This is a series of posts “liveblogging” the Pitchfork 500, reflecting the book’s dual purpose as criticism and playlist. The ground rule is that I do the writing in real time as I listen to the music: no edits after that (except of typos). Posts in this series are intermittent, because I don’t have a lot of uninterrupted writing time.
Disclaimer: I write regularly for Pitchfork and contributed a dozen pieces to the book. I have no insider knowledge of how tracks were selected, had no say in the selection, and any commentary on the book’s purpose etc. is purely speculative.
In this episode: the book shifts focus to funk and disco, and then looks at what British punk’s originators did next…
“I Feel Love” represents the first big genre-shift in the book, a leap out of punk into disco, from Wire’s taut taunting repetition to Donna Summer’s more languorous luxurious kind. I’ve written about the song recently so I’ll use its eight minutes to try and crystallise how the Pitchfork 500’s take on genre works.
As one sympathetic reviewer said, the book isn’t so much a history as a series of overlapping stories. The book is arranged to make these stories seem complimentary rather than competitive, which probably isn’t how they seemed at the time. Yes, Eno had a Eureka! moment when he first heard the bubblebath beauty of “I Feel Love”, bursting into Bowie’s studio to tell him about the future, but how many Bowie fans went on the journey with him? And if the crossover between Bowie and Summer love was a – generous! – half, what about the crossover between Gloria Gaynor and the Adverts?
The thing is I really don’t know how big a thing genre segregation was in the late 70s – I wasn’t there. The Pitchfork 500 has an interest in presenting different genres in a harmonious light, partly because it makes their story run smoother but partly because it allows them to approach the past from the perspective of their ideal reader, one who – while perhaps centred in indie rock – also has a keen appreciation of the best of many other things, from dance to dancehall to minimal to
(I almost typed microhouse! Remember microhouse? Later for that I suspect.)
to metal. I think this reader is a good thing to imagine – it’s the journey a lot of the long-term writers seem to have taken, for one thing. But I wonder how much it plays down the strains and differences in genre appreciation among today’s fans (who are the audience for the book). There’s a tension in expectation between “the greatest songs” (which some fans will think simply excludes disco, no matter how much they enjoy it – to a generation with terabyte hard drives 500 songs is a minute number) and the historical scope and mission of the book: it’s a tension that can work creatively in the book’s favour, and generally I think the book takes the side of breadth.
The book is acknowledging its audience’s presumed loyalties to some extent – Dominique Leone’s write up of Giorgio Moroder’s shimmering “The Chase” pitches it as a record that overcomes objections to disco, and is sure to mention current touchstones DFA and GTA as well as the track’s influence on Italo. If it gets more people listening to the record, a bit of anachronism is no sin. “The Chase” is delicious: Kraftwerk swapping bikes for Outrun style convertibles and racing off towards the neon horizon, the slight cornball tint to that band’s austerity turned outwards into something more showy and lush, its synths more wide-collared disco jackets than robot suits.
Drew Daniel’s write-up of “Good Times” is as crisp and witty and intelligent as the song itself. I used to answer “Good Times by Chic” whenever I was asked what my favourite single of all time is: I’d still put it in the Top 10. I’m not sure I totally agree with Daniel’s characterisation of the vocals as deliberately affectless – there’s a yearning in them which gets over all the more for their clipped delivery – but he’s right to note how the song’s overspilled its bounds ever since. That overspill is there implicit in the song already – it may not have solos but its piano and guitar breaks are still prodding at the record’s limits, gently testing them, waiting to escape and roam.
“Time marches on – it’s getting late” – it’s a song about the end of good times, the crack in the smile, the bear market rally.
Thelma Houston is the weirdest inclusion yet – not because it’s a bad record, my goodness no, but it’s so obviously outside the schema the book’s set up for itself: there’s nothing of Bowie or Reed or Hutter or anyone like that in “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, which is a collection of well-honed studio pros going about the business of making a spectacularly fine record. It’s sumptuous. This professional approach to pop will make a comeback later in the book but it’s a tradition as old or older than the bohemian ones the 500 are mostly concerned with. Probably “Don’t Leave Me This Way” got in because it’s so bloody gorgeous. The book mentions the connection between this and “Love Hangover”, the jittery bassline at the end confirms it but it’s fast enough to be from the Associates’ febrile, flushed reading. So maybe Houston is post-punk after all….
