Instead there were crystalline keyboard arrangements and pro-tooled beats looping about all over the place, while Yorke delivered barely audible vocal mutterings about “heads on sticks / standing at the end of my bed”. As if to make the point that this release was not a momentary lapse of reason, they followed it up with another album, Amnesiac, a year later. The penultimate track on this record was Like Spinning Plates, which was an old unused song played backwards with backwards vocals and synth on it. It was about as experimental as one could get. When they took these songs out on the road, the group encountered a bit of a problem. How do you play songs live that largely exist within drum sample programs and can’t be played backwards? This song was the result of Radiohead taking their ultra-complicated compositions, stripping them right down to their component parts and playing them live. Out of a confused ramble, the Like Spinning Plates live version emerges from applause with a hypnotic piano coda. The bass and synth teeter about in the background… but it’s Yorke’s vocal – about being fed to the lions – that finally reveals draws back the curtains on the emotional fallout from his depression.
I saw them on this tour and it changed my life. It was this perfect fusion of madness, melody and a sense that right here, right now one could see a band at their creative peak – like The Beatles in 1967 or David Bowie in 1977. And at the centre of it all was a curious little ginger-haired man singing about being cut to shreds and sailed down a river. Great.
You’ve heard me ramble on about The Smiths before; the 80’s savours of guitar music. Morrissey: the celibate bisexual lead singer who was in love with James Dean and Oscar Wilde. On their first television appearance he pranced onto stage wearing a hearing aid and black horn rimmed spectacles, and proceeded to tear off his shirt revealing the words “MARRY ME” written in lipstick over his scrawny white chest. Utterly unique. And that voice… always on the edge of going out of tune (he treating singing in the studio as if he were acting on stage and rarely did a second take), always singing about loneliness, suicide and how no one could possibly be feeling as low as he was. And then there was the guitarist Johnny Marr, who was a stone-cold song writing genius. Without Marr The Smiths would have been all words and no tune. That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore is the perfect combination, replete with the killer refrain: “I’ve seen this happen in other people’s lives / And now it’s happening in mine.” It reminds me of a conversation we had just after we had met where you insisted that you would lead the life of a writer/actor (actRESS?!). I completely respect that ambition; I feel the same myself. I swore I’d never fall into the trap of not achieving my dreams like all those people a few years older than me. And then slowly I began to see failure creeping up on me, and before I knew it really was happening in my life. And that final lyric captures that feeling completely. The sheer desperateness in Morrissey’s voice on this track is perfect, with Marr’s slide guitar winding through the words like the wind through a graveyard. Magic.
Razorlight’s Vice is taken from their debut album Up All Night that came out last year. Singer Johnny Borrell claimed he “was a better song writer than Bob Dylan,” which is pretty cocky, but the sheer exuberance of this track can’t be doubted. Especially at the end where he starts adlibbing over the “You can’t touch love with a cynical feeling”. It’s pounding, it’s amphetamine driven, it’s the sound of London getting back on it’s feet for the first time since Albarn and Frischmann went cold turkey ten years ago.
You mentioned that you liked Coldplay, so here is Life Is For Living live in Sydney, from their 2003 tour. The song was a hidden track on their Parachutes album, and lasted about one minute. But live they expand it out into a wash of guitar delay. Can you join the dots? The Smiths invented that delayed echo guitar sound in the 80’s, then Radiohead bolted it together with their Pixies influence, and all Coldplay had to do was add in the piano – et voila! Stadium success.
Before the global success of Ok Computer and the madness of Kid A, Radiohead were a honest, hard working band who were trying to overcome being pigeon holed as one hit wonders. Back in 1993 they had had a surprise hit with a song called Creep, which even made it on to the Clueless movie soundtrack, much to the confusion of Alicia Silverstone and Thom Yorke alike. What the band had to do was write an album of guitar brilliance that bettered Creep and convinced people to take them seriously. The Bends was the result of such a challenge, and this song Street Spirit (Fade Out) is the final track on the album. I can promise that you will never hear such a perfect song. First of all there’s that interplay between the three guitars – the chords, the arpeggio floating on top, the Jonny Greenwood finger picking… all swirling around a cloud made of toothpaste. Or something. Then there’s the synth, climbing over the guitars to create a desperate, plaintive soundtrack for the vocals. Ah yes, the vocals. Thom Yorke described the moment he entered the vocal booth to do the singing for Street Spirit as the “moment in my life when everything seemed to come together for an instant”. The lyrics are largely irrelevant up until the last line. They describe fear of the city, death and all that sort of thing. But then there’s the last line: “Immerse your soul in love”, at which point the album ends and one is left blinking, in shock. You’re not supposed to be able to do that: create a beautiful tune and then kiss goodbye with such optimism… while still sounding so unutterably sad. Perfection itself. The first band I was in used to cover it relentlessly… and we strangled it!
(There follows an interlude so that you can pretend you’re listening to a record.)
