Listen to this track by scene-solidifying Bristolian trip-hop trio Portishead. It’s “Glory Box”, the closing track to their Mercury Prize-winning 1994 album Dummy. That release set the music press alight with praise even before the band cinched the prize, of course. Part of what it achieved was to shed light on the scene in Bristol which had been brewing for some time by 1994, and before the term “trip-hop” was widely used.
That “Bristol sound” as it was known focused on an amalgam of musical ingredients that certainly included hip hop, but also sixties soundtrack music, dub, soul, jazz, and the blues, among others. The magic to be found in Portishead’s music, with “Glory Box” being a fine example, was that it was very difficult to tell which texture was laid down by the band live in the studio, and which textures they’d sampled from vintage vinyl. There are no seams here on that front, just pure atmosphere.
In this, Portishead were the spearhead for a trend that would become de rigueur for many acts for the rest of the decade and beyond, which was to tie disparate musical landscapes together with a flair for the cinematic. And it proved too that sampled music could do what many traditional genres of music could do, which was to evoke a unified sense of narrative that connects with the human experience in some way. Read more
Listen to this track by London R&B quintet you wouldn’t let your daughter go out with, The Rolling Stones. It’s “Paint It Black”, a number one record released as a stand-alone single in the UK in May of 1966 as the harbinger to their landmark LP Aftermath. In North America, it was added to a modified version of the record as the opening track.
This song by the Stones remains to be one of the most sonically varied and innovative tracks in their now very extensive catalogue. Sure, there’s that undeniable sitar part. But there’s so much more happening around it so as to make that part just one of many important aspects of this song, which seemed to foresee post-punk even before the word “punk” was applied as a musical term.
Of course, this song also caught the band at a crucial point in their career, reaching new compositional heights. It also was a time when the dynamics within the band were shifting greatly, and not completely comfortably, either. Read more
Listen to this track by Swindonian pop perfectionists and Little England observers XTC. It’s “No Thugs In Our House”, a single as taken from their 1982 double album English Settlement. On that record, writers Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding explore the English identity as could, and perhaps still can, be found in small towns all over the country.
“No Thugs In Our House” appeared in an historic context, with racially motivated violence and the rise of British national parties characterizing the social landscape in Britain in the early 1980s. The National Front in particular was a high profile group that ignited racially motivated incidents and hate speech at the time that began to seep into the public consciousness, poisoning the political viewpoints of many including the young. They framed incoming immigrants as scapegoats. These “foreigners” were supposedly taking all the good jobs, somehow soaking up a disproportionate percentage of social benefits at the same time, and generally encroaching upon traditional (read: white) British culture. In 2016, this brand of propaganda as it covers up austerity measures of sitting governments, and as it provides traction for fringe single-issue groups still sounds pretty familiar.
But, having said all that, I don’t think that white supremacist groups are the target in this song at all. In many ways, the criticism here in this song has more sinister and wider-reaching implications. Read more
Listen to this track by Croydon London three-piece Noisettes. It’s “Don’t Give up”, a single which would eventually appear on their 2007 debut album What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf? .
The band appeared in a new paradigm of pop music when songs had a life on more than one platform simultaneously. This is a good example of that, making it a true 21st century track. The song would also appear in other media as well, most notably on television shows and movie soundtracks, and in video games. It seems to lend itself to alternate media, being a particularly propulsive song, full of frenetic energy that made it a pretty common choice for montage scenes. The one I remember it from was the aborted Bionic Woman series, in a scene wherein (a very, very grim) Jamie Sommers is in training with her new bionic limbs as this song cheers her on. Maybe too that the idea of “don’t give up” is pretty applicable across many different contexts. It fits within the drama, whatever that drama happens to be.
Another thing to which this song connects on a basic level is the idea of struggle and conflict in general, attached to the musical traditions, and their social origins, from which this band draws. Read more
Listen to this track by Bristolian trip-hop representatives along with one-time Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser. It’s “Teardrop”, the second single off of their, well, massive 1998 album Mezzanine. It remains to be their most commercially succesful set. Not bad for the supposed difficult third album, although it would prove to be difficult in other ways.
By the time of this album’s release, a couple of things had changed. First, trip hop as a genre was morphing, including more ambient electronica textures and traditional rock/pop structures. Second, things had become tense between the three members of the band, with conflicting priorities and contradictory directions in the studio delaying this album’s release. Founding member Andrew “Mushroom” Vowles would depart during this period, due to the dreaded “creative differences”. One of those differences was being voted down for his assertion that the band should work with another singer on this track instead of Fraser; Madonna, who was excited to work with Massive Attack on this song. What would that have sounded like?
