Archive for the ‘Music’ category

The Most Depressing Songs of All Time

24 June, 2007

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s perceptive novel on men & music, the protagonist asks himself “Was I depressed because I listened to music, or did I listen to music because I was depressed?” A question I’ve pondered on many occasions. I spent  a few years grappling with the Black Dog and on those nights when sleep was out of the question as it would mean having to get up the next morning, music was a regular companion – when you’re down, it’s good to know someone, somwhere has felt the same, or worse.

 On the other hand, I have to say that spending my formative musical years listening to the likes of The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, Nick Cave and other such cheery souls, can’t have helped my mental state much, particularly as they left me with the dangerous notion that being suicidal was not only cool, it also made you more attractive to women. Ha ha. Little did I realise that it was the rock star bit that was attractive to women, and I wasn’t a rock star, just a miserable, black-clad drunk.

 Anyway, for those of you who want some terpsichorean therapy, or those who want to get depressed so you can click with the chicks, I present my Top 10 Most Depressing Songs of All Time. Wallow away…

(NB where available, I’ve added a YouTube clip for each song)

1. Jacques Brel – Ne Me Quitte Pas

Brussels-born Belgian balladeer Brel is the master of the chanson, renowned for the poetry of his lyrics and the astonishing intensity of his performances, and Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me) is his finest hour. Four minutes of desperate self-abasement, the song is a plea to a departing lover, Brel making ever-more hysterical, unfeasible promises before finally collapsing into exhausted despair (“Let me be the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog…but don’t leave me“), Brel so racked with sobs he can hardly choke out the last few words. Click below to see an absolutely extraordinary performance of the song on YouTube.

2. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers – Hospital

When you get out of the hospital, let me back into your life” – was there ever a bleaker opening line? And it doesn’t get any better, as Richman, fully aware that his obsession with her is a bad thing (“I can’t stand what you do, sometimes I can’t stand you…but I’m in love with your eyes“) begs for her to take him back. “I go to bakeries all day long – there’s a lack of sweetness in my life“. Awww Jesus, pass the razorblades…

3. Scott Walker – Clara

Walker has plenty of previous in this area but he surpasses himself on this knees-up from his stunning 2006 album The Drift. A 13-minute musing on the lynching of Mussolini’s lover Clara Petacci, it features savage slashes of strings, a slab of pork used as percussion to simulate the sound of a body being kicked by an angry mob, and disturbing lyrical images (“A man came up towards the body and poked it with a stick/It rocked swiftly and twisted around at the end of the rope“). It’s gruelling, harrowing stuff, rather like being forced to watch the fire extinguisher scene from Irreversible over & over again, yet it’s also exhilarating and inspiring that some of the most exciting and original music of our time is being made by a reclusive bloke in his early 60s.

 4. Tom Waits – Martha

 A heartbreaking ballad of regret, in which an old man tries to contact a lost love from his youth, Martha is particularly remarkable in that Waits was in his early 20s when he recorded it. Impossibly moving, just the opening lines (“Operator, number please, it’s been so many years/Will she remember my old voice, while I fight the tears?” are enough to get this listener’s tear ducts working, and by the time Waits reaches the final “I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you” only the stoniest of hearts remains unmoved. A stunning work of characterisation and a song that deserves true classic status.

5. The Replacements – Here Comes a Regular

If any band can sing about drinking, it’s The Replacements, whose early albums are chock full of boozing anthems. Here Comes a Regular, however, documents the other side of being a barfly – the sadness, the shame, the tedium of drinking in the same bar with the same deadbeats day after day after day. The bar is full of drinkers, all with their own plans that they’ll never even begin to put into action. “Am I the only one who feels ashamed?” sings Westerberg, backed by poignant mandolin and piano, on one of the first songs to suggest that they weren’t just a dumb, raucous bar band. Terrific stuff from someone who knows.

