We’ve Finished Our News

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1970s David Bowie lately; the Ziggy-era stuff, when his teeth were bad, but his music was good and Mick Ronson was there with a crunchy guitar to make everything better. It’s the result of The Algorithm, or at least, it was at first — Spotify thought to serve me up “Oh, You Pretty Things” on the same day that YouTube suggested a live version of “Queen Bitch,” and it felt as if the world was trying to tell me something, so I went with it.

The more I listen to this period of Bowie — my favorite period of his by some distance, I admit — the more two particular thoughts come to mind. Firstly, oh my God, you don’t get this music without his obsessive love of the Velvet Underground, and more importantly, what must it have been like to hear this when it was new?

I think this about the Beatles, too. Both were part of the establishment by the time I was really listening to music, with their songs both well accepted and widely shared, sewn into the fabric of pop culture and pop music alike. The influence of both had been soaked up and recycled to the point where some of the sounds and the ideas they’d introduced were watered down and robbed of their undiluted strength, and yet, I still wonder: what was it like to hear “Paperback Writer” and those chiming guitars for the very first time? What was it like to hear, “Gotta make way for the homo superior,” coming from someone who looked like Bowie?

A lot of this is rooted in how afraid and small pop culture was before these sounds, of course — how fragile everything seemed to the point where the Sex Pistols were seen as an existential threat, as opposed to a shit band with a fun attitude. But still: just imagine living in that small world and discovering these things for the very first time, and thinking, this is what the world could be like.

Is The Less I Believe It

As chance — and the Spotify algorithm — would have it, I found myself listening to a bunch of Ocean Colour Scene the other day. (I blame the fact that I had been listening to no shortage of 1990s Paul Weller just before that; Spotify probably thought, “Oh, you’re in a Dadrock mood,” somewhat justifiably.)

In the mid-90s, it felt as if OCS, as their fans called them — likely out of a quiet acceptance that “Ocean Colour Scene” is objectively a terrible name for anything, especially a band — were, if not the butt of a particular joke that was difficult to explain to anyone who didn’t immediately, instinctively get it, then at least a band that was on the periphery of not only Britpop, but the wider and more existential concept of “cool.” Imagine the British music scene of the time as an explosion of joy and melody and, yes, even cool; Ocean Colour Scene would be some distance away from the epicenter, with onlookers and scientists arguing over their relative merits, entirely unconvinced.

Listening back to them recently, I went for the songs I remembered liking the most — “The Day We Caught The Train,” “You’ve Got It Bad,” “Hundred Mile High City,” “July” — and I realized that, well, maybe I’d been looking at them all wrong all along. That’s not to say that the songs were any catchier or lyrically any better (Ocean Colour Scene’s lyrics were, often, awkward in such a way that you’d wonder if English was their second language), but that, maybe it’s a mistake to think of them as a band, per se.

This sounds like a joke, but in each of the songs that I liked — or, again, liked the most to be more precise — the thing that was most interesting was always that the center of the whole thing wasn’t the song, per se, not the melody or the lyrics, but a particular sound, or the feel of the whole thing. At their most interesting, Ocean Colour Scene’s music is like tone poems from so far out of left field that they go all the way back to being square again: hymns to a the vibe, except the vibe in question has all the inspiration of a house band covering the Beatles lazily in 1973.

Oddly, this realization made me like them far, far more. Maybe I should go back and revisit all of those Britpop alsoran bands, and see what they sound like today. Is the world really ready for that Cast revival? (Hopefully not.)

Make This Boy Shout, Make This Boy Scream

I never really listened to The Jam when I was younger; there was something about them that didn’t really work for me. A harshness, perhaps, an anger and attitude that felt at odds with the Britpop kid I was at the time, the one who preferred the rounded edges instead of the sharp, who still felt as if The Beatles was a weaker album than Rubber Soul or whatever. (No offense to those of you who prefer the Folk Beatles, of course.)

That Paul Weller was still around and making music at the time, and such a force in the scene still with albums like Wild Wood and Stanley Road, didn’t help; it felt oddly too retro to listen to The Jam in those circumstances, as if “retro” wasn’t at the very heart of the Britpop project as a whole. What can I say? I was young and stupid, as opposed to now, when I’m old and… well, still stupid.

All of this is to say that I’ve started listening to The Jam in the last week or so, inspired in part by Spotify making the suggestion, but moreso by the fact that I’d already been listening to a lot of Billy Bragg and The Specials, so it felt oddly period appropriate.

