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Jan 05

THE FT TOP 100 SONGS 91. Ike And Tina Turner – “River Deep, Mountain High”

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91. Ike And Tina Turner – “River Deep, Mountain High”

At the time, notoriously one of the biggest records ever made. But if there’s one thing the recording industry has worked at since 1966, it’s making its product sound larger. “River Deep” still makes the effort but next to the casual compression on every radio it’s a losing struggle.

But cathedrals aren’t the biggest buildings around these days, either, and it doesn’t make their intricacy and ambition less impressive. There’s detail and passion in the bluster of “River Deep”, even if those things weren’t top of Phil Spector’s mind (or Ike’s or Tina’s) at the time. The scale makes a kind of sense of the song too, the transition from dolls and puppies to the all-or-nothing crash of the chorus drawing some of the sentimental sting. Even so there’s something a little creepy, a little hysterical about the record – as close to tantrum as it is adoration.

Side note: my notebook doesn’t actually say “Ike And Tina Turner”. It says, naturally, “Pike And Tuna Turner”. This was the punchline to the joke in a quiz we did. The rest of the joke is lost. In fact the rest of the joke has to be lost, since, given the answer “Pike And Tuna Turner”, it is very very hard to construct a question which keeps the element of surprise. “Who recorded River Deep, Mountain High… in a river?” Which soul singers… are actually… fish?”


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Thankyou for your many comments on the thorny question of whether Nena’s German original “99 Luftballons” is better than “99 Red Balloons”. We have fed the two records, your commentary, and any other relevant data into our infallible Poptimizer (see below) and can now publish its results.

LANGUAGE: As the recent success of Schnappi Der Krokodil proves, German is a formidable pop language, also one with a certain amount of novelty value (and dare we suggest snob value) for the English speaker. Several comments noted with approval the “angular” rhythms of German speech – certainly to the non-native it seems a good language for conveying urgency and avoiding whimsy. Is that what the song requires?

GENRE: Frank Kogan noted that “Luftballons” is a ‘new wave’ rather than a ‘europop’ song. But is “Red Balloons” europop? One might argue that the halting English presses the right buttons for many listeners. Also that the slightly twee English title, and the linguistic infelicities, actually subvert Nena’s neue welle style and make her into a more generic ‘kooky’ performer, pushing “Red Balloons” into the novelty hit market where much Europop plies its trade off-continent. So here is another point of division.

So far we see things dividing quite clearly. The German version is urgent new wave, the English version a girlish Europop novelty. Which of these is better? To decide that we must consider the song itself.

LYRICS: Of course it’s hard to properly assess the German lyrics, as an English speaker. But the actual story doesn’t vary between versions. Nena and her friend buy some balloons, which set off World War III thanks to the trigger-happy military, after which Nena finds a solitary balloon, all that is left in her ruined city. The main difference is that in the English version the balloons are red – which actually helps, in that it’s the colour of danger and Sovietness.

Now nuclear war is a serious subject and one which the German music scene might understandably have dwelt on. I was once in a car with a German who enthused over Fischer Z, massive in West Germany in the 80s due to their cold war obsessions. “99 Luftballons” would have fitted right in. But it’s a parable more than anything else, the story is pointed whimsy but whimsy nonetheless. For that reason lines and phrases like “hurry hurry super scurry”, “standing pretty”, “little toyshop” create and hold the mood very effectively.

So – the verdict? Her native language probably suits Nena’s voice and image better. But the childlike naif act of the English translation and performance is a better fit for the tragic tale of the balloons. It’s a very close call but the Poptimizer’s final verdict must be a win for English. Gloria not upheld.

(Check back for another Gloria later this week – or suggest your own examples…)

Jan 05


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Human After All

Yes, it’s hardly out yet or anything, but after the leak on Monday I witnessed what had to be one of the most intense fracturings of opinion over a long-expected album in a while. To pick just one example, the ILM thread is only just slowing down after a week where comments ranged from “so. fucking. amazing.” to “cheated and pissed off,” and tempers were running high. There is no consensus at all about this album, and already there’s a classic out of nowhere rumor that Virgin might just cancel the release due to some of the more virulent reaction. Be funny as heck if it turned out to be true!

