Sunday 31 October 2021

Sunday shorts: Her Majesty

The quintessential Sunday short, courtesy of some plucky Scouse band who could go far. So short is this, in fact, that the three studio takes featured here together clock in at a minute and a half...

Friday 29 October 2021

Blue Friday: Halo

I'm not sure if either Depeche Mode in general or Violator in particular get the respect they deserve these days, perhaps because they had the temerity to be bigger in the US than they were at home. Whatever. I can tell you I played my cassette of Violator to death in the latter half of my undergraduate days. It's a dark, dark album, as far removed from Speak & Spell as you can imagine.

Of Halo, songwriter Martin Gore is quoted as saying, "I'm saying 'let's give in to this' but there's also a real feeling of wrongfulness [...] I suppose my songs do seem to advocate immorality but if you listen there's always a sense of guilt."

In other words, this song may well be blue, but also so dark it's almost black... enjoy!

Thursday 28 October 2021

Clandestine Classic LXV - Just A Song

The sixty-fifth 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.

Well now, I haven't done one of these since February, and with good reason: how many classics are there, that I rate but you haven't heard of? It gets harder and harder to think of them. But today's song is a corker and, given that it's an album track from 2004, is at risk of being forgotten. It also gives me the chance to lament a band who missed opportunities, made wrong decisions, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, all of that... so here goes.

It all started so promisingly for Worthing-based four-piece The Ordinary Boys. Any band that takes their name from a Morrissey song has to be worth investigating, right, before you even hear any of the tunes. Then the man himself seemed to endorse them, including the B-side to their second single on a NME cover-mounted CD that he curated. And then there was the fact that singer Samuel preferred to be known only by his surname, Preston. Remind you of anyone?

Musically, The Ordinary Boys were very now, back in 2004/5. They fitted nicely in alongside the sudden plethora of guitar bands that made music for girls to dance to - bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Kaiser Chiefs, The Libertines. They, like these other bands, had a nice line in sing-a-long, chant-like choruses that appealed to the boys whilst the girls were dancing. The future looked rosy.

Debut album Over The Counter Culture sold well enough to make the Top 20 and be certified silver. Follow-up Brassbound did even better, no doubt helped by the single Boys Will Be Boys, a 2-Tonesque song that owed much to The Specials and Madness; it even had a toasted verse by Ranking Junior (son of Ranking Roger from The Beat).

And this is where the wheels started to come off for the band. Somewhere between Boys Will Be Boys' first release and re-release, Preston signed up for Celebrity Big Brother. Now I know I am not young or on-trend or anything else, but in doing this all his hard-earned indie credentials, Moz-endorsement and ska influences got washed down the pan. Gone, in one fell swoop. And not only that, whilst locked in the fabled house he only went and fell for fake celebrity Chantelle Houghton... and married her eight months later... and sold the rights to their wedding to OK! magazine... and separated from her ten months after that. Maybe this is what passes for rock'n'roll behaviour in modern Britain but it's not the trajectory I wanted from my indie heroes. And in-between all that, Preston did himself no favours by walking off-set on Never Mind The Buzzcocks after host Simon Amstell read some extracts from Chantelle's autobiography. Meanwhile, the band were going to rack and ruin, with Preston concentrating more on being Preston than being an Ordinary Boy.

All of which is a shame, because they could really do it. Today's clandestine classic is an atypical offering from their debut album, showcasing arch lyrics, serious subject matter, delicate instrumentation, even a bit of crooning. Witness the opening stanzas:

Oh, to get ahead in this world takes a lot of kind words,
And ruthless damning actions,
And I hope I never have to hurt you, though I gladly will do, my friend.

I'll be reading in the kitchen, sipping lazy cups of tea,
I won't be brooding in my bedroom, with the shutters down on me,
And this song is not cathartic because I've done nothing wrong,
It's just a song...

With lyrics like that, you can see why Morrissey liked them. Indeed, I almost revived the Fantasy Cover Versions series to pitch Moz covering this, but I wanted to write more than that series allows.

Musically, I've just realised this song puts me in mind of late-period Gene. No wonder I like it so much.

Anyway, The Ordinary Boys called time in 2008, reformed in 2011 and have been sporadic ever since. Best to remember them like this though, I reckon, rather than dwell on what might have been.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Sunday shorts: Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Amazing that so many Queen hallmarks can be squeezed into such a short, ostensibly throwaway song, not least a neat solo from Brian to wrap it all up. Now let's go and laze...

