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: A series of post-punk splinters, conceptual artists make good, and the birth of New Pop
Time to check back in with Kraftwerk: the striking thing about “Numbers” is how small all its sounds are, pinched thin beats and rippling keybs, termite noise of the coming technological revolution. As components shrink so too do sounds – after the maximalist sweep of “Trans-Europe Express” Kraftwerk here is the micromusic of international digitisation, circuit boards exposed before the gleaming synths of “Computer World 2” roll in to put the casing in place. And these computers are communicating – different languages trading numbers like the Funky Four traded lines: stiff and limited now but oh, just you wait!
So that’s one thing you could do with Kraftwerk: you could also hijack the express, switch the points and ride the track to “Planet Rock”. “I don’t think we’re in Europe any more”: “Planet Rock” is iconic but still exciting because it hasn’t worked out nearly all its ideas yet – the Soul Sonic Force don’t know exactly what’s going to work over these laserbeam beats so they try a bit of chat, a bit of chant. The track ends up best when they say nothing at all, its funk and force suggestive enough by themselves.
You could almost say the same of “The Message” which gets its point across with those nervous, silvery rising and falling notes and skeleton drum-and-bass grid: the mix I have here is the shortened single version, which spoils the build-up to the last verse (“A child is born with no state of mind!”) though the verse itself is no less powerful in its compact bleakness. [Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five]
From one take on New York life to another – much of the menace and jostle and hope of “The Message” is also in Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No.1 for Electric Guitar”. The Branca records I know (Ascension and another one of the Symphonies) are soupier and scarier than this, which doesn’t just anticipate noise-rock like the write-up says but also 00s big-music trance indie: that moment when the bass and drums come in is pure Arcade Fire – except better, for my money, more universal in its surging ambiguous optimism. I wonder if people danced when this was performed? They surely would now.
I am fairly sure they did not dance to “O Superman”. Which is brilliant, of course. Nitsuh is (yes!) OTM in his write-up as to how warmly and easily the time passes when you’re listening to it. There are points when it just sounds like goofing around, points when it sounds like poetry, and slivers of moments when it sounds like it’s folded all of history since into itself: no surprise that this song was referenced so much in the shocked days after 9/11. “And I said OK…who is this really?”: as much as any song on the list “O Superman” is a demonstration of the incredible possibilities of pop after the late 70s had cracked and reassembled it. Laurie thinks it’s Mom on the phone. Who is it really? Turns out it’s still Mom. We see this in the singles chart and we think it’s pop. What is it really? Still pop. Pop is like the Buddha’s hand in Monkey Magic – you can leap as far as you want away from it and you’re still in it. “Hi Mom.” Hi Pop. [Laurie Anderson]
“Atmosphere” feels as close to an open hand as Joy Division let themselves offer – “there’s talking…life rebuilding…don’t walk away”, and that rainfall of synthesiser chords. A glimpse of warmth and beauty, carried along on that soft rhythm like ice cracking as it thaws. And then the shutters come down again, Curtis lashes out in stiff anger: “People like YOU find it easy…” – guitars scar the synthesiser patterns, the moment passes. Their best song in this incarnation.
“Totally Wired” offers a complete and necessary break, fizzing with stubborn life. Contra Douglas Wolk’s write up, I don’t think it’s The Fall’s most crazed single, but in a funny way it’s their poppiest: probably testament to how quietly influential their spit-and-sawdust methods have been. The Arctic Monkeys got to #1 – and they aren’t SO different from what’s happening here.
“Beyond Belief” finds Elvis Costello as verbally rich as Mark E Smith, but Elv’s contortions don’t feel as liberating; he sounds like he’s tying himself in knots trying to express something (or someone) impossible, the stream of puns and wordplay disguising the real riddle at the centre of the song – as he accelerates into the first ‘chorus’ you can hardly hear what he’s singing.
More avoidance on “Back On The Chain Gang”, another band in this rewarding stretch represented by their best song: here The Pretenders are playing to pay a kind of tribute to fallen colleagues (though as Matos says in his review, it doesn’t matter that you know this), Hynde singing with her typical cracked diffidence, the band doing their best to enjoy their work-gang vamps. The song is a lovely reproach: you’re gone, we keep on keeping on, what option is there?