What all sides are agreeing on is that this is not simply Discovery redux. If there’s a vague model of reaction that can be applied, it’s that those who adored that album are feeling wretched about this one, while those who felt that Discovery had moments but wasn’t a pinnacle of life and existence (or even that it didn’t have moments) really enjoy Human After All. It’s not an exact reaction but it’s an understandable one, because where the earlier album was sparkly and lush, this is far more minimal and to the point, obsessively focused (to a fault, some might say). Lead single “Robot Rock” is the only thing like it on the album in terms of sound, a monsterrifffest that’s already my own heavy metal single of the year, while elsewhere there’s a fair amount of industrial glowering via songs like “Steam Machine” (identifying it as an NIN pastiche is spot on, just without Trent R’s vocals) and “The Brainwasher.”

Yet for all that there’s warmth — like Kid A, I’d say this is an album that is seen as colder and less, dare I say, ‘human’ than it really is, and while DP clearly are playing with audience expectation in the album title, it’s a wise choice on several levels. Three key tracks make up the start, middle and end of the album — the title cut, “Make Love” and “Emotion.” All three play a certain card of feeling with their titles and then proceed to live up to it with, respectively, an uplifting vocoder chorus, a gentle motorik kick that I think outdoes recent Air handily and a part-way-to-blissout hook.

So yeah, I like it, I like a lot and I’ve already heard it several times through. We’ll see if it sticks but if this was a mistake, I’m all for more of them being committed. But people haven’t heard the last of this yet.

Jan 05

SCOOTER – “Shake That!”

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SCOOTER – “Shake That!”

There is a very common trope in science fiction whereby a society of the future has evolved curious and inexplicable customs which turn out to have – oh irony – been based on misunderstandings of our own contemporary tat. I have seen the sacred oracle and OMG IT’S AN OLD RADIO!!! Hearing Sheffield Dave cry “I am a junglist man!” with the protestant fervour of a heretic at the stake you suspect that some similar process has created Scooter – this is not a definition of ‘junglism’ that Optical or Dillinja would rally round.

To the basic cult objects of Scooterism – a KLF record; a ’93 Simon Reynolds cutting; a glowstick – has been added a new relic, namely an old Stretch and Vern single. Pop success has gone to Scooter’s head and this superb single – which came out last year and I disgracefully missed – is the warped outcome. It is Scooter making an upfront handbag record, viz some boshing mid-90s pop-house with Sheffield Dave shouting things like “turn it on like killer bees!” on top. In a fairly crowded field it may be the oddest thing Scooter have ever done, especially when the tap-dancing bit comes in. Towards the end Dave yells “LIFE WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE IS DEATH IN DISGUISE” and it’s utterly exciting and even rather profound.

Disco! Disco! DIS-DIS-DISCO!

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Disco! Disco! DIS-DIS-DISCO!

Told you it would be a good one.

My head is a little bit sore today so I may not get around to firing up The Poptimizer in order for it to take its Nena decision.

Here’s a question, though. What is the most danceable REM song?

Jan 05


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A new NYLPM feature – will it get as far as its third entry? You decide! Well, no, I decide probably.

A few years ago I was reading a comic called Starman. The hero of Starman is, frankly, a big nerd. This particular issue had him talking about “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” to another character. “Of course,” he added, “The Valentine Brothers version”.

This kind of flagrant knowledge drop is something we’ve all done – and file-sharing now means that ANYONE can do it, so it doesn’t even have the tang of expertise any more! Spreading knowledge is a Good Thing but the question has to be asked – is the knowledge right? Not factually right but, you know, right right.

I’ve called this particular rhetorical move a ‘Gloria’ after its most common manifestation. “Tainted Love? (pause) Of course the Gloria Jones version is better.” Here’s how this will work – we will post a Gloria and allow a dignified day or so for comments before the Freaky Trigger Science Factopinion is deployed to answer it. I reckon Glorias are about half correct, but we’ll see. Of course at some point we’ll consider the real actual original Gloria, but for now let us begin with this:

“99 Red Balloons? The German original is much better.”

Nice and simple, no? But is our straw friend right or wrong? Over to you (until tomorrow)…

Seelenluft-The Way We Go

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Seelenluft-The Way We Go

It’s worth noting (and a real shame) that distribution problems have meant this record flew undetected past the radar last year. It’s probably my number 1 album of 2004. So it’s only an undiscovered classic cos it never had a decent chance of being discovered. Rumour has it most of them are still stuck in a factory somewhere.

