Tag Archives: #31songs

#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.

LYRICS

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
description.

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’?)

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#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’.

 

LYRICS

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.

LYRICS

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.

#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.

LYRICS

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.

 

#31songs (9): Bury Your Love Like Treasure, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31songs (9): Best Ending

‘Bury Your Love Like Treasure’, by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Spitting Out Miracles

Endings are something the Blue Aeroplanes are good at. On several songs they synchronise the completion of the lyric with the closure of the music, which can give a final line an epigrammatic forcefulness even if the words don’t entirely merit it: that’s there as early as ‘Hard Objects’ by Art Objects, and later in ‘And Stones’ from Swagger.  It’s not quite the same as Wire’s aesthetic of ending the music when the words run out: what the Aeroplanes does feels less arbitrary, feels like a culmination.  In other songs though, the musicians are happy to jam around a theme long after Gerard has, so to speak, folded up his poetry book and left the stage; the effect isn’t quite as distinctive, but the sound that the band makes in full flight is magnificent: take the playout to ‘Talking on the Other Phone’ from Friendloverplane 2, for example.

‘Bury Your Love Like Treasure’ opens side two of the vinyl Spitting Out Miracles, and for that reason also deserves an honorary mention in the best opening category: John Stapleton, who at this stage in the band’s history was splicing samples into the band’s music, begins the song with ‘After a Smooooth Landing on Side Two’, taken from goodness-knows-where, and then with a spiky couple of chords we’re launched into the song:

The Album version

The Official Video (shorn of Stapleton’s sample)

There’s a force and simplicity about the music for verses: two strong emphases on the second and third beats, then a long run up and down the scale in the following bar.  (I have an idea that there’s a kind of sea-shanty origin for this: two strong beats for the pull on the rope, and the rest of the two bars to relax and recover.)  The lyrics are relatively forceful and direct too: a relationship in crisis, retaliations on both sides.  The big indecipherable irony lies in the chorus: if the addressee does bury her love, will the speaker’s finding it really be a success for the relationship?  Doesn’t his promise that he’ll ‘still find it’ sound more like a threat?

The main body of the song is done by 2.00, and it’s here that the music treats begin: interwoven backing vocals singing a sort of round, first calming the song down, and then gradually building it up again, working round an organ line that begins thin and simple and itself becomes busier.  There’s a strong folk feeling to it, but also a psychedelic quality. The vocal performances actually sound a bit shaky in places, as if some of the singers were at the edge of their ranges, but that’s part of its charm.

The folk influences on The Blue Aeroplanes are a curious matter, because if a defining feature of folk songs is the potential for anyone to join in with the singing, then Gerard Langley’s vocal performances are the opposite of folk: they’re spectacles to be heard and admired, but they’re not for joining in with. You can’t even sing the song to yourself when it’s over, though you can replay it in your head.  But the playout vocals on ‘Bury Your Love’ invite you to join in.

LYRICS

BAs Bury Your Love

I’m not at all sure it’s a good idea,
I think someone’s mistaken in this house.
Nobody could say your intentions were clear
But who in this place is going to work it all out?

You can bury your love like treasure,
Bury it so deep you can’t even measure it,
Bury your love like treasure,
I’ll still find it.

You can note all this down with a fine-point pen,
All these shared things, special intensities,
But none of it’s been true since way back when,
We can’t even be in the same city.
So tell me the difference between women and men,
You told it me once, tell me again.
Tell me that version, tell it me now,
Here in the morning, once more at noon.
I’ll never be certain I’m not staying here,
With this view of the sea from our white hotel room.

Bury your love like treasure,
Bury it so deep you can’t even measure it,
Bury your love like treasure,
But I’ll still find it.

 

#31Songs (8): In the Mystery, by The Blue Aeroplanes

#31Songs (8): Best instrumental solo

‘In the Mystery’ by The Blue Aeroplanes, from Spitting Out Miracles (1987)

Spotify link: The Blue Aeroplanes – In The Mystery

The Blue Aeroplanes are primarily a guitar-based band, and there are plenty of guitar solos on their records. On Spitting Out Miracles there often seems to be a Richard Thompson influence. But the most interesting guitar playing actually occurs outside the formal ‘solo’ spot, and often lies in the interweaving of different guitars.  The most surprisingly instrumental by some stretch is the clarinet solo on ‘In the Mystery’, attributed on the sleeve to ‘More Armadillo Traces’: Richard Bell in his notes tells us that the player was Peter Blegvad’s producer Tim Hodgkinson, who was in the Cold Storage studios (Acre Lane, Brixton) mixing Blegvad’s latest album, and who, hearing ‘In the Mystery’, offered to contribute some clarinet (*).  There’s a frenzied quality to it, scrambling up and down scales at speed, which is entirely consistent with some of the guitar playing on the band’s songs around that time, but which with the richer, warmer tone of a clarinet creates a different effect. (Imagine those notes played on an overdriven fuzzy guitar: it would sound more like some aspiring heavy metal guitarist in the style of Yngwe Malmsteen.)  The combination of the clarinet the clanging guitar line is an unprecedented combination of textures.

The lyrics are more than usually baffling, but they seem to incorporate a fractured hard-boiled detective narrative: note the non-standard ‘don’t cure a thirst’ and the tough-guy ‘we got calls to make’; the collars turned up, the references to the ‘elements of ‘the case’ and a ‘clue’. On top of that, the telegraphically abbreviated count of a journey (‘much bumping, some darkness’) also recalls some of the 1930s poets, especially Auden; Auden too liked to play with popular forms.  There’s an atmosphere of alienation and cultural dislocation, of not being one of the locals and of having to interpret the smallest things carefully. The sea sparkles ‘like the / sequins on her dress’, and nature ‘is Hollywood tonite’ (the sleeve notes give that spelling rather than ‘tonight’):  everything familiar has become artificial. At some level, though, I’m not sure quite of what logic is supposed to hold these elements together.

 LYRICS

BAs In the Mystery

Diving into an ice-broken river don’t cure a thirst
so quit this house, we got calls to make. Shut up
in a room, turning inside out. A long journey, much
bumping, some darkness.

                                                Then, the steam on the windows
kept people in like raffia chains, everyone was local
and we didn’t fit the elements of the case. A clue
to this extraordinary behaviour, a hand in some
politic embrace, g
ingham cloth, a crack in the cup.
Now when you cheat, you watch that hand for bites, when
you cheat I watch in admiration.

                                                           I could drink your
dishonesty like tequila, to indiscretion, in madcap
chase of enlightenment, collar turned up. Your face
a way station.  If you’re so young, don’t say such
clever things. [If you must be clever, please learn
about holding and circling.*] Oh, oh baby, but drink is
a blessing we ignore at risk. What can I say about
any love in these times?

The sea sparkles like the
sequins on her dress, and nature is Hollywood tonite.

[*these phrases are in the printed lyrics, but not recorded.]