6.Tindersticks – A Night In 

Such is the ‘Sticks repertoire of wrist-slashers they could fill up this whole list themselves, but A Night In is bleak even by their standards. “I had shoes full of holes when you first took me in” mumbles singer Stuart Staples, over tomblike strings, as a tale of romance destroyed by poverty unfolds. “Well I know you’re hurting, but I can’t be there for you.” The definitive version can be found on the Live at the Bloomsbury album.

7. The Smiths – Meat is Murder

The song that converted more people to vegetarianism than even Bernard Matthews. “Heifer whines could be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die…it’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench of MURDER!”, wails Morrissey, ramming home the point with mooing cows, bleating sheep and slaughterhouse sounds. Hartson’s Dog once had a girlfriend who became vegetarian after hearing this track. Yeah, thanks Mozza for condemning me to two years of Quorn & tofu. Why couldn’t you record an album called Lose Weight & Give More Blowjobs intead? She LISTENED to you man!

8. The Cure – Disintegration

This, the title track from, in my opinion, the greatest album ever made, is musically jaunty by the Cure’s standards, but lyrically it positively wallows in bitterness and contempt. It appears to be a confession of infidelity (“The stench of a love for a younger meat“) and marital desertal (“I never said I would stay ’til the end, I knew I would leave you with babies and everything“), and packs the direct emotional punch that makes this album their most affecting. Tears the roof off when they play it live as well.

9. Nick Drake – Magic

Read an interview with anyone who knew Drake and they’ll always say “He was too fragile & sensitive for this world”, and Magic is ample proof of that. Drake sets himself up as a visionary, a dreamer, and idealist, only to realise he’s alone in his dreams and his ideals. “I was made to love magic, all its wonders to know” he sings on an initially joyful chorus, only for major to switch suddenly to minor and those joyous chords to become ominous and threatening as he howls accusingly “But you all lost that magic, many years ago!” Given the singer’s tragic end, this is terrifying stuff indeed.

10. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – People Ain’t No Good

No list of depressing songs would be complete without the mighty Cave, and this piece of misanthropic brilliance from his stark, soul-bearing 1997 album The Boatman’s Call is one of his best. People are shit, says Cave, and don’t let them try to convince you otherwise. “‘It ain’t in their hearts they’re bad! They’d stand by you if they could!’/Ah, that’s just bullshit baby – people just ain’t no good.” One day people will realise what a truly great songwriter Cave is, and this song will become one of the standards. But don’t hold your breath.

 OK OK, so I’ve left out 100s of songs here and I could’ve gone on for hours, but I’ve got a crying baby and a disgruntled wife upstairs. If I’ve missed out your own favourite masterpieces of misery, leave me a message.

The Most Overrated Albums of All Time

16 June, 2007

Yesterday’s Guardian had an excellent feature on “Hot Albums that Leave You Cold“, basically the opposite of my Great Lost Albums series. So I was inspired to put together my 10 Most Overrated Albums of All Time…

1. The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

To be honest, so astronomically overrated are the Drab Four that I could’ve picked an album from any of their three phases (twee, irritating pop, dated, unconvincing psychedelia, or the invention of the lighter-waving power ballad) but Sergeant Pepper gets it, as the disparity between the esteem in which is held and the horrific reality of actually listening to the fucker is Atlantic-huge. Horrible, naff children’s music (When I’m 64, With a Little Help…), ooh-look-at-how-stoned-we-are psychedelia (Lucy in the Sky…), and THAT embarrassingly awful title track. A Day in the Life isn’t bad admittedly, but The Fall do it better. Like all the band’s work, it sounds pathetically dated now. Just because you’re first doesn’t make you the best.

2. Nirvana – Nevermind

Steal ideas from a couple of vastly superior bands (The Replacements & Pixies), throw in some vaguely angsty lyrics, and polish it all with a radio-friendly production gloss, and hey presto, both critics and public are fooled. I enjoyed it at the time, as I often guiltily enjoy commercial, catchy rock (Chili Peppers & Killers for example), but I haven’t listened to it in over 10 years and its continued place in the pantheon of classic albums baffles me.

