19
Sep 06

THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN – “Something In The Air”

FT + Popular61 comments • 6,553 views

#273, 5th July 1969, video

My stock line on songs and adverts is “so what?” A song you like appears in a commercial? Who cares? It doesn’t harm the song, and if it harms your relationship with the song, maybe it wasn’t that strong anyway. Association with some particularly horrid brand might well make me doubt an artist, but mostly these ads are product speaking unto product, and as ever its what we do with the music when we get it home that counts, not what its owners do with it.

This position mostly evolved out of frustration with people howling on my message board about Nick Drake and Volkswagen, or about the Shins and McDonalds, and away from those particular debates I might be less stringent, even admit my own irritations. But I’d never actually blamed an ad for spoiling music until I sat down to listen to “Something In The Air” and realised that I loathe the first thirty seconds and quite enjoy the rest.

For non-UK readers: “Something In The Air” is currently being used by telco TalkTalk to advertise its free broadband service and assorted mobile tariffs. In fact it’s being more than used, the highly recognisable intro and verse melody has been adopted by the brand as a sound ident, and on the programmes TalkTalk sponsors (which seems to be most of them) it opens and closes every ad break in original and various remixed forms.

As ads go, these are in themselves less clunky than the song’s previous service for British Airways (There’s SOMETHING. In the AIR. LIKE A PLANE IN THE AIR. YES?), and it’s not the fact that this sometime radical-chic song has been co-opted into serving the consumer broadband ‘revolution’ that bothers me. It’s simply the fact that it’s on quite so often – surely as much as Jamster’s Crazy Frog in its heyday.

Anyway, whatever ‘subversive’ power it had has perhaps only increased. For any fans of the idents tracking the song down, the rollicking piano section and the aggressive sentiments of the last verse might provide a nastier shock than they did in 1969. The lyrics are uneqivocally radical – “Block up the streets and houses”; “Break out the arms and ammo” – but John Keen’s singing is more tremulous; hopeful and fearful at the same time. What the specific context or spark for the song was I don’t know – there was, after all, plenty in the air to choose from. A macabre coincidence for you – the song’s spell at Number One coincided with the death of Francis McLoskey on 14th July, accounted the first fataility of the Troubles. A month later it was British streets and houses being blocked up in Derry, and the arms and ammo followed on.

There’s a world of difference, or maybe just a year or two, between “we’ve got to get together” and “we have got to get it together”: the second is more desperate and urgent. Like the Beatles’ “Revolution”, the song contains insurrection and disillusion. But where the Beatles song is a pointed sardonic strum, “Something In The Air” meanders, attempting the epic. There are Beatley touches throughout, though – that little snatch of melody after “and you know it’s right”, for instance, and the structure is cousin to “A Day In The Life”. But whether it’s through overambition then or overadvertising now – or simple historical distance – the song now feels like a curio, a noble failure.

YouTube link (I’m going to try and include one of these where possible from now, though YouTube is blocked at work.)

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Comments

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  1. 31
    wwolfe on 26 Sep 2006 #

    A few years ago, there was an ad which featured a young hippie girl dancing in a muddy field, amongst many other young hippies, while the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” played on the soundtrack. (I don’t think the place was identified, but it was clearly meant to be Woodstock.) At the bottom of the screen appeared: “Kotex was there.”

    It was a true jaw-dropping moment.

  2. 32
    Wubeoxox on 4 Oct 2007 #

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  3. 34
    Waldo on 26 Aug 2009 #

    Jack Hargreaves-lookalike, Newman’s famed piano break (which sounds like his joanna is being pushed down a flight of stairs whilst the twat is playing it) seems so much out of kilter with the rest of the track; but then perhaps it only added to the pure wierdness of the record and the oddballs performing it. If Thunderclap Newman were positioning themselves as leaders of the cause, breakers out of the arms and ammo, blockers up of the streets and houses, indeed callers out of the instigator, I fear that the revolution (which is here) is already lost. It’s not unlike being called out onto the streets by Mary, Mungo and Midge. Just wrong. And you know that it’s right.

    Blinding record, though!

  4. 35
    ace inhibitor on 19 Nov 2009 #

    Re 34, the Thunderclaps themselves are surely admitting that if they or the likes of they are the leaders of the cause, the cause is doomed (marcello’s point at #3 – ‘placid/fearful’ is a lovely description). ‘We’ve got to get (it) together sooner or later’ sounds not so much desperate as befuddled – now’s the time! or er, maybe next week… Meanwhile, call out the instigator (can someone else do this, please?)

