For Now It’s Part of You

Is it odd that, during these calamitous times, I’m leaning back into pop culture so hard? Surely not; there’s a relief and release in being able to find escape from everything hellish in music, movies, or whatever, even if I find myself increasingly worried that such things are frivolous. The authorities are at war with the people every night downtown, using tear gas and “less lethal” ammunition,  and yet here I am becoming newly obsessed with Michael Nesmith songs from more than half a century ago. Is that understandable, or is it obscene?

Nonetheless, listening to “Tapioca Tundra” lately brings an odd sense of calm, somehow. It’s from the album The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees, which is to say, the theoretical down slide of the band’s career — Peter Tork barely appears on the album — and it’s an album that’s ostensibly a bunch of solo records mashed together, but the song itself was about the Monkees as a music unit, the group identity that was greater than the sum of its parts, according to Nesmith.

I’ll take his word for it, because the lyrics of the song — often referred to as a “lyric poem, set to music,” which feels like a particularly pretentious way of saying “ you know, like other songs” — are obtuse, to say the least: “Reasoned verse, some prose or rhyme/Loses themselves in other times/And waiting hopes cast silent spells/That speak in clouded clues/It cannot be a part of me/For now it’s part of you” runs the first verse. Exactly…?

It is, of course, the sound of the song that makes sense. I find “Tapioca Tundra” a very pleasant, relaxing listen. There’s something about the rushing, insistent sound, the mix of country and psych and folk that reminds me so much of the band Love, that makes me happy and calms me down, for want of a better way to put it, even before we get to the outrageously shameful, thrilling lift of the riff from the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.” For something that may just be a thrown-together piece of nonsense to fill an album, it’s got this charm about it that I can’t deny.

Sounds Familiar

I’ve been revisiting a lot of music I lived decades ago, recently. This is less an existential, midlife crisis experience than it is a practical one; for the first time in years, I have access to a CD player, and that makes it somehow easier to pick and choose forgotten albums or mixes filled with songs I haven’t remembered than when everything was, theoretically, available at the push of a button.

Part of it is, I think, the odd nostalgia of sitting there physically surrounded by the opportunity; leafing through the various CDs and being consistently surprised by what’s there for the picking. I’m reminded of living in Scotland before I switched continents, with a room essentially full of CDs and CD cases — god, I loved them, the artwork, the whole thing; I’d buy CDs for their design alone sometime — and being almost paralyzed by the opportunity and potential of what to listen to next, but knowing that something would catch my eye, hold in my ear.

I’d go through periods of buying particular things, or particular types of music. I have a whole host of Blue Note compilations for two simple reasons: my local record store was selling them cheaply, and I was looking for one specific version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How.” (Oh, those pre-iTunes days when you had to search to find the right song!) So many of those albums didn’t have the song, but brought a whole host of new favorites instead; that kind of accidental discovery was a joy of the period.

When I moved to the US, I kept the CDs but got rid of the cases, packing them into those folders with all the sleeves. (Yes, it felt like a loss, but a necessary one; I couldn’t handle so much luggage.) With the anal attitude of the me I was then, I tried to pack them together by genre, or at least feel, putting albums and mixes together by mood. It’s a choice then that’s been paying off now, sitting on the floor beside the CD player decades later and saying, “Fuck, who remembers The Soft Bulletin?”

Tell Me About It

For the past month, I’ve been curiously nostalgic for This is Hardcore, the 1998 album by Pulp. I’ve had various songs from it on rotation in my head all through February, with seemingly no rhyme or reason: the title track, “I’m A Man,” “The Fear,” whatever. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason for it — they just show up in my head and play for awhile until they’re done, and then disappear as effortlessly and nonsensically as they arrived.

The thing that makes it so strange is that I’m not a really big fan of the album, per se; I don’t even own a copy. (I did buy a bunch of the singles that came from it, though, leading to “my” versions of some songs being the off-model, off-album versions; there was a longer version of “The Fear” in particular that feels right in a way that the album version doesn’t.)

I wasn’t a Pulp fan, not really. Part of that was because they felt omnipresent during the Britpop heyday, a band — and in Jarvis Cocker, a frontman — that was always there, always playing or being talked about, feeling exhausting as a result. This was down to my friends as much as it was pop culture, I know; I was hanging out with a crowd who loved the band far before “Common People” broke through, and even farther before I’d heard the word hipster, and Cocker was pretty much synonymous with cool, not that any of us would have used that word without irony at the time.

This is Hardcore, as it turns out, is an album about all of that; an album of exhaustion and hangovers and realizing that the dreams and aspirations of Britpop as a whole (and Cocker in particular) were hollow and unsatisfying, and wondering what else there was. It’s a melancholy album, one of the reasons I didn’t really like it when it was released, when I was young and still filled with some of those aspirations myself.

