Saturday 16 March 2013

"Johnny Marr, he plays guitar"

Johnny at The Waterfront, Norwich, 11th March 2013Johnny Marr is all over the airwaves and interweb lately. Firstly, he picks up a Godlike Genius award from the NME. Then his new album comes out. A rash of YouTube clips appear of him playing riffs from Smiths songs, causing much pant-wetting amongst fanboys and obsessives, no doubt. Then I'll be blowed if he doesn't set off on tour around the UK. Blimey.

Now I've played the guitar since I was about eight. I'm not great, in part because I've always been too lazy to practise. Don't get me wrong, I can play all manner of chords, and do plenty of lightweight stuff like a bit of picking, hammering on, bar chords, all that. The bottom line is that, although I can make a nice enough noise, I'll never be a great guitarist... but I know enough to recognise guitar greatness when I hear it. And to know that if I could magically play like any guitarist there has ever been, I would almost certainly opt to play like Johnny. So, it was with great excitement that I noted his tour was coming to my adopted home town.

I should add that I haven't followed Marr's post-Smiths career with the same dedication I have Morrissey's. I haven't bought it all, in other words. I've got some: an Electronic 7"; a The The CD single blessed with Marr's tunesmithery; albums by Kirsty McColl and Billy Bragg featuring Marr collaborations; a Cribs album; and a Modest Mouse album that I almost certainly wouldn't have bought if not for its Johnny content. But there are plenty of gaps in the collection. I didn't buy the Johnny and the Healers album, for starters. But having got myself a ticket for the gig, I thought I ought to familiarise myself with what I might hear, and so bought a copy of The Messenger. And although it's only March, I think I may already have found my album of the year.

Marr has a definite sound: there are chord progressions, chiming sounds, that whole rhythm-as-lead thing, that are unmistakably him. And they're all there, on The Messenger. But there's a lot more besides. The diversity of his collaborations over the last twenty five years (yes, it really has been that long, Smiths fans) has left its mark, so much so that it's tempting to play "spot the era" with each of The Messenger's twelve tracks. You know, that sounds like Electronic, that's a bit Cribs-y, that could have been on Strangeways... It's tempting, and it's dangerous, because yes, whilst I'd love to know what Morrissey would have sung over the top of The Right Thing Right and, especially, Say Demesne, that is to detract from the lyrics that Marr has penned, and delivers in a pleasantly surprising, strong voice. Whereas so many of the Mozfather's lyrics were introspective, Marr has a broader, outward-looking perspective. In tone and content, this alone should be enough to prevent comparisons between Smiths tracks and those on this new album. So I'll just limit myself to one more, because New Town Velocity is blessed with quintessential Marr chord progressions and shimmering guitar, so much so that I cannot listen to it without imagining Steven Patrick crooning over the top... especially in the last 35 seconds, when the backing vocals are crying out to be sung by Kirsty...

So, the album's brilliant - really, properly outstanding. But can Johnny, the arch collaborator and perennial sideman, cut it as a frontman live?

Taking to the stage looking for all the world like an older, cooler Tony Montana, toting a Fender instead of "his little friend", it quickly became apparent that yes, he can. First off, he can sing. His voice may not be the most distinctive, and he may not have the widest range, but on the night I saw him he was note-perfect for the whole gig, delivering songs old and new with equal gusto and vocal strength throughout. And of course there's the guitar - playing a beautiful Fender Jaguar for most of the gig, and supported by a very able sideman, Johnny faithfully recreated the fret-based complexity of the new album and some older classics too. And what of that back-catalogue? Well, there were two Electronic tracks - Forbidden City and, in a change to the setlist, Getting Away With It. These were well received, but the real crowd delirium was reserved for four Smiths tracks: Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before, an incendiary London, Bigmouth Strikes Again and an encore-closing How Soon Is Now?. Wisely not trying to sing like Moz, Johnny put his own vocal spin on these tracks, all of which worked with the possible exception of a somewhat innocuous "whoo" during London. And here, as my American friends might say, is the thing: successive incarnations of Morrissey's backing band have, at various times, been rightly accused of grievous musical harm to The Smiths' back-catalogue. Kinder critics would call it "a more muscular approach" to the music. Others, less kindly, would call it butchery. The beauty, then, of Marr's Smiths renditions is that musically they are perfect. The guitar parts are played properly, their complexity fully realised live, not bludgeoned through with broad, open chords. Johnny plays them how they're supposed to be played, simple as that. Whisper it quietly but, on the evidence of these four songs at least, Marr performs Smiths tracks better than Morrissey.

