Week Twenty Two: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

I’ve got quite a few Richard Thompson albums as it happens. Years ago, two different friends decided that I really had to hear his 1999 album, Mock Tudor and bought me copies for Xmas, back in those dim and distant days when people bought records as presents. And they were both right – it was a record that clicked with me.

From there, I went on and got copies of a number of his other 1990s records, including Mirror Blue, You? Me? Us? And Rumour and Sigh. I’d recommend all of them (probably Mirror Blue most of all), but at some point I think I must have decided that I’d heard as many Richard Thompson albums as I needed to and I’ve never investigated his back catalogue any further. Specifically, I’d never heard any of the records he made with his then wife in the 1970s that made his name as a solo artist after he’d left Fairport Convention.

There are an awful lot of bands where the received wisdom, at least, is that their first few albums represent their best work and thereafter, they merely produce less and less interesting copies of their earlier work (or copies of the copies, like a sort of metaphorical version of that Alvin Lucier record that featured a couple of weeks back). To pick an especially obvious example, who exactly really wanted to hear the fifth Oasis album? (actually, I could quite happily live without ever hearing the second Oasis album again, but that’s a rant for another time).

But the experience of listening to I Want to see the Bright Lights Tonight made me wonder if this idea of artists going into a decline and repeating themselves is, at least sometimes, an artefact of the order in which we hear those records. Because, whisper it, it sounded to me an awful lot like a less interesting version of those 1990s Richard Thompson albums  I got into back at the beginning of the 2000s. In part it might simply be that many acts have a ‘sound’ and most of us only need to hear so many examples of that sound.

This record sounded ok to me, and the best tracks rather better than that, but it all sounded like a weaker version of the material I’d heard on the later solo records that I happened to hear first.  Although if I’m honest, some of my indifference to it stems from the fact that, for reasons I can’t quite put a finger on, I didn’t warm to Linda Thompson’s voice.

Tracks like Has He Got a Friend For Me and We Sing Hallelujah sounded just a little too close to All Around My Hat for comfort. While I quite like a lot of folk rock, for me it just works better when its slow and in a minor key (although that’s an oversimplification – I love this, for example), rather than sounding like the sound track to some kind of barn dance with electric guitars thrown in.

But I don’t want to be too harsh on this record. The title track is just a really good song about wanting to go out on the town that makes me wonder if my problem is not so much with Linda Thompson’s voice as with the fact that I’m not all that taken with some of the other stuff she’s singing.

For me, though, the best couple of tracks both put Richard Thompson centre-stage. The Calvary Cross begins with some interesting guitar noodling which suggests Mr Thompson likes his unusual tunings, before launching into a rather cryptic sounding song that might be about betrayal which put me not a little in mind of The National at their best – though I don’t imagine the members of the National had even been born when it was recorded.

And The End of the Rainbow is one of the better illustrations of an adage which Thompson’s career rather bears out that “the sad songs are just easier to write.” Here it consists of a man telling a new-born baby that he or she has it about as good as it’s going to get and it will be all downhill from hereon in.

“But take a look outside the nursery door
There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow.”

Which is about as downbeat as it can get really…So in conclusion, I doubt I’ll go back to it much, but if I ever get around to compiling my own ‘Best of Richard Thompson’ on Spotify, then I found a few tracks to add to it.

Highlights: The Calvary Cross, The End of the Rainbow, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight

 

Week Twenty One: Graceland

Graceland is probably the first album (or strictly speaking, one of the first two albums) that I remember hearing as a child. My parents had a C90 recording of Graceland and Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance that they would play on long car journeys. I would have been seven or eight years old at the time, and while I’m sure they must have had other records that got played on car journeys before that time, I don’t remember what they were. (Or maybe they didn’t: perhaps the grey escort had a cassette player and the blue datsun didn’t…)

At the time, I preferred the Jackson Browne album. Which just goes to show that eight year old me had no taste, because Graceland is a much better record. It’s not for nothing that while I’ve gone back and listened to it from time to time over the past thirty years, it was only a moment of idle curiosity earlier this week that had me go back to Lives in the Balance. Seventies political protest music with very eighties production values. And incongruous pan-pipes.  It might sound better if re-recorded, to be fair…

