Category Archives: Music Blog

Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (33 1/3 series)

Kevin Dettmar is an academic at Pomona College, California, who works on modernist literature, particularly James Joyce, but who has also written extensively on popular music, in magazines and in books such as Is Rock Dead?  (I was introduced to him briefly at the London Modernism Seminar and I contributed a chapter to the Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture that he co-edited with David Bradshaw).  His book on the Gang of Four’s 1979 album Entertainment! is one of the stronger ones in the series, and avoids some of the structural weaknesses that earlier volumes suffered from; but it still left me wanting something more or something different.

Dettmar 333 cover

I came to the book as someone who had heard the album a long time ago, and could see the merit in it, but never felt strongly about it one way or the other.  Dettmar first heard the album as an Anglophile Californian around 1980, and he begins the book from a personal perspective, confessing that the “strident mumblings of art students from Leeds” weren’t always fully intelligible — in the sense of fully audible — to him.  Through the book Dettmar has recourse to the  idea of the “mondegreen” (coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954), as a way of excusing his mis-hearings. It has a function similar to the “boy in the room” in Jonathan Lethem’s book on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music; Lethem is Dettmar’s colleague at Pomona, and is thanked in the Acknowledgements.   Like the “boy in the room,” the repeated recourse to the mondegreen risks being perceived as self-indulgent — one might be inclined to ask why Dettmar doesn’t admit he was wrong and write about the correct lyrics, rather than parade his errors as if they were virtues — but it gradually acquires significance in terms of the Gang of Four’s ideas about the nature of commodified entertainment:

The album’s made up of debate and dialogue: it’s not concerned with figuring out (never mind presenting) answers, but in opening up interesting questions, engendering productive confusion.  Part of this comes through the staccato syntax of the lyrics […]; part, through the staging of different voices and positions in the song […]. In part, too, through mondegreens: this isn’t something a band can program or plan, but when it happens, it’s another way of making  the listener an active producer of meaning, and co-owner of the politics of the songs. (p.140)

The structure of the book also owes something to Lethem’s, in that Dettmar intersperses his discussions of songs with short chapters on “Keywords,” inspired by Raymond Williams, much as Lethem intersperses his chapters with wider exploratory questions about the album.  The other innovative aspect, different from Lethem’s or any other book in the series that I’ve read, is Dettmar’s pairing of songs in each chapter.  While each song is given its own substantial sub-section in each chapter, this arrangement both allows for chapter of a satisfactory size, and more importantly allows Dettmar to break from the sequence of songs as given on the album and to make thematic connections across sides.  And while this rearranging of the album might seem a symptom of a culture of i-shuffling and MP3s, Dettmar is alive to the fact of Entertainment! being a vinyl-era artefact, and, for example, the first song on the second side being a key position on the album. (I’d have liked him to expand a little further on why that was so, and what listening practices were involved with vinyl.)

The keywords idea works well, except that the concepts chosen (Ideology, Nature, Theory, Alienation, Consumer, Sex), and / or the perspective  that Dettmar takes on them, are essentially sympathetic to the band and to the record.  For example, Dettmar uses the chapter on “Ideology” to think about “the popular image of a guy who uses the word ‘ideology'” as “a bit of a bore,” and to explore how Gang of Four avoided the earnestness that might have followed from their having such a clear political position:

No one buys an album, or attends a concert, to be scolded, and the ideological critique undertaken by Gang of Four always contains a wary consciousness of their own inability simply to quit those behaviours, to transcend those attitudes, that they critique in their songs as a species of bad faith (p.32)

These are keywords needed for a full appreciation of the record, but not necessarily the keywords that would provide a critical perspective on it.  How might the book have looked if Dettmar had explored, for example, the critical history of “reflexivity” in the post-punk era: the tendency of the more intellectual end of the music press to praise bands who were highly self-conscious about their processes and their position in the music industry; and who, more to the point, displayed that self-consciousness prominently. And how might it have looked if Dettmar had noted that such self-consciousness became just a little too straightforwardly assimilable into the discourse of literate rock journalism?  Other keywords that might be explored would focus on the music and the sound of the band and of others in that post-punk era: “funkiness,” let’s say, but also “space” to encompass the tendency of bands to eschew reverb and echo effects in favour of a hard, dry sound.  

Generally speaking, Dettmar’s account of the record is led by the ideas and the lyrics, and if you didn’t know the record you could be forgiven at the end for not knowing what it sounds like; more seriously, if you did know the record, at the end your understanding of the lyrics would be much deeper and more nuanced, but I’m not sure the same could be said of your understanding of the music, or of the lyrics as things that exist within music.  When he does talk about the music, it’s always interesting and attentive to detail: for example, the way that “I Found that Essence Rare” begins with the same four-note figure repeated sixteen times, and the difference it makes in the John Peel sessions version when they repeated the figure only eight times before properly beginning the song.  With sixteen repetitions

they begin to call attention to themselves . . . and to the structure of the song . . . and, by implication, to the structure of pop songs writ large.  It’s another example of Brecht’s “alienation effect”: when the opening phrase is played eight times, it’s invisible; when it’s held for twice as long, the listener is forced really to listen. It’s just one of the ways that Gang of Four messed with pop song conventions (p.111)

Dettmar is also alert to the way that the “drama” of “Damaged Goods” is sharpened by the technique of instrumental dropouts borrowed from dub reggae, as are other songs, though his conclusion on this point — that the effect is to provide “different kinds of framing for the vocals” (p.125) — is frustratingly generalized.  I’d have liked to hear more about what effects those altered frames have on the lyrics, and to hear speculation about how the lyrics might work differently with different frames.