In that respect, it’s maybe an old man’s album, which might explain why it’s returned to my mental playlist: I’ve aged into it, and grown into the regret of younger choices that permeates the whole thing. Or perhaps I’ve just realized that “I’m A Man” still sounds great, more than two decades later.

 

Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Full Moon Tonight, Everything’s Alright

I know, if I’m honest, that it’s the product of an utterly cynical and insincere process, yet there’s something about Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” that strikes me as one of the most upbeat, happy and instantaneous songs ever made, every single time that I hear it.

There’s significant cognitive dissonance between knowing, on some deep primal level, that Rundgren — a notorious studio wizard (a true star, no less) — probably spent far too long perfecting every little last piece of every single thing that you hear in its 2:54 run time, from the amount of the echo of the opening sax to the “whoo-oo-oo-oo-oohhh” harmonies in the background, and the emotional rush that comes to me every time I hear the song. It sounds so effortless, and yet, I know, there was doubtlessly a lot of effort into making that the case.

And yet: It’s this beautiful, over-the-top piece of nostalgia for something that likely never existed, and something that seems to rejoice in going just that little bit further than you expect even when you think you know how ridiculous the whole thing is. (The falsetto at the end of “You can’t do this to me” at 1:53, for example.)

I’d heard some Todd Rundgren before this song, and never quite got it; I distinctly remember hearing “I Saw The Light” and going, “This is what people went so nuts over? I don’t get it.” But when I heard this for the first time, I had a mild epiphany; I knew this wasn’t what the majority of his music sounded like — or, really, anything beyond this song — but for the almost-three minutes it lasted, I didn’t care. This, I decided, was someone I could listen to for days on end.

(Strange but true; I can never listen to this song just once. I always, without fail, play it through a second time at least.)

But It’s Brilliant Anyway

It was a tradition that happened every July 4, for a number of years: My putting on Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day” in the morning, and enjoying the repeated “Everybody knows,” as if it’s some kind of mantra that completed the day the same way that Christmas only truly becomes real when I’ve listened to Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody.”

It’s not a song that’s actually about July 4, of course; the only one of those I can actually think of comes from Holiday Inn, a genuinely wonderful song with at least one genuinely terrible moment of cringeworthy racism: The blackface number, “Abraham,” which also happens to be one of the most catchy songs of the entire movie.  But nonetheless, “Independence Day” became something that I did for years every July 4, just for myself. A newly created tradition I gave to myself when I arrived in the States and enjoyed the day for the first time, and the following years. A way to make the holiday mine, as opposed to finding it off-putting and alien.

(As someone who came to the States, the patriotism displayed on July 4, or at other specific times and situations, can be disorienting and confusing, if not accidentally disturbing and/or hilarious.)

This year, I listened to it again. The first time in years, as it happened; it felt like something I needed to do, a promise to myself fulfilled. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until I heard that “Everybody knows, everybody knowseverybody knows,” with the harmonies gliding in, once again.

I Am Dented And Spent With High Treason

Elton John was very much not my bag, for a number of years; he was one of a number of bands and singers that I’d decided that about, for reasons that didn’t amount to much more than, I’ve seen them or heard them when I was a kid and wasn’t into it, so I guess they’re just out forever. In my defense, I grew up in an era where Elton John was releasing things like “I’m Still Standing,” and then “Sacrifice,” or worse, the Princess Diana version of “Candle in the Wind.” He didn’t really feel like someone worth re-evaluating, not when there were a million other records to be listened to and enjoyed.

It changed for me as the result of reading a biography of John, not that long ago; I read it because I was oddly interested in his 1970s persona without having listened to that much of his music from that period, and even that, not too closely. There was an explanation about the level of his output at the start of his career, and the level of his success — 5% of all worldwide record sales belonged to him! That remains absolutely ridiculous to me — that I thought that I probably should take another listen and see what I thought.

I’m not sure what it was about “Take Me To The Pilot” that caught in my head; the stumbling piano at the start or the propulsive sound of the whole thing that feels as if the whole song is just charging forward, determined to get to the end come hell or high water.

There’s a dynamism here — a hunger — that was entirely at odds with my idea of who Elton John was, and a sense of fun, as well. It’s clearly the work of a younger musician than the one I knew, but all for the good. Things are more rough and less fully-formed, but more playful and less precious, as well, and I found myself responding really strongly to that difference. This was someone I wanted to hear more from, and someone I wanted to follow to other songs.

That the lyrics are, to be polite, absolute nonsense, helped considerably: at first, I strained to understand what John was singing as if there was perhaps some arcane code or wisdom to be ascertained, but the reality, the realization that, no, this really is just a bunch of meaningless words strung together, felt less like a frustration and more like a strange gift waiting for me at the end. Somehow, everything was more playful than I’d imagined.