Friday 22 October 2021

Blue Friday: Into Temptation

Even without the lyrics, this would be a blue song - listen to those chord changes, the way those strings slip into the minor key. It's a beautiful piece of songwriting, achingly so. And then there are the lyrics, telling a tale of seduction, an illicit affair, and guilt on the part of the tempted at his failure to resist. The protagonist goes from not being able to believe his luck to lying in the arms of hell in three short minutes.

What a song.

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Nameless, Season 2

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

10-15/21: Nameless, Season 2 by Dean Koontz

The blurb: Behind a wall of amnesia, he can’t remember anything. Maybe he can’t bear to. Nameless knows only the mission: Directed by the mysterious Ace of Diamonds, he travels the country, turning predators into prey. But the pain in his past can’t hold him back when dark visions of the future lead him toward his greatest test yet. Nameless is closing in on a revelatory endgame in this collection of short thrillers from #1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz.

The review: regular readers might recall that I read and reviewed the first sextet of Nameless novellas last year. I quite enjoyed them, summarising that "if you like Koontz already, you'll like these too. They won't change the world, but would make intriguing films or, better still, a mini-series." Well, following the series analogy, here's Season 2, another batch of six novellas that progress, explain and ultimately conclude the strange tale of Nameless, an Equalizer for our times. For our protagonist roams the US, dispatching awful people who have somehow escaped justice through formal channels. In that regard, Koontz has created a satisfying set-up.

Of course this is Season 2, so something needs to be a bit different, to prevent it becoming samey. And there is difference; more is made of Nameless's preternatural abilities, specifically his apparent clairvoyance, and how that becomes more frequent. Beyond the utility of this skill in his chosen line of work (foresight enables Nameless to avoid getting killed, and help others more effectively), this precognition also serves to introduce a second story arc, in which our (anti-) hero foresees the imminent rise of crypto-fascist group in his homeland, and increasingly dreams of them carrying out appalling acts. His desire to stop this group before it can really get started becomes woven into the other wrongs that Nameless rights, and provides a theme that runs throughout the six novellas. Given the charismatic but appalling leader of the group, and the actions of his followers, it's hard not to speculate that Koontz was thinking of Trump, the invasion of the Capitol, and the schism of reason in the US right now. Certainly that's a parallel that I could see, intended or otherwise.

The other underlying theme is the true identity of Nameless and his handler, Ace of Diamonds, and what has brought them to this way of life. I think I can avoid a spoiler by hinting that the latter turns out to be interwoven with the crypto-fascist plot mentioned earlier. Anyway, for the most part the big reveal of Nameless and co is handled well - it's a satisfying explanation, albeit one that stretched (but did not break) this reader's credulity on occasion.

Ultimately, this is a sequel series, a follow-up, and the inevitable question must be, does it measure up to what came before? And the simple answer is yes. It has the same strengths as Season 1: well-paced, and with a prosaic style that suits the subject matter well. It has the same weakness too: occasional pontification, the sermon according to Nameless (or Koontz). My Kindle tells me that lots of people are highlighting some of these grand pronouncements but they are mostly just truisms and, if anything, they disrupt rather than add to the storytelling. That said, I again rattled through the six stories that make up Season 2 and, although I viewed with denouement with the plot-scrutinising, plausibility-busting eye of a wannabe novelist (and found it slightly lacking), I still enjoyed these last Nameless tales. I still think they would make a good TV mini-series. I'd certainly watch it.

Bottom line: fast-moving, engagingly written series of stories that will satisfy Koontz fans without winning anyone else over.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★☆☆

Monday 18 October 2021

Monday long song: Comeuppance

This is very much of its time, lost somewhere between shoegaze, Madchester and Britpop, but blimey, Thousand Yard Stare made some lovely sounds with their layered guitars. And you know what? They're back and still sounding good.

Anyway, from very nearly (gulp) thirty years ago, here's the one track of theirs that cracked the main UK top 40: Comeuppance.

For anyone interested (probably just me), they later released an instrumental remix of this entitled Moccapune e.p. - see what they did there? We laughed like drains, et cetera...