City spaces and popular music

The Guardian this week headlined a feature about London-band The Maccabees “bands can’t afford to live in London anymore“, and that connected with something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what material infrastructure do bands need to get off the ground?  The most obvious ones are places to live and venues to perform at, but for traditional rock with drums and amplification, somewhere to rehearse is also pretty crucial.

In their early years — 1977 and 1978 — the post-glam/ pre-punk/ new-wave band Ultravox often used publicity shots of themselves posing with shop-window mannequins, and this was a hidden clue as to how they had made a distinctive sound for themselves, though by 1977 it probably looked like a nod to Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies.”

Ultravox Mannequins1

The band was put together by John Foxx in 1974, initially under the name Tiger Lily; Foxx at that time was a graduate student at the Royal College of Art.  They rehearsed initially in the dining room of the Royal College, but soon Foxx found a better space.  To supplement his grant, he had been painting faces on shop-window dummies, and through this learned of the warehouse space of the firm Modreno, at Albion Yard, Balfe Street, just round the corner from King’s Cross.  He persuaded the manager, Ronnie Kirkland, to allow the band to rehearse there in the evenings.  Having a free rehearsal space allowed the band to experiment with their songwriting and their sound without the financial pressure that comes with hiring a rehearsal space. Ronnie Kirkland was apparently the proprietor of Modreno, and was able to do what he liked with it; but if such a factory / warehouse exists at the present-day, would the manager be allowed to do what he liked with it, if he/she had to answer to property owners who were anxious about their investment and their insurance? Similarly, around 1976, when the band came to producing an early demo tape, they were able to do so cheaply because Steve Lilywhite, then a tape-op (a trainee engineer) allowed them to use a studio during down time.  Would it be possible to sneak a band into a high-end recording studio today?  The very idea of “down time” is becoming alien.

It’s also notable how squats enabled the popular music scene in the mid 1970s: in a recent interview with Martin Smith, Paul Simon — not the one who recorded with Art Garfunkel, but the brother of Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon — mentions the brothers’ move to London being simplified by the availability of a squat in Vauxhall [*]; Foxx himself was living in one, and some of the band’s early gigs were in one on Regent’s Parade.

What became of Modreno?  In 1985 there were notices in the London Gazette implying that it had ceased trading.  If you look up Albion Yard on the internet now, you find advertisements for one- and two-bed flats, leasehold.


A two-bed flat there will set you back £925,000.  Nice if you’re a property owner, but what happens to musicians when every last piece of space has a by-the-hour charge attached to it?  True, you can now make music on a laptop in a bedroom in a way that was scarcely imaginable in the mid-1970s, but one kind of musical creativity involves reacting to the unexpected things that other musicians throw into a piece; that kind of creativity needs live rehearsals, and rehearsals need spaces.

Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (33 1/3 series)

I hesitated before reading this one, on account of an Amazon review which complained that there was no original research into the making of the album, and implied that Lethem put himself and his own subjective response at the centre of the book. I probably should know Lethem’s novels, but I don’t, so Lethem himself isn’t of interest to me.  But I’ve enjoyed Kevin Dettmar’s book on The Gang of Four’s Entertainment, and in it Dettmar thanks Lethem, who’s a colleague at Pomona; and I’ve enjoyed the sheer variety of ways of writing about music that you find in the series, so I took the plunge.

Lethem 333 cover

The big conceit running through the book is that Lethem the narrator is also trying to account for and take into consideration the feelings of the person he was when he first heard the album, “the boy in the room” in 1979 in New York City.   At times the playing between the two positions is self-conscious and showily written, as in this passage in first “Prelude,” where Lethem recalls hearing an advert on the radio for the new album:

But we’re ahead of ourselves. The boy hasn’t heard Fear of Music yet, just the words “Fear” “Of” “Music”. (Is it “Fear-of” music?  Of what would “fear-of” music consist? Is fear made of music?  Can an album be afraid of itself?)  For the signal peculiarity of the long-lost Fear of Music radio spot is that though it was a commercial for an album, it didn’t consist of any actual music.  It was a map that not only wasn’t the territory, it didn’t consist of more than the word “map.” A connect-the-dot diagram with only one dot. An artifact inviting you to consider your now possible future encounter with a subsequent artifact.  To presume to say more would have been to betray the spirit of not-yet-knowing which still shrouded, for the boy in room, merely the whole area of everything that matters most: cities, drugs, sex, music, memories, life. (p.xi)

Reading this, I wondered whether this book was going to irritate me on an epic scale.  I turned out to be wrong.  Much later on (p.103), in his account of the song “Animals,” Lethem digresses self-indulgently into an account of himself as a forty-something father who walks the family pet and how he connects to the nine- or ten-year old proto-boy-in-room who also owned a dog.  The passage is witty enough in its own right, but I’m not sure it takes us any further forward in understanding Fear of Music.  But that passage isn’t typical.