It would be quite possible to like Paul Simon and not really get on with this record or, in my case, the other way round. Some years later; another cassette in another car, I used to hear ‘The Best of Simon and Garfunkel’ a lot in my mid-teens. And to be honest, I don’t really remember it: fairly standard singer-songwriter fare, not unpleasant, but not something I’ve ever sought out since. What made Graceland work,for me at least, was the world music elements. At the time, it was controversial because in making it, Simon had broken the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, and while he argued that by working with black musicians, he was not normalising the apartheid regime, but bringing black South African music to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise have heard it, there were those who argued that the decision ought not to have been his to make. All the same, I can’t help thinking that Graceland does not deserve to be considered in the same light as Queen, Elton John or Frank Sinatra’s shows at Sun City. And then there’s the argument about cultural appropriation, which I’m going to dismiss in my middle-class white guy way by waving my hands and noting that almost all musical innovation consists of taking something that someone else has done, and doing something different with it.  If we’re going to insist that cultures live in hermetically sealed boxes and nobody is allowed to lift elements from cultural traditions other than their own, then we may as well give up on pop culture.

Anyway, that out of the way, the record begins with Boy in the Bubble which belongs in that little niche genre of ‘the world is spinning out of control, technology is so complicated and politics don’t make sense’ songs (see also We Didn’t Start the Fire and It’s The End of the World As We Know It) that seem to have been a  ‘thing’ in the latter part of the 1980s. A time when BBC Micros were the cutting edge and punch-card operated mainframes were but a distant memory from…10 years ago. But what makes it work as a song, what makes it something I’d be much happier to hear on the radio than that Billy Joel song, is that it’s not just guitar, bass and drums (although the drums are really good). There’s a great accordion introduction. In contrast with some of the other songs the world music influences are fairly subliminal (the drums, something I can’t quite put my finger on about the bassline, but nothing so overt as Ladysmith Black Mambazo or The Boyoyo Boys’ contributions to later tracks) but it still sounds a lot more open to different musical palettes than most guitar rock.

The title track, Graceland, is the least world music influenced, and most overtly Americana sounding song on the record. Half-baked theory: The 1980s marked the point in time at which the first youngsters to make their name as rock, pop and folk musicians, following the point in the late 1950s and 1960s when recorded music became a mass-market commodity, hit middle age. And while different musicians responded differently to this – the Rolling Stones were not alone in becoming a pantomime caricature of their own younger selves – Paul Simon was among those who decided instead to write songs about the concerns of 40-somethings. So Graceland is the story of a road trip with “the child of my first marriage” taken as, if it is autobiographical, his second marriage to Carrie Fisher, was collapsing.

I Know What I Know is another song where I’m struck by how good the drums in the introduction sound. As far as I know, Graceland has not been mined by hip-hop beatmakers in the way that, say Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue has been, but that’s their loss. More importantly, it has one of my favourite opening couplets in popular music

“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright/ Alright in a sort of a limited way for an off-night.”

The second line is one I can’t help thinking might come in very handy if I were in the habit of writing reviews on TripAdvisor. A story of a fleeting encounter at a society party between two people who flirt for want of anything better to do, while never really connecting:

“She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party/ I said ‘who am I, to blow against the wind.”

“She said there’s something about you that really reminds me of money/ She was the kind of a girl who could say things that weren’t that funny.

Listening to the record again for the first time in a few years, there are things that I don’t remember having noticed before: The way that the backing vocals that come it around 2mins 20 on Under African Skies really make the song. The sheer oddity of the lyrics of You Can Call Me Al – I mean, I get that it’s meant to be a kind of account of a middle-aged man who finds himself out of his comfort zone in Africa and rediscovers his love of music in the process – but what is a cartoon graveyard? Or a bonedigger? Come to that, I’d never noticed before that the penultimate track, The Myth of Fingerprints appears to be about someone dismissing the notion that fingerprints are unique “I’ve seem them all and man they’re all the same…”

If you weren’t around at the time, it would be easy not to realise how ubiquitous this music was at the time. My perspective might be slightly warped by hearing it so often on car journeys, but I’m fairly sure that songs like The Boy in the Bubble and Call Me Al got the kind of heavy rotation on Radio 1 that I imagine Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars do now.  But it isn’t so odd, because this is pop music – it has the earworm quality of the best top 40 music. It may be pop music made by a forty-something guy with a quarter century long career as a singer-songwriter behind him but who says that chart pop has to be the exclusive preserve of the under twenty fives?

