For my sins, Boney M’s “Brown Girl In The Ring” reminds me of Sunday afternoons with Aunt Betty (who was, if I can decypher familial definitions properly, actually my great aunt – My mother’s aunt, that’s right, right?) when I was a little kid. We would spend Sunday afternoons there, my grandmother, my sisters and myself, while my parents had something resembling a break, and in between being bored and being fed with cupcakes and weak tea, all of the kids would have have to perform in some way (“Singing for Your Supper”, as it was called back then). I’m fairly sure that I never sang this song, but I couldn’t tell you did – just that it was sung, more than once, with enthusiastic handclaps and singing along from the adults in the room who were more than likely far more aware of all the racial weirdness contained in the lyrics than the three under-ten-year-olds who couldn’t wait to go home.
(Boney M, in general, were a fascinating band; Milli Vanilli years before the real thing, named for a Dutch TV detective and with one genuinely great song in their ouvre: “Rasputin”.)
The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night album was one of those objects that you idolize and fetishize when you’re a kid, something that has some inexplicable magic that you can’t explain when you’re an adult years later – It was the Beatles album that my parents had with the most interesting cover (There was Hard Days Night, Beatles For Sale and… another one, I can’t remember which. Something early, though), and that was the sole reason I kept playing it when I was a kid, skipping from track to track and always hearing the end of the one before or the start of the one after because I could never get the needle up or down on the record at the right time. With vinyl and the crappy record player we had, there was a weight to the drum snap at the start of “Any Time At All,” a thud that made the pre-teen me excited because it felt like something important was happening, something more than just a song starting.
The summer before Britpop was about to take over the world – well, the country and my life at the time, at least – and Parklife was still just a successful album instead of being named as ground zero for any kind of movement. I was still a Blur-skeptic at the time, and it was my older sister who owned the album, even if I’d steal it from her and listen to certain tracks over and over again, with this being one of the ones getting repeat performances. Summer stillness and lack of wind outside, lying on the floor next to the CD player, closing my eyes and thinking about the weirdness of what lay ahead in art school (I’d just finished my first year), the welcome emptiness of the weeks ahead and the sound effects that took over what would’ve otherwise been some kind of instrumental break of this song, I’d try not to wonder if I empathized a little too much with the “He dresses incorrectly/No-one told him how to do it” outsider aspect of the whole thing.
The first time I heard this song, I barely heard this song. I was teaching – this was back when I was trying to do that, not having any idea whether or not I was doing any good or not – and trying to make a point of staying in studios that were listening to Radio 1 because Elliott Smith was doing a live session on the Jo Whiley show and was apparently going to perform a song he hadn’t recorded yet. How could I miss that, I thought, ignoring the fact that I was working and should’ve done that, instead. I can’t even remember who I was talking to as the song was performed (so new, he said, that it didn’t even have a name yet), just that I was trying to say things that were supportive and helpful while playing as little attention to them because my ears were focused elsewhere, on this pretty, fragile plea that was far more honest and universal than I could make out at the time.
Two specific memories for Oasis’ “Whatever”: The first, wandering home after a night at a club with student friends as we all prepared to say goodbye for the holidays, and somehow this song being sung by everyone somewhere between sneery snarky making-fun-of and secretly just loving the song, and the second, listening to the single at my parents’ home, days later, sitting next to a Christmas tree as the sun found itself shining outside in an unseasonable moment of calm. There’s something about the way this song is built – the fact that so much of it rests on the strings – that I find remarkably comforting and reassuring, to the point that even the obvious “I Am The Walrus” rip-off doesn’t sit too awkwardly when I hear it.
I am open to almost any and all answers of the question “Where did it all go wrong for Supergrass?” as long as they don’t include this perfect opener from their second track, which has it all – Harmonies, repetitive chimey guitar, tension-and-release, a horn section that makes you feel triumphant and a sudden cut at the end that makes you think that something went wrong with your CD player if you were me back in the day. For no immediately obvious reason, this song always makes me remember a particular day in Aberdeen as I was approaching the end of my bachelors’ degree and running out of both money and time, slowly wandering around town and wondering how everything could end up well (Spoiler: It did).