If you recognise the boy-in-his-room a trope, then Lethem can largely be acquitted of the charge of self-indulgence.  The trope allows Lethem to negotiate between what he knows as forty-something adult and writer and what he residually feels because of the intense reactions of his teenage self, and as such it’s interesting and subtle.  There are songs that I heard with great intensity when I was fifteen or seventeen that still feel spine-tinglingly astonishing when I hear them again: I can’t be sure whether these are simply very good songs with sufficient depth to survive repeated listenings, or whether I’m simply being transferred back to the earlier state of mind. So I recognise the problem that Lethem’s dealing with, even if I wouldn’t have dealt with it this way myself. And I also suspect that the emphasis on personal response (setting aside the boy-in-room trope) allows Lethem more freedom when it comes to describing Talking Heads’ music. For though of course he has plenty to say about the lyrics and the underlying ideas, he’s also great at writing figuratively and evocatively about the way this record sounds:

The lunatic optimism of “Mind”‘s ascending guitar pattern and squirting keyboard noises (sound effects for screwball-comedy chemists brewing novelties in a beaker) together with the chipper can-do-ism of the rhythm section, present a burbling wind-up toy that mistook itself for a machine of some great and important purpose (p.22).

Judging by the singer’s tone of panic, those rays passing through paper and self and love affair all too absolutely unmake this song’s effort to “hold on”; the guitars, hypervigilant in their foxholes, seem to agree (pp.29-30).

There is a piano in “Heaven.” The guitars defer to it, This is “the slow song,” not because the tempo’s so different from “Memories Can’t Wait” or “Mind” (and “Drugs” will be far slower), but because the song demands it be understood that way.  The guitars, to this point always doubled up as if in laughter or gasping for breath, now unkink themselves, quit scratching and jeering (p.88).

While I could wish that Lethem would pursue these insights and ask how it is that a song can “demand” to be understood as slow, or how it is that a guitar “defers” to a piano, the basic means of evocation is great, and I wish there were more writing like this in the 33 1/3 series.  And as a one-time bassist, I like it that he’s appreciative of what’s going on down in the engine room, even when it seems to be a mutiny.

Lethem’s figurative mode of expression also allows him to slip some insightful hypotheses into the mix, giving the reader the option of moving straight on, or unpacking them at greater length.  E.g.:

Basically, “Cities” is “Life During Wartime”‘s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free, not bearing so many of the burdens of its progenitors. Like a lot of younger brothers, “Cities” parrots some of its older brother’s cherished notions and cheekily contradicts others, or declares them irrelevant, not such a big deal (p.39)

The remark about funk and disco is almost throwaway, but worth chewing over.

Lethem’s approach to the lyrics has the virtues of flexibility and the vices of inconclusiveness.  He tends to quote single lines and playfully explore their implications, but is reluctant, perhaps reasonably enough, to make prominent claims about larger units of the lyrics. Perhaps that reluctance is acknowledges that the lyrics are always fragmented; “I Zimbra”, which he discusses in terms of Hugo Ball and Dadaism, is the most extreme instance.  The readings of the lyrics are an entertaining performance, but I’d be hard pushed to summarise Lethem’s argument.

The structure of the book is also well thought out: it’s basically a song-by-song account of the album, but the analyses of the songs are interspersed by more general reflections about the album: “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne album?”; “Is Fear of Music a New York album?”; “Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s Record?” and so forth. Sometimes these questions are prompted by the track that has just been discussed, sometimes their relation to the surrounding material is more arbitrary; but they allow Lethem to take a wider perspective about the band without straying too far from the record itself. And that’s another virtue of this book: it’s informed by a clear opinion about Fear of Music‘s place in the larger history of Talking Heads, but it’s still seriously interested in the record itself; the album isn’t just a pretext for larger musings about the band.

There isn’t any original research in this book in the sense that there is in J. Niimi’s book on Murmur, or Wilson Neate’s on Pink Flag: neither the musicians nor the technicians have been interviewed; Lethem hasn’t looked at contemporary reviews to see whether his views were typical or idiosyncratic.  But there’s research in the sense of thinking about the record, and thinking about how first responses survive in later listenings, and thinking about how to put all of these ideas and impressions into words.  As a book about popular music it’s not perfect, but it’s original and inventive.


Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Shaw Horses

I was particularly intrigued to read Philip Shaw’s 33 1/3 book on Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) because, like me, Shaw is an English Literature lecturer at a British university: he’s a specialist in Victorian poetry working at Leicester. The usual criticism levelled at literature specialists who take on popular music is that they focus on the lyrics and understand the music only as setting–something mentioned, for example, in at least one review  of Christopher Ricks’s Bob Dylan book.  Given that Patti Smith began in part as a poet, such an approach might be more excusable and more relevant than it would for bands where there lyrics are a pretext for a vocal performance; but not ideal. As it turns out, this book isn’t perfect, and the imperfections might have something to do with Shaw’s day job, but he does give a decent account of the music.