    Because what was actually ‘here’ in 1969 wasn’t so much the revolution as the reaction, maybe (68-Chicago/Prague/Paris and all that) & the sense that the cultural-revolution-by-osmosis of 67 – the one where all you need is love – hadn’t happened and wasn’t going (to be allowed) to. Which was leading a few down the Weathermen/Bahder-Meinhoff exemplary violence path. (‘blocking off streets and houses’ and ‘blasting our way through here’ doesn’t sound so much like a revolution as an embattled and isolated last stand? butch cassidy and the sundance kid was 1969 as well, wasn’t it?)

    anyway, anyway, the musical point here was that you could hear the piano break as nostalgia for the very recent past, a reaching back to the music hall inflections of english-whimsy-psychedelia circa Sgt Pepper. Simpler times… But, brilliantly, it can’t sustain itself, it literally can’t keep time, starts to fall apart until, abruptly and necessarily, it is swamped by the return of 1969’s guitars and arms and ammo.

    blinding record, absolutely.

  5. 36
    swanstep on 20 Aug 2010 #

    Fabulous record that any songwriter or arranger would kill for (a 5 is just silly!). I’ve got a huge soft-spot for perfect pop one-offs from roughly this era – in some respects they define pop for me as a free-floating phenomenon that exists apart from on-going huge, important groups and figures and their weighty careers (all of which I love of course, but it’s great to have a break…). I’d rank Something in the Air behind things like All the young Dudes and Up up and away and Summer Breeze (Isleys version), but that’s its basic league I reckon… Anyhow, here Credence meets the Beatles and gives birth to the best ELO song that ELO never wrote. Pure pleasure:
    8, or even a 9 on a sunny day.

    p.s. Did the Blockheads ever cover this? I can easily imagine them doing a fantastically demented version.

  6. 37
    punctum on 20 Aug 2010 #

    It’s neither “perfect pop” (such a thing doesn’t exist) nor “pure pleasure” – this record’s run more or less coincided with the beginning of the Troubles in earnest and the song was adopted as an IRA anthem/coded calling card for some while. Don’t see where Creedence comes into it either, except in terms of political correspondence (except Fogerty never sang in favour of destruction). Given Townshend’s significant involvement, it hardly exists apart from ongoing, huge, “important” groups either. Nor does it sound anything like ELO.

    No, the Blockheads never covered it, and just as well they didn’t, really.

  7. 38
    swanstep on 20 Aug 2010 #

    @Punctum. Clearly you and I disagree about a lot. I’m well aware that, say, Bad Moon Rising officially professes a fearful attitude toward forthcoming destruction whereas SITA savors the prospect. In both cases, however, what really comes through, I believe, is just the self-contained energy of both songs. Destruction whether feared or gloated over should *feel* awful, but in both these cases that’s not the feeling that the music evokes (SITA’s piano break has always reminded me of the piano part in Split Enz’s Dirty Creature – I know that’s not especially well-known ‘up over’, but bear with me – but in Dirty Creature the music itself becomes deranged and nightmarish whereas both in SITA and BMR the music itself is ultimately very controlled and up-beat). And, look, the IRA may have claimed SITA as an anthem but, well, except in IRA fantasy, The Troubles are a kind of civil war not a revolution against a regime, so their claiming of the song is self-serving and unfortunate, and we should resist their appropriation (this is easier to do on the far side of the world I fully concede). And I dare say that Dylan and others who’ve covered SITA have not carried any brief for the IRA but have rather been in favor of various revolutionary causes and ideas (often with strictly metaphorical ammo).

    Anyhow, setting aside specific lyrical topics, the CCR connection for me is made just by the vocal timbre and how that’s bedded in with the guitar. I’m surprised you don’t hear it – it’s surely part of what makes SITA so coverable by Petty, Dylan et al.. Musically adventurous crews like Split Enz and The Blockheads would probably quite naturally inject more madness/threat/chaos into the music if they covered SITA – thereby perhaps pushing the song closer to what you seem to want to hear SITA as being even in Thunderclap’s original. Yet you seem to think that anything like that would be a bad idea, but I can’t see why unless you allow the blimin’ IRA to capture the song for you.

    Two final points: (i) I’m well aware of Townshend’s involvement with SITA and Thunderclap. Still, I think SITA still reads as something separate and special just the way All the young Dudes does from Bowie despite that being fully his track on a deep level. (ii) I’d need to think a bit about which ELO songs SITA is really reminding me of, but ELO made *plenty* of Beatles-inflected music that had A Day in the Live-type structures and flourishes, so there’s surely plenty of room for comparison with SITA on that front… But SITA also has some specific Strange Magic-like guitar figures I think. Plus it has that bedded-in-with-the-guitar and compressed sounding vocals that Jeff Lynne also uses (and later did again with Petty). I wonder whether the Wilburys ever covered SITA? SITA sounds a bit like them too to my ears!

