Suede: It Starts and Ends With You (Bloodsports, 2013)

Sometimes, the best new things are old things. Suede is my wife’s favorite band, and we listened to them a lot in the summer after high school and during college. Over the years, they’ve come to be one of my favorite bands as well (I initially rode only for the Bernard Butler era, but these days I think the post-Butler stuff at its best is just as good; they simply became less consistent.

Suede came back this year, which was not a surprise, as they’d toured in 2010, and there’d been rumblings abut a new album for some time. What was a surprise is how good the album they made was. “It Starts And Ends With You” was one of my favorite songs for the year, and it hangs with anything from their classic era.

it is also essentially the epitome of a Suede song. Brett Anderson’s vocal line soars toward the title refrain, but every verse starts out much more downbeat, and Richard Oakes’ guitar line behaves like a second voice, conversing with it.

One of the funny things about Suede is the way that element of their sound stayed consistent even when they switched guitarists. Oakes was a huge Suede fan and learned some of what he knows from listening to Butler, but he has a different way of playing the same basic style that makes the band’s music a little more candy-colored.

I always thought A New Morning was only okay, and not much of a way for such a great band to go out. Bloodsports is a hell of a way for a band to come back, and it makes me hope they’re not done.

A Flock of Seagulls: “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (Listen, 1983)

I’ve had this song in my head for days. It hopped in there unbidden, and in retrospect I can see that I got to it on a tangent. I have a four-and-a-half-month-old son, and in my quest to keep him entertained, one of the things I’ve taken to doing is playing harmonica for him. 

This is not to say I know how to play harmonica. But I do own two of them, them, so I’ll blow into them and make up little, slow melodies. His mind seems a little blown by the noises I can make. Anyway, last week as I was blowing into the harmonica, I worked out the hook from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” and I’ve been playing it every time I take the harmonica out. 

So I’d be hearing “Trans Europe Express” in my head, but it kept morphing into this—I’d never noticed how similar the two synth melodies are before. Even the drum programming on the Flock of Seagulls song owes a little debt to late 70s Kraftwerk. I imagine the Flock were familiar with Kraftwerk—after all, pretty much the entire New Wave and New Romantic movements in Britain trace back to Kraftwerk’s appearances in the U.K.

I’m not accusing them of being derivative, though. I mean, big deal. What I do love, though, is how they take basically the same melody that Kraftwerk made so studied and cold and turn it into a big, billowing ball of emotion, just about the polar opposite of Kraftwerk’s roboticism (though I have to say, Kraftwerk’s attempts to make emotionless music often were profoundly melancholy in spite of themselves). 

I don’t think A Flock of Seagulls were a great band, really, but they made two good albums, and the three or so highest highlights, “Wishing” included, are truly great songs. At a minimum, though, the band was more than a stupid haircut, and it annoys me that they’re often remembered as much for Mike Score’s coiffure as anything they did musically. Maybe they were asking for it a little bit, but if you can make something as powerful as “Space Age Love Song” or “Wishing,” you deserve better regardless.

"Pink Floyd: "Fletcher Memorial Home" (The Final Cut, 1983)

I heard a BBC story this morning about a 93-year-old veteran of the Anzio landing reaching out to Roger Waters to determine the place of his father’s death, the event that, though it happened when he was just five months old, seems to have been most instrumental to shaping his worldview and work. 

Waters has spent so much of his creative energy working through his feelings about losing his father before he even got to know him that I had always figured he was familiar with the details of what happened. The list of Pink Floyd songs that either explicitly acknowledge this death or seem hover around it, exploring various angles of how soldiers die and why, is long:

"Free Four"
 ”Us & Them”
 ”When the Tigers Broke Free”
 ”Bring the Boys Back Home”
 ”Vera”
 ”Another Brick in the Wall part 1”
 All twelve songs on The Final Cut which is dedicated to him

The one featured here, “Fletcher Memorial Home,” is one of those twelve and is among the emotional peaks of an album that is either a wretched mess or a total masterpiece depending on how you approach it. The Fletcher in Fletcher Memorial Home comes from Waters’ father, Eric Fletcher Waters, who, as implied above, died during the Battle of Anzio during World War II. 

Initially a conscientious objector, Waters reconsidered his position and enlisted when the extent of fascism’s evils became clear—among other things, Waters was a Communist, and he realized acutely that he would have been one of the many under Hitler’s boot heel if he’d had the misfortune to be living in a conquered country. He’d been an ambulance driver to that point; when he joined the army he was assigned to the 8th Royal Fusiliers, an infantry regiment with a history dating back to the 1600s, when it was among the first units to use flintlock muskets, called fusils.