The track-by-track account of Horses is very much the end-point of the study. It was, of course, Smith’s first album, so much of the book is a patient and detailed account of how she developed her aesthetic in the years leading up to its recording.  Shaw frames his account with a sketch of his own first encounter with the record, one in which his teenage religious belief plays an important role; it complements Smith’s family background as a Jehovah’s Witness.  His opening chapter takes Smith’s performance at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery on 10 February 1971 as a pivotal moment: it allows Shaw to sketch the cultural context that Smith found herself in as she made her way in the New York music and arts scene.  It’s a really impressive and dramatic way of opening, made possible, as is much of the study, by a bootleg recording. Smith’s early career is as well documented as anyone might hope for.  Shaw ends by noting that the alliances and networks that Smith formed in her early years were crucial to her breakthrough: what he’s quietly aiming to do is qualify the idea that her success was the result of individual genius.

After this opening scene, Shaw backtracks chronologically to sketch how Smith came to find herself in St Mark’s in February 1971. We learn something of the influence of her father, mother, and sister, of the music she listened to, and of the working-class milieu in which Smith grew up.  Shaw is good at treating Smith’s self-mythologisation sceptically, while acknowledging the importance and value of such myth-making. However it’s in this chapter that one of the less successful (to my mind) strands of the book emerges, as Shaw tries to account for the power of music in terms of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the ‘semiotic’, a pre-linguistic babble that has strong associations with the maternal bond.  ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, as they say on the Left Bank: it’s interesting to see the power of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ in these terms, but there’s an abrupt shift of discourse when Shaw does it, and the strand never feels fully integrated with the other materials.  I should say that my objection isn’t to psychoanalytic literary theory being used in relation to rock music; Shaw reflects very interestingly on the clash between the  kinds of visceral reactions we have to popular music and the cautious attitude to evaluation that characterises most academic engagement with literary artefacts. My problem is partly with the tendency of this kind of Kristevan reading to find the same thing wherever it goes, and that Shaw doesn’t allow himself space to think through the implications, or to make comparisons with other artists, in a way that would make the conclusions more nuanced and less generic. I wonder if what this appeal to theory stands for is the impossibility of finding a descriptive language to trace all the inspired things that Smith does with her voice and the inspired scratches and squeals that the guitarists produce, and the impossibility of finding a language that wouldn’t weigh down that inspiration with a clumsy pedantic heaviness.  But those inspired things aren’t the semiotic: they’re difficult to talk about, but they’re not beyond the symbolic order.

By the end of Chapter 2 we’ve reached the Spring of 1967, and Smith has moved to New York. Chapter Three takes us through the various alliances and explorations that Smith made in 1967-1972: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, the Chelsea Hotel, among others.  Shaw’s key texts are the poems Smith was writing at this time.  The Mapplethorpe connection is well known, but Smith’s period acting in Shepard’s work was news to me, and Shaw convincingly argues that it helped Smith become a compelling performer of her own work, inhabiting her songs and delivering contradictory feelings (p.57).

Chapter Four, covers the years 1973-1975 in which Smith moved from being a poet to being a singer and musician, and accordingly it’s in this chapter that Shaw begins to take music seriously as music. Smith secured a support slow for the New York Dolls, and Shaw is interesting on the ambivalent relation of the Dolls to the Rolling Stones, both ‘camp parody’ and an attempt to ‘rekindle the fire’ of 1960s rock.  He’s especially interesting on the influence of the film musical Cabaret (1972) in reviving the validity of cabaret song and Sprechstimme as a musical style: I can’t help wondering if there’s not a whole book to be written about Cabaret and 1970s rock music.  He’s also evocative about the way that in this period Smith learned to break with regular rhythm, both in her poetry and in her song performances:

Smith […] was allowing her voice to discover its own rhythm, choosing in the instant whether to slow down or increase the pace of a line, adding or deleting emphasis as required. But while this new voice was liberated, in formal terms, from the predictability of rock’n’roll, it was also, in its way, becoming more musical.  Partly through her interest in free jazz, and partly as a result of her ongoing fascination with torch song, Smith was learning how to measure a phrase, how to stretch or compress a syllable in order to convey a certain effect. (p.74)

Chapter Five brings us to 1975 and the recording of Horses in New York and a track-by-track analysis of the songs in their recorded versions.  Shaw is again convincing in his accounts of Smith’s vocal performances, and alive to her modulations of tone, but less detailed when it comes to the other instruments.  Here he is discussing part of ‘Gloria’:

In the space of a single line, for example, ‘I I walk in a room you know I look so proud’, the voice moves from an impassioned sobbing effect (‘I I walk’), to breathiness (‘in a room’), to hard and nasal (‘you know I look’), to clipped and cocksure (‘so proud’).  Further along, the sense of solitary defiance is emphasised by the casually slurred ‘I go to this here par-ty,’ the closed croaked effect of ‘bored.’ (p.104)

Shaw is more willing than some writers in this series to talk about the particular sequences of chords that are being played, and to speak about modulations; but very often his discussion of the music follows the discussion of the lyrics, and is less detailed, as if music were merely the setting for the lyrics and not a thrilling and energizing thing in itself.  One might argue this is appropriate to Horses, that what’s most original and distinctive about the album are the lyrics and the vocal performance, and that however brilliant the band were, they didn’t do anything that wasn’t implicit on the Velvet Underground’s studio albums; but they extrapolate certain elements from the Velvets, and are more various in their influences than that would make them sound.  And, listening to the album again, I wondered if there were even some things in Smith’s distinctive vocal mannerisms that Shaw hadn’t fully accounted for.