“I Will Survive” sounds great in sequence and a surprising fit – its pulsing defiance is a better jib with X-Ray Spex and The Slits than it might have seemed in the line ups of No.1 hits. [Gloria Gaynor]
Michael Jackson, sobbing at the start of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, sounds like he’s not sure he will survive, or at least not unscathed. He needs the technicolour dreamcoat of Quincy Jones’ strings to find his voice and his feet, and then – kapow! He’s got us. The glorious thing about the thick arrangement of “Don’t Stop” is that it doesn’t just make you want to dance, it sounds like dancing itself, every instrument bumping up, flirting, backing off everything else.
Later on Jackson’s music won’t be able to hold off the crack-up: Parliament, voices woozed up on “Flashlight”, melodies winding, synth bass belching chaotically, sound like they’ve already absorbed the crack-up into themselves and stood up stronger for the craziness. Jackson is a fragile, tightrope, performer: George Clinton and his crew sound earthy and unstoppable.
Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” is a song I know without ever having known what it was – if you have the book, Douglas Wolk gives an excellent summing-up of the song’s context in Motown’s forced accommodation with disco (something Gaye managed better than most, with this). I love the way the ambient party sounds keep poking through the song, like on Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “Keep Dancing”, though Marvin’s not enough of a libertarian to let the party almost swamp the track like Disco Tex does, and he doesn’t sound like he’s of the party, more that he and that dude on the trumpet are giving it some in the middle of the floor, with everyone else looking and talking while Gaye loses himself in the groove. (To continue the Disco Tex comparison, Tex sounds like the PARTY’s the main thing, and someone’s having to tug on his sleeve saying “Tex! Man! Come on, you gotta MC a verse here”. Sorry for all this Disco Tex talk, they’re not even in the book’s chronological remit, I guess it’s a sign I don’t find the 12 minute “Got To Give It Up” quite as fascinating as I should, though it’s still pretty excellent.)
John Lydon’s “Hello? Hello? Hello! Hahaha” at the top of “Public Image” sounds like a mic test – from a staged party we’ve skipped back into post-punk’s realm of paranoid artifice. Lydon lets Jah Wobble’s monster bass do the talking, he’s singing as the man behind the curtain. Post-punk could be intensely self-referential sometimes – the doubts I talked about in the previous post having turned into a strain of autocritique where nothing could be taken at face value even by the singer as he was singing. [Public Image Limited]
Gang Of Four take the feeling and apply it to economics and love and the whole world on “Damaged Goods”, the backing vocals calling the lead vocal a liar mid-song, the rigid funk backing rocking back and forth to dramatise a state of total moral paralysis. It’s like some fiendishly complex etiquette book applies to every action the Gang could possibly take and their music is the berserk flagellant attempt to follow it.
Then on “Shot By Both Sides” Magazine are trying to punch out of the same fishbowl, that teetering rising riff making a Truman Show getaway to find another game outside, played by even more alien rules, and in the most frightening twist of all turns out the other game is the real world after all. Even the postmen used to be in punk bands! The playlist is at panic pitch here as post-punk in Britain melts down and freezes up at the same time. It can’t hold – can it?
It can’t. The Cramps – not British – sound blessedly relaxed, spacious and campy on “Human Fly”, Lux Interior vamps and buzzes comically, the band keep it steady. “I just…dunno why”, he murmurs, shrugging off the horror of motive that was getting the Brit bands in such a tizzy.
Never heard The Misfits before! I like “Night Of The Living Dead”, again it sounds relaxed – like Scott Plagenhoef says in the book blurb, too catchy to really menace and all the better for it.
Glenn Danzig’s voice is a beefy bellow, Colin Newman’s on “Outdoor Miner” is a tease but they’re both having fun: here are some Brits who resolved their contradictions a good while back and are now just playing oblique games, hopscotching several steps forward into an art-pop charm that everyone else is just too intense to grok. [Wire]
Ian Curtis, for instance, though on “Disorder” the rest of Joy Division are positively poptastic, playing the kind of flexible, hook-laden music they’d end up making after Ian. Which makes Curtis’ tight focus on his metaphysical struggle more compelling, not less – he sounds cut off from the band, though for me the song loses some grip when Curtis suddenly turns operatic on us – “I got the spirit! But lose the feeling!”