Like alot of 2004 records, The Way We Go is a sort of “super-pop”, existing in that space somewhere between disco-punk, electroclash, and rock music, which seems to drip with sex and glamour. It’s perhaps comparable to Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever.It’s also the sort of record that makes you invent genre names. For instance, I like to call “Mes Amis” acid-pop. And “Strings Of Silvercity” is like an electroclash sea shanty. The vocals throughout are absolutely bubblegum, seldom big but always clever.

The Way We Go is hyper-sophisticated but at the same time kooky, it’s super-sexy and fashionable but also vulnerable and wistful. In an alternate universe the entire world dances to this music! In this sense there’s a real Wizard of Oz feel to the whole thing, was “Silvercity” in Wizard of Oz? If so that makes alot of sense! Anyway, what’s more important is that as far as verse/chorus song based music goes (and in this case very very far, for once) this is one of the freshest, sexiest, coolest and downright best albums I think I’ve ever heard. If you have ever used the phrase dream-pop………………well then you know to go and buy this!

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THE FT TOP 100 SONGS 92. Girls Aloud – “Love Machine”

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92. Girls Aloud – “Love Machine”

There is one good thing, and one good thing only, about indie zine The Fly. It is free, and handily available for homeward bound tube reading from Victoria HMV.

This month is the first of a new year, and a new year means New Music which only The Fly can ‘turn you on’ to. So the magazine asked some of the movers and shakers on the scene to give their tips for the sound of ’05.

Well their replies were various, yes various, but they all had one thing in common. They all sounded the same. You mean they all sounded similar? No, they –

– ah, hold on, wrong entry.

One of the Fly’s interviewees had something interesting to say, though. “I think rockabilly will be back this year,” said the programme director of XFM. Or maybe it was the publicist for the Kaiser Chiefs. Or the guitarist for Kasabian.

“I think rockabilly will be back this year, but with some electronic sounds, so it’s not just a retro thing.”

And I thought, hold on, that sounds familiar…

Jan 05

THE FT TOP 100 SONGS 93. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers – “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”

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93. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers – “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”

Cis says:

I loved doo-wop when I was little. The black-and-white photographs on record covers, smiling boys in ill-fitting suits, close harmonies and bubblegum and soda floats and school hall dances and all those things that only existed in made-for-tv movies set in the fifties. My dad taught me to jive, in the living room, trying not to make the record skip, a few rudimentary moves that I never quite got right.

‘Why do fools fall in love’ does a pretty good impression of being doo-wop, but it’s not really – it can’t be, because after the bouncing bass lead-in and the open-vowel blast of backing vocal, Frankie Lymon bursts in and takes everything over. You can almost imagine the recording: one mike, maybe two, and the rest of the group have been shunted right to the back of the room so their harmonies only drift forward when Lymon’s treble yell tires itself out.

I don’t remember how to jive, but my body thinks it does: some songs, there’s this twitching, this demand.

And then Jimmy Wright’s sax blurts up from somewhere, and it’s a contest between boy and reed for who can be the rawest, the loudest, the most absurdly fun, the most catchy, and this song was never about falling in love, always about making people move. The swing beat shuffles, the double-bass jumps and loops – whyy does my he-aart skip a cra-a-zy-y beat, sings Lymon, and it sure don’t sound like a question.

Birds sing, rain falls, fools fall in love. So what? We should be dancing.

OK Listen Up

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OK Listen Up

There are only TWO days to go until Club Freaky Trigger’s special 00s night. This will be one of the best Club FTs ever and you are strongly recommended to come. It is, as usual, at the Chapel Bar in Islington. Fingers crossed we will have the guest DJing services of the mighty TIM FINNEY playing his only UK date (ahem).

But wait there’s more! On the 10th we’ll be guest DJing at Nambucca at the fantastic ‘Hit Or Miss’ night, which promises “soul, funk, surprises”. We’re bringing the “surprises”, eek. We’ve looked at their flyer playlist though and it would appear that they play all the soul, funk and old school hip-hop that you know and love and would really really enjoy dancing to – this is clearly not some obscurantist’s night out, it has the official Poptimist seal of approval. So come along to that too and help us get invited back.