“Your Own Private Idaho” is a B-52s song I don’t know. On first hearing it sounds like, well, a B-52s song: I like what they do at lot, I don’t ever find myself itching to hear more than one track by them in a row. I love the sound of all their voices. Nitsuh’s right (yes, again) that there’s a creepiness in the drive here and it makes me think of Charles Burns’ Black Hole (same curdled B-movie vibe).
Kevin Rowland fits in here because, what, he’s as much of a demented ranter as Fred Schneider is? Fair enough, but while Scheider is creating his own trashworld to escape from or lure in the squares, Rowland is forever agonised by the compromises and collaborations living in the real one entails – especially if you’re making music in it in a scene where certainty has been exploded. He knows he’s ridiculous, of course he is, the song piles flamebait on top of itself in a kind of sincerity potlatch – the trilled and rolled Rs, the “young soul rebels” section, that closing “everything I do is going to be funky”…. Here’s how far I’m willing to go to express myself. Beat that. [Dexys Midnight Runners]
Oh fuck, I was finishing that and “Final Day” came and went. This is probably a fair reflection of what would actually happen in an apocalypse – I’d be doing the washing up or something and not realise it was taking place until I was dead. [Young Marble Giants]
“Happy Birthday” is one kind of New Pop quintessence – kids playing pop, kids playing AT pop, young adults playing at being kids and in love with pop again. Listen – it fizzes! What makes it is the xylophone percussion, which takes you right out of any residual punkiness: yes, it says, it’s time to be pretty again. [Altered Images]
I wrote about “Ghost Town” too recently to have anything more to say on it – this is the extended version with more dubby waste ground (lonesome but too drawn-out) and those descending keyboard runs (effectively thin and eerie). [The Specials]
“Shipbuilding” makes “Ghost Town” sound callow. Which it is – that’s kind of its power: part of you wants to be in that speeding car, flinging that wheel from side to side. Nobody wants to be in “Shipbuilding”, for all that its useless dignity is more sympathetic. It is a really, REALLY good record. [Robert Wyatt]
The opening of “Third Uncle” is a bit like the Human League’s “The Lebanon”! The book makes a case that Bauhaus are a maligned and underrated band, mocked for being gothicals whereas actually they were awesome, but this – admittedly fierce – Eno cover doesn’t weigh much as evidence in my opinion. Its guitars are smouldering, but dude we’re only a half-dozen songs away from Branca! And yes Peter Murphy sounds bug-eyed, but ditto Fred Schneider. A victim of sequencing maybe but the band still sound second-division to me.
Another one I wrote about! Adam Ant’s “Kings Of The Wild Frontier” – I can see why they put it in after Bauhaus, it accentuates Adam’s primitivism and Bauhaus’ theatricality. But obviously I like this a lot better, though it’s only my fifth or sixth favourite ant-hit. In my original write-up I suggested that Adam Ant’s native American posturing (“I feel beneath the white there is a red skin suffering from centuries of taming”) was a little naff – this didn’t survive the edit, possibly because it’s simply too thorny and sizeable a topic to address in a 200-word review. It’s the whole text of the song though – “down below those dandy clothes you’re just a shade too white”. Naïve to believe this wasn’t an anxiety in post-punk as it shaded more and more into funk and new pop – Adam, with typical bluntness, got straight to the point.
Douglas Wolk makes the excellent point that everything in Scritti Politti’s “The Sweetest Girl” is dress-up, a quotation. This is another song I love endlessly and find it hard to say anything about (so thankyou Douglas for doing such a good job) – try and dig into its layers and you end up sounding like a bit of a fanny, because Green’s achievement is to bring a skeleton of potential theory to such beating longing life. My favourite bit: “The sickest group in all the world – how could they do this to me?”. I am not sure that sickest meant then what it does now, though.
The next two songs are “Don’t You Want Me” and “Tainted Love” – we are now firmly in the glamorous embrace of New Pop and of course I’ve written about both very recently too: can I pick up anything new this time? Well, Susanne Sulley’s awkwardness in “Don’t You Want Me” sounds appropriate – she’s having to sing the guy’s tune one more time, after all, and it’s interesting that the song actually ISN’T much of a duet – Sulley just walks out on it after her verse leaving Oakey singing to himself. As for “Tainted Love”…..nope, sorry. Great record, though. And I’ll leave it there since the next one really does demand some fresh ears. [Human League, Soft Cell]