A quick recap!

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 looks at what the world of rock was up to when punk hit, and splits the difference with a trip into New Wave.

Machine’s “There But For The Grace Of God” – one of the fiercest songs selected so far – is an argument for the validity of an alternative identity in the face of conformity, and also suggests that such identities are born as much as made – the girl’s “a natural freak”. Alt.ness played as identity politics can be inspiring or infuriating: Machine win because they sing the joy of difference in every busy bar of their record.

Of course natural freaks can be sold as such: Kate Bush’s eccentricity pampered and hothoused by her EMI guardians until it bears gorgeous flower in the writhing “Wuthering Heights”. As I tried to get over in my fevered review of it for Popular, what’s striking about this record is how much it pushes, Kate willing herself into the story. In the book Mark Richardson picks up on this too, commenting on the frightening immersion the song evokes: “Heights”’ inheritors are hardly pop at all – they’re the intense fictions of deep fandom, identity as a kind of possession.

Or it could be that she’s just a great big GOTH. The sequencing of “Heights” and Goblin’s “Suspiria” is inspired – “Suspiria” opens as a black-blooming nursery fantasia, whispering voices on the edge of a child’s nightmares, before the synths pound in and the track turns into some kind of gothic space porno: Moroder gone steampunk. I have never heard this ridiculous and marvellous record before, which makes it the first unknown track to have won me over completely. The music boxy sections remind me of Black Widow’s terrific “Come To The Sabbat” (“Satan’s there!”): it treads that same borderland where the cartoonish suddenly becomes honestly creepy.

“Don’t Fear The Reaper” accesses the same high-strung intensity of teenage being that “Wuthering Heights” does (“The curtains flew and then he appeared”!), and uses a Goblin-style mantra-freakout-mantra structure to summon it to extinction. I don’t think I’ve ever listened closely to this before – of course I “know” it, like anybody else does – but up close in a cold house it’s impressively witchy. [Blue Oyster Cult]

As for AC/DC, I’ve spent a bit of time this year listening to their newest record – especially “Rock N Roll Train” and wishing I’d paid a bit more attention to it before year-end list time. My main memory of AC/DC is Ian Williams and Mark Thorne passing “Big Balls” round on a walkman at the back of the bus on a school trip when I was about 9 so I’d always had a slightly sneery post-boyhood attitude to the band. Silly me. I get the impression they’ve been making the same record for their entire career, which is terrific if true: the point of “Highway To Hell” is very much the “Highway” bit not the “Hell” bit – when they get there they’ll just pour Satan a beer and move on. (Tom Breihan says much the same in the write-up, but he has lots of really good points about the metronomic music the band use to get where they’re going.)

More rock: Van Halen’s “Running With The Devil” isn’t a song I know and – I dunno – I was expecting a bit more from it. The solos are gorgeous and I could listen to lots more of them (beware of what you wish for, etc), the rest of it seems really earthbound in comparison. Jogging with the devil more like. It doesn’t outstay its welcome at least.

Fleetwood Mac takes us even more squarely into classic rock territory – I get the impression that while the writers’ love for this stuff is wholly genuine they’re not quite sure how to approach it critically: in a sense the book is a conscious claim-stake on behalf of a current critical generation, and this particular stretch of waterfront was well patrolled by the elders. On the other hand as a Brit my reaction to “The Chain” is wholly coloured by the fact that its bass-driven second section has been used for donkeys’ years as the BBC’s motor racing theme, so I am completely unable to think of the record in any other context. It’s about what, you say? Romantic entanglement? Not, say, wet weather tires? If you insist.

“Suspension of disgust” is Chris Dahlen’s great phrase to describe Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”: the way the band seduces you into enjoying their snaky pen-portrait of a California decadent by playing on your knowledge that they know the guy is a dick, but they also know, and you know they know, and they know you know it too, that he’s having an amazing time. There’s a formidable, unflinching adultness about Steely Dan – especially late Steely Dan – which shouldn’t be overrated as it sacrifices a lot of what I’m attracted to in pop, but is immensely impressive nonetheless.

On the other hand, when “Deacon Blues” finishes, you’re ready for the garish vulgarity of ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”. “Predicting 21st century indie pop” is surely the absolute least of this song’s charms: like many Jeff Lynne tracks it sounds more like it’s trying doggedly to finish a project started ten years before and gradually abandoned as unrealistic and a little gauche. Its presence in the Pitchfork 500 reminds me of that scene in Watchmen where Captain Metropolis unveils his crime map to a sardonic new generation of superheroes. (Lou Reed = The Comedian, Ralf Hutter = Dr Manhattan, and I’ll let you work out who Rorschach is.) But if it’s a folly it’s a gorgeous one right to its sad-robot finish.

This website regularly gets comments from Peter Perrett fans incensed by the fact that Pete B’s write-up of “Another Girl Another Planet” suggests that i. None of their other records are much good and ii. The song is better if you think it’s actually about space not drugs. Haven’t tested the former proposition, and the second is surely true of ANY song. All of which is to dodge around the fact that this song sounds a bit played out to me now, though undeniably its tune is gorgeous, and the way Perrett sings it as if he bears its beauty a grudge makes it more memorable. [The Only Ones]

Similarly, “Teenage Kicks”. It’s brilliant. Erm. Sorry. I used the time wisely, honestly. [The Undertones]

Plastic Bertrand, on the other hand! It is so awesome how everything in this song basically plays the same note throughout EXCEPT the oo-oo-wee-oo hook. And the greasy rock’n’roll solo at the end makes me think of when I went to Belgium and we met a guy who called himself “the first punk in Brussels” and played air guitar on a bar stool. We talked about Subway Sect with him.

The Records – “Starry Eyes”: oh, THAT’s what this song is. This was a favourite revival of Mark Radcliffe on his Radio 1 show, along with “Suffice To Say” by The Yachts. I maintain a principled dislike of power pop until I actually listen to any, whereupon I nearly always enjoy it, which probably makes me a bit of a dick. It’s a great genre to visit but I wouldn’t like to live there, let’s put it that way. “Starry Eyes”’ write-up mentions the tendency to think of these records as “should’ve-been smashes”, which in this case I think is fair enough.

Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” – there is a great bit on the first series of Lollards where Alex T unpicks this record, which is one of those songs which seems to vocalise a stance or a feeling that you can’t quite put into words. (“Creeped out” from the write-up is a good summary of it.) “Surrender” has one of my favourite choruses ever, I think, and the splenetic backing vox on the fade out – “Bunny’s alRIGHT! Rick’s alRIGHT! WE’RE ALL ALRIGHT” – maybe my favourite new wave moment.

After which “Just What I Needed” sounds a bit hollow – possibly I’m just getting cheesed off with this new wave section. I am weirdly unfamiliar with The Cars except for “Drive” (of course) though I can see why this did become a big hit, and I can also see how Brandon Flowers gets away with his absurd vocals.

“Radio Radio” gets me back on track, though it’s one of Elvis Costello’s least interesting hits, beyond that belting organ line. It’s just a whinge against radio programming policies, and a weirdly timed one too given that the British charts in 1978-1979 were about as interesting as they would ever be. (Though maybe radio wasn’t exactly reflecting this.) It’s a rollicking hit single but it doesn’t have the elements of self-disgust, or the mix of the personal and political that make his best pop stuff so riveting.

I’ve made great play of disliking The Cure but initially they were a very good singles band, Bob Smith’s voice still an instrument rather than a schtick. Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent write up of “Boys Don’t Cry” manages to nail the band’s appeal (their mastery of liminal emotional states) in ways that should intrigue even someone who finds them infuriating.