3. The Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks

When the western media cover the Middle East, they always show footage of the yelling, ranting, extremist minority who throw rocks & wave AK47s, ignoring the peaceful, educated masses who stay at home. And in a similar vein, when the media talk about punk, they always show these manufactured pub rockers instead of the genuinely creative bands like the Buzzcocks, Wire or Joy Division who forged new musical paths instead of just spitting at people and saying rude words. Bollocks is an awful album – dull, plodding, hamfisted music by competent session musicians, as artificial as the Monkees or Westlife. Take away the hair gel & the safety pins and you’ve got a very average pub rock band.

4. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

So incredibly boring I can’t even be bothered to write about it.

5. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Critics routinely praise What’s Going On whilst overlooking Gaye’s lascivious, awesome masterpiece Let’s Get it On, an album that has loosened more bra straps than any other. What’s Going On is frequently so twee as to be unlistenable, and when it’s not twee it’s simply dull.

6. The White Stripes – Elephant

Jesus don’t get me started on these fuckers. I quite enjoyed the previous album, White Blood Cells – as soulless musical pastiche projects go it was more listenable than Blur, say – but Elephant is simply horrible, designed solely to push the right buttons with 40-something rock hacks. Not a single original note in its entire running time, its nadir is the horrendous mauling of Bacharach’s I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, a novelty cover completely lacking the grace, poise and emotional punch of Dusty Springfield’s version. I think I was the only person in the world not to be surprised when these wankers did a Coke ad.

7. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Fair enough, we all have our favourite dope albums, but at least mine still sound good when I’m not stoned.

8. Antony & the Johnsons – I Am a Bird Now

Mercury Prize? For this? First time I heard it I struggled to get past the Kermit-on-helium voice, and the second time I realised that, once you accept the voice and get used to it, there’s nothing else to hear.

9. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Not a bad album by any means, but not in the same league as Funeral. A sad case of a band reading their own press and trying to make a classic American rock album (check out the horrible Springsteen influence on several tracks), and thus forgetting what made them great to begin with. Will doubtless clean up in the end-of-year reviews, whilst superior albums by the likes of Battles, Ulrich Schnauss and The Field are ignored.

10. Blur – Parklife

How can anyone still listen to this? Back in 1994 it was a bit of fun and the soundtrack to many a good night out in Camden, but it dated virtually overnight and now sounds truly horrible. Though I guess I’m biased, having read John Harris’s excellent Britpop book The Last Party, which reveals Damon Albarn to be a truly unpleasant little cunt. As does the film Live Forever. As does anything else featuring Damon Albarn, come to think of it.

Will Self on Nick Cave

4 June, 2007

God damn, one of my favourite writers writing about one of my favourite singers. Fantastic stuff from Saturday’s Guardian.

Dark Matter

Nick Cave’s brooding lyrics mark him out not only as a poet of the Australian outback, but as one of the greatest writers on love of our times, argues Will Self

Some 20 years ago, I had a long wrangle with the music writer Barney Hoskyns about the relative virtues of rock lyricists. Barney’s view was (and I hope I’m not traducing him in any way) that simplicity was the key. The structure of pop songs – most of which derive from the holy miscegenation of the English ballad form and the eight-bar blues – the importance to them of melody and their fairly short duration: all of these factors meant that facile rhymes, basic narratives and straightforward sentiments made for the best lyrics.

 In view of this, Barney championed the writing of Smokey Robinson. Indeed, he went further, saying that Robinson was incomparably the best postwar pop lyricist. Perhaps to be contrary – or maybe because I genuinely believed it – I passionately dissented from this view, arguing that a lyricist such as Bob Dylan managed to be at once experimental and deeply poetic, while still packing a perfectly sweet pop punch to the gut.

