366 Songs 101: All Your Life

If “Beetlebum” hinted at trouble with Justine Frischmann and a break-up with Britpop, its b-side, “All Your Life” cemented both ideas with far less oblique lyrics: “I need someone who loves me/More than you do/Please say that’s not true,” goes the chorus in part, while another part of the song finds Damon Albarn moaning “Oh, England my love/You lost and made me look a fool” (And later, “England my love/You tattooed your past all over me”). After the retreat into analogs, characters and vagueness that Albarn had made over the the last couple of Blur albums, this was surprising stuff, both for its lack of artifice and for its… depressing honesty, perhaps?

Musically, it’s tempting to think of this as the last huzzah for Blur’s Britpop sound; the structure and polish of “All Your Life” owes more to the Modern Life is Rubbish/Parklife/The Great Escape era of the band than what was to follow, which was the given reason for this song not making it onto the Blur album – That always felt like a dodge, though, a way to avoid putting something so naked and vulnerable on something as permanent as an album… It’s a shame, this is probably my favorite Blur b-side, and definitely better than some of the songs that did make it onto the album. There’s something appealing about the tension between the strength and vitality of the music and the beaten-down surrender of the lyrics that I wish the band had found time to explore deeper before 13.

366 Songs 100: Beetlebum

What makes “Beetlebum” work as well as it does is, I think, tension. Britpop, for all of its charms and pluses, didn’t really work on a particularly “tense” structure – it was pretty much on-all-the-time or sad acoustic guitar moping – and, even though Blur were, weirdly, one of the least stereotypically Britpop groups of the time (Yes, they were also one of the most well-known, and one of the groups that launched the whole thing, but go back and listen to Parklife or The Great Escape and you’ll find a wider range of influences and a broader range of output than the genre readily embraced or became known for), there’s still something surprising about the way that this song uses repetition and release. Looking back at it now, knowing that the song is about heroin – and, specifically, Damon Albarn’s experiences with the drug, both personally and through his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann – it’s easy to see the structure of the song as a recreation of the neediness and grinding mentality of wanting the drug (the verse, with its chug-chug-chug guitar) and the freedom and release of taking the drug (the chorus); if you follow this train of thought through, I guess the vocal-only break of “And when she lets me slip away” could be taken as the literal act of taking the drug, the break between needing and reacting.

(Also: The harmonies in the chorus, absent in the rest of the song, adding to the feeling of… relaxation, calmness, tranquility…)

And at the same time as this musical recreation of the experience, there’s a barely-coded condemnation of what’s going on: “Get nothing done/You beetlebum/Just get numb,” and the final lines of “He’s on/He’s on/He’s on it” as the music becomes overwhelmed with guitar that has always sounded to me like being covered in insects (I have a vivid imagination, what can I say?). This isn’t just a song – although it’s a beautiful, evocative, fragile song, easily the best thing Blur had released up to this point, and a massive step away from the knowing coyness of so much of The Great Escape – but an experience, something that couldn’t fail to provoke reactions in the listener, and impart a little piece of what Albarn was going through into their head.

The song is so… off, even to someone who didn’t know the heroin-based backstory like the me I was when I first heard it, that the feeling of disquiet and melancholy rang through nonetheless. “Nothing is wrong,” Albarn sings, and you just know it’s not true; the fact that he says it anyway, and in such a passive voice, just makes it all the more disturbing and worrying. In many ways, this is pop music as horror show.

The title, it’s said, came from a desire to provoke cultural overlords Oasis with a song that evoked the Beatles in feeling instead of sound, and there’s definitely elements of White Album (and later) Lennon in the DNA here; perhaps tellingly, he too was reportedly on heroin during the recording of things like “Happiness is A Warm Gun” and the songs this most clearly suggests, and perhaps that connection was somewhere in Albarn’s mind at the time, too. But “Beetlebum” was also a strange declaration by Blur that they were changing the rules of their game as Britpop threatened to fall around everyone’s ears. This wasn’t a song created to be chanted by a mass audience, but something else, something more personal. As a teaser for what was to come in the Blur album that followed, it was irresistible.

366 Songs 099: St. Louis

I remember hearing “St. Louis” as a b-side of “Charmless Man,” and being worried that Blur was falling apart. Despite the (somewhat thrilling, trilling) guitar line, this is clearly a song in trouble, with lyrics that literally tell the listener “St. Louis song/Something is wrong” before talking about a man “dreaming himself to Hell” and giving us a chorus that goes “I don’t want to be/I don’t want to be here/Because there’s nothing/Here to be.”

All of this was happening as Oasis had hijacked Britpop’s steering wheel from Blur, and the latter seemed to be becoming at best a national joke and, at worst, something akin to an embarrassment to pop music and national culture in general. The music papers would splash headlines about how the band was fighting, missing scheduled appearances, and generally collapsing into a drug- and drink-soaked mess, and clearly weren’t long for the world, and it had a weird feeling of… glee, almost? Of the need for there to be losers to Oasis’ winners. Clearly, something was about to happen; it’s just that no-one knew what it was going to be.

366 Songs 098: Hey Bulldog

Well, seeing as I just mentioned this song…

“Hey Bulldog” may be my very favorite Beatles song. It’s the gallop of the thing, the momentum (Ringo working his heart out on the drums, the way he played them that sounded as if they had such forward momentum that he couldn’t stop without falling over; Paul’s amazing bassline dragging him forward, pulling you into the song), the way the guitar solo feels like it comes out of nowhere like an attack, and the humanity of the chorus. There is no way I could fail to love a song that tells the listener “You can talk to me/If you’re lonely you can talk to me” (As proof, I have a sneaking liking for this song, which is more than a little terrible on almost all objective levels).