Highlights: I Know What I Know, Under African Skies, Graceland, The Boy in the Bubble

Week Twenty: I am Sitting in a Room

Cycling around Midlothian on Sunday afternoon, pondering how I might go about writing up this review, I wondered if my problem is that conceptual modern art is just a foreign language to me. And not one like Swedish or Spanish, where I have some hope of working out roughly what is going on from its Latin or German common roots. But Tagalog. Truth be told, I don’t actually remember ever visiting an art gallery of any kind before I was in my early 20s, which is a little odd given that two members of my family make a living as artists.  

So what I’m about to say comes with the proviso that, even more than is usually the case, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I couldn’t help thinking of PJ O’Rourke’s observation that

“…modern art is…a product that turned ugly because its producers thought art should constantly change. Art quickly ran out of things to change into that weren’t stupid.The modernists believed that artistic creativity—like the manufacture of kitchen appliances or flint spear points—should progress. This is like believing that sex appeal should progress. Sandra Bullock has a marvelous behind. Now if only she could grow a third buttock.

Because while Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’ may be an interesting experiment, I don’t think I’d want to actually listen to it.

Up to now, I’ve tried to be diligent and stick to the rule of playing every album through at least twice. Even that dreary Alex Parks record with the overwrought covers of Imagine and Everybody Hurts. But I’ll admit I… sort of… cheated with this one. Not least because I couldn’t find the original 18 minute 1969 recording anywhere, and the thought of listening to all 45 minutes of the 1981 re-recording really didn’t appeal. For the uninitiated, it consists of Mr Lucier reading the following four line monologue

I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”

Maybe the problem is that my flat doesn’t have a bath. Standing in the shower while this is being played probably wouldn’t have the same trance-inducing effect and 45 minutes would be a very long time to stand in the shower.

Yes, I suppose I get that this is all about entropy, about the way that something slowly decays to the point where its original form is essentially destroyed, but (and here’s a facebook reaction button we could all do with from time to time) so what? As a sonic demonstration of the third law of thermodynamics, it’s sort of neat, but did people actually go to record shops and pay for this?  Now I’ve done my own sonic experimentation.  Some years ago, as part of a ‘post 30 songs meme’, one of the themes was ‘a song you can play on an instrument.’ And so I uploaded this proof of claim, which features similar sonic buggering-about (bonus points if you can work out what the instrument I’m playing is and, perhaps rather more difficult, what the song is). It’s an experiment in slowed-down multi-tracked, pitch-shifted recording.  With the dictaphone mic on my mp3 player.   And you might scratch your chin.  But you probably wouldn’t want to listen to it all the way through, and it’s only 5 minutes long.

Week Nineteen: Heartthrob

When I was about eight or nine years old, I used to labour under the illusion that when I was watching Top of the Pops or listening to the top 40 on Radio 1, the songs I was hearing were the work of the people who were performing them. The thing is, at that exact moment in time in the mid 1980s, this was not as far from the truth as it would become a few years later, or perhaps had been a few years before.

Commercial pop music of that time was not short of acts wrote their own material: Pet Shop Boys, Wham!, Duran Duran, A Ha, The Human League. Even Bananarama (and has a pop act ever had a more perfect name?) had co-writing credits, and it may be that I’m being horribly unfair in assuming that this was for writing the lyrics.

At the risk of overgeneralising massively, it seems that sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, the pop world reverted to an earlier model of production whereby pop impresarios assembled groups of young men and women who were easy on the eye and, for the most part, could more or less hold a tune, and then commission teams of professional song-writers to write material for them or else select cuts from pop’s past hits with, it seemed to me, a particular focus on the Bee Gees’ back catalogue. It seems that, by the early 1990s, if you were a musician who dreamed of performing your own material, you picked up a guitar and started an indie band. Pop music was for kids…It was pop’s loss, because for all that it ought to be possible for a middle-aged pop impresario and talented song-writers to create something interesting for their pretty young charges to perform, they almost never do…

