Listen to this track by formerly monikered Soft Boys and ’80s neo-psychedeliaists Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians. It’s “Madonna Of The Wasps”, the lead track on their 1989 record Queen Elvis. In addition to former Soft Boys members Hitchcock, plus bassist Andy Metcalfe, and drummer Morris Windsor, this song features the distinctive lines of another key player worth mentioning; R.E.M’s Peter Buck.
Buck, and his band, were formed by following the example of what Hitchcock had laid down with the Soft Boys, particularly their Underwater Moonlight album. And here, Hitchcock reinforces that influence on one of his most enduring pop songs. A recurring theme in his work seems to revolve around insects, from cans of bees as forming the title of the first Soft Boys record, to references to Antwomen later on, and even with a documentary about him called Sex, Food, Death … And Insects, with all of those other things referenced being recurring themes in his work as well.
Hitchcock’s particular parallel is to draw a comparison between our six-legged friends and a form of idealized womanhood. And no song does this better than this one. And it shows something else too beyond Hitchcock’s affinity for writing songs about our winged, stingie-tailed pals.
Listen to this track by spacey Modesto California indie rock conceptualists Grandaddy. It’s “Miner At The Dial-A-View”, the next-to-last track on what is considered by many to be their best record; The Sophtware Slump, released in 2000.
This song is a part of a loose concept about technology, connection, and the space between them. That was a pretty top of mind theme during the era out of which this song and the album off of which it comes was released. Sitting at the edge of a new century after a decade when the Internet and its influence on commerce, leisure, and communication was soaked into the cultural landscape, the connections with technology and with each other as a result had come out of the pages of science fiction, and into real life.
There was lots to explore when it came to confronting that, and in making sense out of the coming future. There was certainly no turning back from the ride that technology was taking us on. We’re still on that ride today.
In the light of this, what is the “Dial-A-View” as described in this song? And how does it connect with that greater theme of technology and connection? (more…)
Listen to this track by Swindon new wave representatives and documented America-admirers, XTC. It’s “Statue Of Liberty”, a single as taken from their 1978 debut album White Music.
The line-up to be heard here is the earliest incarnation of the band, with stalwarts Andy Partridge (vocals and guitar) and Colin Moulding (vocals and bass) being joined by drummer Terry Chambers and keyboardist Barry Andrews. Chambers would depart by the time the sessions for 1983′s Mummer were in process. Barry Andrews would leave soon after this record, and go on to form Shriekback.
Starting out, XTC was very much in the vein of their post-punk peers. And this was among their earliest singles, a tune about the iconic lady statue that adorns the New York City skyline, symbolizing the ideals of freedom and liberty for immigrants to a land of opportunity.
But, this song takes a bit more from that equation, with a more erotic attachment to the lady herself, so much so that the line about “sailing beneath your skirt” raised eyebrows at the BBC. But, I think this song says a lot more than just being provocative for its own sake. (more…)
Listen to this track by dance floor-ready Manchester-based post-punk-meets-techno foursome New Order. It’s “Blue Monday”, a single put out originally in 1983 as a forerunner to their second full-length album; Power, Corruption, and Lies. The song would be re-mixed later in the decade and in decades to follow.
The band would be one that grew out of the ashes of another one, namely Joy Division. That former band would be blessed and cursed, laying down a template which is still followed today with any band interested in minimalist, subterranean, darkly textured guitar music. But with lead singer in Ian Curtis gone too soon as the result of illness and self-destruction, their body of work, potent though it is, would remain small.
In the aftermath, guitarist and singer Bernard Sumner took Curtis’ place up front, flanked by bassist Peter Hook, drummer and keyboardist and programmer Stephen Morris, and the addition of keyboardist and guitarist Gillian Gilbert. This track was penned by the whole band, and represented both a turning point for them, and for what would become known as “alternative dance” culture as well for the rest of the ’80s and beyond. But, how did they get from guitar-based post punk to electronic dance music in such a relative short span of time? (more…)
Listen to this track by West Saugerties, NY house-renters and former backing group turned turned 20th Century music innovators The Band. It’s “Chest Fever”, a track as taken from their 1968 debut record Music From Big Pink.
The album was named affectionately after the house in which much of the group’s early material was written, now famously known in rock lore as one of the first “clubhouse” style recording set-ups that would produce their fruitful Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan when they were still a nameless band transitioning out of their days as The Hawks.
Their work during these sessions showed that world-changing rock music didn’t have to be created in a professional studio while someone else’s clock is ticking. It would also allow them space to explore other musical avenues and modes of narrative, and to push the possibilities of what rock music could be for everyone while they were at it. It would set the tone for an approach that would carry over even when they came to record their debut in a formal studio setting, working with sympathetic producer John Simon, under their new name The Band.
