19
Sep 06

THUNDERCLAP NEWMAN – “Something In The Air”

FT + Popular61 comments • 6,915 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. 1
    rosie on 19 Sep 2006 #

    The nearest Pete Townsend got to a number one (as producer), which is a shame because he, like so many others, deserves better representation. Which is an excuse for me to say what a shame it is that The Who won’t be troubling us in this adventure, because their influence can’t be underestimated (and I listen to a lot of The Who from choice, even now, which is more than I can say of The Beatles.)

    Oh yes – I personally can’t detach Something In The Air from its immediate period, because it was the soundtrack to my first tranche of O-Levels. The second, and main, tranche was a year later and for some reason that goes with Time Is Tight by Booker T and the MGs, which wasn’t even particularly close to being number one, I think.

  2. 2
    Alan on 19 Sep 2006 #

    It might be my tin ear, but among the Beatlesy riffs (I keep hearing Dear Prudence very strongly), I hear a very 80s indie guitar sound (in the first section).

  3. 3
    Marcello Carlin on 20 Sep 2006 #

    For what it’s worth, Speedy Keen died in 2002 so would never have known about the tune’s current use, nor I suspect would he have wanted it to be used as such.

    Has to be heard in the context of its parent album Hollywood Dream and particularly with foreknowledge of its astonishing follow-up (which limped to #46 in severely edited form in early 1970) “Accidents,” which is as kind and brutal a farewell to The Sixties as anything on Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album.

    There were whispers that Thunderclap Newman were really a covert arty side-project of Townshend’s (i.e. the sort of thing the post-Tommy Who couldn’t really do any more) – Keen was an old art-school mate of his (he wrote “Armenia, City In The Sky” as heard on The Who Sell Out) as indeed was Andy Newman, the Willie “The Lion” Smith-inspired pianist whose boogie woogie ruminations surreally interrupted most TN songs (he wasn’t as old as he looked). However, the group does appear to have been jinxed – guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (16 at the time, and heartbreakingly portrayed in the inner sleeve looking about twelve, and also looking like Supergrass a generation before the event) was killed by drugs barely a decade later, Keen also went before his time, and whatever happened to Newman God (or Townshend) alone knows.

    I find the record intensely moving because it seems to know that its placid/fearful call to arms is inherently doomed; as “Accidents” was released, Heath won the next election. The way the strings rise out of Newman’s solo, change key and accommodate McCulloch’s weeping guitar picking out the melody at the same pitch as Keen’s voice is heartbreaking.

  4. 4
    Oh No It's Dadaismus on 20 Sep 2006 #

    ’tis a wonderful record… oh sorry, that piratism was entirely unintended!

  5. 5
    wwolfe on 20 Sep 2006 #

    The same problem exists for me right now with the TV and radio ads for the telephone behemoth, Verizon. They use ten seconds of what sounds like Oasis singing, “All around the world, gotta spread the word.” (I think those are the words – the sound mixing is bad and I don’t know much Oasis.) It would be impossible for me now to listen to the entire record without prejudice, having become so deeply sick of this one ten-second snippet.

    I don’t have this problem with “Something in the Air,” thankfully. In fact, it benefits from the opposite effect: it’s played so rarely on the radio, the pleasure I take in hearing it is increased by the little thrill of re-discovering a rare treat.

    This does a very good job of expressing the moment – rueful, weary, startled – when a lot of folks realized there wasn’t going to be a revolution after all. The Byrds’ “Goin’ Back,” a very different record musically, might be its American counterpart, emotionally. “Withnail and I” does a good job of it in the movie world.

  6. 6
    Chris Brown on 20 Sep 2006 #

    That is indeed an Oasis song, and one we’ll come to in due course; be warned that it’s nine minutes long. The song that advertising spoilt for me was ‘I Get The Sweetest Feling’.
    Anyway, didn’t Pete Townshend produce ‘Fire’ as well?

    As for this song: well, strictly speaking the version in the TalkTalk advert isn’t this record, not that that makes a huge amount of difference. But I’d sort of class this one under “you had to be there”. I don’t not like it, and it’s pleasant enough to hear, but it’ll never be special to me.