All of which is a long way of getting round to the subject of this week’s album, Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob.  Prior to this week, all I knew about them was what I had picked up from a Radio 4 documentary on gender, sexuality and pop music, and the only Tegan and Sara song I’d ever heard was the deliberately mindless earworm they did for the Lego Movie (a film which manages to be a very clever satire on product placement and marketing while simultaneously being chock-full of product placement…) Everything is AWESOME! (on the subject of which, Everything is Adequate, and things are ok…)

So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Heartthrob. But it absolutely is a pure pop record. Simultaneously absolutely of this moment in time and harking back to the pop world of my childhood. It sounds like a record made by people immersed in contemporary pop – people like Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Ke$ha.  But,  in marked contrast with, say Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry,  they appear not only in charge of the music, but of the whole way they present to the world. Because they’re not star-struck teenagers who’ve impressed the judges on The X-Factor but seasoned veterans of two decades standing. And the sound itself appears to be deliberately sitting somewhere between the Max Martin influenced (or Max Martin written) pop that dominates the airwaves, and a kind of 80s electro new wave sound. On the subject of which, the use of live drums, courtesy of Joey Waronker, previously sticksman on Beck’s two best albums, Odelay and Sea Change, was definitely a good move.

Because just as some of those indie musicians seem to end up becoming the professional hit-writers for pop acts when their own careers fizzle out., it would be easy to imagine that Tegan and Sara, fourteen years into their career, might have decided to do the same (they sort of did, as it happens, writing some material for Carly Rae Jepsen). But instead, in 2013, by then in their early 30s, they brought in producer Greg Kurstin and decided to make their own out-and-out pop record.  And they’ve done it rather well.

It’s not really my music though. Aside from a couple of tracks, for all that it feels very sugar-rushy when it’s on, I can’t say I particularly remember the songs. The best of them, to my ears are the stadium-rock manqué anthem I’m Not Your Hero and the album closing Shock to Your System which sounds like their most overt embrace of the 1980s new wave sound and that I could just about imagine having been recorded by a less knowing, ironic version of the Human League. The rest is pleasant and upbeat enough, and not something I would object to if it came on the radio, but there’s nothing that really stands out for me. And one or two tracks, like I Was a Fool, I suspect might eventually come to be every bit as irritating at Everything is AWESOME!

Being unfamiliar with them, I was curious as to what they sounded like before they decided to fully embrace commercial synth-driven pop music and went over to www.rateyourmusic.com which, for all its limitations, is usually a pretty good way of identifying any given artist’s best works. It pointed me to their 2007 album, The Con and it was listening to this record that made me appreciate their appeal. Rather than Taylor Swift or Ke$ha, they sound on this record a lot like a mash-up of The New Pornographers, crossed with a more melodic Sleater Kinney and that other great identical-twin sister fronted band, The Breeders. It’s a record which, like Heartthrob, is packed with hooks, and sticks closely to the rule that nothing need ever be longer than 4 minutes, but which just sounds musically more interesting, less tied to a single formula. Songs like title-track, The Con, Soil Soil or Nineteen are just much more up my street than anything on this record.

A Guardian article I read suggested that Tegan and Sara’s move into the pop world was motivated in part by the alternative rock world’s rather antediluvian attitudes towards their sexuality, quoting an NME review that said they were “quite lovely, even if they do hate cock” and a sense that the pop world is a more open-minded place, notwithstanding Hunter S Thompson’s observation that “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free”. Now I don’t know if the NME has gone downhill in the last twenty plus years or whether it’s always been like this and I just didn’t notice because this is the sort of comment that would have amused me at 16, but it’s alternative rock’s loss…

Highlights: I’m Not Your Hero, Shock To Your System, though you should really go and listen to The Con…

Week Eighteen: Endtroducing…..

I first heard it almost twenty years ago. I’d finished up a summer working in a sausage factory (it is said that there are two things it is better not to see being made: sausages and laws. I’m part of a select group who have direct experience of both and there is more than a little truth in that adage) and headed up to my flat in Edinburgh to start my second year at university, a few days before my flatmates. I may only have had a tiny 6ft*8ft box-room with no windows (although £120pcm in central Edinburgh was cheap, even in 1997), but it was the first place that was mine, in a way that a hall of residence I had to move out of every ten weeks was not. And so I could play my music, or in this case, the CD that one of my flatmates had left in the kitchen, as loudly as I wanted. So I spent a couple of days doing nothing but blasting Endtroducing….. through my absent flatmate’s expensive hi-fi system and playing Sid Meier’s Civilisation.