This song, for me, is the definition of “forgotten classic”: It’s on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack and nowhere else, and I’d argue that there’s a fair percentage of people who’d call themselves Beatles fans who’ve never even heard it despite it being one of Lennon’s last great songs with the band. I remember, back when EMI was preparing to issue the Yellow Submarine Songtrack album, that there were rumors that they’d discovered a previously unknown Lennon song to accompany it, only for it to turn out to be a remixed version of this, and people were still “Wait, is that new?”

There’s something about the Beatles’ version that’s perfectly balanced between raucous and melodic that gets lost when others cover it, for me. Listen to Miles Kane’s version –

– or, of all unlikelinesses, That Petrol Emotion:

The song is just… less exciting, somehow. The original version of “Hey Bulldog” is something that, like many Beatles songs, is somehow so right that every single other take on it can only be less interesting, less worthy of attention, less… right, really. You can disagree, but it won’t change my mind.

366 Songs 097: Rain

For the longest time, I didn’t own “Rain” (It’s not on any of the “real” albums, just the Past Masters compilation, because it was a b-side), but it’s long been one of my favorite Beatles songs for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; I’ve often said that I love it for its cultural importance, which is true – It’s apparently the first pop song to have an explicitly “them vs. us” setting – but the truth is, even before I thought about it in those terms, I was smitten. There’s something about the loping quality to the sound, the tight snare that starts the song before it melts into something more amorphous, the harmonies and the way that the harmonized lyrics get stretched so far that they seem as if they’re just sounds rather than words (“Rain” becomes “Rai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ain,” for example)… plus, of course, that bassline (I suspect that Paul McCartney’s basslines on John Lennon’s latter, LSD-inspired songs are a strong draw for me; see “Hey Bulldog” for proof).

There was one summer, back when I was a student and given to walking 45 minutes into town on good weather days, that I was wandering along with this song in my head and, as my internal jukebox got to the chorus, a car drove past with it blaring out of the windows at exactly the same point as it’d been playing in my head. It was a strange coincidence, and a sign, I was convinced; an omen that good things were about to happen in some way.

Fresh Starts, Archive The Rest

“Inbox Zero” – that is, the mythical state where there’s nothing demanding your immediate attention in your email inbox – has finally been achieved, thanks to my deciding that I was just going to archive everything and move on no matter what. It’s been a weird, cluttered sort of a week, with my brain moving too slowly through things that really shouldn’t have taken that long, so I figured that this kind of extreme action was required. Time for a new start, right…?

Of course, now I’m convinced that I may need to de-archive a couple of things. I mean, there are a couple of action items that I really need to take care of sooner rather than later, right…?

366 Songs 096: Trouble/Guitar Man

Firstly: I don’t think Elvis has ever been better than he is with these two songs. Sorry, everyone who disagrees; you’re just wrong.

Secondly: This song for me is staying with friends in London on, I suspect, a rainy New Year’s Day, killing time and lazily talking while this is playing in the background. I was never – and this hasn’t changed, really – a big Elvis fan, but there’s something about this song that made me pay attention, and it’s everything that isn’t Elvis about it; there’s a really great post-Beatles, post-R&B arrangement happening here, and everytime I listen to it, I wonder what could’ve been done if that kind of thing was something that the King had been more interested in pursuing. Ah, Schroedinger’s Pop Career…

366 Songs 095: Sugar Man

Considering the lyrical nature of the song (Spoiler: It’s about drugs), it sounds somewhat unexpected and maybe just a little contrary to say that this song really reminds me of my honeymoon in Boston with Kate, a decade ago to this very day – Seriously, Kate and I were married ten years ago last Friday – but it’s true. The two of us first found this song on the David Holmes mix CD “Come Get it, I Got It,” which we bought at some store in Boston on the trip, and we fell in love with its psychedelic folk/soul on very first listen. For years afterwards, we tried to find out more about Sixto Rodriguez, but this was before Cold Fact had been reissued or Holmes’ sponsorship of the artist had really taken any effect, so all we knew of him for the longest time was this piece of awesomeness. Despite what he’s singing about, this makes me think of warm, sunny days, the future feeling wide open and waiting for us as we wandered the streets.

366 Songs 094: Nature Boy

I first heard Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers years before I could understand it, I think. I was still in high school and putting together my personal cosmology of music and sounds, and had pretty much just gotten to the idea that “Big Star = Power Pop with harmonies and chiming guitars” and wasn’t at all ready for the musical and nervous breakdown that Third had in store for me (Years later, not even that many, I revisited it afresh and found it to be one of the most beautiful, upsetting and vital things I’d heard. In those years, mind you, I’d had relationships gone wrong and had to deal with the real world a little more, so things felt more relatable than they had originally). But “Nature Boy,” Alex Chilton’s cover of the Nat King Cole song, was one of the maybe two songs that stood out for me, and I played it over and over, not really understanding why. There was something about the almost off-hand way Chilton sings it, the sparse arrangement and the final line, so naked and then underlined by the piano that follows; I had no idea what magic the song had, but I knew that it had some, so I just kept playing it all the time, convinced that there was a truth in there that I needed inside my head.

All these years later, now, I still get the same feeling when I hear it. This idea that there’s more to the song than meets the eye (or ear) and that “The greatest thing/You’ll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved, in return” is the greatest lyric ever written or sung.