Tom Ewing

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May 15

MARIAH CAREY AND WESTLIFE – “Against All Odds”

Popular44 comments • 4,760 views

#875, 30th September 2000

westlife against I don’t know if “Against All Odds” is the best Phil Collins song. I suspect it is. But it’s certainly the most Phil Collins song, the complete conjunction of things you might associate with Phil Collins: song-shifting drum breakdowns, male pattern agony, everybloke blues. It’s also a song that attracts covers: writing about one of them on NYLPM, I said: “The ur-version of “Against All Odds” will always be by a drunk divorced man in a suburban karaoke, singing his desperate heart away – Phil’s original is just a guide vocal.”

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May 15

MODJO – “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”

Popular44 comments • 2,078 views

#874, 16th September 2000

modjo “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” came hard on the heels of “Groovejet” as a revivalist disco hit. It also works as a despondent, pleading answer record: where Sophie Ellis-Bextor embraces the dancefloor as a flirtatious zone of mystery and ambiguity, “Lady” begs for resolution. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, it circles its sampled groove like water circling a drain. Where “Groovejet” is spry, happy to lose itself in the possibility of disco, “Lady” finds a rut and keeps scratching it deeper in its despairing neediness. The singles’ proximity does “Lady” no favours – this suitor, and his simple plea, is run rings round.

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May 15

From Beyond

The Brown Wedge15 comments • 558 views

secret wars cover NEW THRILL!

This is an origin story. Thirty years ago, give or take a day, I went to my local newsagent and I bought a new comic. The next day I asked the newsagent, Mr.Mann, he of the back room full of protein supplements and ‘marital advice’ partworks, to reserve it for me every fortnight. Two months later he was putting aside a second comic, 2000AD. Six months later I found a source for imported US Marvel comics, and I started ordering those. And so it grows.

The origin story is no different from any other comics fan’s. It begins when something radioactive bites you. Bought in a corner shop (but it could have been glimpsed in an attic, snipped up on Tumblr, passed on by an older sister, found in a doctor’s waiting room) – it sinks its teeth in. You’re changed. You borrow, and read, and buy. With great power comes financial irresponsibility. You walk away sometimes, you come back other times. And thirty years later, here you are.

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Apr 15

A1 – “Take On Me”

Popular72 comments • 2,691 views

#873, 9th September 2000

A1take A single that’s good for one thing, at least: “Which group got to No.1 with Take On Me?” is a reliably sneaky pop quiz question. Beyond that, it’s tempting to dismiss A1’s version as irrelevant. Doubly tempting if you were 12 in 1985, and the clean surge of that keyboard riff still sounded like the bright world of life and youth and adventure opening up in front of you. It’s not that a cover version is any kind of sacrilege – just that you can’t update the eternally young. But listen again and A-Ha’s original sounds stuck in its time: the synthesisers thin, the drum sound hollow and deadened. That doesn’t make it less glorious to me, it just reminds me of the work memory does in making songs great. Why not give new 12-year olds a chance for memories of their own?

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Apr 15

MADONNA – “Music”

Popular67 comments • 3,179 views

#872, 2nd September 2000

madonna music “Her whole career’s been like, oh, they’re the trendy person of the moment, I’ll work with them to make me younger. They’re using you.” – Aphex Twin on Madonna, 2001.

I am the same age now – just turned 42 – as Madonna was when she released “Music”. Last week, with delightful serendipity, Spotify released a study suggesting that listeners hit a “musical mid-life crisis” at 42, as their tastes suddenly skew (a little) back towards the mainstream: are they trying to keep up? Was Madonna? The image of her as trend-chasing, desperate, even “vampiric” (as that Aphex interviewer glossed it) has hardened as the hits dried up. But the Aphex quote shows it was current in the Music era – how he framed the singer’s interest in working with him.

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Apr 15

Taxonomy Domine

FT15 comments • 1,839 views

Sisyphus was a rockist.

Sisyphus was a rockist.

This is a list – scribbled down over lunch, then expanded – of ways that writers who focus on pop music have approached it. I agree with some. I disagree with some. Some of them I’ve tried, some I’ve only read. A few have become fairly orthodox. Others are rare, or at least rare nowadays.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and expansion is welcomed. (I think there should probably be something on camp in here, for instance, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it.)

