366 Songs 102: No Distance Left To Run

Continuing the recent trend of “songs about the break-up of Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann,” here’s the ground zero of that particular genre, the song in which Albarn offers up “It’s over/You don’t need to tell me” and the hearts of a million listeners who’ve never met either participant break as a result. Maybe it’s just because I first heard this track when I was going through my own horrible, protracted break-up – 13, the album this song closes, was the soundtrack of a terrible year or so of my life back then – but this song has always seemed devastatingly sad to me. There’s a sparseness, an emptiness to the instrumentation, and the music sprawls downwards prettily as Albarn sings his heart out in such blunt terms that it feels like evesdropping.

There’s such a sense of finality to the song (It finishes, “It’s over/It’s over,” after all) that it seems both fitting and uncomfortable to be placed as the last song (But not the last track; “Optigan 1” follows, an instrumental that floats in and out, dreamlike) on 13; it almost forces the listener to start the album all over again, considering that the song that starts the album comes, theoretically, after this one in terms of chronology and emotion (“Tender,” which is all about getting over a lover and rediscovering faith in love, or at least wanting to). To place “Tender” after this song would’ve made a lie of the title “No Distance Left To Run,” sure, but it would’ve been more honest in the grand scheme of things.

“Jim, I Hope I Don’t Have To Listen To This Again”

I thought it would encounter difficulties,” says John Fry, with delicious understatement, down the phone from Ardent Studios in Memphis, which he founded in 1959. “I thought people would find it so unconventional and so unfriendly that we would have difficulties.” He’s remembering 1975, when Ardent’s promotions man, John King, and Jim Dickinson were visiting the major labels trying to sell a new album that had been recorded at Ardent and produced by Dickinson. “Jim used all his contacts – and he had some high-level ones, as did John. One of his friends at a large label said: ‘Jim, I find this music very disturbing.’ Another guy said to him: ‘Jim, I hope I don’t have to listen to this again.'” No one wanted the third album by the Memphis group Big Star, until it crept out in two markedly different versions on tiny labels in the UK and the US in 1978.

The Guardian has a great piece about Third/Sister Lovers by Big Star, one of my favorite albums in the whole wide world. Go read.

Crowd-Sourcing and Romantic Thinking and Word-Vomit While Still in Bed

One of my major concerns about Kickstarter projects in a general sense is that I often wonder how many of the projects actually end up in the black for their creators. This is particularly the case when it comes to writers, artists and musicians, who are famously complete shit at working through their finances anyway, but who are also, through Kickstarter tiers and through encountering production costs that were previously handled by other people, wading into financial waters they often know next to nothing about. I wonder if people understand that Kickstarter isn’t a magical ATM but a storefront, and that they are committing to running this store — production and fulfillment both — for the duration. I expect a lot of Kickstarters ultimately end up in the red because the people running them haven’t built out a business plan, and have no idea what they’re getting into.

That’s John Scalzi, talking about Amanda Palmer and Kickstarter, something that caught my eye because of something that Katie Lane and George Rohac said at last weekend’s Stumptown: That the first thing someone should do before setting up a Kickstarter is talk to an accountant. And that the first thing someone should do after reaching their Kickstarter goal is… talk to an accountant. Their point was, essentially, “You’re not getting all the money that you think you’re going to get,” because of taxes and whatnot, and me being bad with money, I’d never considered that before.

I had, during the time when I didn’t have much work coming my way – Something that seems to be changing lately, thankfully, although my posting here has been seriously affected as a result, so sorry for that – considered doing some kind of Kickstarter thing to, basically, not feel as if I was becoming a financial black hole in the household. Jeff and I talked, half-heartedly, about doing one for Wait, What, but it never really amounted to anything (That may change; we keep on wondering whether we can monetize that, given the time that we both, and Jeff especially, spends on it each week), and I came this close to Kickstartering a book I was kicking around in my head at one point. But I kept remembering talking to Erika Moen about Kickstarter earlier this year, and remembering her numerous points about why it’s not, as Scalzi put it, “a magical ATM but a storefront,” and what that actually means in terms of additional man hours and costs to fulfill all the “rewards” you’ve promised backers as part of the whole process (I remember thinking, Man, she’s really thought this through so much more than I have. She’s good at this freelance shit).

There’s a lot of… romance, perhaps? Misconceptions and preconceptions, definitely, but also a weirdly “Kickstarter pushes out the middle man and lets the fans give their money to their favorite creators, yeah” vibe to the idea of Kickstarter and related patronage-based services that is very alluring, the idea of it being somehow… purer, perhaps, or somehow better than just trying the old-fashioned way of getting a publisher/label/agent and “selling out” (man). The more I look into it, though, the more it seems like the kind of thing that you have to do properly or you’ll end up crushed, and so wrapped up in debt/obligations/nofunstuff that the creative impulse decides to take a permanent vacation.

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.