And whilst I'm being controversial, let me put one other theory forward - if Johnny had released The Messenger in 1989, I wonder if his career would have eclipsed Morrissey's in the years since? Easy now, I'm just thinking aloud... but the album really is that good. Go and buy it now and catch Johnny live if you can. To get you in the mood, here, courtesy of YouTube, is a radio session version of the aforementioned New Town Velocity, one of the mellower moments on The Messenger.

Footnote: no kudos points for identifying the quote in the title of this post. If you're a regular reader of this blog, there's an 85.7% chance you know and love A Tribe Of Toff's finest work...

Monday 4 March 2013

"Your prize is to read the credits in a style of my choosing..." (aka My Top Ten Car Songs)

The first in what is likely to be a sporadic series of me blogging in the style of another whose blog posts I read and admire, in the hope that you will then go and read their blog too. First up for the "in the style of" treatment is Rol, whose My Top Ten blog will appeal to admirers of good music, insightful writing and list-making. Inevitably this tribute will only ever be a pale imitation but equally, Rol, should you ever require a guest post, here's my audition...

So let's cut to the chase. We're talking cars here - not specific makes and models (otherwise I'd have Billy Bragg's From A Vauxhall Velox in there), nor automotive components and car parts (otherwise Airbag by Radiohead would be threatening the top spot). No, we're just talking cars in general, as an abstract concept. Sorry but my gaff, my rules. Here we go.

10. Gary Numan - Cars

You might have expected this to top the chart but no. I don't think it's aged that well and, after it's advert-based ubiquity a couple of years ago, it only makes it here because it's where Gary feels safest of all. Maybe he had a lots of airbags.

9. Tracy Chapman - Fast Car

This was all over the hall of residence in my first year at uni. What a voice.

8. The Wedding Present - Convertible

I could just have easily have chosen Sports Car from Gedge's auto-themed Mini e.p... but I didn't, because this one has a bit more jingle in its jangle, and that's what we all secretly want from our Weddoes.

7. Rose Royce - Car Wash

Not least because this has such an infectious guitar motif. Oh, and a righteous bass part too.

6. Elastica - Car Song

Every shining bonnet
Makes me think of my back on it...

Justine wants to dent her bodywork with you... well not you, actually, unless your name is Damon or Brett...

5. Adam and the Ants - Car Trouble, parts I and II

You might have seen me very busy at the weekend
Licking and polishing the beep-beeps into shape,
And then it's proudly up the M1, M2, M3
And keep your feet off the upholstery Ronnie!

Pre-fame Ant, and much loved in my house when I was a nipper thanks to my big bro's good taste. Good to see he (Adam, not my brother) has conquered enough demons to be back doing what he does best. Stick with this, there's a very definite change of gear (boom-boom) as Part II kicks in, and it's excellent.

4. The Beatles - Drive My Car

And with that euphoric "beep-beep, beep-beep, yeah!" a thousand radio stations had their traffic jingle.

3. Gene - A Car That Sped

I don't recall the time we spent,
It's hidden in a car that sped
To it's death and to it's rest.
So give up the thoughts that bring you dread
And hide them in the car that sped
Me to my death and to my rest.

Rol might have predicted my inclusion of this.

2. Madness - Driving In My Car

Last week it went round the clock.
I also had a little knock.
I bent in somebody's fender,
He learnt not to park on a bender.
Ha ha ha!

No song better captures what it is to have your first car, a clapped-out jalopy that requires work all the time and eats money, yet you love it all the same because it's yours and gives you freedom. Mine was a 903cc, 4-speed, snot-green Fiat Uno with rust and a minor oil leak. Yours?

1.Radiohead - Killer Cars

The brilliant evocation of the Nutty Boys is only kept off the top spot by the brilliance in every respect of Bends-era Radiohead. Imagine being in a band so good you can let this track go as a B-side (to High And Dry) - that was the luxurious position Thom and the boys found themselves in back then. And whilst many of the songs in this run-down celebrate the joy of driving, young Master Yorke is more concerned that that every time we venture out in our cars we may be killed.