It begins with a peculiar minute long sound collage, Best Foot Forward, which starts with a sample from what I can only guess must be a corporate promotional video “Bob Wood, national programme director of the Chum group, worked with us in producing…” before launching into the opening piano motif from the 7 minute long Building Steam with a Grain of Salt. I was hooked immediately. This was what reviews of the likes of Aphex Twin in the inkie press had made me think a really good electronica record should sound like, but which, on the one or two occasions I had actually gone out and bought something the NME had been getting excited about, turned out not to be at all.

It became the soundtrack to an imaginary movie that played only in my head. It is ambient music as imagined by someone who had grown up in the sampling beat-making culture of US hip-hop. But while ‘soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist’ feels like something of a music reviewing cliché, what makes this album different is that I can actually picture the film. It is set in what was the near future (but must now be the recent past), on the west coast of the US. There are hints of something sinister and dystopian lurking in the background, but it’s not central to the plot.  Everything is in super-saturated primary colours.  Except perhaps when it switches into washed out near-monochrome.   The other week I was watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and at a stretch, it is sort of, just about, the film I’m imagining.

Over at Mookbarks, Emily says that “I can vividly picture the countless afterparties that this would have accompanied. Between throwing out time and feeling able to stomach food again.” I’m afraid the reality, for me at least, was more mundane. This was the soundtrack to being sat in the computer labs in South Bridge, trying to write my dissertation in four days flat using only caffeine and blind panic. By then, it was familiar enough to me that I could play it as background; use it as a way to get into the zone. And it says something that it hasn’t ruined the record for me and in the sixteen years since, it’s remained one of those records I’ll put on to help me focus.

While it’s long been one of my favourite records, until I started writing this piece, I’d never really looked into what it was that Josh Davies was sampling to make it. It turned out to be quite the rabbit hole. Take, for example, Mutual Slump. A quick search on www.whosampled.com reveals that it is comprised largely of the drums from 1960s psychedelic musician Pugh Rogefeldt’s Love, Love, Love, a slowed down pitch-shifted keyboard part from Bjork’s Possibly Maybe (which had been released the year before was everywhere around the time this record was being made) some sonic experimentation from More than seven dwarves in penis land from one of Roger Waters’ less remembered side-projects. To that is added a sample of a spaced sounding woman, faintly reminiscent of the person speaking in the Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, talking about how “When I came to America, saw Xanadu, All I wanted to do was roller-skate”. I had long wondered what the sample had been lifted from, though the internet, destroyer of mysteries, reveals that it is a brief sample from a twenty minute recording his wife had made in the studio, talking about her life.

The Number Song makes use of Metallica’s Orion for what is perhaps the closest thing to be found on this record to a traditional hip-hop track. Elsewhere, there are an awful lot of obscure 60s and 70s soul and funk records being cut up in various different ways including David Axelrod, whose Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience I heard many years later and sound like they were a significant influence

The use of these small scraps of dialogue are one of the charms of the record. I’ve always wondered what was said immediately after the 30 second track in which someone tells us how “Maureen’s got five sisters…” And I had always assumed that the section of Stem/Long Stem in which a man gripped by paranoia worries about how the cops might lock him up and throw away the key for non-payment of parking tickets had come from some obscure film-noir: turns out it’s actually from a comic monologue by Murray Roman

The one track that has rather dated is the in-joke that was Why hip-hop sucks in 1996 (the answer Mr Davis provides is that “it’s the money” – but if you don’t remember inescapable the lazy g-funk that the song samples was at the time, you’re not going to get it.)

It is perhaps significant that DJ Shadow/Josh Davis never really came close to repeating the achievement that was this record. The follow up, The Private Press had its moments, but felt like it creator couldn’t quite decide whether he wanted to make something for the dance-floor or another piece of moody electronica. And his more recent work has been something of a return to his hip-hop roots. Alright, but to my ears, nothing that hundreds of others aren’t doing equally well.  Although I did rather like this track from his last record

Incidentally, I had been idly toying with the idea of writing a few ‘bonus’ editions of this blog about my personal favourite records. Thus far at least, I’d not got around to it, but here’s one that I will not now have to write.