  8. 39
    thefatgit on 20 Aug 2010 #

    The only aspect of this which could be described as perfect, is the song’s ability to lend itself to another’s agenda (be it advertising a new brand, or the “freedom fighter’s” call to arms). Anyone that signals change could use a song like this as their rallying call. Of course advertisers would edit out those “burn down…/block up…” lines.

    There is for me, something very optimistic about the song. As the steam-powered piano breakdown shudders to a halt at the buffers and that subtle key change comes in, we have left the Old World behind, heading for something…better. Of course, history refutes such a notion, but I can imagine the hippy optimists clung to notions such as this in the face of overwhelming evidence that things were beginning to take a turn for the worse.

  9. 40
    punctum on 20 Aug 2010 #

    #38: One man’s civil war is another society’s revolution; one man’s idea of reactionary is another’s concept of revolutionary. So you need to be careful when you talk about the IRA or other causes which don’t necessarily agree with you since close historical study – utilising histories compiled by both sides as well as by neutrals – suggests a pretty solid backbone. “We should resist their appropriation”; who are “we” here? Also, by setting up the us/them notion you inadvertently point to why the Troubles happened.

    Injecting more “madness/threat/chaos” into this song would be pointless and indeed counterproductive, since its implications and perceived acceptance of these work satisfactorily in their own context. You don’t always have to screech and honk when you’re in favour of change.

  10. 41
    Alfred on 20 Aug 2010 #

    Tom Petty’s cover was included as a new track on his 1993 comp.

  11. 42
    swanstep on 21 Aug 2010 #

    @#40. The ‘we’ I intended was just we, the broadly musically inclined. Narrowly focussed groups/audiences of various sorts often opportunistically claim very good songs and pieces of music as their own (much the way advertizing and film soundtracks do). Wider loyalty to music suggests, however, that it’s important to resist such appropriations and to try to keep a good/great song in the lists for everyone else.

    *Many* sectarian (rooted in ethic or historical or cultural or religious cleavages) civil conflicts, which all too often end up in the ethnic cleansing or genocidal elimination of one or more of the sects, *aren’t*, I believe, properly thought of as revolutions (you can, of course, brute force that result by simply defining any attempted status quo change as a revolutionary struggle, but it’s perfectly legitimate to decline such a definition). I’m well aware of the IRA’s exasperating tendency to see themselves as revolting against ‘the crown’ rather than as engaged in bitter sectarian conflict with the Protestants in front of them. The Troubles could never come close to ending until that basic reality was faced. Intractable conflicts the world over often have this phantasmal character: at least one side (in the worst cases it’s both sides) sees itself as engaged in some much more glorious and defensible struggle than in the dire thing that’s evidently the here and now, which is the place where any deal will have to be done (assuming that the ethnic cleansing option doesn’t work out).

  12. 43
    wichita lineman on 23 Aug 2010 #

    All right. From personal experience I’m surprised that I’ve never heard anyone from the left claiming this for their own (unlike the fretfully ambiguous Street Fighting Man).

    I’ve always loved SITA; the string/brass explosion/key change, with that excitable bass run pushing it through the wall, is just so beautiful.

    The song’s a bloodless utopian fantasy – from the Greek ‘utopos’, which has two meanings: one, the good place; two, the place that cannot be.

    (I didn’t study Greek, I nicked that from Mad Men).

  13. 44
    swanstep on 23 Aug 2010 #

    @Wichita. Trying to clarify my own feelings about SITA, I tracked down Labelle’s early ’70s cover of SITA (which is interleaved with a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘the revolution will not be televised’). It’s blimin’ great, and surely is a full-on attempt to claim at least parts of SITA for the civil rights struggle left in the US. (In fact, as a result I’ve spent the whole weekend listening to stuff from Labelle’s three pre-Lady Marmalade albums. I’m finding them so overpowering and ‘Holy crap!’ great, I almost can’t believe I’ve never heard them before.)

  14. 45
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Utopia means “the place that can’t be”; Eutopia means “the good place”

    visually the words are different — the pun is there as a homophone (in englished greek, anyway )

  15. 46
    wichita lineman on 23 Aug 2010 #

    Thanks, Prof.

  16. 47
    Lena on 23 Feb 2012 #

    From Chicago, With Love: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2012/02/will-circle-be-unbroken-elvis-presley.html Merci for reading, everyone!

  17. 48
    windows product key on 14 May 2012 #

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  18. 49
    Pete on 14 May 2012 #

    Robots love Thunderclap Newman.

  19. 50
    wichita lineman on 14 May 2012 #

    Robots love Thunderclap Numan.

  20. 51
    swanstep on 15 May 2012 #

    Call out the computators…

  21. 52
    enitharmon on 1 Nov 2013 #

    Something I can’t believe nobody else has mentioned, Surely I’ve missed something in reading through the comments.

    Number one as Neil and Buzz were walking on the moon (and poor Michael Collins stayed behind in the command module, destined to be the forgotten member of the Apollo 11 crew which is why I mention him too).