A short final chapter considers the reception of the album, though its chronological frame is restricted to 1975: listening to Horses again after reading the book I wished Shaw could have traced at least some of the lines of descent, influence and straightforward theft: I can’t help thinking that the Spacemen 3 borrowed a few chords from Gloria, and more importantly the spacious relaxed vibe of the opening; and more obviously, James’s Village Fire EP and their first album, produced by Lenny Kaye, owe a lot to Patti Smith.  I can see that such a task would be very open-ended, and frustrating because there would always be some line of influence that went unnoticed, some stray dandelion seed that landed on the other side of the fence; but it would make a more persuasive case for the importance of the album.

#31songs (14): ‘. . . And Stones’, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (14): A song you used to put on a mixtape

‘… And Stones’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger

Around 1991-92, I used to love to start mixtapes with Michelle-Shocked’s ‘When I grow up I want to be an old woman’, from her Short Sharp Shocked album, and then follow it with ‘. . . And Stones.’  Although ‘When I grow up’ is an altogether more laid-back piece, it’s got an insistent rhythm that seems to lay the ground for ‘. . . And Stones’; it made a great prologue to a mixtape, with The Blue Aeroplanes then taking it up a notch.

There should be a copy of the official video on the Blue Aeroplanes website; but if that doesn’t work, there’s one on Muzu.TV.

Musically what I love in this the balance between the very tight groove of the drums, bass, and echoing guitars, and on the other hand, the wild, overdriven lead guitar, notes that stretch off in all directions, chords bent on the tremolo-arm, sounding sometimes desperate, almost strangled. The neat side of the music has several precedents in the Blue Aeroplanes music, with ‘Etiquette’ the one that comes to mind first of all, but there are other precedents in ‘Ups‘ from the Tolerance LP, and in the Art Objects’ ‘Hard Objects.’  However, the combination with the raw, overdriven guitar is new with this song, and it complements something in the lyrics.  The key to the lyrics, the basic scenario of the song, is there in the first two lines: it’s about someone meeting an ex-lover, and being caught in a confusion of identity in which she is simultaneously the person she used to be, and the person she now is. ‘Hey you in that dress’ isn’t a phrase likely to be used in speaking to someone you’re familiar with; indeed it could be the language of street harassment. I guess the point is that the ‘long ex’ is simultaneously the desirable unfamiliar woman and the familiar one.

The song works towards a climax in which the lovers are seemingly reconciled, but in a kind of simulacrum of the real relationship. The imperatives in the last verse suggest that the speaker is  like the film director of the scene (‘smile, and hold your head back’); think of T. S. Eliot’s ‘La Figlia che piange’ (‘Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’).  The ‘altogether’ now might seem strange, as the verse still seems to be addressed to a single person (smile and throw your head — not heads — back), but if the addressee is simultaneously her old self and her present self, then this verse is the point in which they come together, or seem to. But the payoff line, ‘throw your arms around whoever you think it is’ indicates that the speaker knows — knows bitterly — this is all fantasy, and that he is just as much her projection as she is his.  It’s great too that the music comes to an end around that line, as if its dynamism and up-beat mood were all part of the illusion that has just been punctured.

What are the stones of the title? In the context of ex-lovers slipping in little blames, mutual recriminations, I can’t help wondering if they’re the biblical stones of the episode of the woman ‘taken in adultery’: let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone. Granted, the bible doesn’t seem an important source for Gerard Langley in other songs (we’re not dealing with Bono here …), but it’s a sufficiently well known phrase that I guess most atheists in Britain know it.  (Did I pick it up at C of E primary school, or would adultery and stoning to death have been off limits there?  Perhaps in RE lessons in the first few years at secondary?)  In the second mention (‘send flattering dreams / send love send stones send structures’), the stones seem to be more straightforwardly offensive weapons, something to undercut the dreams and the love that the addressee might send.


Hey you in that dress
met up as long-ex-.
that nervousness now much shared
and I wondered as we worked
business to slip in little blames
about miles apart
styles apart and stones

Lovers uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown

So we were close
close on the one hand
remembered on the other
but how we got too close in that mood
how I walked to your town
it was always someone else’s
it was never neat or sparse
there were never clues in there like ours

Lovers all around we went all around
there were lovers all around we went all around

I can say that for you
but don’t repeat it, don’t even think it
we’re going backwards in division
cross everyone else
give me a description
of what’s joint in this town
describe an arc* of your own
describe yourself

Smaller than thought
wayward in intention
not as wicked as people say
send me a letter with clues
send flattering dreams
send love send stones send structures

Love is uptown we went uptown
there were lovers uptown we went uptown.

Altogether now
say my name and hi!
smile and hold your head back
close your eyes and take as read
close your eyes then throw your arms around
whoever you think it is.

*Not in the printed lyrics.  Presumably ‘arc’, with ‘describe’ intended in its mathematical sense, and not an ‘ark’ as in Noah’s ark. (Or might it be ‘art’?)