  7. 7
    koganbot on 22 Sep 2006 #

    This does a very good job of expressing the moment – rueful, weary, startled – when a lot of folks realized there wasn’t going to be a revolution after all.

    ‘Cept that “moment” can be any old time, depending on who’s doing the realizing: (“My Back Pages” 1964, “Memphis Blues Again” 1966, “Street Fighting Man” 1968). But I guarantee you that where I was sitting in 1969 the tendency was in the other direction, people starting to take seriously the idea of a revolution, as opposed to movements for instituational reform. (Not that I was taking it seriously. I mean, I’m not sure if I was taking it seriously or not, or what I would have meant by “revolution.”) As I said in one of these comments – don’t remember which song – spring ’68 in Europe = spring ’70 in the U.S.

  8. 8
    intothefireuk on 22 Sep 2006 #

    I don’t have a problem with separating this lovely piece of music from it’s current useage as advertising fodder – probably because I can place the tune in its original context quite easily (being just about old enough to remember it first time round). I do however object to the marketing ploy of using familiar even favourite tunes to sell the latest whatever. Tom has already admitted this has tainted his view of this particular song and I imagine the same goes for almost everyone else where this or other songs/music are concerned. It is also indicative of the current sad state of the music industry that they allow such bastardization. I could go on for hours (and possibly will further down the line) about the marketing of pop for ads & ringtones – and music or pop as an art form as opposed to a can of beans but I shall resist that as it would be too torturous to sit through.

    As regards TN – I think I remember Andy Newman being interviewed on TV not too long ago saying he was actually working as a postman just before their success – not sure whether he retained his post post-number one though.

  9. 9
    rosie on 22 Sep 2006 #

    not sure whether he retained his post post-number one though

    You mean is post post post-number one, surely?

    It definitely felt portentous at the time, and to me it feels tired and dated now, much more so than a lot of the stuff that was around at the time.. In particular the piano break reminds me of the kid who couldn’t resist jangling the school piano during rehearsals for the school play! (the close of the break still has tingle-capabilities though)

  10. 10
    Tom on 22 Sep 2006 #

    Intothefire: my point re. advertising is that this is a rare exception for me (and to be honest I think repeated listens for Popular have erased its advertising context now).

  11. 11

    tom’s point was that the tainting here was actually unusual for him — normally his position (which is also mine) is that IF your feelings about a song are tainted by its use in an ad, then maybe those feelings were a bit suspect in the first place — ie the fact of the taint demonstrates a weakness in the SONG, and it’s this weakness which allows it to be overrun and spoiled by mis-association — a worthwhile song will actually end up enriched (cf eg “venus in furs” after the goodyear treatment) by being tugged about a bit in an unexpected, generally slightly crappy situation — obv this position is a bit too nietzschean for some (What Does Not Destroy Pop Makes It Stronger) but i guess i just distrust the self-protective mimpiness some eg nick drake fans were displaying when their love-object was besmirched (also i dislike the idea that the “true place for music love” is a fan’s solitary time, as protected from the intrusion of unexpected life)

    (i also like the who more since the CSI franchise added to those songs: and the mostly risible vincent gallo totally rescued yes’s “heart of the sunrise” for me by the way he deployed it in the trailer to buffalo 66)

  12. 12
    Tom on 22 Sep 2006 #

    To be fair if I was asked the question “Name five instances in which being used in advertising has improved a song for you?” I’d be hard pushed – I don’t go as far as Pink S’s “makes it stronger”. But this is because songs are generally richer and more interesting than ads, even great ads.

    (I could probably name five instances in which I know the song in the first place via an ad, tho)

  13. 13
    intothefireuk on 22 Sep 2006 #

    Well thankfully in time it is possible for most of us to replace our old aural/visual associations with new ones hopefully without resorting to Clockwork Orange style therapy.