As I recall, the argument eventually came down to a single couplet from Dylan’s song “Visions of Johanna”: “On the back of the fish truck that loads / While my conscience explodes”. Barney contended that this, in and of itself, meant absolutely nothing at all. Therefore, it could only be viewed either as a self-indulgent verbal riff, or as filler, marking time until the beat cranked up again.

Being forced to analyse the meaning of this trope was, initially, unwelcome. I had no desire either to descend into the nerdish, psycho-biographical slough of the Dylanologists or to ascend to the arid heights of those academics, who have hung on to their tenure by maintaining the view that some songwriters may be considered quite as much “poets” as their unaccompanied counterparts. So far as I’m concerned this approach has always prompted the question: if lyricists are poets, then what are poets? Presumably one-man bands without a band?

Over the past two decades, to my own satisfaction, at least, I’ve come up with not just one viable interpretation of the vexed unloading fish truck, but many. Moreover, I’ve come to an understanding of the nature and purpose of lyrics that satisfies me, while incidentally explaining the collapse of poetry as a popular art form. Nowadays, if we picture the poetic muse at all, it’s as a superannuated folkie, sitting in the corner of the literary lounge bar, holding his ear and yodelling some old bollocks or other. Whatever need we have for the esemplastic unities of sound, meaning and rhythm that were traditionally supplied by spoken verse, we now find it supplied in sung lyrics.

Curiously, it was also Hoskyns, a couple of years before, who nearly effected an introduction between me and a young Australian punk band that he was then in the process of championing. I was hanging out with a mutual friend, lost in the toxic imbroglio of those telescopic times, when the invitation came to head up to Clapham and meet the Birthday Party. We never made it. We never got our £10 party bag.

I was aware of Nick Cave, of course; his incendiary performances – setting fire to the gothic catafalque above pop’s tomb, and writhing as it burned, burned, burned – were a defining part of the same, troubled era. However, I came to the music late. Indeed, I knew Nick himself, socially, long before I immersed myself in his oeuvre. Looking back on that time – the late 1980s and early 1990s – this seems staggering. I’m often reminded of the first line of Woody Allen’s parody of Albert Speer’s disingenuous memoir: “I did not know Hitler was a Nazi, for years I thought he worked for the phone company.”

I may not have thought Nick Cave worked for the phone company, but I had no conception of the extent to which his creative gestalt was shot through by harmony quite as much as semantics. He was an affable, if gaunt, bloke I saw at barbecues with his kids.

Then I read his novel And the Ass Saw the Angel and was exposed, full force, to the great Manichean divide that rives the Cave worldview. Exposed also to his very individual and mythopoeic terrain: a landscape, present in his songs and his prose alike, wherein sex kicks up the dust, murders take place in the heat (of the moment) and the sins of the fathers are visited on everyone. To those unfamiliar with the very particularity of the Australian hinterland – both physical and cultural – the backdrop to many Cave ballads, with their talk of guns, knives, horses and brides, may seem cut from a similar cloth to that of lyricists such as Johnny Cash, Dylan and the blues men and country artists they revere.

Not so. Cave’s mise en scène is as particular to his Australian patrimony as the whorls are to his fingers, or his lexicon is to his idiolect. Here, in rural Victoria, the light is harsher, the flies’ legs are moister and the blood takes longer to coagulate. A persistent atmosphere of the uncanny pervades the world the songster summons up. While immersed in a Cave lyric, it’s easy to believe not only in full temporal simultaneity – the indigenes are hacked to death, even as a football is kicked across the oval – but also that this sepia land marches with ancient Israel itself, both the Pharisees and the Kelly Gang having been clamped by the neck for the time necessary to secure a group portrait.