Highlights: You really have to listen to this in its entirety. But if you insist, Building Steam With A Grain of Salt, Mutual Slump and Stem/Long Stem.

Week Seventeen: Broken English

One of the things that attracted me to the idea of this project was that it would make me listen to music that it had just never occurred tome to try before. And this is one of those weeks. Aside from a rather croaky cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song that was included on a compilation CD that came with a copy of Uncut Magazine many years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly heard any Marianne Faithfull songs before. Her name is familiar enough to me, but if you had asked me what I knew about her I think I’d get about as far as “um, 1960s. Mick Jagger, Mars bars. Um, that’s it. Do I get my five points?”

But when I put Broken English on, I realised that I’d heard the title track before. That the refrain “say it in broken English” was eerily familiar. Wasn’t this a minor hit some time in the late 1980s? But no, Broken English dates from 1979, and on reflection, doesn’t this song sound a little different from the version lodged in a neglected corner of my memory? I did a little digging on the internet, and my best guess is that what I’m actually remembering is an entirely unnecessary cover by early 90s ‘rave’ band Sunscreem.

It’s one of the highlights of the record, perhaps the most confident stab at the new wave sound that she manages. Elsewhere, the musical style is very much 1980s ‘adult contemporary’, which I suppose makes the album a little ahead of its time. The production values remind me a little of Fleetwood Mac circa Tango in the Night and Faithfull’s voice even sounds a bit like a more ragged Stevie Nicks, especially on Witches’ Song. On the other hand, I have to say I preferred the classic Rumours-era sound, and for me, songs like Little Lies and Everywhere work in spite of, rather than because of, their electronic drum sound and heavy use of synthesizers.

On the subject of 80s adult-oriented rock, when the third track, Brain Drain, came on, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the opening bars of Canadian one-hit-wonder Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet Which is a song I literally hadn’t thought of in the best part of quarter of a century.

What’s the Hurry sounds very much like a Blondie track, but for all I kind of like her gravelly growl, Faithfull is no Debbie Harry (as an aside, the pleasant surprise about Blondie’s noughties comeback was that even at nearly seventy, Harry’s voice was in surprisingly fine fettle – see for example this reggae-tinged cover of Beirut’s Sunday Smile ) and perhaps unsurprisingly, her song-writing team have nothing on Blondie. It’s pleasant enough background music, but I can’t imagine making a conscious choice to listen to it again.

The spine of the album, the fourth and fifth tracks, provide what I think is an interesting thought experiment around the illusion of the confessional singer-songwriter. Because to my ears, Guilty sounded cliched and insincere, the sound of somebody trying to imagine what another person’s early mid-life crisis might sound like, while The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, while nominally a third-person story about the same, sounded genuinely personal – an account of middle aged disillusion. And yet the latter was a cover version of a song written by Shel Silverstein for  Dr Hook & The Medicine Show. The more I think about it, the more I come to doubt the alternative-rock notion that sincerity is an intrinsic good…

…Talking of which, there’s the cover of Working Class Hero. Now John Lennon may or may not have considered himself to be working class (he wasn’t, by any sensible definition of the term, although the man from the Socialist Workers’ Party who buttonholed me at Fresher’s Week over twenty years ago and insisted that anyone who had to work for a living was working class might beg to differ) but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the daughter of Eva von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso did not consider herself to be. And it doesn’t matter. Because it made me realise that I’d been distracted by Lennon’s sincerity schtick, that this is really a character study, not a piece of musical autobiography. Fiona at Mookbarks was right, I think, to draw a parallel with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. It feels like a piece of social commentary from a very specific place and time. Even ten or fifteen years later, when my drama teacher tried to enthuse the class about Roger McGough, who I think was writing about what it was like to grow up in a particular kind of working class milieu, it felt like it was describing a world that belonged to the  past (though how much of that is what I thought at the time, and how much is a kind of ret-conning on my part, I don’t know. )

Not for the first time with this project, I’ve found myself concluding that this record might have been an intriguing place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay too long. If I want to listen to husky-voiced women making records that may or may not be about their complicated private lives, I’ll go with Fleetwood Mac. If I want late 70s new wave, then there’s Blondie’s Parallel Lines. And if I just want to listen to someone playing with the unlikely border between punk and new-romantic music, there’s always the Go-Gos.