Friday 15 October 2021

Blue Friday: Grey Day

From the third Madness album, 7, this is very different from most of the Nutty Boys fare that had propelled them up the charts to that point, a downbeat tune with depressed lyrics and a video full of anxiety dreams. Note also the pallid make-up, the falling backwards, the manic clown grin... even the trademark nutty conga line sees the seven in identical grey suits, peeling off one at a time to enter identical houses. Was fame losing its sheen for the boys? Did they feel on a treadmill? A commercial product, rather than a band, perhaps? Performing in a shop window might be emblematic of that.

All of which speculation makes it even more interesting to learn that Mike Barson wrote this song in 1978, when the band were still The Invaders, but that it didn't get recorded until 7, three years later. Of corse, what's also interesting about that is how much can change in three short years.

Despite the minor keys, brooding sax and atypical video, Grey Day spent ten weeks in the singles chart and reached a highpoint of #4, such was Madness's power at the time. All together now...

In the morning I awake,
My arms, my legs, my body aches,
The sky outside is wet and grey,
So begins another weary day...

We've all been there, right?

Monday 11 October 2021

Monday long song: Sunrise

The closing track of Pulp's final studio album, the Scott Walker produced We Love Life, released a scarcely credible twenty years ago this month.

Friday 8 October 2021

Blue Friday: Anchor

This Friday's blue song came to my attention via the recent equal-parts-gripping-and-frustrating BBC drama Vigil. It's by Novo Amor, about whom I know nothing, and sounds like the sort of song that should be used to soundtrack a car ad, until you look closer at the lyrics and see words like this:

And I hear your ship is comin' in
Your tears a sea for me to swim
And I hear a storm is comin' in
My dear, is it all we've ever been?


Wednesday 6 October 2021

Music Assembly: Vesti la Giubba

I love The Untouchables, the Kevin Costner vehicle directed by Brian De Palma, ostensibly telling the tale of how Eliot Ness brought down Al Capone on charges of tax evasion. For all its faults, it is, as critic Pauline Kael once wrote, "like an attempt to visualise the public's collective dream of Chicago gangsters." Andy Garcia is superb in this film too, and of course Robert De Niro got to play Capone, wielding a baseball bat to memorable effect. Billy Drago, as hitman Frank Nitti, is also underappreciated. Even Costner's occasional woodenness can be excused, as it lends Ness a buttoned-up, stoic air. And of course there is Sean Connery's turn as Irish beat cop Jim Malone, for which he won an Oscar, despite criticism of his Scottish Irish accent. Whatever, for my money the film is beautifully shot, excitingly paced, and well acted across the board. It also has a quite brilliant, evocative score from Ennio Morricone - what more could you want?

Of course one piece of music in the film is not by Morricone. Whilst Nitti is off [spoiler alert] killing Malone, Capone is very visibly at the opera - the perfect alibi. Now I have always struggled with opera, and can't imagine that I would ever go to see one in its entirety. But I can appreciate certain pieces, such as that which Capone watches in The Untouchables. The piece is from Pagliacci (literal translation, "Clowns") by Ruggero Leoncavallo, and is called Vesti la Giubba ("Put on the costume"). In the opera, the protagonist Canio, a clown, must prepare to laugh and perform, despite being heartbroken. This dichotomy of emotion suits the Untouchables scene well, as Capone appears tearful watching the opera, whilst joyful at the news of Malone's demise.

Now I don't know if the music has stayed with me just because I love the film, or because I can actually appreciate it standalone, despite my ignorance of, and general ambivalence towards, opera. Either way, here's Vesti la Giubba in its cinematic context...

...and in full.

Monday 4 October 2021

Where's Captain Kirk?

To which the answer will soon be, in low Earth orbit for all of ten minutes.

It's cool and everything, sure, but I can't help thinking there are better things Jeff Bezos could spend his momey on than sending a rocket-powered phallus into space (just). Our planet is basically screwed, and here he is, jostling for bragging rights with a sorry collection of billionaires, and trying to commercialise space travel. Sigh.

Here's an obvious song, that I love, covered by a band that I also love.

Here's the Spizz Energi original. It's better, isn't it?

Friday 1 October 2021

Blue Friday: Spectre

All the current hoo-ha about No Time To Die makes this as good a moment as any to revisit that time Radiohead tried to do a Bond theme. Ultimately it was passed over, on the grounds that it was too much of a downer, and Sam Smith got the gig instead. But here's Radiohead's Spectre, cunningly overlaid on the actual title sequence by a smart YouTuber.