#31songs (13): ‘Weightless’, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (13): A song about other worlds

‘Weightless’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger

The ‘song about’ formula doesn’t suit The Blue Aeroplanes, as, like a lot of symbolist and modernist poetry, Gerard Langley’s lyrics resist reduction to a theme or a message.  How we interpret the lyrics to ‘Weightless’ depends a lot on the music, and if I say these are lyrics about ‘other worlds’, it’s because of various references to space-flight, and particularly the line repeated regretfully and yet self-deprecatingly after the song has subsided from its climax: ‘I liked being weightless best’.  The lyrics manage to articulate the listener’s own regret that the song will soon be over, and a feeling that its intensity can never be regained.

YouTube video

The song starts gently; the melodic guitar line has a folky flavour that I can’t help but think of as Scottish; perhaps because of the hammer-on from B to D, perhaps because of the way that the interval of G to D dominates.  (Compare the instrumental ‘For Tim Collins’ on Friendloverplane 2, which has a similar electric guitar sound in it, or the opening of ‘Autumn Journal XXIV‘, which I hope to come back to in a later post.) The bass comes in with a descending line, interplaying delicately with the other guitars. The first 25 seconds are perfection; then there’s heavily reverbed drum part that sounded just fine in 1990 but is now the one thing in the whole song that feels dated. But it can be forgiven. The whole pace suggests a band utterly confident in themselves: they can create an atmosphere that leads us into the core of the song and they’re sure we won’t grow impatient; each new bar, or at least each return to the start of the sequence of chords, brings something new.

In contrast with the attention-grabbing opening of ‘Jacket Hangs’, the vocals here begin in an understated way, as if picking up a conversation that had already been underway.  The expressive variety in this song makes it one of Gerard Langley’s greatest performances. What the ‘it’ of the opening verse might be we can only infer: it could be some unarticulated disagreement that’s destroying a relationship from within; with the phrase about drink that follows, we seem to be in the same lyrical territory as some of the Spitting Out Miracles songs.  But what is ‘the guide’?  In being ‘shuttle-bound’ are they on their way to an airport shuttle-bus, moving on without having really resolved things, or on their way to the space shuttle?  I don’t think of Langley as a writer of science-fiction lyrics, but this one is titled ‘Weightless’, so it’s not impossible to think of it as set in outer space.  That too would make sense of ‘half the world’s / floating in space’: one side of the globe, seen from space.  (According to Richard Bell’s blog, the song was part of the live set in the October-November 1988 tour, and it was around this time that Space Shuttle flights resumed following the Challenger disaster of January 1986. In that context, being ‘shuttle-bound’ has connotations of defiant determination.)

One of my biggest problems in interpreting this lyric is a crucial difference between the printed text and what Gerard performs on the record.  It comes as the song rises to a climax and the vocals come back in after an instrumental break.  The sleeve notes have people ‘swaying and guinea-wormed’, but in the performance it sounds more like ‘swaying and scrubland‘ or maybe ‘swaying and scrubbed-out‘.  The guinea-worm makes sense of much else in the lyric, especially the something ‘growing inside’ and ‘when it’s out it’ll just / poison the bloody water again’, and ‘working down the body slowly’ might be a reference to the worm coming out of a limb.  The guinea-worm could be the ‘it’ of the opening verse.  Whatever the ‘it’ might be, it’s parasitic and destructive, but the fifth and sixth verses propose something even more complex — ‘That what’s living / inside comes from a shared necessity’ — which might also explain the ‘sinister babies’: they’ve made this things together, and can never get rid of it.

The coda to the song, ‘Ok, we can go for a quick drink after work’, manages an astonishing though abrupt transition of tone, as if the speaker were trying to cover up the passionate confrontation (sinister parasites, spaceflight, and so on) with socially conventional compromises. Musically, too, the band manage a wonderful transition of atmosphere, from the powerful middle section to something that resembles the opening in its quiet reflective tone, but isn’t exactly the same.  I especially like the descending chromatic sequence of notes on one of the guitars (A, G#, G, F#), which brings a tone of foreboding to the conclusion, as if the whatever poisoned the bloody water is already preparing to come back.  And of course on the album, they start to fade in the echoing notes that introduce ‘… And Stones’.



If we can’t destroy it straight,
we could at least murder it,
burn it out as we crash the guide.
But no, we’re shuttle-bound
and poker-faced, we talk it
under the table, thinking hearts

And dry flowers played against us
crook the bloody circumstance.
That said, violence is like drink.
One’s too many and a hundred’s
not enough. Or one’s too many
and a hundred brooks no argument.

The sound of violins drowned in
gunfire. It’s the water of life.
At the edge of our sight, half
the world’s floating in space
like diagrams with consequence,
and how much falls to anyone else?

Walking down this hillside
to clear water, there’s something
breathing, growing inside like
sinister babies, the trees
pollarded like love gone awry.
Now swaying and guinea-wormed,

people in the way of crowds grown
aimless and bitter crack the ground.
The skies light with satellites,
the windows light with booby-traps.
Working down the body slowly,
hit on this! That what’s living

inside comes from a shared necessity
and when it’s out it’ll just
poison the bloody water again.
Ok, we can go for a quick drink
after work, it’s a way of life, sure
but I liked being weightless best …

#31songs (12): Jacket Hangs, by the Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (12): Best opening

‘Jacket Hangs’, by the Blue Aeroplanes, from Swagger (1990)

There’s an official video for this one, or alternatively a YouTube version.

