19
Sep 06

THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN – “Something In The Air”

FT + Popular61 comments • 6,053 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. 51
    swanstep on 15 May 2012 #

    Call out the computators…

  2. 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.

  3. 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!)

  4. 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.

  5. 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)

  6. 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” :)

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 59
    Erithian on 31 Mar 2016 #

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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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