Tag Archives: Swagger

#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’?)

#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.