Don't die on the motorway
The moon would freeze, the plants would die
I couldn't cope if you crashed today
All the things I forgot to say
I'm going out for a little drive
And it could be the last time you see me alive
What if the car loses control?
What if there's someone overtaking?
Wrap me up in the back of the trunk
Packed with foam and blind drunk
But they won't ever take me alive
'Cause they all drive killer cars.

Increase the amount of Radiohead in your life here

Woody Guthrie deserves a special mention for his onomatopoeic Car Song, which would have placed at eleven on this chart, and, well, just for being Woody Guthrie, without whom... etc. And if you want to see a car being used as a musical instrument check out the somewhat mind-boggling Needing/Getting by Ok Go. Oh, and bonus points to anyone recognising the source of the quote in this post's title. Beyond that, these are (adopts gravelly Clarkson man-voice) the best car songs... in the world. Unless you can tell me different?

That's it Rol, how did I do?

Friday 1 March 2013

Clandestine Classic XXXIII - Good Fortune

Slow Emotion ReplayThe thirty-third post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Picture the scene. I'm sat in my office, running down the clock on another Friday evening. All my colleagues in neighbouring offices have long since departed, so I've got the radio tuned to 6 Music and slightly cranked. The first thing I hear is the tail-end of a song that sounds for all the world like Talk Of The Town-era Chrissie Hynde backed by Berry, Buck and Mills from mid-to-late '80s R.E.M. And God, it sounded good. Just who was this, and how come I'd never heard the song before?

Thinking my DAB radio's scrolling information display would come to the rescue, I gathered that up and had a closer look but again I only caught the tail-end: "rvey". PJ Harvey then, I reckoned. Armed with that supposition and a couple of keywords from the chorus, I was able to fill in the blanks thanks to YouTube. Okay, yes, I could have just looked at the show's playlist on the 6 Music website, but where's the fun/detective work in that? Either way, that's how I discovered that the Hynde/Berry/Buck/Mills hybrid was, in fact, PJ Harvey, 2000 vintage, performing today's clandestine classic, Good Fortune.

I'll be honest, prior to this I was largely unmoved by Polly Harvey. I had one album by her, 2003's To Bring You My Love which I had bought on a "what's the worst that can happen" whim after spotting it for the princely sum of £2. As it turned out, the worst that could happen was that it would sit, mostly unplayed, on a shelf, gathering dust. But hearing Good Fortune on the radio changed that, because it was a song that I couldn't get out of my head: the Hyndesque delivery, the chugging rhythm, the memorable lyrical touches. I sang this in the car, in the shower, on the walk to work... and, once there, I watched the video on YouTube more times than the corporate Internet police would like. In short, I was hooked.

Later that week, I had a few minutes spare in which to browse in a high street record store (I know, how 1990s). On a whim, I flicked through the H's and found precisely one CD by Miss Harvey - Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea from 2000. And there it was, track two: Good Fortune. Outperforming even my previous Harvey-related bargain-hunting, this set me back a ridiculous £1.99. And this time, the worst that could happen is the discovery of a consistently astounding album that has been on almost permanent rotation in the car stereo ever since. I subsequently discovered that it won the 2001 Mercury Prize, so it must have been critically acclaimed at the time - indeed, I wondered how it could have passed me by. I'm making up for lost time now though.

Good Fortune was the first single from the album, and limped to a lowly 41 in the UK single chart. I don't understand this. If you asked me to name 40 better songs from the whole of 2000, I couldn't. I doubt I could name five. Funny lot, the record-buying public. As for Polly, she's still doing her thing, and in fact became the first artist to win the Mercury Prize twice when 2011's Let England Shake took home the cheque gong. She has quite a back-catalogue, and I fully intend to explore it - you probably should too. What am I saying, you probably already have, you discerning devil.

As a minimum, I strongly suggest you scoop up today's clandestine classic by purchasing Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Yes, you'll pay a bit more than I did, but hey, you didn't go to an actual, physical record shop, did you? So stop your whining! Alternatively, you could just watch the video for Good Fortune on YouTube and, like me, have a second revelation - not only is the song fantastic, Polly herself is a bit, well, there's no other way of putting it, sexy. It's a good job I'm an old man these days, settled in life and love, otherwise PJ is exactly the kind of raven-haired indie-chick that would inspire a bit of a crush in me (see also: Louise from Sleeper, Sonya from Echobelly, Natasha from Bat For Lashes, etc). But where were we - oh yes, YouTube. Enjoy.