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: Hip hop! Hip hop! Hip hop! Plus a smattering of post-punk and post-disco, and a listening session is rudely curtailed.

Linking Nigel’s straitjacketed lack of options in “Making Plans For Nigel” with XTC’s own ‘tendency to retreat’ is cute but a little unfair: dropping out of the touring grind was a more rebellious (or at least perverse) act than the band are being given credit for. Anyway the power of “Nigel” is the way the song refuses to break into any kind of liberating chorus or climax – it just keeps returning to the grindstone. It might have been their biggest hit but it’s a very odd hit: a record about boredom which manages to be captivating without actually sacrificing that boredom at any point.

“Atomic” is just as mechanical musically but it’s all play and delight thanks to Debbie Harry. I wrote about it recently enough for Popular that I’m not sure I can add a lot to that, except to say – yes, shrewd choice by the editors picking this over a more renowned track. The way those keyboards create little rhythmic ripples under the main guitar/drum track…just gorgeous. [Blondie]

“Memories Can’t Wait”, on the other hand, is a weird pick, though continues the robo-rhythm strand from Nigel. I love the sudden tape-sped-up treatments on David Byrne’s voice but this track’s always seemed the sludgiest, least essential (and least funny!) thing on Fear Of Music to me, doing something the band pull off better on “Drugs”. I guess it’s impressively queasy. [Talking Heads]

That’s actually the end of the book’s “Chapter 1: 1977-1979”. So a jump to 1980, and the arrival of hip-hop with Curtis Blow’s “The Breaks”. As the book points out, this is as much a funk/disco workout as a hip-hop single – Blow is MCing the track in the truest sense, dropping in and out when he feels the party needs a kick, and the live band (particularly the drummer) are having as much fun. The constant “breakdown!” shifts in mood are an invitation to join in, dance, become part of the crew. While a new chapter means a new playlist, you couldn’t get much more of a contrast to Byrne’s shut-in tension. Here, troubles are something to be shrugged, danced and spun off, made into jovial one-liners.

There are those ubiquitous background party sounds in “Monster Jam” too, but they’re spurring Spoonie Gee and Sequence on – there’s even a whistle to signal the start of each “round” of their lovers’ bout! So the focus is completely on the rappers, who earn it – not because of their rhymes, but they have flows you can sink into, Spoonie in particular hits that pleasure zone where the sound of the MCs voice is enough and you feel he could chat forever. The third verse – where Andie B introduces matters – is where the girls give as good as they get, crowding Spoonie out. By the fourth he’s back on form and they have to join forces again to get any traction. Meanwhile the band keep it funky on the chorus, moody and candlelit on the verses. Tom Breihan in the write-up makes a canny point about how much Sugarhill’s template for rap changed the nascent-genre – but without that marvellous detour, how much might pop have lost?

“We’re gonna turn this mother sucker out!” More party noises, more interplay, more good-natured goofiness: Sugarhill’s “8th Wonder” is the weakest old school track showcased so far. Not that it’s bad or anything, but I dunno if it’s doing much that “Rappers Delight”, “Monster Jam”, “The Breaks” etc. weren’t. Also, the Gang are more strident MCs than Blow or Gee – each sounds like he’s bustling their way to the front every verse. On “Rapper’s Delight” that gives them a completely fresh urgency, but on “8th Wonder” it gets a bit exhausting. The best sequences are when they aren’t rapping at all, just giving it some “ha-ha-ha” and “woo-woo” and whistling: that’s when they actually sound like a gang.