This is a tune that would burn like a beacon on a landmark debut record, and distinguish itself among some of the best in the group’s catalog. It would also diverge from the carefully constructed approach to songwriting for which the Band is now known in distinct, unique ways.
Listen to this track by bespectacled angry young man and original hipster singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. It’s “Miracle Man”, a deep cut as taken from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True.
This song is in very good company with those that Costello worked up while he was an early signee to the nascent Stiff Records label. This was after seven years of graft, taking the then twenty-two year old songwriter from his teenage years as a member of pub rockers Flip City to when he was christened with his Kingly moniker upon hooking up with Jake Riviera at Stiff.
And maybe it’s because Costello had spent so many years making demos, and having them sent back to him by record companies, that his debut is a compendium of tales of frustration and insecurity marked by a fierce intelligence and the swagger of youthful ambition. With this song, that theme carries through pretty well. And on the surface, it comes off as a guy who’s attached to someone who doesn’t really appreciate his efforts in the love department. But, that really is just on the surface of things.
Listen to this track by Sheffieldian Britpop figureheads Pulp. It’s “Do You Remember The First Time”, a single as taken from their 1994 record His ‘N’ Hers. This record helped to establish the band’s propensity for strong narratives marked by a dramatic slice-of-life songwriting style.
The band began in the late ’70s when lead singer and founder Jarvis Cocker was 15. But, it was only in the 1990s that they would make their mark in the mainstream, helping to define the Britpop era in terms of subject matter, tone, and overall presentation. It would be this album that would serve as their invitation into the premiership of the UK charts, with that aforementioned flair for drama within a four minute pop song .
This particular song tells the story of two lovers, and another one waiting at home. On the surface, this story appears to be about sexual jealousy. But underneath that, it’s also a song about memory, maturity, and and how love itself can be very messy. (more…)
Listen to this track by post-disco inspired entity with an otherwise varied musical wardrobe, Broken Bells. It’s “Perfect World”, the opening track to this year’s After The Disco, the follow up album to their self-titled record put out in 2010.
Broken Bells includes James Mercer, known mainly for his work as vocalist and guitarist in pop-with-shades-of-melancholy outfit The Shins. Brian Joseph Burton who is better known as producer and sought-after sonic colourist Danger Mouse is the other half of the equation.
The record itself pulls from a melange of sounds, but they weren’t kidding when they put the word “disco” in the title. This was a safe bet by 2014 maybe, what with Daft Punk proving that disco grooves are alive, well, and adaptable to all kinds of musical fusion in the 21st century. But, the “after” is important, too, what with a decidedly early ’80s post-disco synth-pop textural palette characterizing their approach.
But, that “after” is reflected thematically in the lyrics as well, which may be the more compelling element in what you’re hearing in this song.
Listen to this track by Los Angeles new wave Europhiles and future Top Gun soundtrack fixtures Berlin. It’s “The Metro”, a single that was featured on their 1983 album Pleasure Victim. A hair’s breadth just before Madonna, and in the years just after the type of synth-based music that was pioneered by Kraftwerk in the late 1970s, Berlin hit the middle ground with a sort of Americanized version of European new wave, which may explain their band name.
This song was one of their bigger hits, just after their initial international hit subtly titled “Sex (I’m A …)” that had scored a chart placing on the Billboard top 100, but hadn’t cracked the top twenty. This one was always my favourite, their first on a major label (Geffen), and with a sound that captured the essence of the classic synthpop era that would soon disappear in the years that followed.
Yet, even after this song enjoyed its initial success, it would continue to be a signature for a band well beyond the era out of which it came. And it would offer a tale that captures a classic post-punk approach, too – ambiguity.
Listen to this track by blues-rock supergroup and proto-metal progenitors Humble Pie. It’s “Black Coffee” a track as taken from their 1973 double album bluntly entitled Eat It, and presented in this clip from the British music program The Old Grey Whistle Test. This song was a part of a section on the record that featured the band’s interest in R&B covers. This one is from Ike & Tina Turner no less, written and recorded a year previous to this one on their Feel Good album, although Humble Pie’s take features modified lyrics to suit lead singer Steve Marriott’s point of view.
Besides Marriott, the earliest version of the group also included singer and guitarist Peter Frampton, who served as a co-lead singer, also sharing vocal leads with bassist Greg Ridley, late of Spooky Tooth. All three were backed up by drummer Jerry Shirley. But, by the early ’70s, Frampton had left, and Marriott was secured in the role of frontman, with new guitarist Clem Clempson as a lead to Marriott’s rhythm playing.
Marriott would also introduce a new dynamic to the band by encouraging a group within the group who would provide a much-needed counterweight to his searing vocal skills; backing singers! But who were they, and how did they fit in and then change the sound of the band? (more…)