If there’s a single song on Swagger that earns the album its title, it’s the opening one.  There’s a confidence about the performances that hadn’t come through on the previous albums, and it all starts with Gerard’s opening line of ‘Jacket Hangs’: ‘Pick a card, any card … Wrong!’  But the swagger is there in the music as well, and especially on this track, which builds on the heave-ho sea shanty rhythm that I mentioned in ‘Bury Your Love Like Treasure’.  You can hear it coming through in ‘Warhol’s Fifteen’, a song the band first recorded on Tolerance, but which they later reworked; the characteristic rhythm is much stronger in the version that was collected on Friendloverplane.

Warhol’s Fifteen (YouTube of the Tolerance version)

Warhol’s Fifteen (Spotify of the Friendloverplane version)

It’s never exactly the same rhythm in any of these songs, but there’s a family resemblance.  There’s more swaggering in ‘Jacket Hangs’ in the lead guitar line, sometimes striding up and down the fretboard, sometimes cascading down it.  The guitar solo, when it comes, is actually nothing special, but it doesn’t need to be: there’s so much going on elsewhere.  After the solo the song strips down (around 2.25) and then after eight bars builds up again: another guitar comes in playing quickly strummed small chords (just the high strings), as if it wants to butt into the conversation, and then another guitar playing high chiming notes.

There’s a lot going on in the lyrics, too, some of the most insistently punning lyrics on any of the Aeroplanes’ albums; puns have a place in a certain kind of witty pop song (Andy Partridge is fond of them), but that kind of ostentatious wit isn’t usually Gerard Langley’s mode.  We ‘press and suit’; ‘Just so’ for ‘just sew’.  ‘Jacket Hangs’ is about surface and depths, appearance and identity, about the costumes we might wear in order to press a suit (to become a suitor?), to get from outside to inside in an emotional and sexual way.


Pick a card, any card.  Wrong. Pick nineteenth-century
twin-set pearls in a new clasp, brass neck, collar me
right. We need a suit, we press a suit

so collar me. Collar me siamese cat drapes,
roughneck honey.  [Quite the test for the unused boy.
Jacket hangs just so and you’re inside.]*

I believe in what passes for a centre, collar me
in spite of dress, your boyfriend link, crooked arm.
I want to see inside our most difficult act.

We press a suit, we swan about, from rack shop
to hanger blade, that line around your eyes means
you can see, see better than I can, than I see you.

Then I make contact. Swing, loosen up. Let those arms
Rotate like helicopter blades, lift. Little jump and skip
The rest. Like coral or groves the cards are marked

Your eyes are mine, coloured anew and set in train.
I passed the test, I think I passed, I think I’m fine.
Yes, jacket hangs just so and you’re inside.

*Lyrics in the liner notes that aren’t in the recorded version.

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

There’s a lot to like and a lot to admire about Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag (2008) in the 33 1/3rd series, and if in the end I have my reservations, they’re primarily reservations about the album, and reservations about the book only because Neate didn’t anticipate me as its reader.

Neate Pink Flag

Neate opens personally, narrating over two and a half pages how he first heard Wire, but the book really begins with the second chapter.  Here Neate introduces us to the band, member-by-member.  Doing this also enables him to establish some of the main reference points: the bands they were listening to in the 1960s and early 1970s; art school and Brian Eno. Here, as throughout the book, Neate draws on extensive new interviews with the band members.  Chapter three traces how they fitted into the punk scene, which they were part of, but which was settling into cliché by the time of their first performance. They were significantly older than many punk bands (the oldest, Bruce Gilbert, turned 30 in 1976), and their experience and their art-school background gave them some critical distance from the scene.  Chapter four gives us both an analysis of the main concepts at play in the structures of Wire’s songs, in particular, ideas about framing and subtraction.  And it also extracts the maximum comedic potential from the presence, personality, and removal of George Gill, one of the band’s guitarists in its early phase:

Gill was Keith Richards played by a Yorkshireman, a blunt, acerbic blues-rock purist …. flatmate Slim Smith remembers: “He was the college’s main rabble-rouser, always causing trouble in class and drinking heavily, which occasionally resulted in getting into fights.” Gilbert goes further, commenting that Gill often “looked like he was about to break into a fight with himself.” (p.59)

 The fifth chapter turns to the recording of the album. Neate points to there being disagreement about how important producer Mike Thorne was in creating Wire’s distinctive aesthetic and sound: the release in 2006 of their 1977 gig at the Roxy seems to have demonstrated that the band had nailed it before the producer became involved; on the other hand, the interviews with Thorne that Neate draws on throughout the book create a very sympathetic impression of him, both as regards the technicalities of production and the management of a band who were new to the studio environment and somewhat overawed by it.  There’s also a fabulous anecdote of Bruce Gilbert overindulging in Thorne’s herbal cigarettes on the first day to the extent that he thought they’d completed the recording and could pack up and go home.  (In fact the recording took about three weeks, with another three needed for mixing.)

The chapter of track-by-track analyses draws out the more general ideas in relation to particular songs, and sets further ideas in motion, placing songs on a spectrum of orthodox to experimental.  As there are twenty-one tracks on the album, each analysis is necessarily brief, some of them not more than a page, and in consequence, and by contrast to what went before, the chapter somewhat disjointed.  The final chapter, a mere six pages, considers the afterlife of the album, particularly as regards the revision of songwriting credits.  Neate takes what could is potentially a dry and technical question and uses it to reopen the larger conceptual issues underpinning Wire’s work — above all, what is a song — but it’s still not the conclusion I’d hope for in a really great book.