With an audience building for this stuff, “New Rap Language” brings dexterity and technique upfront. No party noises here, and way lower-key backing: this is pure MCing, Spoonie Gee sounds a different guy here than on “Monster Jam”. It’s a high-wire relay race, privileging speed over communication, and also a gesture towards the minimalism in production that occasionally bubbles up to refresh hip-hop. “New Rap Language” is as exhausting to listen to as “8th Wonder”, but there’s a stern, steely tension in it that keeps you tuned in – none of the pleasant drift of “Monster Jam”. It’s gripping, but there’s actually something a bit joyless about it – it sounds like it was viscerally satisfying to actually do but it’s also really abstract: form beating out function. This way lies DJ Premier, Co Flow, “backpacker” rap, etc. I guess. [Treacherous Three]

Breihan’s point about Sugarhill is that the party gang image of early hip-hop was a way to draw fire away from the music’s real gang roots and affiliations. With The Clash, the gang image was a romantic form of branding – a way of gesturing that the bond between band and fans was stronger than simply something the ‘biz’ might generate. No surprise the group latched onto hip-hop style early, on “The Magnificent Seven”. It’s a shame this wasn’t a proper posse cut – Mick Jones is no worse an MC than Joe Strummer is (if BAD’s records are anything to go by), and his drawlier style might have stopped Strummer running out of steam. Mind you, Joe doesn’t do a bad job – he’s better than Debbie Harry at it, though has the same “if it’s rap it must be gibberish” outlook. The groove of “Magnificent Seven” is what breaks it out of ‘historical curio’ though.

Talking Heads for the third time with “Born Under Punches”, and the first record in the book I wrote about. Of course, I didn’t know what it would be following, so on this listen the glitch-hop element of the track is more striking to me than the African bits. If the idea is to show how open-minded and sparky New York (where all these records were recorded) was at the turn of the 80s, this section is doing a bang-up job. The part of the track I singled out – Adrian Belew’s broken-signal guitar solo – is still the crux of it for me. Well, that or Byrne screaming “I’M CATCHING UP WITH MYSELF!”.

In the write-up of “Walking On Thin Ice”, Matos praises the record as a combo of underground devices with “studio-cat slickness”, which nails it for me: its slipperiness is seductive but uneasy, choppy – slickness becoming sickness. Yoko’s vocal line is extraordinary, too, not for its shrieks or retches or its melody but for its cadences: lines cracked open by unexpected pauses – laying a tradition for imperiously damaged pop singing from Bjork to the Knife. (And it’s a bit like Altered Images too). Of course it’s impossible to imagine how “Walking” would have registered if Lennon hadn’t been killed and plunged the track into the permafrost of context – just as it’s impossible to imagine “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as, say, the beginning of a series of miserably domestic songs for a third Joy Division album.

Klein and MBO’s “Dirty Talk” signals a real change in mood – the vocal’s what makes this: shrill and passionate and not so strong as to overwhelm the (kind of flimsy) music. As with a lot of Italo, I find it more charming than compelling – a little too floaty and distanced, not enough muscle or filth. But when ‘charming’ gets as charming as the “DIRR-TY TALK” versus giggling outro, I can hardly complain.

ESG’s “Moody” is a wisp of moodiness and atmosphere, a brilliant miniature of a song, a scribbled sidenote to disco: “I have the proof of a marvellous new genre but the space in this margin does not permit…”

So turn the margin into the page, the doodle into the picture, like Grandmaster Flash does on “The Adventures Of”, joining every dot he can find. Even when you’ve heard this a hundred times you can still be ambushed – “Grandmaster! Cut faster!”, Flash’s scratch-bounded collages sounding like he’s rubbing through records, finding new pictures and layers beneath the stately passage of that Chic bassline, like archaeology or lottery scratchcards. And I love how at 5 minutes it does resolve into a party jam, as Flash comes home from his voyagings and his people are so pleased to see him.

Flash leaves the stage, the party goes on: the Funky Four Plus One’s juggling act is just as impressive as his, perhaps more so cos it needs four voices bouncing off each other, never dropping a verbal catch. The group verses are hotter than the individual ones for this reason – after a while I reach my limit of joie de vivre and the rhymes start slipping into babble. In fact the honest truth is I fell asleep during this record so it seems a good (if enforced) place to stop this session: sorry Funky Four.