Listen 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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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.
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. Read the rest of this entry
Listen 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? Read the rest of this entry
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.
This 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? Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by British glam-rock vehicle Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel. It’s Harley’s biggest hit “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)”, a UK chart smash in February 1975, and equally well received in Europe and in Australia. It appears on the LP The Best Years of Our Lives, their best selling record.
For many, this song is a sonic time machine, taking the listener straight back to the last days of the British glam-rock heyday, and a hair’s breadth from the dawn of punk rock. Thanks to being so tied into the consciousness of a generation of listeners, it would be re-released a number of times over the years, enjoying resurgence after resurgence, in part thanks to its inclusion in movie soundtracks (The Full Monty, Velvet Goldmine, and others) and in British TV commercials, too.
Ironically, Harley’s most popular song came out of circumstances that were less about his enduring success as a songwriter, and more about his career coming to an end as he knew it.
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Listen to this track by ’60s British blues-rock progenitors Fleetwood Mac. It’s their pre-Rumors, proto-metal 1970 single “The Green Manalishi (with The Two Prong Crown)”, a song about greed, and possibly about a disturbed state of mind, too. This is a composition from one of the group’s founders Peter Green, one of the finest guitarists of the era.
After their start as a blues band that covered Chicago blues and R&B standards, Green had moved Fleetwood Mac away from a blues purist approach. His material drew the group into a space that provided a more defined template for blues-rock and metal into the next decade. He would write the band’s most enduring songs during its first incarnation; “Man of The World”, “Oh Well”, “Black Magic Woman” (covered famously by Santana), and others.
But, on a personal level a great distance would open up between Green and his bandmates. This was due in part to his excessive LSD use and the beginnings of his struggles with schizophrenia, undiagnosed at the time.
Months before he left the ‘Mac to the leadership of co-founders Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, he wrote this song after waking from a vivid nightmare. But, what lies behind this song, apparently driven as it is by the forces of darkness? Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by British post-punk by way of soul music collective Dexys Midnight Runners. It’s their second UK single and first number one hit “Geno”, as taken from their 1980 album Searching For the Young Soul Rebels, their debut.
A few years before their Trans-Atlantic, and worldwide hit “Come On Eileen” for which they are best (perhaps solely) known outside of the UK, it was this song that made their name, eschewing the usual post-punk textures of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Instead, this tune embraces Northern Soul and ’60s mod-scene flavouring instead. Guitars, bass, and drums were therefore augmented by Hammond organ, and big horns – classic and essential soul elements, all.
Clearly there were links to the burgeoning second wave of Ska in Britain as well, with bands like Madness and the Specials using a similar approach, instrumentally speaking. But, in some ways, Dexy’s provided a stronger tie to music as created and championed in Britain from the mid-60s.
“Geno” is exhibit A, a tune that is named after Geno Washington, an American soul singer based in Britain around this same mid-60s period. Washington was the frontman to The Ram Jam Band, a popular showband who’s audiences were made up of US servicemen (like Washington himself had been), and British soul and R&B fans alike.
But by 1979-80, what was it that Dexy’s were saying about the state of musical play by the time this song came out? Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by British homebody singer-songwriter and record producer Kate Bush. It’s “King Of The Mountain”, a single as taken from 2005′s critically acclaimed Aerial. This record was her first double album, and one that had tremendous success when it was released in November of that year.
This song, the lead single which was released roughly a month previous to the album, would score an instant #4 on the UK charts, and hit top ten positions all over the world. But along with the rest of the new album, it had taken her a while to deliver it – 12 years.
Since 1993′s The Red Shoes, Bush had removed herself from public life. This wasn’t necessarily because the record industry got her down. But, because like in anyone’s life, she had other priorities; buying a new home in Devon, fixing it up, building a home studio to work quietly in, and eventually becoming a mum, too.
When you’re in the pop music industry, this kind of thing isn’t always allowed. The penalty is often that you get called an ‘eccentric’, a recluse, “past it”, or maybe just an underachiever. The story on Kate Bush remained uncertain for many years. All the while, Bush still had musical ideas percolating as everyone hoped she would. But, what does this song say about her view on the whole biz we call show and the demands of fame on artists? Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by modern Glaswegian folk-rock outfit with big pop hooks, Snowgoose. It’s their single “Harmony Springs”, the title track from their full-length album of the same name, Harmony Springs. n
The record was released in vinyl form in time for Record Store Day this past April. But, it’s due to be released in all forms on October 30th – next week!
The band who created it enjoy an impressive pedigree, featuring members of both Soup Dragons and BMX Bandits (represented by guitarist and songwriter Jim McCulloch) and the mighty Teenage Fanclub (specifically guitarist Raymond McGinley). Dave McGowan (Isobel Campbell, Belle & Sebastian) on bass, Stuart Kidd on drums, and vocalist Anna Sheard round out the line-up. The band started off as an acoustic trio, later expanding to a quintet with McKidd and McGinley rounding out the sound and adding in a bit of electricity.
The record was laid down in Norfolk, and in their home town of Glasgow. Another Fannies connection is Norman Blake, who contributed to the project, as did noted violinist John McCusker, The Bluebells’ Dave McCluskey and Giant Sand’s Peter Domberknowsky. Not too shabby then, personnel-wise.
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Listen to this track by primo rock deconstructionist quintet from Oxford, Radiohead. It’s their 2001 single “Pyramid Song” as taken from their second release of that decade Amnesiac, a record that served as a sister album to 2000′s Kid A.
The song and the album off of which it comes had tremendous impact even after the previous tremendous impact of Kid A. That album certainly subverted expectations, much to the delight/revulsion of many at the time. Shedding guitar-driven tunes as established on Brit-pop era The Bends and on the neo-prog watershed OK Computer, and instead embracing laptop technology and treated sounds was the stylistic shift that stole the headlines at the time.
Even still, during this period in the life of the band, that shift was too simple to be the whole picture. And “Pyramid Song” helps to fill in the gaps, with those computer-generated textures being tempered with sumptuous and hypnotic strings, disorienting time-shifted piano lines, wordless vocal backing (a sign of the song’s origins, inspired by Charles Mingus’ “Freedom”) and with Phil Selway’s fantastic jazz drumming.
But besides a number of musical ingredients out of which they were fashioning the sound of their newest single using the latest technology, the band was also exploring some very old, and eternally pertinent themes while they were doing so.
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