Monday, 29 June 2015

500 Words


Back in March I was one of the judges for the BBC's 500 Words competition. I was assigned fiction from the 5-9 year old category, so I read lots of stories about guinea pigs and pets, dragons and witches, dinosaurs, magical food, making wishes, siblings and teachers and parents, superheroes, and accounts of last night's dreams. I also read stories that were incredibly sad when you read between the lines, stories focussing on being brave, ways to overcome bullies, or children finding gold so they were not poor any more. Stories that said a lot about the child's real life, yet also made me smile at times, such as this:
"One upon a time there lived a very lonely girl called Sarah. She lived with her mum but she had no dad because they had got divorced. Her mum’s a lovely lady except she made horrible food and the worst puddings ever that tasted of gung and smelt horrible."
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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Love Spreads


Band: The Stone Roses
Album: Second Coming
Year: 1994
Label: Geffen
Status: Still going
Love Spreads was the first release from Second Coming, the Stone Roses’ long-awaited second album. It’s famed for its virtuoso John Squire power guitar: from the distinctive opening notes to the solos, the guitar can barely be controlled, like it wants to bust out. Bends stretch the sounds out, sounds you can ride. It’s not all his show though: the whole band come together in something timeless and perfect. There’s pace. A journey. Believe, and see the light.

Love Spreads is about Jesus as a black woman. About female strength, female power to save, about love and forgiveness. Their previous single had been I Am The Resurrection, also about the depiction of Jesus. Second Coming indeed. The album’s opening track is Breaking Into Heaven. A statement of intent? Or because we all dream of meeting the dead again, those we’ve lost, as referenced in How Do You Sleep? Is it all just about having a second chance?
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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over


Band: The Charlatans
Album: The Charlatans
Year: 1995
Label: Beggars Banquet Records
Status: Still going
This song, recorded in Wales and released the same week as the Blur vs Oasis Britpop nonsense, was The Charlatans’ biggest hit since The Only One I Know. Its upbeat hummable tune and nice Rob Collins piano work has an echo of the Rolling Stones.

What’s it about? A difficult time, the sun going down, needing something to cling to – but there’s nothing there. A song to someone sun-connected who doesn’t follow the line, someone in the only place that can be a home. Burn everything down and go there.

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Life Is Sweet


Band: Chemical Brothers
Album: Exit Planet Dust
Year: 1995
Label: Junior Boy’s Own
Status: Still going
The Chemical Brothers are big beat specialists and masters of psychedelic electronic dance. This song is a collaboration with their friend Tim Burgess from The Charlatans. The muffled bassline is joined by their usual kicking dance beats, and holds its own; but coupled with Tim Burgess’ distorted voice we get something otherworldly, spacey, an aural trip punctuated by the band’s usual “Yeah!” and shriek samples. Madness, but it works. Oh boy, does it ever.

More madness in the video, where the Brothers run some kind of mental asylum and control people with music, making the unfortunates smile, shake, and bounce to the band’s will (just as the Chems do with us on the dancefloor). An institutionalised Tim Burgess is also trapped in their claustrophobic nightmare and the confusion of cables controlling things illustrates the bureaucratic truth of places of confinement: so complex they are untameable, errors inevitable, programming can break.
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Friday, 19 June 2015

Blinded By The Sun

Band: The Seahorses
Album: Do It Yourself
Year: 1997
Label: Geffen Records
Status: Disbanded 1999
John Squire had played guitar in The Stone Roses (we saw how that ended earlier, on page 87). He isn’t just a musician though, he’s also an artist, and it was his work that adorned the covers of most Stone Roses singles and both their albums (the dolphin cover for Fools Gold and the lemons cover for their first album being the most famous). It’s no surprise that a talented creator wouldn’t give up. He formed The Seahorses. Do It Yourself was their debut album, and was a platinum hit, launching them into space just like in Blinded By The Sun’s video.

This song has a slow pace but power behind it, rotating around Chris Helme’s focussed delivery of the northern lyrics (the echoes of “Don’t get clever with me, lad!” will be familiar to every Mancunian boy). As we’d expect with Squire there’s justifiably attention-seeking guitar work throughout. Stabbing orchestral strings occasionally punctuate the tune, adding to the high production value feel. Even in zero gravity there’s something weighty enough to sustain itself here.
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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Go Home


I like games which tell stories. Recently I have been enjoying a computer game genre sometimes described as "walking simulators" - games which aren't based on fast action, shooting, jumping and so on, but are instead more introspective affairs utilising exploration and story as their main elements, occasionally with a few puzzles. Last night I played Gone Home and recommend it if you're interested in this genre.