Cave, as a poetic craftsman, provides all the enjambment, ellipsis and onomatopoeia that anyone could wish for. A word on eroticism and the dreadful dolour of knowing not only that all passion is spent – but also that you’re overdrawn. If Cave were to be typified as a lyricist of blood, guts and angst, it would be a grave mistake. He stands as one of the great writers on love of our era. Each Cave love song is at once perfumed with yearning, and already stinks of the putrefying loss to come. For Cave, consummation is always exactly that.

I must also mention a vein of irony – satire even – that runs through Nick Cave’s lyrics. One of my personal favourites, “God Is in the House”, demonstrates his ability to ironise, then re-ironise, and then re-ironise again, engendering a dizzying vortex as received values are sucked down the pointed plughole. Arguably, such a light heavyweight touch runs counter to Cave’s espousal of the Old Testament verities, yet I prefer to acknowledge it as of a piece: Ecce homo.

So, in the last analysis, it seems that the decades-old wrangle about lyricists was quite as devoid of meaning as the unloading fish truck, for, at that very time, in the existential inner cities of London, Berlin, New York, Paris, there was tapping away a songwriter who was far more than the sum of these parts: the aching heart of Smokey, implanted in the tortured breast of Zimmerman.

Great Lost Albums No.2 – Shack, “…Here’s Tom with the Weather”

29 May, 2007

Sometimes you simply have to despair at the general public, those philistine cloth-eared bastards. Shack must be the only Scousers in the world who can’t get arrested. A string of brilliant albums combining incredible musicianship with the sort of songwriting no other British band could even dream of, yet no bugger bothers to listen.

Even in 1999, signed to a major label, the stunning HMS Fable album in the can, an NME cover proclaiming Mick Head “The Best Songwriter in Britain” (true), and the joyously melodic single Comedy playlisted on both Radios 1 & 2, the punters still didn’t bite. Like I said, sometimes you just have to despair.

Well, nil desperandum and all that and thankfully the brothers Head carried on regardless and thank god they did, for their next album, 2003’s …Here’s Tom with the Weather, was their masterpiece. Even then they had to rely on the benevolence of concert promoter Simon Moran, who set up a record label especially to release this one incredible album. Unlike HMS Fable however, the press didn’t bother with it and so it was dead in the water.

Despair. Because …Here’s Tom is the Nick Drake/Stone Roses/early Floyd/Hendrix/La’s/cosmic Scouse album dreams are made of. Less anthemic than HMS Fable, and more akin to the sublime Scouse folk of their one-off Strands project.

Romance on the dole to kick things off:

The morning paper’s soaking from the rain
And Kilroy’s hair’s turned blue…
All through the wintertime, this hovel’s been a pain
But I don’t care what anybody says, as long as I’ve got you
(As Long as I’ve Got You)

The Dead Sea Scrolls of Cosmic Scouserdom to follow:

Learning to play the guitar, one for you, one for me
Who’d be the first one to learn all those tricks by Mr Lee?
Stuck in me ma’s old back room, with endless cups of tea…
(Byrds Turn to Stone)

…and elsewhere, the dreamy folk pop of The Girl with the Long Brown Hair, the lysergic Latino-psych of On the Terrace, two sublime John Head songs (Miles Apart and Carousel), and the stupendous Bacharach-on-the-Mersey finale, Happy Ever After. Just after your jaw hits the floor, you’re reaching for the repeat button.

No-one likes them, they don’t care, and they came back for more in 2006 with the almost equally brilliant Corner of Miles & Gil, this time courtesy of benefactor Noel Gallagher, who said “The world is a worse place when Shack aren’t releasing records”. Damn right Sir. Another masterpiece, this time mixing their dazzling ear for a tune with a new-found Miles Davis obsession. And still no fucker bought it.

DESPAIR.

Hear tracks from Shack and more at Radio Hartson’s Dog!

Great Lost Albums 1 – The Go-Betweens, “16 Lovers Lane”

26 May, 2007

We’ve all got ’em – favourite albums that we can’t live without but which no-one else seems to value. Some of them were critically adored but ignored by the punters, others just never made it onto the radar for various reasons – a cloth-eared public/media, lack of exposure, refusal to play the PR game, abrasive/unlistenable content, etc.