You all know that Beyond The Valley of The Dolls is a great cheesy movie, right? If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out, and not least because the soundtrack is genuinely great stuff, and home to this lost classic piece of 1960s rock by the Carrie Nations (Is it just me who thinks the vocalist sounds like Cher after a particularly bad night?). I’m not sure if the first time I saw it was after a friend’s birthday party when looking for excuses not to clean up, but that’s the situation that always flashes through my head when I hear this song. Well, that and Z-Man yelling “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” at the top of his voice, but that’s to be expected.
This was, maybe, the second Elliott Smith song I ever heard? Maybe the third – I might have heard “Ballad of Big Nothing” before this one. This was, nonetheless, the one that cemented by love of Smith, in large part thanks to the way that his voice cracks as he tries to reach the right notes of the chorus (The “Pee-ple” that always seems a little out of his reach) that sounded just right to the broken hearted boy that I was back then. It helps that it’s also just a beautiful song, of course, but I know without a second’s hesitation that the performance and not the material of this one was what made me a believer.
It’s a song that sounds so fragile, you expect it to burst like a bubble midway through; the delicate double-tracked acoustic guitar finger-picked, the mumbled vocals and broken, romantic lyrics (“The people you’ve been before/That you don’t want around anymore/That push, and shove, and won’t bend to your will/I’ll keep them still”), all adding to make it as much a confession of love and vulnerability as much as a song.
It’s so complete in and of itself that the “orchestral version” that appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack sounds like a mess in comparison, despite a lovely string arrangement; with the echoed vocal and strong, sweeping strings, it sounds too syrup-y and unsubtle in comparison with the original.
Worse still, Madeline Peyroux’s cover, which attempts to recast the whole thing as some kind of Tom Waits-influenced torch song, and just misses the mark, becoming the dirge that the original so barely avoided. There’s an interesting interpretation somewhere in here, but this version just… isn’t it. It’s a shame; there are good ideas, and Peyroux’s a great vocalist, but this entirely misses the mark. Sometimes, the simple, straight-forward ideas are the best.
Firstly, I can’t believe that I’ve not actually done a Jellyfish one of these, yet. Secondly, I can’t believe that I’m including this song in a series where I’m speeding through songs, instead of spending a ridiculous number of words on it (Seriously! The bassline! The harmonies – or three part vocal with the “There’s a party at the pearly gates/How does it feel/To be the only one” section, which I still just love! The fun bitterness of the lyrics! The pretty damn perfect evocation of the Beach Boys’ sound, a la Pet Sounds! Come on, people), but… this song always reminds me of my second week of college, finding the single in HMV and knowing that it’d be hours until I could go home and play it, hear it for the first time. The weird, thrilling sensation of this faux illicit material burning into my mind as I sat and tried to concentrate on whatever drawing lesson was happening that afternoon, just thinking to myself “I really want to hear the new Jellyfish song, dammit…!”
There was a period shortly after the release of Primal Scream’s Exterminator when I was having one of those… emotionally intense periods, as the kids don’t say; those times when everything seems charged with too much significance, and many of your personal relationships seem to go to shit all at the same time without any warning or reason. Unsurprisingly, the free-jazz-funk-meets-Quincy-Jones-meets-John-Barry-soundtrack of much of the album, and especially “Blood Money” and “Insect Royalty” seemed incredibly apposite for this whole period – This song, in particular, conjures memories of wandering around Edinburgh somewhat aimlessly as the sun was setting, waiting for… someone that I can’t even remember, now, but knowing that I wasn’t quite myself and not knowing just what to do to change that.
(The bass line and horn section of this song, by the way, are just amazing.)