  14. 14

    actually, no, it didn’t “totally rescue” it, bcz i was already vaguely well-disposed to it — what it did was recontextualise it suddenly and unexpectedly, so that i listened to it in a new way

    i went to see the fim as a result — ok i guess but i don’t recall anything beyond the rather excellent opening scene — and since then haven’t re-viewed trailer OR film, but have continued to listen to “heart of the sunrise” in the rivsed and interested way

    so i guess you could say i’ve co-opted gallo’s specific insight but not his broader agenda — this is one of the things that ads (much like rap samples) often does well; some anonymous myrmidon’s good ear picks up and isolates an element of a song and heightens and intensifies it in this alien context — this changes the way you hear the old song, true, but so what? with rap it turns the original into an object of debate between culture-streams; with ads less so (bcz generally ads vanish after quite a short time and are NOT repeated forever on the golden-oldie circuit: the original has all the time in the world to reassert itself against the intruder — and deepen as a result, or fold and wither)

  15. 15

    (rivsed = revised)

  16. 16
    Tom on 22 Sep 2006 #

    The draft of this entry btw had a little section on the current trend for British ads – following the adland rediscovery of Vashti Bunyan and ultimately following on from L’Affaire Drake – to put kooky folkies on their soundtracks, but I cut it out because it was making the “not about Thunderclap Newman” section even longer!

    It illustrates the benefits and limits of the music/ad relationship pretty well though. The benefits are more people hearing a song they might like. The limits are that the associations the ads are making – human contact a vulnerable thing which technology can protect, folk = human and organic etc etc. – are really pretty banal especially after you’ve seen more than 1 ad using this stuff. But that doesn’t reflect badly on the music at all, it just exposes the limits of ads to say interesting things.

    I think the use of ‘found’ music in ads is well overdue a backlash from the adland end – a good jingle creates far more affection and heritage for a brand than any number of second-hand songs. It probably won’t happen tho, cos a lot of the use of music in ads is down to the self-image of Pink S’ “myrmidons” as kewl tastemakers.

  17. 17

    i think my laissez-faire indulgence on this matter is bcz i am (over)interested in the matter of “how do different types hear music differently” — so i actually like when there’s a clear clash and a tussle between the way pure (“pure”) fans use music and the way um cultural technicians use music (where “cultural technicians” includes proper musicians as well as other, maybe less admirable “tastemaker” types)

    and what i’m most interested in isn’t that there’s always a GULF — tho i think there often is between how musicians think of music and how ordinary listeners think of it — but that there’s sometimes an OVERLAP: viz between the defensive fan and the tastemaker myrmidon — and this interests me bcz i think it exposes contradiction and flaws and the crackle of opposed interests and and and…

    so in other words MY interests* — as a hem hem “cultural historian” — are by no means identical to those of a “normal consumer” (whatever that is)

    *”interests” as in “vested interests” — but actually also as in “my hobby”

  18. 18
    Tom on 22 Sep 2006 #

    Well yes one of the interesting things about advertisers is the conflict between their self-image as olympian manipulators of the consumer mind and their self-image as cool people with good taste: ‘music in ads’ is an area where this conflict bubbles to the surface most readily.

  19. 19

    so what are relative costings of “hiring jingle writer” and “licensing n.drake microclassic”? is this part of the equation also? presumably song-pluggers* know the market and bid low

    (haha i wrote “hiring JUNGLE writer” at first)

    *has anyone ever written a a book about THIS species of cultural technician? in the swing era song pluggers were incredibly powerful and greatly shaped the history of big-band jazz, and thus — negatively — its aftermath

  20. 20
    Pete Baran on 22 Sep 2006 #

    Tom, yr point is equally valid re our search for a decent new TV theme tune. Balamory and Big Brother apart, what was the last great theme tune for a TV show (not an old song retooled).

  21. 21
    Marcello Carlin on 22 Sep 2006 #

    Bob The Builder!