Operation Shingle was the Allies’ attempt to break a stalemate in Italy by landing a force north of the Germans’ front line at Anzio, and it almost worked perfectly. The Germans were caught completely off guard, but when Roger Waters singles out generals for criticism in his songs (i.e. “And the generals gave thanks as the other ranks held back the enemy tanks for a while/ and the Anzio beachhead was held for the price of a few hundred ordinary lives,” from “When the Tigers Broke Free”), he is is referring both to the Allied High Command, which undermanned the effort, and Major General John P. Lucas, who failed to capitalize on the element of surprise and got his army bogged down in a slow, slogging fight that lasted months. It was during this fight that Eric Fletcher Waters died.

Enter Harry Schindler, the Anzio vet. He’d never heard of Pink Floyd, but he heard Waters speaking warmly of his father and was moved to find the report on the death of Eric Fletcher Waters. He got the report, including the map reference for the battle, and is now trying to get a plaque installed in the spot. 

I don’t imagine Waters ever imagined that something like this would come out of all those songs, much less so long after they came out. The one song he put part of his father’s name on is actually not a very personal reflection; it instead sets up this memorial home as an assisted care facility for the 20th Century’s assorted war starters, with an emphasis on Thatcher, Reagan, and other then-current leaders, with the overarching implication that decisions made in capitals by people of power result in the deaths of people like his father. I wish I could say it had lost relevance with time.

Blur: “Bang” (Bang EP, 1991)

I’ve been listening to Blur for a long time, at least since their self-titled album came out, and I guess I was a little familiar with them before that. But I’ve never listened to their earliest records (everything before 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish) until last week. I don’t know why. I like all the other stuff to varying degrees, though the last two albums are my favorites.

Anyway, I’m loving this stuff, and kicking myself for not exploring it earlier. It has the shiny melodies of their Britpop classics, Parklife and The Great Escape, with the rougher edges of their self-titled album—it sounds like they were paying a lot of attention to what was happening up north in Manchester, too. 

"Bang" is the song I keep circling back to. It’s great, but it sounds so casual about it. I don’t know if that’s just Damon Albarn’s perpetual deadpan or what, but the songs I love best by this band almost always are the ones that sound like they just sort of fell out while the band was playing. I wish I’d realized there were a whole bunch of waiting for me to hear them sooner. 

Tags: Blur 1991 1990s UK

Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (Face the Music, 1975)

Where was I when I first heard this? Probably in my bedroom, maybe doing homework. The classic rock station used to play an edit that eliminated the spooky intro with the “Hallelujah” choir and the back-masked talking. I think this version was the U.S. b-side of “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” which came out three whole years after this was originally released as the lead track on Face the Music

I knew and loved the edit for quite a while before I finally heard the album version, which WAQY would only play in the middle of the night. I guess they thought the intro played better in the dark. While I can’t disagree, I also think it’s madness to drop the intro, because the intro is freaking great. 

That’s drummer Bev Bevan saying, “The music is reversible but time is not. Turn back.” It was a deliberate swipe at idiot religious nuts who were attacking rock and roll for containing hidden messages (they’d gone after ELO’s own Eldorado LP); I imagine a lot of FM stations delighted in playing it when it was was released for that very reason. 

The song itself is pretty epic, in scope if not length, but I think that, unlike a lot of 70s prog and pomp rock, it was pretty well aware of its own built-in ridiculousness. It goes through the whole composition once with strings, and then does it all again with a choir on top, because hey, why not? The choir’s in the budget.

I like the harpsichord/anthemic guitars bit, but the part that really grabs me these days is the bit where Bevan’s drums crash back in and they are just way too loud. And there are violins and cellos squiggling around just trying to get out of their way. The guitars in that part have a really odd sound, too, like there are about a hundred acoustics all playing the same thing, but a little out of sync so it turns into a big wall of strumming. 

This was released long after the heyday of the instrumental hit, but it got stuck in a lot of classic rock playlists on light rotation anyway. I’ve tried to figure out if that means anything about what it took to have an instrumental hit in the mid-70s, but about all I can come up with is, “make it sound cool.” Which Jeff Lynne and company dutifully did. 

The Deviants: “Deviation Street” (Ptooff!, 1967)

This weekend brought news of the passing of Mick Farren, the great music journalist/musician who was among the earliest of rock’s many gadfly characters. In my various travels on the web. I’ve run into a lot of acquaintances who seemed to know him for his writing; I know him primarily for his music, and especially for his groundbreaking 60s band The Deviants.

The track above, “Deviation Street,” is a mix of ripping garage rock, spoken word and musique concrete that nicely prefigures Farren’s career as a music writer. It’s music-as-music-criticism, in several ways. 

