Posts from 10th May 2011

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May 11

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops 2011: the Number 9s

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops56 comments • 2,312 views

1961: African Waltz – Johnny Dankworth (video)
1971: Something Old Something New – The Fantastics (video) (lyrics)
1981: Einstein A Go-Go – Landscape (video) (lyrics)
1991: Get The Message – Electronic (video) (lyrics)
2001: Clint Eastwood – Gorillaz (video) (lyrics)
2011: Run The World (Girls) – Beyonce (video) (lyrics)

Spotify playlist (all 6 tracks)

If Johnny Dankworth‘s aim was to conjure up some sort of recognisably “African” flavour with this track (better known to American audiences in its Grammy Award-winning cover version by Cannonball Adderley), then fifty years of shifting cultural signifiers have made it hard to divine his intentions. There’s barely anything here which suggests “Africa” to contemporary ears, barring a certain skulking-through-the-souk “imaginary soundtrack” quality (with attendant premonitions of Barry Adamson) which might conceivably place it on the continent’s northern shores. But then again, its Canadian composer (Galt MacDermot, who went on to write the music for Hair six years later) was a scholar of African music who graduated from Cape Town university, so what do I know?

Having traded as The Velours since 1956 – with some decent doo-wop releases to their name – this presumably down-on-their-luck vocal harmony group made a decision to move from Brooklyn to the UK in 1968, in order to capitalise on the new British soul boom. Thus did The Velours become The Fantastics, who by 1971 had been driven into the arms of the then-ubiquitous Cook/Greenaway songwriting partnership, resulting in this, their sole chart entry.

As you might expect from the duo who brought us “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”, the “soul” on offer here is more Batley Variety Club than Muscle Shoals – but considering this is also the same duo who brought us “Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart”, you might expect a better standard of songcraft than this routine boom-thwacker, which presaged Greenway’s later compositions (There Goes My First Love, You’re More Than A Number In My Little Red Book) for the similarly rehoused Drifters.

Having first become vaguely aware of Landscape as a jazz-rock outfit, I nursed a certain generational suspicion regarding their conversion to synth-pop (“pah, old men trying to be trendy” – oh, the cruelty of the young!) – but equally, I could hardly ignore band leader Richard James Burgess’s production work on all of Spandau Ballet’s early releases (still properly trendy in May 1981, at a time when I ascribed rather too high a value to such concerns). So the slightness of “Einstein A Go-Go” quickly palled for me (despite its arch references to IMPENDING NUCLEAR DOOM, but this was small beer next to Crass’s “Nagasaki Nightmare”), eventually to be eclipsed by Thomas Dolby’s similarly boffin-centric “She Blinded Me With Science” a couple of years later.

Johnny Marr once called Electronic’s “Get The Message “the best song I’ve written“. If he’d only added “since leaving The Smiths”, I might have been persuadable (not that I’m exactly au fait with the back catalogues of The Healers, Modest Mouse or The Cribs, but I’d be happy to take his word on the matter).

As it stands, this is a striking case of selective amnesia from someone who once collaborated with one of the finest lyricists of the Eighties, only to fetch up in a songwriting partnership with someone who seemingly strings his lyrics together from fridge magnets. And that’s with all due respect to Bernard Sumner – without whom the line from post-punk to New Pop to pre-house to post-house to Madchester baggy would be a good deal harder to trace – but, let’s face it, he’s hardly the most quotable of lyricists, and “Get The Message” is no exception.

So perhaps the strengths of “Get The Message” lie more in its arrangment (does its bassline carry a faint echo of Magazine’s “A Song From Under The Floorboards”, or have I just got Barry Adamson stuck in my brain today?), its mood, and the cultural weight which has been attached to it – for this is as good a representation of 1991 indie-dance as you’ll find.

My initial reaction on hearing this, the debut single from Gorillaz, was baffled disappointment; I thought that a cartoon band would sound jollier than this, and I couldn’t match the subdued mood with the sparky graphics. It wasn’t until the second album, 2005’s Demon Days, that the penny dropped and I began to grasp the point of the project, and so “Clint Eastwood” appeals to me more now than it ever did ten years ago. That said, there has always been a certain Late Review/Front Row/Sunday-broadsheet-culture-supplement dryness attached to Gorilla, which prevents them fully working as proper pop, and I’m already hearing it here.

In place of 2011’s real Number Nine (it’s a reissue of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, and I make it a rule to exclude reissues), I’ve substituted the track at Number Eleven. My jury’s still out on Beyonce‘s latest female-empowerment anthem; it doesn’t immediately bowl me over, but neither did “Single Ladies” for the first few weeks, and the two tracks do share a certain elemental, schoolyard-chant quality.

Not being previously familiar with the track on which this is heavily based – Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” – I shall deftly sidestep any discussions of their relative merits, save to say that my first thoughts on hearing “Run The World (Girls)” was “Ooh, she’s doing a MIA on us” – an impression which its provenance rather confirms.

And so to the voting. Goodness me, has it really been a whole week since I unveiled the Number Tens? I shall endeavour to whiz through the remaining eight rounds a little more efficiently, but – to be frank – I’ve found this a rather uninspiring round to blurb about, despite the weightiness of some of the names involved. Perhaps you’ll find more to cheer or to carp about than I have; I shall wait with baited breath!

CLICK HERE FOR THE SCORES SO FAR.

Stand by The Man

FT + The Brown Wedge10 comments • 1,003 views


In January HMV announced that, due to it and Waterstones collectively flailing around in a mire of doom, it’s going to close 60 stores this year. Gossiping with a bookseller last weekend I discovered Waterstones have had their ordering near-frozen -I’m not surprised, it was close to that when I worked for them nearly three years ago and it’s a bad sign. And now it transpires Waterstones might be sold to a Russian millionaire for less than a premiership striker.

Well good riddance then- corporate bookselling and corporate record chains that squeezed out the independents being killed off by even bigger corporate things. Awesome, now we can all ponce around pretending to buy things in idiot vanity projects like Lutyen and Rubenstein’s shop or whatever’s left of the independent record stores, whilst actually shuffling them all off Amazon. Brilliant, that sounds like exactly the sort of thing everyone can look forward to.

I can’t even avoid being sarcastic in the above three sentences of course. You know what’s going to really suck? Not having any bookshops in most small towns. Not having any record shops most likely, either. “Oh but it is all online, look at my oogly Kindle thing” you say- well, maybe, maybe, in ten years time but realistically it’s only now that physical music product is going and that’s a lot less tactile in its consumption anyway. Not to mention Amazon and Apple’s iBooks are hardly bastions of ethics for either the offer they extend to writers whose work they sell or the care they take for the books or their content.

Besides (and this is the big point) you might say “oh yes but this will lead to a rise of independent book/record sellers, The Man has fallen” but guys, no it won’t. If a big chain with big corporate credit can’t afford to keep a store open in your town, how is someone going to do it alone? The existing ones may stay open but there isn’t going to suddenly be a big surge towards them, anymore than there was when Borders closed. Even more fundamentally, if Waterstones/HMV group goes under then publishers will have to stop printing a great number of books; whether that number will be big enough that they have to stop entirely is a scary question and one I don’t want to see the grand experimental answer to. Kindle is coming but not that fast.

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