This is a song that I can imagine people falling in love with, and expecting great things from the performer going forward. Even more than the album version, the live version released a handful of months later. Who wouldn’t want more of this? And suddenly, Elton John came alive, finally, for the first time.

D’You Get What I Feel? Yeah Yeah Yeah

There was a time, if you can believe it, when Heavy Stereo was a band people talked about as if they were the next Oasis. In some respects, it made sense — like the Brothers Gallagher, they were on Creation Records, and they were slavishly devoted to taking recognizable tropes of beloved music from the past and covering them with a sluggishness that could be considered “Britpop Indie Du Jour,” I guess — but there was no mistaking that, despite certain moments of joy (The lead guitar collapsing at 0:29 in the video above, for example, or even just the earworm of “Do you smile/When you open your eyes/In the moooooorrrrning”), there just wasn’t the tunefulness or melodic gift of Oasis present. The very thing that made Oasis stand out and transcend all of the jokes at their expense just… wasn’t there.

Heavy Stereo didn’t make it, of course; the first album flopped and there wasn’t a second. Gem Archer, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter found a fitting second career, however, when he ended up joining Oasis in 2000, just in time for the underrated-but-still-crap Standing on the Shoulder of Giants.

He’d go on to write a bunch of material for the band in its dying days, and those songs sounded not unlike what’s above: Competent, occasionally catchy, and entirely reliant on the performances to lift them out the mire. Thankfully, Liam Gallagher and the rest of the band had far more charm than Heavy Stereo to pull that off.

Sometimes, I still get this song stuck in my head. I don’t know what I did to deserve it.

“No Matter Where You Go”


Arthur Lee is one of those iconic figures who existed on the periphery of my musical experience; Forever Changes was an album I attempted to get into a number of times in the 1990s, frustrated by my failure to “get it” for the dumbest of reasons — the CD version that existed in the UK was mixed far too quietly and that distracted me every single time I listened — even though it was constantly referenced as this deeply influential, important piece of music. “Alone Again Or” was, for the longest time, the only Love song that I could actually recognize, and the band was, just like the Mamas and the Papas, this band I knew that I would love if only I could find a way inside. “Always See Your Face” was that way.

Like “Alone Again Or,” it’s a gentle song, despite how hard they’re trying to go as everything heads towards its close; it remains charmingly amiable thanks to the descending horn parts and Lee’s understated scatting during the guitar solo, not to mention the wide open spaces formed by the guitar riff at the song’s center. There’s just something inviting about the sound of it, inherently.

Lyrically, it’s vague to what should be the point of meaningless, but somehow the opposite is true. Maybe it’s Lee’s delivery, perhaps the universality of the sentiment — which feels like it comes directly from the blues, in its practiced melancholy — but “Won’t somebody please help me with my miseries/Can’t somebody see, yeah, what this world has done to me?” feels true on some primal level. It’s surprisingly potent, to me, at least.

I would hear this song in movies or TV shows, or out in the real world somewhere, and it’d stick with me for days after: The vocal melody of that first, “Won’t somebody please,” or the horns moving down slowly. Eventually, haunted by it, I looked it up and fell in love. It seems fitting for a song about being unable to escape something.

 

“Always There To Confuse And Fool You”

I can still remember the first time I heard this song, surprisingly clearly; I was in the upstairs living room of the house I grew up in — we called it the “TV room,” for some reason, despite the fact that we didn’t use it to watch TV, and for much of my childhood, there wasn’t even a TV in there — and it was summer, or at least sunny. I was listening to Jakki Brambles on Radio 1, and she was very excited to play this for… maybe the first time, perhaps? How much of this actually happened, versus how much I’ve imagined and convinced myself is true, is entirely open to conjecture.

The song, though, fits that period in my memory. It sounds dated and uncertain, as Weller rips off “Dear Prudence” and marries it to audio that sounds as if he was still trying to get over his Style Council days. Was he still technically calling himself “The Paul Weller Experience” at the time this was released as a single? Perhaps.

All of that, from the awkward horn stabs to the early Brendan Lynch beeps and boops to the idea that “The Paul Weller Experience” was anything other than an embarrassment, make up the early 1990s as they exist in my head; an era of no-one quite knowing what anything is going to be, but trying out new things and seeing how they feel. It’s not the Paul Weller who became known as The Modfather just yet, but all the ingredients are there, waiting to be mixed right.

The same could be said for me at the time, perhaps, although I wouldn’t be mixed right for years after that (if it’s ever happened, I add, self-consciously). But I can’t help but feel as if this song was me, in a way, back then: Making tentative steps into the future and getting as much wrong as right in terms of what would stick around.

I love it more because of that personification, arguably (certainly) more than it deserves. It’s a song that even Weller fans would admit is one of his lesser singles, but every time I hear even a snippet of it, I find myself wanting to listen to the whole thing, remembering the uncertainty it represents with undisguised fondness.