First, there’s the melting, creepy psychedelic passage after the opening riff where Farren sneeringly describes a jive-talking CIA agent giving drugs to hippies, slapping the flower power scene upside the head and using their own sound to do it. Second, the rock portion of the song, part of which is covered in dubbed-over applause, seems to be a sort of oblique take on The Sonics’ “Psycho.” Finally, there’s the most obvious bit, where a tiny snippet of “Manic Depression” can be heard in the background as an Underground dweller credulously shouts “wow, it’s, like, simulating the acid experience. 

In 1967, this kind of thing was uncommon—it’s like the Mothers of Invention with the Dadaism replaced by pure venom. To say that the Deviants were a preview of punk isn’t an exaggeration. They even made their album independently (albeit with the financial backing of a rich friend) and sold it themselves until Decca heard it and signed them. 

Farren dipped in and out of music over the years, cutting some solo records and occasionally reconvening the Deviants or working with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. He wrote for International Times and NME, publishing nearly two dozen novels along the way. You can catch his well—known rant about complacency in rock music “The Titanic Sails at Dawn” here

Farren went out with his boots on, dying on stage last week. 

Kevin Ayers: “Interview” (Bananamour, 1973)

I was sad to hear of the death of Kevin Ayers last month. Ayers was one of the great eccentrics of pop music, the kind of guy who’d make whatever record he felt like making and let it sell if people wanted to buy it. He didn’t enjoy self-promotion and became a sort of archetypal cult figure because of it.

I went back and forth over which song to feature in his honor, and finally decided on “Interview,” a song about hating self-promotion and the rigamarole of life as a professional musician. It’s not bilious like so many songs in this vein, though—Ayers keeps it playful, implying that he’ll give a better interview in exchange for a bribe.

Ayers’ solo career isn’t perfect. His albums have a lot of oddball ideas on them, and they don’t all fly, but they do sketch out a charming vision of a world in which psychedelia never lost its grip on the pop charts and skewed humor was a coin in the everyday currency of rock and roll.

Whimsy was important to Ayers’ music. He came from the so-called Canterbury scene,where he spent the mid-60s playing in The Wilde Flowers, a band that at various points also included the founders of Caravan, Gong, and Soft Machine, which Ayers was a member of for two years before striking out on his own.

These groups played cerebral rock music that drew heavily from jazz for its structures, but for all its up-front virtuosity, it was mostly lacking in the overt masculinity most of the era’s prog and blues rock. It was whimsical and witty, given to abstraction and occasional nonsense, and not afraid to give an album a title like “Bananamour.”

If you can’t see it in the jpg on your feed, yes, the cover does feature two bananas in love in the lower right corner. For a while, Ayers referred to his band as “The Whole World,” as in “Kevin Ayers and the Whole World,” which I always loved as a band name because of the way it includes the listener in the creative process.

Ayers spent much of the 90s and early 00s sequestered in southern France, but came back in 2007 with the poignant farewell LP The Unfairground, which featured old colleagues as well as large cast of younger indie rock musicians. Never much of a touring musician, Ayers let it be the final word. He died in his sleep on February 18th, back in southern France.

The Troggs: “I Can’t Control Myself” (Page One POF 001, 1966)

Troggs vocalist Reg Presley died today after a bout with cancer. He was 71.

Back in middle school, we had a music appreciation class, and there was a program of old songs cut together in a big medley marketed under the title “Rock On!” that we all learned to sing in unison. “Wild Thing” was one of those songs, and I remember even back then thinking that it sounded so much rougher and uglier than the other stuff in the program. 

Years later, during college, I was sitting in my dorm room listening to the cut-price Troggs compilation I’d just bought and I realized what the primary difference was: on their early recordings, The Troggs had no cymbals. Check out “I Can’t Control Myself.” The drums are just thudding snare, tom tom and kick. There’s no ride dividing the pulse, no crash for accents, just Ronnie Bond’s raw pounding to back up the basic chords and Presley’s lascivious vocal, which was too much for a lot of radio stations in its day. 

The Troggs formed in Andover, England as the Troglodytes, a fitting name for their sound. they got picked up by the manager of the Kinks and shortened it, then joined the Kinks as progenitors of a basic sound you could legitimately call a precursor of punk. Both bands moved on quickly, but once the genie was out of the bottle, it wasn’t going back in. 

The Troggs got some cymbals and made the pop gem “With a Girl Like You,” their only UK #1 (“Wild Thing” topped the US chart), then slid sideways into something like psychedelia with “Night of the Long Grass” and “Love Is All Around.” By 1969, they’d fallen to the back of the pack and called it quits. 

The members stayed in music, though, and they reunited less than a year later to toil in obscurity, making albums sporadically. The final one was an unlikely 1991 collaboration with members of REM called Athens Andover, which I used to see in used bins, though I’ve never heard it. 