So in this occasional series I shall introduce a few of the albums that I love but which remain languishing in obscurity…

We begin, appropriately enough, with the archetypal “why the hell weren’t they massive???” band, The Go-Betweens.

It’s obvious why some of the albums I’ll be writing about never sold like hot cakes. The Wedding Present’s Seamonsters, for example, a 45-minute howl of sexual obsession and rejection set to droning feedback; or King of the Slums’ Blowzy Weirdos, abrasive urban folk delivered in a thick Mancunian brogue.

But 16 Lovers Lane should have outsold the likes of Thriller or Rumours. It’s brilliant. To hear it is to fall in love with it. Basking in its shamelessly romantic, melancholy balm is one of music’s greatest pleasures. It sold about 17 copies. OK, I exaggerate, but not by much.

Prior to 1988, the ‘Tweens were a cult indie band, very much part of the post-Smiths wave of bedsit romantics. Over the course of four albums which mixed quirky, angular, literate post-punk with warm, jangling love songs, they’d won considerable critical acclaim but had failed to trouble the charts, despite producing heavenly pop like Bachelor Kisses & Bye Bye Pride. Some of the songs were maybe just too arty, too lyrically obtuse to connect with more than a small cult following.

But 16 Lovers Lane was different. Gone were the sharp edges, the lyrics were more accessible, the production slicker, the guitars acoustic, the strings lush & romantic. The critics raved, but after my first listen I hated it, as did many ‘Tweens fans (in fact the 16LL debate still rages on at www.go-betweens.net). A week later, the cassette had nearly worn out I’d listened to it so much, since when I’ve been through another cassette copy and a CD, and the album is now no1 on my iPod’s playlist.

Because of the very different songwriting styles of the band’s two frontmen, Robert Forster (angular, wordy, often lyrically impenetrable) and Grant McLennan (warm, melodic, heartfelt) Go-Betweens albums often sound like two solo albums welded together. 16LL doesn’t. It’s harder than ever to identify who wrote what, giving it a cohesiveness their other albums lack. Thus Forster’s poignant I’m Alright sits easily alongside McLennan’s yearning Quiet Heart. Forster gets untypically confessional here and that’s what creates the chemistry.

Opening track Love Goes On! pulls off the old New Order trick of taking an appalling lyrical couplet (“There’s a cat in my alleyway, dreaming of birds that are blue/Sometimes girl when I’m lonely, this is how I think about you”) and delivering it with such honesty that it sounds improbably moving; and from then on it’s just one great song after another, highlights being the impossibly romantic Devil’s Eye (“Sometimes we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by/But I know with you I’ve never seen the Devil’s eye”), almost-hit Streets of Your Town, as good a pop song as the 1980s produced, and the closing, heartbreaking reminiscence of Dive For Your Memory – only the stoniest of hearts can remain unmoved by words like “We stood side by side, strong and true/Just wish you’d remember, bad times don’t get you through/So when I hear you saying that we stood no chance/I’ll dive for your memory, we stood that chance”.

Stunned by the public’s inexplicable indifference to their masterpiece, the band split, and didn’t release another Go-Betweens album for another 15 years. In 2005 they finally released the true follow-up to 16LL, the brilliant Oceans Apart, and even had a hit single throughout Europe with Finding You. On a creative and, for the first time, commercial roll, the band were about to begin recording another album when McLennan died unexpectedly in his sleep at the tragically young age of 48, his best work possibly still ahead of him; the outpouring of memories and tributes on the band’s website showing how much his songs meant to those who heard them.

In an interview with NME in 1988, McLennan said “I maintain that The Go-Betweens write about love better than anybody else in the world.” 16 Lovers Lane is glorious, magical proof.

Hear tracks from the Go-Betweens and many more on Radio Hartson’s Dog!