Idlewild are a strange phenomenon. Their first two albums were abject noise: the singer would perform so drunk he had to lie on the floor with the mic lying on his chin. And then out of nowhere they created The Remote Part, an album that has real subtlety – a bit like U2 only with less ego. This song; American English, is their best to date – “You came along and found the weak spot that you’ve always wanted,” singer Roddy Woomble says, before sloping off to the Scottish Highlands to grow a beard and read Descartes while drinking a two litre bottle of Bulmer’s. What a guy.
The Libertines housed Pete Doherty, the man of recent crack addiction fame. This song Can’t Stand Me Now is a piece of pure theatre. It begins with Carl, the other Libertine guitarist, singing about how Pete stole his DVD player from his house to raise funds for crack. The second verse is delivered by Pete, who puts up a brave defence: “No Carl, you were the one who pressed charges and put me in jail for robbery, remember?” (or words to that effect). And then they sing-song their way through about how much they hate each other, and how much they love each other. It’s just brilliant. During the recording of this song Carl and Pete started punching each other, and the label had to hire bodyguards to sit in the studio with the band to stop any more boxing matches. As I went to press, Pete Doherty (now in Babyshambles) had just been released from jail after beating up a reporter last week. He’s going out with Kate Moss, y’know. They say it’s “love”, apparently. I mean, you couldn’t make that sort of stuff up, could you?
Fugazi are my new favourite band. They were the ones I was telling you about who organise their own tours and sell their own records without the use of a corporate record label. Their music is post-rock-guitar-frenzy-noise-thrash-core, so I imagined that that might be a bit much for your delicate Wisconsin ears. Instead I put on I’m So Tired, an unreleased song that is achingly beautiful, a real tonic for those days when you feel like giving up: “No more struggle, no more energy,” sings Ian McKaye. I’ve sung this live a few times with my friend Andy to a completely unimpressed audience of drunkards in Portrush. Andy transposed the piano part onto clean-tone guitar, and I sang through a heavy dose of reverb… it was haunting. I must get in a band.
Here we have David Bowie, the master of “art-rock”, something Bloc Party and The Futureheads are bringing back into fashion. Bowie had been living in a cocaine-whirlwind for most of the early Seventies, dressing up as a woman and acting out his own space creation Ziggy Stardust. Then he decided to detox in Berlin and promptly went a bit mad. Cue songs in German, with lyrics about the Berlin Wall, satanic rituals in his hotel room and trying to kill himself in his car. Helden/Heroes is his most famous work. It was written in twenty minutes in a “restroom” cubicle in the studio. The lyrics were inspired by a relationship one of Bowie’s bandmates had with a German girl while staying in Berlin. Bowie watched as these two people fell in love and got together fleetingly before the band had to leave for a tour. Bowie knew that they would never meet again. The man had a family back home, and the girl was an impoverished citizen of Cold War Berlin. It inspired Bowie to write an imagined dialogue between the two lovers before they went their separate ways: “We can be heroes, just for one day / You can be mean / and I’ll drink all the time / because we’re lovers and that is a fact / we’re lovers and that is that.” And then as if that wasn’t heartrending enough, Bowie goes on to sing it in Deutsche, as if he really means it. Spine tinglingly good.
Right, back to Radiohead. Lucky is off Ok Computer, and is the cold dark centre to their genius. Gone is the warmth and sadness of Street Spirit (from their previous album) and ahead lies electronica and madness (Kid A, Amnesiac etc.). But this is Ground Zero – Thom Yorke is a superhero in a plane crash singing about being summoned by the Head of State. This is the height of detatchment. Life is too much, so a retreat into fantasy produces a stream of consciousness so surreal it still provokes emotion. All around is the three-guitar assault: Thom’s crackly black Stratocaster picking out the chords, Ed’s opening wash of sound produced by strumming the guitar strings above the headstock, and then there’s Jonny’s dazzling solo at the end that’s plucked straight out of a science fiction comic book. Think of blank walls, plate glass, white concrete and desolate open spaces as you listen to this…
Keane aren’t really that good, but this song seems to go so far beyond anything they’ve done that I had to put in on. It’s off their Hopes and Fears album, released last year amid much hype. They have good tunes, but on A Day Like Today they take Coldplay and twist it into a ghost ship of sorrow, sailing through the gloom with a never-ending closing coda that is heart breaking. “I can never find the words to say / And I don’t know why,” as the synth builds layer upon layer like snowflakes in a blizzard.
We finish on the best song of them all. The Smiths never forgave themselves for releasing Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want as a B-side, since it was one of the best things they ever recorded. It starts with double-tracked acoustic guitar, then Morrissey croons about how he’s had a hard life: “I haven’t had a dream in a long time.” Listen to the longing in his voice. What does he want? Company? Death? A nice cup of tea? You don’t even have time to ponder this before Jonny Marr draws proceedings to a close with a mandolin-affected guitar solo and leaves you hanging on the edge as silence sweeps in. The song appeared in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film you must see. But until then, buy/download everything The Smiths did and lead a better life as a result.