Presley had to finally leave music two years ago after his lung cancer diagnosis, but otherwise, he stuck at it his whole life and left some great stuff behind. Press play on that primal yowl one more time. 

The Kinks: “Come Dancing” (State of Confusion, 1983)

In urban planning, we have a term, “place-making,” that refers to attempts to impart a distinctive character to a developed area, usually after all of the character it once had has been erased by bad development.

For one example, think of a small, old downtown, with two- and three-story buildings that abut the sidewalk and have retail on the ground floor, with offices, apartments and other things above. There are awnings and wide sidewalks with tree wells, maybe some al fresco dining or a theater marquee, with a narrow street running between, and maybe some parallel parking at meters. When you stand in the middle of the street (hopefully while no cars are coming), it feels little like being in a big outdoor room, with the buildings as walls. Maybe there’s even another wall at the end, where the square around city hall results in a t intersection that terminates Main Street (this feeds into a concept called “view shed”).

Then, one day, a developer acquires one of these blocks, rips down all the traditional Main Street buildings and throws up a cheap strip mall, with a parking lot in front, and all the storefronts have internally lighted signs (they have to, so you can see them from the street while driving). Stand in the middle of the street and suddenly, a big chunk of wall has been kicked out of your room. It’s getting drafty.

This has happened to downtown districts all over the US and Canada since World War II, and modern planners, realizing that their forebears made a terrible error by allowing it, are trying to slowly regain the places that were lost by writing better rules for development. It can take a long time for a place so violated to come back, especially if its economy is in rough shape.

"Come Dancing" is a song about place, filtered through a man’s memory of his older sister’s teenage social life. It’s also a song about loss of place, something Ray Davies was often concerned about in his writing—The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society was an entire album about it.

The tears of Davies’ sister in this song when they tear down the palais she once went dancing at with her dates are telling. You could argue in the abstract that the palais was just a building, so what, there’s a new one there now where you can go bowling, but this argument is entirely wrong. A building like that is part of a community’s identity, a meeting place that’s not wholly replaceable by something else. I actually think the narrator’s town does relatively well—at least the bowling alley that replaces the dancehall is still a social place and not a bank branch with a drive-up window and a too-big building footprint with more parking spaces than it’ll ever use.

This second thing is what most towns got when their old landmarks came under the wrecking ball. In my area, I see examples of it everywhere, and if you look at the zoning codes and master plans of the small cities around me that have been adopted in the last ten years, it’s clear that their leaders have looked at the disjointed, bland, unwelcoming results of modern auto-centric development and grasped for ways to turn back the clock.

I hope they all succeed. There’s nothing quite like a vital, busy downtown district, with different people there at different times of day for different purposes. You don’t rub elbows the same way with your fellow citizens in a Wal-Mart or Target hypermarket. Without more and better public transit, it’ll stay tough for cities in Southeast Michigan, but better transit is, with luck, on its way to the region, far, far after it should have arrived (“better late than never” could double as a motto for our current bus system). We live for now in an autopia of our own design, chained to our cars to get anywhere, most often driving through no place at all.

Genesis: “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” (Foxtrot, 1972)

School starts again tomorrow for what should be my penultimate semester working toward a master’s degree in urban planning (summer project notwithstanding). I’ve enjoyed studying the subject and will hopefully be able to find good work in the field at some point this year, beyond what I’m doing now. 

On my last free weekend before heading back, I figured I’d have some fun and put together a mix of urban planning-related songs that I’ll post a bit later this evening. For the moment, though, a song that I cut from the mix to get it down to CD length.

Genesis often hid social commentary in lyrics that seemed to be about science fiction and fantasy. “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” is one song where they didn’t hide it very well—it’s transparently about the common practice of large British landlords in the 60s and 70s of winkling. 

Winkling was essentially an end-run around controlled rents. Landlords and their agents would evict tenants or coax them to leave so they could jack up rents for the next people who moved in. Often, they’d pay an honorarium for the tenant to move somewhere else—in the song, the landlord’s agent finds poor Mrs. Barrow a place to move to. Later in the song, the same landlord buys that place and raises her rent again. 

This is the kind of problem that planners are often called upon to address, or, in some notorious cases (such as Yonkers, New York’s zoning policy in the 80s), they’ve actually had a hand in reinforcing exclusionary housing policy. 

Planning is sort of a vaguely defined field, but that’s by necessity. Generally, we deal with the uses of land, but it’s never as simple as putting some lines and pretty colors on a map. People live on that map, and any time you move a line or change a color, it’s people you effect.

I love the depth and nuance of the way Peter Gabriel’s lyrics use storytelling to illuminate a genuine and pressing problem in British housing policy. The rest of the songs I chose all address the relationship between people and spaces in one way or another. Some are explicit, some more subtle, and they wander from the ghetto to the burbs and back. Check the next post for the link.