Highlights: Broken English, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan

Week Sixteen: Astral Weeks

For years, I couldn’t understand why anyone would actually deliberately choose to listen to a Van Morrison record. I have a dim memory of one or other of my parents having one of his 80s or 90s albums and playing it a lot in the car, although my best efforts to work out which one it was using Spotify have turned up nothing, and I’m starting to wonder if I’d confused it in my mind with someone or something else entirely. But any which way, I knew who he was and I couldn’t stand his voice. I didn’t get the appeal of his take on rhythm and blues. I certainly didn’t understand why he was considered to be a musical great.

And then one evening, three or four years ago, I was doing the music round of the pub quiz at the Auld Hoose and something caught my ear. I didn’t recognise what it was, but there was nothing unusual about that – while there was once a time when I was quite a useful member of a music quiz team, my ignorance of popular music after around about 1999 is quite a handicap). It was only when the answers were read out that I learned it was Sweet Thing by Van Morrison. Which got me to wondering if I had been wrong to write off his work so casually in my teens.
One of the great things about on-demand streaming is that it no longer costs anything to satisfy one’s curiosity. No more that awkward feeling of having spent fifteen quid on a record that you realise you are only ever going to listen to once. So rather than completely forget about the fact that the first 20 seconds of Sweet Thing had caught my ear, I went home from the pub and stuck Astral Weeks on and was forced to concede that I’d been wrong about Van Morrison for all these years. Or maybe it is just that I needed to hear this record at the right time. I suspect that my fifteen year old self would always have struggled to ‘get’ this album, would have thought it sounded old-fashioned and dull. But my fifteen year old self was wrong about many things…

I’ve heard it described elsewhere as a folk/jazz album, but what I think it really is is the merging of folk and soul music. The instrumentation is very much in the tradition of folk music – though specifically Irish rather than British or American folk – you would never get so many flutes on a British folk record. But Morrison’s vocal delivery puts me in mind of 60s Detroit soul records. Not his singing voice, he’s no threat to Marvin Gaye on that score.  I once remember someone saying of Bob Dylan “people say he’s a terrible singer. He’s not, he’s a great singer, but he’s got a terrible voice.” and the same is all the more true of Van Morrison. I love his phrasing on tracks like The Way Young Lovers Do and Cypress Avenue but if nasal, strained vocals bother you, then you’re not going to get on with this record. That said, I can’t quite decide if I like the record in spite of Morrison’s vocals or whether it is in fact a part of the charm. If Van Morrison had been a more conventional folk singer, would it be a better album, or would it just sound a bit dull and flat?

Another inappropriate musical parallel: Just as last week I listened to Childish Gambino and heard echoes of Radiohead, now I find myself wondering if this is a kind of pre-cursor of electronic trance music. Not musically; I’m not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of trance music, but I don’t think you hear much in the way of double bass, flute or acoustic guitar. But rather in the way that the record uses repetition – of lyrics, of particular musical phrases, to achieve a kind of trance-like effect. Maybe the people who were listening to Armin Van Buuren in the late 1990s were the children of the people who bought Astral Weeks in the late 60s.

In terms of the songs themselves, it’s an album which, like Week 9’s Kind of Blue, is best listened to as a whole. The tracks do kind of blend into each other. Although the nine minute centre-piece Madame George (in which he’s clearly singing ‘Madame Joy’ – I wonder if the song’s title is a little in-joke: Van Morrison’s first name being George) does stand out. And I do still like Sweet Thing. I don’t know if it is just because I know the story of how the album was recorded – the fact that the session musicians brought in had little idea of what they were meant to be playing and it was all done in a couple of weeks, but it does sound like the result of an unexpectedly successful improv jamming session. A chance moment of inspiration that, to judge by the other stuff I’ve listened to, he never quite managed to pull off again.

Highlights: Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing, Madame George