British music

PJ Harvey Performs “Rid Of Me”

PJ Harvey Rid of MeListen 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.

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Jake Bugg Sings “Lightning Bolt”

Listen to this track by British singer-songwriter and folk-indie up-and-comer Jake Bugg. It’s “Lightning Bolt”, a hit single as taken from his self-titled 2012 record Jake Bugg. The song was released in April of that year in the UK, and a year later in North America in March.

Jake BuggIn addition to its modest chart action, Bugg did the rounds with this record, performing it on late night TV shows and at SXSW, and making inroads to building up respect with indie tastemakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead of holding the usual list of obscure influences, Bugg stuck with the  classics; the Beatles, early Dylan, Johnny Cash, Hendrix, plus a genuflect for Elvis and the Everly Brothers, too.

With this track, it’s really that classic approach that comes through in the performance and in the production, too. It sounds as if it’s from another era. But it also sounds throughly fresh. I think this has to do with a number of factors, not the least of which has to do with some striking and universal themes it hits on.

Lightning bolts are primal, and quite literally elemental. But, they also have long stood as a symbol for coming to a violent realization. They are a useful metaphor for the experience of walking along, minding your own business, and then suddenly have something happen so unexpected, so radical  happen to you that you cannot help but be transformed in some way.

That’s what’s happening in this song; being hit by a force for good ultimately, but one that isn’t exactly comfortable either. It’s one of those experiences that we crave and we fear at the same time. Once again, we see in this song that the human experience isn’t exactly easy to pin down, with fear and wisdom, order and chaos, violence and peace all living together in one inscrutable space. The question remains as always; will we seek the lightning bolt, or do what we can to avoid it?

You can learn more about Jake Bugg predictably by visiting jakebugg.com.

Enjoy!

The Beatles Play “A Day In The Life”

The Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club BandListen to this track by former mop-top British Invasion spearheads and pop music boundary pushers The Beatles. It’s “A Day In The Life” as taken from the modestly successful little platter Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released at the top of the summer of love in June 1967.

By the time work was undertaken to begin the making of this song, and this record, the rules hadn’t really been written as to what an album could be – like, say, a way to create a band inside of a band, and to have the record itself do the job of touring instead of the people behind it having to do it.  No one had ever really applied an artistic filter to a record, or to a band in quite this way.

As such, it was a risky approach. There again, the Beatles records always sold well, and I’m sure the project wasn’t thought of as being risky other than by those who undertook it, and who wanted it to be as great as it was on a musical level. The stories around that album, and this track specifically, are fairly well-traveled.  But, there is one common thread running through all of those stories; everything about the project drove everyone involved in making it deep into a place of artistic and technological lateral thinking .

Personally, I think the biggest force behind the record’s success didn’t have anything to do with lofty and unifying artistic concepts or technological innovation. I think it had more to do with an honest expression of where the Beatles were at during that time as it was expressed in the songwriting.  “A Day In The Life” was one of the first songs the band tackled, helping to set the tone and expectations surrounding the project as a whole.

As such, it’s always seemed kind of ironic to me that this final track on an album that is otherwise thought of as the most technicolour of all Beatles records is so full of forboding.

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Squeeze Plays “Another Nail In My Heart”

Squeeze Another Nail In My HeartListen to this track by Deptford, London quintet and three-minute pop song master architects Squeeze. It’s “Another Nail In My Heart” as taken from their 1980 record Argybargy. The song would score them considerable success internationally, in particular amping up the reputations of head writers Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

The scene set in the song is one of a broken relationship and a bereft man  left with nothing, found in the bar – or at least what’s left of him. This would be subject matter pretty common to the Squeeze canon up until this point. But, this was their biggest hit to date outside of Britain, soon to grace set lists for the decades to follow, both as a band and in Tilbrook  solo sets too.

The reasons for success of this song may be because it contains elements that are both expected, as well as unexpected. (more…)

Tears For Fears Play “Sowing The Seeds of Love”

Sowing the Seeds of Love Tears For FearsListen to this track by multi-platinum one-time primal screamers and pop song craftsmen Tears For Fears. It’s “Sowing The Seeds of Love”, the title track from their 1989 record Sowing The Seeds of Love.

The immediate reaction to it at the time was to acknowledge its tie to the Beatles, particularly the “All You Need Is Love” era. This song certainly references that earlier song thematically, as well as sonically, with a bit of “I Am The Walrus” thrown in for good measure.

I think too it was a reaction against the loss of political conscience of nations, and their people. This was also a marker of the era, when songs on the radio were no longer making comment on the state of the world. This one was a notable exception.

So what made a big-selling pop band turn in a statement that ran so contrary to the approach of most pop bands looking to trouble the charts? (more…)

Haircut 100 Play “Fantastic Day”

Haircut 100 Pelican WestListen to this track by unabashed brassy British pop song poppists Haircut 100. It’s “Fantastic Day” as taken from their first and last record to feature frontman and chief songwriter Nick Heyward, that being Pelican West from 1982.

That record would yield three big hits, with this one included, charting at #9 in the UK.  Another would be “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)” that showed off their interests in funk-flavoured pop. They’d have another hit from that record, “Love Plus One” that made waves here in Canada, as well as scoring a top 40 placement in the US.

But, this song has always been my favourite from this short-lived band that made a big splash. Of course, they were very much of their time. This song straddles lines that would be tricky today. For one thing, the band employed a full-time saxophonist – Phil Smith. This was easy as pie in the 1980s, of course. Another thing is that they were not ironic in any demonstrative way. They had a happy-go-lucky sort of image that completely sold them to audiences.

That certainly comes through here. Just listen to this song that just crackles with optimism and joie de vivre. If you’ve seen the video for “Fantastic Day”, it’s pretty easy to take it all at face value, with all of the smiles, fake car trips, preppy nautical clothes, and caps worn at jaunty angles.