1. Why Is This Popular?: I start with this one, because it’s largely what I do on Popular, which serves as an example. I am interested in things that are popular. The idea is that there’s value in thinking why something becomes a hit – what people hear or see in it. Popular things aren’t inherently good, but they are inherently interesting. Often shades into sociology, not always very expertly.

2. Pop As Expression Of The People: There are a few strands of thinking that really do hold popularity to be at least potentially a good in itself. “Popular culture is folk culture” (a Robert Wyatt paraphrase) would be the tenet here – pop is good because it reflects and represents everyday concerns, lives, dreams… maybe even a kind of will of the people. This type of angle feels unfashionable now, too monocultural (though see #8 below.)

3. Pop As A Site Of Subversion: A type of thinking that semi-inverts #2 – pop music is interesting when things sneak in and slip through that don’t ‘belong’ and that have the potential to question or overturn social norms. Runs the risk of turning into a simple scorecard or being horribly narrow about what constitutes subversion: where have all the protest songs gone, etc.

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Apr 15

SPILLER – “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”

Popular107 comments • 3,850 views

#871, 26th August 2000

spiller groovejet The revival of disco within pop put a spotlight on something that had gone missing over the 90s: a sense of music not just for dancing, but for dancing with someone. Disco was a music of mutual attraction: cruising, flirtation, negotiation. Its dancefloor is a space for immediate pleasure, but also for promises kept and otherwise. It’s a place where things start, but their resolution, let alone their meaning, is never clear. All of 2000’s great disco number ones explore how to play this hand. Madison Avenue look to impose their will upon it, to set terms and roles. Spiller is less rigid. “Groovejet” accepts the night’s changeability, happily sells out certainty for an amused smile and a few great one-liners. “Just for one lifetime I can be your pastime”, “In it together till I know you better.” Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s original chorus precisely caught the song’s resigned swoon: “And so it goes… how does it feel so good?”.

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Apr 15

MELANIE C – “I Turn To You”

Popular49 comments • 2,474 views

#870, 19th August 2000

melciturn What does a Mel C record sound like? Not an easy question. Her solo singles ask more, in terms of brand loyalty, than any other Spice – she was respected for her voice, and the assumption is you’ll want to follow it through flashy Britrock (”Goin’ Down”), acoustic soft pop (”Northern Star”), twilit R&B (”Never Be The Same Again”) and now muscular pop-trance. And that’s without bringing Bryan Adams into it. There’s something very appealing about this hopscotch approach, but almost none of the songs are strong enough to sell Melanie C as more than a dabbler.

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Apr 15

Is Japan’s Bathhouse That Unusual?

The Brown Wedge/Post a comment • 137 views

thermaeromae More comics reviews, this time focused on manga. Contains spoilers in places!

Thermae Romae I (Yen Press)

Surely the greatest time travel/bathhouse design manga ever written, Mari Yamakazi’s charming Thermae Romae has the pace and pleasures of a culture-clash sitcom: each episode, down-on-his-luck bath architect Lucius Modestus is confronted with a bathing-related problem in 2nd century AD Rome, finds himself whisked away to modern Japan, and returns home full of inspiration. Along the way he invents the Roman Empire’s first reptile house, water slide and loyalty marketing scheme.

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Apr 15

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Rock DJ”

Popular68 comments • 3,591 views

#869, 12th August 2000

robbierock Back at “Millennium” I claimed that Robbie Williams’ wild success, his undeniable – and untranslatable – appeal as a pop star, said something wider about turn of the century British culture; that Robbie fitted into a post-Blair, post-Diana era where Britain felt at ease with itself and curious about itself, happy to celebrate the everyday, and to let someone become the country’s biggest star on little but determination and cheek.

Robbie was only the beginning: the early 00s saw a steady demystifying of celebrity matched by an equally steady supply of the newly famous. “Rock DJ” landed at number one near the beginning of this process – during the first series of Big Brother, still very much at this point a ‘psychological experiment’ in national voyeurism, Britain taking an unblinking, intimate look at ten of its own. Life Thru A Lens, if you like. If Robbie Williams was an expert on anything, it was being famous, and he understood every side of such attention. The video for “Rock DJ” cast him as a dancer, desperate to be noticed, stripping off clothes, then skin, muscle and organ.