  22. 22
    intothefireuk on 22 Sep 2006 #

    For my part I am a lowly minstrel so I avoid ‘cultural technician’ types as often as I possibly can. Unfortunately in my experience they also seem to inhabit most record companies and countless other areas of the music & television industry. These individuals tend towards risk-free ‘safe’ bets as often as possible to safeguard their own existence. So employing a known piece is probably going to be preferable to an unknown. As regards cost I would hazard a guess that licensing a major artists work is probably reasonably prohibitve whereas lesser known artists work would be quite cost-effective. The cost of employing a ‘jingle artist’ would be relatively inexpensive depending on whether they were well known or not. However the risk factor is probably something most advertisers would rather avoid. There is probably a huge market in finding rare gems and paying next to nothing to use them. That would involve, though, a lot of ‘leg-work’ on the CTs behalf which I am willing to bet that a lot would shy away from.

  23. 23

    yes the max legwork i wd expect for a routine is “walk across to my v.cool CD collection and pick out the cool CD which my boss has not heard but will think is cool”: bingo! vashti bunyan etc

    so it ends up recycling round a restricted palette — given the sheer vast amount of stuff that has been made throughout all time, this is lame but these are often lame people

    (in fact it is their lameness which i refuse to fear: “my ad will be made better by this music” = “this music is better than my ad” = “this music cannot — in the long run — by spoiled by this ad”)

    (but it is also their lameness i guess i am paying er tribute to: “a lame CT loves this song as much as me” = “perhaps this song is actually in itself a bit lame”)

  24. 24

    but in a way what yr saying intothefireuk is what i mean when i say that there is often a gulf between musicmaker and music-receiver BUT many complex overlaps between all the difft kinds of music USER

  25. 25
    blount on 22 Sep 2006 #

    mark silly question perhaps (and ignore any potentially forthcoming ‘it’s garbage!’ retorts from casino) but have you read the conquest of cool by thomas frank? there’s an element of standard frank harangue to it but it also functions very well (imho) as a brief history of ‘cool’/cultural technicians on madison ave, or at least the introduction of such with a ‘do you see’ “timely” (now dated) 90s update.

  26. 26

    blount i’ve never read anything booklength by t.frank — tbh i’m a bit wary of him, based on what i have read — but yes, histories of the inner machineries of the administration of culture, even sour or puritan ones, i am fascinated by

    i am less culturally austere than TF, i suspect, and i also probably put more faith in the law of unintended consequences — viz that at any moment an apparently unpromising leisure-industry system staffed mostly by dullards will coalesce to produce something awesome; also that in large systems, not everyone at every level is a dullard, and that the idiots (being idiots) are not able to police — or even spot — when some odd, out-of-the-way level in the machine comes alive

  27. 27
    Chris Brown on 23 Sep 2006 #

    I know it’s not unheard-of for some breakthrough acts to let the songs be used free-of-charge for the exposure – but obviously that’s not going to apply when they’re cashing in on a song we already know. And of course a lot of writers don’t have control over their publishing rights.

    As I say, the only time I’ve ever had my opinions of a song specifically downgraded by associating it with an advert was ‘I Get The Sweetest Feeling’ which appeared in scary radio ads about HIV awareness when I was at an impressionable age. I don’t have equivalent problems with other songs – even the obvious other Jackie Wilson song – that were used at the same time. Having said that, advertising use can obviously contribute to overexposure of a song, which can have a severe if temporary effect.

  28. 28
    Erithian on 25 Sep 2006 #

    I think we can be thankful that Johnny Cash’s family rejected the use of “Ring of Fire” in an ad for Preparation H pile ointment. (Cash himself having allowed it to be used for Levi’s).

    Oh, and another use of a song that’s really bugged me lately – Magners butchering “Sunshine Superman” by splicing random lines into the ad. Annoys me so much I haven’t even got around to thinking about cider…

  29. 29
    CarsmileSteve on 25 Sep 2006 #

    i’m *sure* magners started that campaign using “time of the season” but then it changed about a week later for unknown reasons…

  30. 30
    Tom on 25 Sep 2006 #

    The Magners ‘schtick’ is that “unlike other ciders” it is good to drink at all times of year, so I guess they’ll be switching tunes quite regularly.

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