It’s an experience I would liken to discovering The Who or Harry Nilsson for the first time, in both cases things that happened long after the fact; I hear things that are at once New Favorite Songs or music that has always been in my life in one way or another, in large part because, indirectly, it has; I know the echoes of it from the bands I’ve been a fan of for years, who were influenced by all of this and ripped it off in several different ways.

Beyond simply enjoying the music for the sake of the music, there’s also the additional fun/reminder that music is a continuum, each song a part of a conversation that we’re only partly privy to. It’s humbling and surprisingly welcome to realize that we’re all dwarfed by history in ways like that, I find.

What I Heard

Spotify told me these were the songs I listened to the most last year. I’m not entirely sure that’s true, despite the algorithm at play — I know that Open Mike Eagle’s “CD Bonus Track” was in pretty much constant rotation for the last couple months of the year, but the mix was published in early December — but, nonetheless: this is a good snapshot of the sound of the past 12 months or so.

There’s A Way of Saying, A Way of Saying A Shape

An entirely random memory, brought on by listening to a song from Graham Coxon’s 1998 album The Sky is Too High for the first time in… well, pretty much 23 years:

It was during the period, post-graduation, that I was working in Aberdeen without having a permanent place to live; instead, I was spending a lot of time on couches and floors of understanding friends, as well as the occasional night in a bed-and-breakfast or something similar when I couldn’t rely on the kindness of friends that particular evening. In this particular case, I was staying with a friend who was still a student in the art school where I was now teaching, which was very much a strange and awkward experience for both of us — not that I was staying with him, but that I was now technically a peer of teachers that he very much didn’t like or respect. (For, it should be said, good reason; they didn’t understand what he was doing, so pretty much dismissed everything that he did without asking other peoples’ opinions.)

The memory in question is of me in the morning, getting ready to go to work, and playing Coxon’s just-released album in the background. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s mostly acoustic and somewhat drone-y and deary, in the way that a lot of post-Britpop acoustic music was at the time before melodies were rediscovered; that it was both acoustic and dreary was what caught the attention of the friend I was staying with, and he somewhat tongue-in-cheekily called me out on those facts, with my defensive reaction being a variation on, basically, you shut up this is good and you just don’t get it.

I was, for the record, only half-right — it’s an okay record, but as an album, it’s actually overlong and far too same-y for its own good.

As we discussed how quiet and afraid the music sounded, the penultimate track on the album came on. It sounds like this:

Both of us stopped talking for the entire duration of the song. When it was finished, the friend looked at me for a second, and then said, matter-of-factly, “See? That’s more like it.”

The Fairest and Dearest

Entirely by accident I found out this weekend that Damon Albarn has a new single out — well, a new track, but those are the closest that we really come to singles in this digital landscape we’re in, let’s be honest — and it left me nostalgic for the musical world I grew up in.

Being British and of a certain age, I was a child of pop radio. Not the pop radio of the United States, where everything is sliced up into particular genres and demographics; the radio I listened to religiously was BBC Radio 1, which played “pop music” with all the vagueness and blurred boundaries that implied. That was part of the joy of it all, though: that if you listened for long enough (which, honestly, meant about half an hour at the most, less if it was a daytime, “mainstream,” show), you’d hear songs you absolutely hated, songs you were in love with, and at least one thing that you’d never heard before. Who didn’t want that?

The entire country listened to Radio 1, it felt like. (That there were so few alternatives helped with that, though; there’s nothing like a captive audience.) It meant that, when it was time to unveil a new single from a popular band or a new album track of some importance or whatever, it not only happened on Radio 1, but it became an event, something that would be teased and trailed, to ensure that you were definitely listening at the right time to hear it.

At the height of Britpop, this was how new Blur tracks — and new Oasis tracks, or anything else by a popular band of white men in tennis shoes holding guitars — were unleashed on the world: hyped across a day or so of shows before the hushed tones of Steve Lamacq or Jo Whiley quietly introduced them.

Three decades or so later, this is how I still expect to discover new Damon Albarn songs. Finding them on Spotify and going, “Wait, is this new?” really doesn’t have the same feel to it at all.

Should I, Dear, Come Up To You

Ever since watching Lovers Rock — part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe collection of movies from last year, and easily the movie I’ve been most moved by in the last few years — I’ve been left with two particular thoughts circling back in my head over and over.

The first is that the song “Silly Games” by Janet Kay is a stunner, and has been on rotation ever since I heard it for the first time in the movie.

The second is that Lovers Rock brought back feelings and nostalgia for parties I attended when I was in art school, and did so in such a way that felt entirely authentic and honest, without any of the usual artifice that movies about house parties tend to produce.