So if everything was so fantastic, what the heck happened with this band? (more…)

The Kinks Play “Victoria”

The Kinks VictoriaListen to this track by Anglocentric, conceptually-minded Brit-pop forseers The Kinks. It’s “Victoria”, a single as taken from their 1969 album Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire). After a distinguished purple patch of singles, and a slight dip, this was a return to the Billboard charts.

In many ways, The Kinks are the forefathers of Brit-pop more so than the Beatles. Like their ’90s progeny, they dealt in decidedly British themes and presented material through an English cultural lens at a time when gaining an American following was so vital, and so very expected of every rock band coming out of England in the early-to-mid 1960s. Many would get there in varying degrees. The Kinks would, too – eventually. But, the Beatles/Stones/Who triumvirate would shut them out of the top three places in the minds of record buyers in North America at the time.

Arguably, this was down to a Kinks ban in America at just the wrong time; from 1965 until the end of the decade when the American charts were the most receptive to British bands, and just when their classic line-up (with Pete Quaife on bass) was active.  There are a number of theories as to the reasons for the ban, ranging from the alienation of prominent promoters, to their volatile on-stage behaviour (before Oasis, there was the Kinks …), to not paying dues to the appropriate American unions.

So how did they survive, and actually thrive, under these conditions?
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The Smiths Play “Bigmouth Strikes Again”

Listen to this track by Mancunian jangle-merchants The Smiths. It’s “Bigmouth Strikes Again” a 1986 single that also appears on their next-to-last record, The Queen Is Dead. The song reached #26 on the British pop charts that year. But, it would go on to become one of the band’s most memorable hits, and a staple tune to frontman Morrissey’s solo set after The Smiths came to an end.

The Smiths

Johnny Marr’s guitar work distinguishes the song as well, with Marr proving himself to be among the last of the guitar heroes, a disappearing breed by the mid-to-late ’80s. Marr was able to meld a number of musical strands together into a unique whole, from echoey and serrated post-punk playing, to old-school British Invasion jangle, to strident folk-rock strumming that you’re hearing on this track. As such, he would create a signature sound that was widely influential at the time, and that is still referenced by guitarists to this very day.

I remember reading about Modest Mouse looking for a guitar player who “sounded like Johnny Marr”, and  then having Marr himself audition for the job. Oh to be a fly on the wall to see the reactions of other players who also showed up at that audition! Marr of course got that gig, whether that story is mere legend or not.

But, perhaps one of the reasons why “Bigmouth Strikes Again” looms so large in the Smiths sterling catalogue of singles is because it captures Morrissey’s persona as a singer, and as it turns out, as a public figure too. (more…)

Joe Cocker Sings “Feeling Alright”

Joe CockerListen to this track by Sheffieldian blues-rock exemplar Joe Cocker, who today turns 69. It’s “Feeling Alright” as taken from Cocker’s 1969 record With A Little Help From My Friends. The album is well-named, given the range of talent that went into its creation, taking Cocker’s own formidable talents as a given. Among the many contributors to the record as a whole include Jimmy Page, Stevie Winwood, Tony Visconti, Henri McCulloch, and Chris Stainton, among others.

On this track, a cover version of Dave Mason’s song that first was heard by Traffic, Carol Kaye holds down the bottom end on bass guitar, David Cohen on guitar, Paul Humphrey on drums, and Artie Butler on the piano. It’s Butler’s ivory-tinkling that really stands out here, balanced against Cocker’s gruff and impossibly soulful vocals. It’s hard to believe that Butler would make his name later on as a musical director for Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka, among other middle-of-the-road acts. But, there you are.

The concoction made for one of the most memorable songs of the era, eclipsing  the original and creating a template for many versions to follow. This isn’t a bad feat for an interpretive singer at a time when interpreters were making less and less impact covering the material of others – although Cocker would pen tunes on the record as well. So, what’s the difference here? (more…)

The Style Council Play “Shout To The Top”

Here’s a clip of left-leaning young soul rebels and bona fide pop collective The Style Council. It’s “Shout To The Top”, a single which appeared on the UK album Our Favourite Shop, and on the US album Internationalists, both released in their respective markets in 1985. The single appeared in October of 1984 on the British charts where it reached a respectable top ten showing.

Style Council Our Favourite ShopThis was during a time when social and economic issues were particularly polarized in Britain, and in North America as well, which may explain the political undercurrents in this song about being at the end of one’s rope, with nothing left to do but rage against the machine, so to speak. The Style Council helped to pioneer this approach to writing politically informed material as established on their earlier album Café Bleu aka My Ever Changing Moods as it was known in North America. The result was the creation of a sort of pop music political manifesto. Our Favourite Shop puts the band into their sharpest focus.

This artistic fluidity of the band was extensive, mixing Northern soul, jazz, mod-rock, and even early hip-hop sounds. Thematically speaking, they’d aim pretty high too, often bordering on the polemical, and sometimes into downright pretension. This would go south for them later in the decade when they strayed a bit too far, and when popularity and sales began to wane. But, in the mid-80s, leader Paul Weller, who had gained some similar thematic traction when he fronted The Jam, demonstrated his full array of pop smarts in this new musical milieu, along with the political content to be found in his lyrics to go along with them.

That’s why this song just zings. This is a bright, bouncy song about not taking it anymore, a shining soul-pop gem about being tired of being oppressed. You might wonder how it’s possible to get a top ten showing on the charts while making such strident statements about society, even if it is wrapped in a stunning pop sheen. But, this was the ’80s, friends!

Does that mean that audiences were more receptive to political messages in their pop at the time? Or did it mean that they weren’t listening very carefully? Was there another reason? (more…)