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 art rock doyen and former Genesis frontman turned re-invented solo artist Peter Gabriel. It’s “Humdrum”, a track as taken from his 1977 solo record, and the first to bear the title Peter Gabriel. In addition to appearing on that record, it would soon be a popular live track as well.
And on this first statement as a solo artist, he had the help of some pros. The record was produced by Bob Ezrin in Toronto, and with sessions at Olympic Studios in Barnes that included a number of musicians you’ve heard of, including Robert Fripp on guitar, and bassist/Chapman stick player Tony Levin.
It’s important to note that this record was fairly long-awaited. Gabriel left Genesis in 1975, and it was a highly publicized departure considering that Gabriel had defined the band’s tone, and presentation. So, how does this song reflect both his role in Genesis and as a singular solo artist, too? Continue reading
Listen to this track by cinematically-inclined electronic duo and shapeshifting musical stylists Goldfrapp. It’s “Human”, the third single from their debut record Felt Mountain.
The band take their name from Alison Goldfrapp; singer, keyboardist, and lyricist. This debut won them a shortlisting for the Mercury Prize in 2000, although they were outshined by Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast, as many other records were that year.
Together with keyboardist, programmer and arranger Will Gregory, the duo would evoke the sonic effects of the spacious grandeur of John Barry soundtracks of the 1960s, although with icily beautiful electronic textures to put the music squarely in the 21st century.
But, what of this song? What other elements besides those elements can be found here?
Listen to this track by million-selling piano man and singular ’70s rock clothes horse Elton John. It’s “Rocket Man (I think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”, a hit single in the spring of 1972, and a key track as taken from his Honky Chateau album that year.
In line with the times when space missions were more common perhaps than they are today, or simply more celebrated, this song stormed the charts with top ten showings all over the world. It also marked a change in approach for Elton John who used his road band on the entirety of the recording instead of sessioners; Dee Murray on bass, Davey Johnstone on guitars and other assorted stringed instruments, and Nigel Olssen behind the kit.
Addtionally on this track, he worked with studio whiz, composer, and keyboardist David Hentschel who added the distinctive ARP synthesizer lines to this track, which gave it an appropriately futurist feel. This is not to minimize John’s own contribution, in particular his singing which is some of the finest of his career, completely selling this tale of space travel and emotional disconnectedness.
The result of all these elements would be one of Elton John’s best known and best loved songs. But, how does it perhaps apply to the touring rock star as much as it does to the story of the Rocket Man? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Scottish pop sophisticate musical outfit Aztec Camera. It’s “Walk Out To Winter” as taken from the landmark 1983 debut record High Land Hard Rain. The song was a single, scoring a top ten showing on the UK indie chart, with the album scoring top thirty on the UK album chart.
In the 1980s, this act would become grouped in with several musical outfits that would take the template of new wave and post punk, and mix it with more traditional pop threads; soft rock, latin music, light jazz, and R&B. But, that’s not to say that Aztec Camera was just another act in this vein.
Under principle songwriter and sole constant member Roddy Frame’s creative guidance, the results would be something that not many were able to achieve; a classic record, and with a single (this one) and other singles that would make for both an album band, and a singles band, too.
And what of this song? What does it mean to “walk out to winter” anyway? Continue reading
Listen to this track by Scottish dance rock proponents and musical genre crossover adventurers Primal Scream. It’s “Loaded”, a hit song as taken from their seminal 1991record Screamadelica. The single was released in February 1990, over a year before the full album came out.
The song would be something of an anthem to the dance scenes all over Britain on its release, with a dash of ’60s iconoclast ingredients worked into its fabric. There are certainly musical ingredients to be found in what was once a humble remix that most assuredly helped to turn it into a hit single.
One of the defining elements to the song of course is the use of audio clips from the 1966 film The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda as a hard-riding member of a motorcycle gang, and a guy who knows what he wants to do; to be free, to get loaded, have a good time, to have a party.
Some themes never get old.
And beyond that, it certainly spoke to the burgeoning acid house scene at the same time. Continue reading
Listen to this track by serial Mercury Prize nominee and envelope-pushing singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. It’s “Rid of Me”, the title track from her 1993 record Rid Of Me.
This song, and the record off of which it comes, forsaw a few trends that we would see in the ensuing years and decades; stripped down arrangements in a rock context, fusion of the blues with post-punk indie strains, and harshly autobiographical songwriting from the point of view of a woman, but without the wistfulness that is often associated with that dynamic. A good deal of this came from Harvey’s influences at the time. most notably Chicago blues, and specifically Howlin’ Wolf.
This ingredient is not unknown in the development of British rock music. This very same influence inspired a whole generation of bands, of course. But, Harvey’s approach to the blues wasn’t about hero worship or faithful renderings of existing recordings. She was able to do something that her contemporaries hadn’t really tried on the same scale; to include the blues, and to include herself as an author with an undeniable voice without being crowded out by it. That’s a tall order.
This is how I think she manages it.