The setting:
June 7, 1995. 1:15 AM.
You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something's not right. Where is everyone? And what's happened here?
Gone home is an interactive exploration simulator. Interrogate every detail of a seemingly normal house to discover the story of the people who live there. Open any drawer and door. Pick up objects and examine them to discover clues. Uncover the events of one family's lives by investigating what they've left behind.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Drugs Don’t Work

Band: The Verve
Album: Urban Hymns
Year: 1997
Label: Hut
Status: Disbanded 2009
There’s usually a comedown after a high. And so we come to this haunting and heartfelt track, beautifully played and sung, yet with the most horrible imagery of foreboding ever heard in a popular song: “Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown.” Shudder. The stripped-back guitar, pained singing and slow orchestral notes all emphasise a hurt, downbeat experience.

The bleakness continues. Drugs here are a doomed attempt to escape, instead just leading to an even darker place, new walls of confinement. They don’t ease pain. The only thing that would help is knowing someone else is thinking of you, that you’ll see them again. Without that there’s nothing else in life, a losing streak with no end but death.
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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Sunrise

Band: New Order
Album: Low-Life
Year: 1985
Label: Factory Records
Status: Still going
Despite the optimism of a new day and all the possibilities it holds, this is a song of despair and cynicism. Are its accusations aimed at God? The insubstantial? Ian Curtis? A lover? New Order are as ambiguous as ever. But it’s clear this song (which, appropriately, follows This Time Of Night) shows New Order totally in control of rising mood and power, from the ominous funereal opening chords to the classic catchy guitar riffs.

Just as sunrise separates night from day, this, their third album, is seen as their transition into a mature form of their sound with more electronic synth and dance built into their tracks. Transitions are always worth exploring, those times when something changes forever. Maybe that’s why this is the only New Order album with photos of the band members – in the CD version you can swap photos and choose which band member graces the cover.
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Friday, 12 June 2015

Make It Happen

Band: Electronic
Album: Twisted Tenderness
Year: 1999
Label: Parlophone
Status: Disbanded 1999
We’ve met this supergroup already, so by now we should have got the message about how they formed: this is how Electronic ended.

Their third and last album. A sign off, a tactic to finish something on a high. Twisted Tenderness represents how potentially good things get destroyed if you’re not careful. The murdered Russian mystic Rasputin raises a hand on the cover.

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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Widget

I interrupt my series of Manchester Music posts. While delving in dusty drawers I found a literary collection containing one of my short stories, and decided it'd be nice to have a new widget displaying some of the works I have contributed to, but not been sole author of.

Hello new widget

I've been writing stories since I was seven, when The Adventures Of Mr Rabbit competed with the Giant Laser Robot Of Doom and The Ten-Legged Spider Of Horror for my scribbling time. I've got a drawer full of old Urmstonian school magazines where each issue contains a poem or story I'd written. So you need a cut-off point somewhere. I decided I'd just include the most recent ones, though there are one or two where I can't find a cover image or a physical copy, so they're lost to time, drying tears on a plasma wind.

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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Bitter Sweet Symphony

Band: The Verve
Album: Urban Hymns
Year: 1997
Label: Hut
Status: Disbanded 2009
The album’s opening track makes you want to be in love, as it combines hair-prickling beauty, believability and honesty. When you get down to it the whole album is about the pain and pleasure of love. It’s a fragile thing and may not last long. Maybe that’s why The Verve use butterfly imagery: this album has the trippily haunting song Catching That Butterfly, about a dream of finding love; their first album had a distorted love song called Butterfly.

Wait ... pain and fragility? In a love song? Bitter Sweet Symphony is not a happy song. It’s about a depressing and dark night of the soul. Can you change or not? Break the mould or not? There’s irony when people use it as their “romantic” song, or a wedding song: they’ve never listened to the words, just the absorbed the surface, the rising and falling orchestral chords, heartbeat rhythm, and a vague understanding that it somehow relates to love and emotion. You’ve always got to look beyond the surface to understand something. Bitter and sweet. Life is not all good or bad, you have to navigate as best you can, even when things are difficult.
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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Come Home

Band: James
Album: Gold Mother
Year: 1989
Label: Rough Trade
Status: Still going
Come Home is the opening track of James’ Gold Mother album which was recorded in Manchester and Wrexham. Their third album, but it was their first big hit after years in the margins. (Maybe having the golden touch of the Inspiral Carpets singing some backing vocals helped).

The song is a complex narrative to make a whole from but the feelings are clear. It’s about dealing with pressure, separating love from rudeness, dealing with hate towards a man, ambivalent feelings and the homewards pull. It is also about coming of age and whether you can overcome the direction your personality goes in, be yourself rather than what the past and your genetics might push you towards. Resist, scream yourself hoarse, and try to find somewhere safe, wherever home actually is. The chanted chorus of “Come home” is like a command, accompanied by piano notes, screech guitars and percussion tambourine which drive us forwards to the drumroll blowout.
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Monday, 8 June 2015

Corpses In Their Mouths

Band: Ian Brown
Album: Unfinished Monkey Business
Year: 1998
Label: Polydor
Status: Still going
This song is one harsh critical piece underneath the thudding beat, guitars that switch from classical sounds to whale sounds, harmonica solo, and Brown’s ghostly subway singing. It accuses its target of being a habitual liar and a drug user, then Ian tells them to slip their neck into a rope (the last bit an unpleasant reminder of another Ian, 1980). It’s been claimed that a number of this album’s songs are aimed at The Stone Roses guitarist John Squire, who Ian had accused of being a selfish, unreliable, cocaine abuser. We’ll get to Squire in a later chapter. Whether the sometimes-obscure lyrics really relate to Squire or not, it’s clear Brown wasn’t lacking in talent, and whatever motivated him led to this album’s revelation of his true talent. Oh, as well as writing the songs Ian played most of the instruments himself, feeling it would give a more honest sound. And Ian produced it. And financed it.