But I may not be Neate’s ideal reader.  I came to Wire relatively late, via their On Returning compilation CD, and have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they were capable of writing the most insanely catchy high-tempo guitar songs —  ‘Dot Dash’ in particular never fails to delight — but in spite of the energy and the at times snarly vocals, there’s something dry and cerebral about their work that means it feels one dimensional.  In this respect they’re like several other late 1970s bands: Talking Heads, another band with an art-school background, similarly accentuate the cerebral.  Likewise with them, I’m always pleased to hear their music, but in some way it doesn’t stay with me.

Neate’s book makes me admire Pink Flag more, but it doesn’t make me love it.  He does acknowledge that the band were sometimes ‘seen as too intellectual’ (p.40) and as ‘sterile’ (p.43), but his book isn’t designed to engage with those sorts of criticism: discussing Wire’s work in terms of framing keeps them at the cerebral level.  It’s much harder to devise a critical vocabulary that will allow the reader to recognise a flicker of an emotional reaction to a band and then to nurture that reaction into some kind of love for them. I wonder if, by interviewing the band and the producer, and building his book around those interviews, Neate got a narrow perspective, as any historian might if working with a limited set of sources.  There’s relatively little by way of quotation from contemporary reviews: how might the book have read if Neate had taken negative reviews as his starting point and worked outward from there?  Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Neate’s writing and analysis, and am tempted to read his later book, Read & Burn: A Book about Wire (2013).

#31songs (11): Severn Beach, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (11): A song with a number in the title (sort of)

‘Severn Beach’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Friendloverplane (1988)

I could have chosen ‘Days of 49’, of which there are versions on both Friendloverplane and Spitting Out Miracles, or ‘Warhol’s Fifteen’ or ’88 Out’ from Friendloverplane, but instead here’s one that doesn’t really have a number in its title, even if it sounds that way, the wonderfully catchy and straightforward ‘Severn Beach’:

There’s a raucous rockabilly garage-band feel to the song: it’s there in the big crude echo on the vocals, in the riff, and in the fuzzy and out-of-tune guitar solo. There’s a counting-song aspect to the lyrics, which takes us back to Manfred Mann’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ via XTC’s ‘Senses Working Overtime’: my son loved this when he first heard it a few months ago, and he’s only just turned five.

If there’s a drawback to the garage-band feel, it’s that the lyrics are largely incomprehensible.  I have tried, but in the verses got nothing more definite than ‘… cardboard box to get out to Severn Beach’, ‘where the mud flats howl’, ‘like buried pots’, and ‘they got nothing to say but plenty to do before they die.’

#31songs (10): Winter Sun, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31 Songs (10): A Song About the Weather

‘Winter Sun’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Spitting Out Miracles

As many who’ve been involved in it will attest, The Blue Aeroplanes is Gerard Langley’s group.  But Langley doesn’t originate the music. Rather, according to Richard Bell:

Gerard taped everything on a portable cassette walkman, all the jamming. He’d come back to us with an isolated riff and say “repeat that bit 8 times”! He was very much the director of the music, making the music fit the poems he had prepared. Although he did not play an instrument he had a strong sense of musical innovation or cliche, and steered us towards the former.(*)

And although Langley is the director, there’s been a long and welcome tradition in the band of allowing other members to write and perform their own songs.  Having a sung vocal in the middle of a Blue Aeroplanes album makes a big difference; having lyrics with rhymes likewise.  The sung material takes less concentration and is often more straightforward lyrically.  It can serve as interlude, as prelude, and as a reminder of what’s so special about the other material.

An early example is ‘Winter Sun’ on Spitting Out Miracles, with lyrics written and sung by Nick Jacobs, guitarist in the band from Bop Art through to this album.  Unlike some of the later examples, especially those by Rodney Allen, Jacobs’s lyrics here are almost as oblique as Langley’s.  At the start you might think that the winter sun in literal, though you’d have to be unusually pale to catch the sun in the winter time. The idea that ‘every detail cast a long shadow’ suggests that it’s a metaphor: a winter sun makes even the tiniest of things take on giant proportions.  The winter sun here is the lover so dominating the that addressee was in danger of being lost in him or her.  (As with many Aeroplanes songs, both genders are possible.)

Musically it’s spiky and angular; though there’s a folk tinge to the vocals and other aspects of the arrangement, the basic guitar riff could be new wave riff from the late 70s.


BAs Winter SunCaught yourself in the winter sun,
The light was bright and the angle was acute.
Every detail cast a long shadow,
The truth irritating and hard to explain.

You’ve got an image that you want to project
But it’s no damn use if you can’t protect it.
Get out from under what’s holding you down,
If that’s your best friend, don’t stick around.

Shed a silent, private tear
Then you opened the door and left the room.
You feel guilty and you feel bad
But a measure of sadness is only natural.

Caught yourself in the winter sun,
The light was bright and the angle it was cruel.
You lost yourself in your lover, lost yourself and you lost another.
Hard to explain, naturally.