Part of that comes from the unusually slow pacing and meandering plot of the movie. I’d be tempted to say that Lovers Rock doesn’t really have a plot, if that didn’t sound like more like an insult than it’s meant to be. (It’s not meant to be an insult at all.) On numerous occasions, the movie plays out more like a documentary — or, perhaps, a series of shots from a movie before they’ve been edited down to get to what most films consider the story. In each and every case, this is to the movie’s considerable benefit.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in two extended sequences of people at the party dancing to the music. In both of them — the “Silly Games” sequence, and the “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence — the song plays through in its entirety once, with no dialogue to distract from the music or the sights of everyone dancing… and then the scene continues, magically, as the song loops around because of the energy of the party. In the climactic “Kunta Kinte Dub” sequence, it’s because the crowd is so energized that they demand it gets played again, and then a third time.

In the “Silly Games” sequence, though, it’s something else. The crowd goes from singing along to the track to, once it’s over, just singing it en masse a capella, over and over. It’s something surprisingly, beautifully intimate, and hypnotic. It felt as if I was right there, and it made me remember countless late nights when I was younger and my heart (as another song puts it) was an open book.

Start Walkin’

I’m not entirely sure why it happened, but yesterday I heard “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and became utterly obsessed with the second verse. I’ve known the song for decades, and like all good people have long loved its casual cool in the amazing bass line, the sassy Nancy Sinatra delivery, and the ridiculous, overly enthusiastic horn section at the fade out, but this was something new — and, I suspect, something long overdue.

It’s not as if I was unaware of how good the lyrics to the song were; there’s no way you can hear the song and not notice lines like “you’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t be messin’” or the amazing “I just found me a brand new box of matches/And what he knows, you ain’t had time to learn.” Even the verse that caught my ear yesterday starts with the iconic “you’ve been lyin’ when you oughtta be truthin’,” another memorable earworm.

There’s something about that line that sets up what struck me, though; the confidence about it — here’s how you should behave — and the wonder of “truthing,” a word that, if it did exist previously, certainly wasn’t commonly used. It’s so bold, so self-assured, that it’s utterly compelling in how quickly it communicates the attitude of the entire song: I’m not like everyone else, and you’re going to realize that when I’m gone.

The rest of the verse follows suit, with each new line a masterclass in both wordplay and attitude. “And you keep losing when you oughta not bet” is such a great put down of the song’s target — it’s not just that they’re losing, they’re dumb enough not to know when to quit — while “you keep samin’ when you oughta be a’changin’,” is more of “truthing” again; a word that doesn’t exist but should, creating something that just feels true and easily understandable in opposition to the norm. We know what changing is, so of course “saming” makes sense.

And then, of course, the killer kiss-off, to end the verse (and, likely, the heart of the song’s target): “Now what’s right is right, but you ain’t been right yet.” Good luck coming back from that.

Yes, Nancy Sinatra performs the shit out of the song, and, yes, the arrangement is a masterpiece. But what caught me yesterday was, to be blunt, sheer jealousy over how well-written these lyrics really are. If only I had even half the skill to be able to write like this. Good job, Lee Hazlewood, you talented fuck.

Oh, Oh, I’m Still Alive

I feel as if I’m being haunted by Pearl Jam recently. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that brought me back to Matthew Sweet decades after the fact — an update on that: nostalgia is a powerful thing, powerful enough to overcome thin production and nasal harmonies, it seems — but I’ve been thinking more than I should about Eddie Vedder’s overwrought jam band of well-meaning misfits in the past few weeks.

What started as an offhand mention on the podcast remained in my mind as I thought of more and more of their songs that I remembered, and then I got a couple of work requests loosely affiliated with band. It’s been as if the universe has been trying to send me a message delivered in a particularly strangulated voice that yelps a lot.

I was a Pearl Jam fan for roughly two albums, after a fashion. Being of the age I am, their debut held an appeal that it didn’t truly deserve, thanks to the self-importance of singles like “Alive” and “Jeremy” and a 16-year-old’s inherent desire to find things deeper than they actually are. I was a fan in the sense of getting the album from the library and not really digging it that much, but wanting to, because they really cared, man. Far more than the reality, the idea of the band really appealed to me.

Their second album, I actually owned. It came out around the time I left home for the first time, and I’m pretty sure I was given it as a birthday present. I remember that I had the initial release where it was untitled, before it became known as Versus, and I also can tell you that, despite it being played countless times that fall and winter, I literally can’t remember one song from it today. I can’t even remember a title of one, it was so non-descript.

After that, I moved on to music I actually liked and wanted to listen to. Britpop was getting started and that proved to be far more my thing, and Pearl Jam got left behind in my memory… until now, it seems. If this is some kind of undead thing happening for October, I’m really not impressed.

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.