The official video starts with monkeys, then Ian jiggling round with his trademark heavy-browed ape-like stare. That iconic Ian Brown appearance also graces the cover of this, his debut solo album. The album’s name is a further nod to the simian analogy: Ian said he’d been called a monkey so much over the years that he adopted it as part of his persona. So what if his arms are long compared to his body? It just means he can reach that bit farther. And as he swivels in a rotating chair, headphones on, he is even more laid back than the Gallaghers: he exudes confidence, and it’s easy to see why he is so often emulated. (Lastly about the video: it includes women eating shellfish, putting “corpses in their mouths”, but it’s more likely to be an overly-literal joke than a veggie agenda).
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Thursday, 4 June 2015

Wonderwall

Band: Oasis
Album: (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
Year: 1995
Label: Creation
Status: Disbanded 2009
Back to Oasis, and the press: though note that some stories were contrived, such as the stupid media-created “Britpop chart battle” between Blur and Oasis in the summer of 1995. Two bands released singles on the same day (Oasis’ single was another track from Morning Glory). Who cared which sold more apart from the bean counters? That was the year the Inspiral Carpets broke up, which got hardly any coverage.

So what about this song, recorded in Wales, which achieved platinum status in the UK, and Gold in the US, topping the charts in a number of countries? The video reinforces those band messages. Firstly, we see the band’s name rotating on scratchy vinyl. The video is black-and-white (the only colour is the guitars – you can’t suppress the music). So we’re talking about connections to the musical past. Then we see that the video is full of circles: dartboards, the sound hole in an acoustic guitar, a hand-mirror. You see, what goes around comes around and we reconnect with where we come from. We rotate around a central force. Could that be the wonderwall? Noel said the it was “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself”. So we’re empowered. Go after your dream, best friend, love. It will save you.
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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

In Yer Face

Band: 808 State
Album: Ex:el
Year: 1991
Label: ZTT Records
Status: Still going
The song begins with spoken words about conflict, war, pollution, overpopulation, poverty, crime, and the failure of American politics. You can’t accuse 808 State of apathy any more than you can of subtlety. It’s as heavy handed as the hammering beats and stabbing chords and basslines. It’s in your face.
808 State are a northern industrial dance band that emerged from the 90’s rave scene. Their name is a statement of intent, based on their favoured drum machine. They were formed by a record store owner and two of his favourite customers in 1987, and are still going strong. (Tip: always be nice to people who own record shops).
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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Lost In Music

Band: The Fall
Album: The Infotainment Scan
Year: 1993
Label: Permanent Records
Status: Still going
The Fall make this post-punk cover version of the Sister Sledge disco hit their own, somehow powering it up to something that succeeds by being barely able to hold itself together. Added to the original are typically indecipherable Mark E. Smith yelps and drawls and lyrics about refurbishing pubs, excess leading to access, snagged tabletops, and dodgy French randomness. Yet it retains as much positive feeling as Mark E. Smith is able to muster: there is still the optimism of that chorus, “Lost in music / Feel so alive”.

The original’s lyrics mentioned quitting the 9-5 job to become lost in music (in The Fall’s version it’s a 10-5 job; rock stars don’t get up so early). The line is relevant since Mark E. Smith quit his job at Salford Docks to devote himself to the band. This song therefore symbolises something about The Fall and all bands, all creatives: the sacrifice required.
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Monday, 1 June 2015

Fools Gold

Band: The Stone Roses
Album: [NA]
Year: 1989
Label: Silvertone
Status: Still going
Tc-ki, tc-ki, a whipcrack opening, immediately launching into beat- and bass-heavy funk, flourishes of wah-wah, and Ian Brown’s disembodied voice. You have to move at least one part of your body. There was nothing like this before: no wonder The Stone Roses shook things up with their arrogant ability.
Hello Fools Gold [sic], the anti-drugs drugs anthem. Metaphors of a tired goldrush man, hoping for the big win. A long road, aching pains, going down, sinking, hoping for a change that won’t come. Cheery stuff, eh? Yet the tune is so catchy, so repeatable. And that repetition induces déjà vu, as if you are tired and hearing things, lost and going over the same ground; you’re part of the story. But you’re not really going round in circles. The story just progresses at its own pace.
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