Yet, this song belied all the strife that surrounded the making of this record, in part thanks to the distinct and serene quality of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal, with lyrics written by her. Those lyrics have been (mis)heard and (mis)interpreted by listeners many years after its release. Maybe what makes this song so special is that it somehow goes past literal meaning completely anyway, and moves into an area of meaning where words aren’t even the point. Read more
Listen to this track by hitmaking and highly festive British glam-rock purveyors Slade. It’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”, an enormous 1973 hit single that snagged the highly coveted Christmas number one spot on the British charts that year.
The song was an amalgam of elements that writers Noddy Holder and Jim Lea had lying around, from as far back as 1967. This might explain its slightly psychedelic feel. Guitarist and singer Holder had the melody to the chorus, and bassist Lea had the melody to the verses. Holder and Lea fashioned the festive lyrics and the band recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City in the summer of 1973.
This song would achieve more than just impressive chart showings and eventual platinum sales. Holder’s “It’s Chrrriissssstmas!!” screech would become a personal trademark for years to come during personal appearances in concert and on television. Beyond that, the song would gain a place in the DNA of a whole culture, helping to reveal the values of that culture more precisely at just the right time of year. Read more
Listen to this track by former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.
For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.
From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general. Read more
Listen to this track by sisterly Watford, Hertfordshire trio The Staves. It’s “Black and White”, a single as taken from this year’s If I Was, their second full length record. The band is led by the voices of three sisters; Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Stavely-Taylor. Shortening their name for the stage one night on the sign-up sheet at a regular open mic night, the three sisters became The Staves.
This second album comes after the release of several EPs, and an eventual debut record in Dead & Born & Grown in 2012 (produced by two generations of famous Johns’ – Glyn and Ethan!). In the middle of all that, the band served as an opening act to The Civil Wars and Florence & The Machine, and provided back up duties on recordings by Tom Jones, and Fionn Regan. Additionally, The Staves gave performances at SXSW that exposed them to an American audience. They also supported Bon Iver, which led to Justin Vernon producing this record, capturing their harmony-centric feel that bypasses traditional British folk-rock, and instead connects with a sound that is more transatlantic instead.
There’s a sense of menace in this song, which on first listen may not be immediately apparent, just because the combination of voices is so compellingly beautiful. There is also something to be said for local music scenes that encourage young musicians to create this kind of alchemy together, which is certainly the case here, with a single venue serving as a platform for an international path to success. Read more
Listen to this track by Bexleyheath-born singer-songwriter and art rock innovator Kate Bush. It’s “Cloudbusting”, a top twenty single as taken from her 1985 masterpiece The Hounds Of Love. The song was inspired by the story of psychoanalyst, inventor, physics theorist, and (some would say) kook Wilhelm Reich and his relationship with his son Peter, the story of which Bush read about in the younger Reich’s book A Book of Dreams.
An immigrant from Austria to America, Reich the elder was personally acquainted to and worked directly with both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, arguably bridging their two disciplines of psychoanalysis and particle physics. Reich was a contributor to both fields, interested in how human sexuality and particle energy converged. Particularly in his later years, he sought ways of finding the Life Force as linked to the human libido as an observable physical phenomenon, leading up to his theories of orgone energy, his invention of orgone “accumulators” that would collect and harness that energy, and even ways to use it to manipulate the environment with the invention of “cloudbusters”. This device was, effectively, a weather control machine that was meant to excite the orgone energy particles in cloud formations in order to make it rain — literally.
That seems like an unlikely subject for a top twenty UK hit, right? And yet, Bush found herself drawn into Reich’s story, and that of his son. Even the video (starring Donald Sutherland as Reich!) reflects the drama that unfolded surrounding Reich, his life in rural Maine at his home Orgonon (named after orgone energy, of course), and his unpleasant encounters with the establishment, who eventually jailed him in part for his theories connected to sexuality. What were some of the common threads that tie it all together in this song? Well, amid all the sex and science, I think what this song is really about is perception, specifically from the point of view of a child to his parent. Read more
Listen to this track by Madchester scene-stealers and dance-indie-psych-rock purveyors Happy Mondays. It’s “Kinky Afro”, their top five UK hit single that would otherwise appear on their landmark 1990 album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches, their third LP. That release would consolidate the band on the scene as being one of the key acts coming out of Manchester by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. It would also provide an important template for many bands from similar geographic origins to follow during that decade, including The Charlatans and Oasis.
Along with The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays were among the acts that best helped to represent a few movements during that time period in Greater Manchester. First, their output would re-emphasize something that had been firmly established in the 1960s; that music scenes springing from the provinces in Britain were in many cases just as vital as those centered in London, which was still viewed as the seat of the industry. Second, the sound which the Mondays had developed since their formation in 1980 showed that rock bands still had musical regions to explore that remained largely untapped.
But, what else did Happy Mondays bring to that scene, and what do they deliver on this song? Well, I think it has to do with how rock music needed to develop by that time, and how much a sense of the dark side needed to be re-injected into the mix, too.