    I’m moved to mention this because today I received the proof of a short story of mine, to be included in a forthcoming anthology, which alludes to both events to pin something in time.

  22. 53
    Jimmy the Swede on 2 Nov 2013 #

    Brilliant Rosie. When you have more details, let us know.

    I always remembered Michael Collins in the “Mother Ship”. At one point, he was the most remote man in the world (or out of it!)

  23. 54
    enitharmon on 2 Nov 2013 #

    The corollary to this is that, unexpectedly to me anyway, the Beatles had all their number ones before the first moon landing.

  24. 55
    hectorthebat on 2 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 7
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 623
    Greil Marcus (USA) – STRANDED: “Treasure Island” Singles (1979)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 46
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 85
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  25. 56
    weej on 9 Apr 2015 #

    Just browsing this morning and came across the now nine-year-old debate at the start of this article, and thought I’d like to wade into it a bit.

    So, here goes – “It doesn’t harm the song, and if it harms your relationship with the song, maybe it wasn’t that strong anyway” – oh, if *only* relationships with songs were this pure in the first place, if great songs were sturdy things, incorruptible by unwanted associations, then sure, let’s go for that. But really, most of the music I love (if not all) is liable to be tainted by these sorts of connections – some I actually only like in the first place because it’s linked to positive memories (and I’m positive I’m not in a minority on this point.) A group of friends I had loved a couple of LPs so much that we weren’t allowed to listen to them more than once a week – I know that’s not how everyone likes to experience music, but it certainly seemed right then. Just because it can be spoiled, doesn’t mean that it should be. Putting art to this sort of a test is like cheating on your spouse to check whether you really love them.

    My own worst experience of this was with Sébastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle” – in 2005 this song was an instant favourite, and remained so for a couple of years until L’Oreal used the main hook in a shampoo advert which was then broadcast ad-nauseam in China for more than half a decade. Now every time I listen, an image of a woman washing her hair pops up, uninvited, and I suspect the association would be stronger for those who had seen the advert before they’d heard the track. Am I being selfish here? I don’t think to, something of value to me and to others has been lost. Truly transcendent art is so rare, and advertising jingles are so common that chopping up one to make the other seems like madness, no matter how much money is in it.

    I guess a lot of this boils down to “advertising is woven into absolutely everything now, this is the way it is, there is no alternative” – an argument which seems to have gone from unspoken to explicitly stated (especially post-web 2.0) in the last couple of decades. Perhaps that’s a good thing – if people are talking about it then they are (perhaps) thinking about it – but “there is no alternative” is a dispiriting (and usually untruthful) consensus on any topic. I’m aware this is an old debate that’s been had a billion times before, but unlike most of the other issues I cared about in my early 20s this one seems completely unresolved (both for me and for the rest of the world who seem to want to brush it under the carpet.)

    Any thoughts? – aside from “oh god not this again” :)

  26. 57
    Phil on 9 Apr 2015 #

    I don’t think it’s [legitimate broadcast] vs [mind-polluting advert], so much as [legit broadcasts and most adverts] vs [jingles, idents, saturation advertising]. A great song can survive an advertising campaign or even two, as witness this one (I had no recollection of either of the campaigns mentioned in the OP).

    And this single is an unmistakable, indisputable, Whovian-fixed-point-in-the-continuum 10. So many wonderful things about it, but I’ll single out the weird transition (surely unimaginable until they did it) from oompah-and-handclaps pub piano knees-up to a kind of stately orchestral reverie underpinned by bass and drums and the same handclaps. And the wonderful sound of Speedy Keen realising that the second upward key change had moved the top notes of the song right into the grey area beyond the top of his range – and hitting them anyway. And that’s not even getting into the politics. Just wonderful.

  27. 58
    Tommy Mack on 10 Apr 2015 #

    I’m much more upset when you see a good comedian in a shit advert that tries to be funny and fails (e.g. Paul Whitehouse, Aviva) That does start to feel a bit like someone prostituting their art.

  28. 59
    Erithian on 31 Mar 2016 #

    So farewell then, Andy “Thunderclap” Newman. And it’s goodnight from him.

  29. 60
    lonepilgrim on 3 Mar 2017 #

    there’s a seeming contradiction between the militant content of some of the lyrics and the wistful, ambling nature of the performance. For me it’s the nimble bass playing that lifts the song and give it a rich and compelling quality. Wiki reckons that this was Pete Townshend under the name Bijou Drains.

  30. 61
    Phil on 5 Mar 2017 #

    I read somewhere that the Angry Brigade, or at least some of their leading members, were stoned basically all the time – which would explain a lot about them. There’s something of that vibe here – “Hand out the arms and ammo” sung as if everything’s lovely and the singer’s about to nod off.

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