Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result was one of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more
Listen to this track by South African “world music” pop alchemists featuring lead singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, Juluka. It’s “Scatterlings of Africa”, an international hit as taken from the band’s 1982 record Scatterlings, their fourth. This single received much attention on the Western charts, even reaching heavy rotation on video channels and programs at the time.
To contrast that, the band itself was practically illegal in their home country of South Africa. With black and white members, they were not even legally allowed perform in public and were banned from the radio under the Apartheid system. Along with the rest of the band, singer and songwriter Clegg and vocalist and guitarist Sipho Mchunu were the embodiment of a forbidden cultural unity in South Africa, performing a fusion cuisine of styles presented in both English and in Zulu languages, often within the confines of the same song.
All the while, Juluka had to keep a low official profile since forming at the end of the sixties. Their popularity was truly grassroots, eventually reaching the rest of the world by the 1980s with this hit song on international radio and on video channels. What was it about this song, and others that riled up the South African establishment so much? More importantly, how did this song fly in the face of Western mores and customs around geopolitics and race in very much the same way? Read more
Listen to this track by Indiana-born and bred heartland troubadour John Mellancamp, aka Johnny Cougar, aka John Cougar, aka John Cougar Mellencamp (whew!). It’s “Jack and Diane”, his enormous 1982 number one hit single as taken from the album American Fool, his fifth.
The song had enormous impact not only on the charts, but on pop culture during a time when music was becoming more and more stylistically ghettoized. As popular as it was, and is, there’s just something about this one that set it apart, seeming to have a cinematic quality that very few songs at the time contained. By 1982, “Jack and Diane” sounded like a progression for Mellencamp, who was then gathering momentum for a classic run of singles during the eighties and into the early nineties.
“Jack and Diane” concerns itself with two American kids growing up in the heartland and unsure of their places in the world. And yet, as with so many records that help define the times in which they’re released, there is an ocean of meaning underneath the scant story presented here. And ironically, much of it only comes to light as one gets older. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more
Listen to this track by former mod representatives turned classic rock institution The Who. It’s “Who Are You”, the concluding song that served as the title track to their 1978 album Who Are You. That record would represent the end of an era for the band when drummer Keith Moon passed away a month after it was released. The attached rendition of the song here is featured in the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright.
In some ways, this song and its album marked the end of an era for rock music, too. By the end of the seventies, popular music was exponentially dividing into multiple streams including punk, new wave, and disco. Certain tracks on this album make direct reference to that. Meanwhile, the band itself was struggling along after a three-year recording hiatus with Moon’s health in visible decline. The dynamics between musicians and in turn between the band and the production team that included Glyn Johns and Jon Astley were beginning to fray at the ends as well. These were not easy sessions. Perhaps this was the result of a shot of self-awareness at being among the second generation of rock musicians beginning to sense the end of their prime period.
As usual on this particular song, guitarist and head songwriter Pete Townshend’s well-trodden themes of image, identity, and truth are firmly in place. This time, they come with a bona fide autobiographical component to the story that perhaps goes against expectations when it comes to old rockers versus new punks. Read more
Listen to this track by post-rocking, cinematically inclined Oxfordian quintet Radiohead. It’s “Daydreaming”, a single as taken from the band’s ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, released digitally a little over one month ago. The new record will be available in CD and in vinyl form by June 17, which is coming up fast. A special edition with two more tracks is to follow in September.
The accompanying video, starring singer Thom Yorke walking through corridors and opening doors that lead into disconnected locations was directed by none other than P.T Anderson, known for films like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. The director had previously worked with Radiohead orchestral linchpin and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, whose soundtrack work is featured in several of Anderson’s films.
In a similar fashion, the video for this song was approached as a bona fide film project, submitted to selected theatres directly as 35mm prints. I think this song as it is portrayed in the film is very much in line with what Radiohead have explored previously, namely the nature of existence and where we seem to be going as a civilization. Read more
Listen to this track by Chicagoan progressive pop-rock sextet Wilco. It’s “Deeper Down”, a gem of a song as it appeared on their 2009 album Wilco (The Album), their sixth LP.
At this point in their arc, the band as led by frontman and head writer Jeff Tweedy had drifted away from the more abrasive and experimental textures they had established at the beginning of that decade. In their place, they added more vintage AM/FM radio textures and more accessible song structures. But at the same time, the proficiency in the playing and in the arrangements were on another level from their past output. Thematically speaking, there was certainly a lot going on that was not traditional for rock songwriting.
In “Deeper Down”, and using various strains of rock music, particularly progressive rock, Tweedy takes on a subject that writers of all stripes have taken on for thousands of years; the mystery of life itself. Of course in this song, he goes one better. He doesn’t try to solve it. Read more