Posts Tagged Rage

Mad men

I’m not sure there’s anything massively original or unique about The Hives, whether it’s their cartoonish character names, their heavily stylised looks, or the lead singer’s Mick Jagger mannerisms.

But instead of being a loose collection of dull clichés, they pitch their monochrome image, their furious, thrashy sound, and their tongue-in.cheek/so-serious-it-hurts anti-establishment lyrics in just the right way to create something loud, funny, and brilliantly, strangely joyful.

The songs are both throwaway and long-lasting, the titles alone – Die, All Right!; A.K.A I-D-I-O-T; The Hives Are Law, You Are Crime; Dead Quote Olympics – demanding attention.

They also have an interestingly contrived back story; namely that a recluse, Randy Fitzsimmons, summoned all five of them individually by letter to form the band, subsequently writing their songs for them and remaining behind the scenes. The inconvenient fact that ‘Randy Fitzsimmons’ is an officially-registered pseudonym of Nicholaus Arson’s is (a) just a means for Arson to collect Fitzsimmons’ royalty cheques on his behalf (of course), and/or (b) ignoring the fact that Arson probably isn’t his family name in the first place, and/or (c) taking all this far too seriously.

And so Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist screams his way through a range of generally disenfranchised, occasionally unintelligible lyrics (mangling their delivery as required: “This time you really got something, it’s such a clever idea / But it doesn’t mean it’s good because you found it at the liba-ra-ria), almost unfailingly backed by machine gun percussion and jackhammer guitars.

Making records sporadically since the mid-90s, they came to prominence in the very early 2000s, chiefly with Hate To Say I Told You So, Main Offenderand 2004’s Walk Idiot Walk.

Other songs to lock yourself in a small room with and listen loudly to are Diabolic Scheme (with its jarring, discordant strings), Antidote (“You want antidote / I got the poison” seeming to sum them up pretty well), Tick Tick Boom, and Abra Cadaver: I initially mis-heard the lyrics as “They tried to stick-a Dave Bowie inside-a me”, which I thought was taking the Jagger thing a bit too far.

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A brand new resolution

Just a year after a return to chart success with Lola, and with a move to a new record label (RCA) under their belts, late 1971 was clearly the right time for the Kinks to capitalise on their comeback, seize the moment, and stake their territory as mainstream rock and roll heroes. 

Alternatively, they could release an album of songs inspired by those most reliable measures of commercial triumph in Britian, country and western music, and lyrics about urban regeneration, social exclusion, and mental illness.

Inevitably they went for the latter and the album, Muswell Hillbillies, tanked.

But frankly, and nearly 41 years later, who cares, because here we are dealing with a most rarefied form of genius.

Ray Davies addresses the personal and the global – or at least his own world of north London – opening with a cry for escape from the 20th century, its civil servants and threat of nuclear warfare (interesting juxtaposition). When he howls “This is the 20thcentury / Too much aggravation / This is the edge of insanity! / I’m a 20th century man but I don’t wanna be here” he sets out the platform for most of what follows. Paranoid waking nightmares, wishful escapism, eviction, unjust incarceration, a forced vacation (with a thankfully short-lived impersonation of a toothless blues singer), all of life’s joys are here.

Davies highlights the burgeoning obsession with weight and physical appearance (as well as the carb-free diet a good 30 years or so before ‘Dr’ Atkins brought it to the, er, masses), and concludes the album with a railing against imposed social change. We’re left with an impression of the world ‘out there’ besieging us with its demands, insistences, and constraints, and of a man on the brink of breakdown – in the midst of one, even – but who can still muster defiance against the powers that be.

This is a totally cohesive album, the seemingly disparate elements of music and lyrics combining perfectly. Davies takes the most bleak personal troubles and society’s ills, and somehow, somehow makes them humorous, inspiring, and comforting.

He even found space for a playful homage to that most British of institutions.

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Small talk moves me to violence

Yes, it’s my inevitable review of the Young Knives’ new LP, Ornaments From The Silver Arcade (they were seeking a mysterious, fairy tale-sounding title, and ended up getting inspiration from a Leicester shopping centre).

This is quite a departure from their previous albums, both of which (as I have contemplated before) feature cheeky angst, misanthropy, and spiky indie guitars by the shed-load. This time round, they have taken a conscious decision to be more accessible, poppier, and a touch more optimistic: it was at first disconcerting to find myself mentally referencing bands such as Space, Supergrass, The Killers, Duran Duran, and Kaiser Chiefs while listening to this.

The addition of elements of funk, hand-claps, keyboards, female backing vocals, a bit of brass, and 80s pop-eque production does occasionally veer worryingly close to white-boys-do-jazz/funk-lite. But it certainly achieves that ease of access they say they were looking for – I can see something off this album being a relatively big mainstream hit: pushed, I’d go for Everything Falls Into Place (an infectiously, defiantly upbeat take on life’s mundane worries – just hinting, of course, at their early works’ bleaker outlook on life).

By contrast, on Woman (an ode to transvestism. Or maybe transgenderism. Anyway, it’s deeply sexual), and Vision In Rags, they seem to go too far musically and end up sounding, well, poppily normal (which is the last thing this band should ever try to be).

Similarly, the lack of any explicit rage or contempt at society in general leaves the lyrics feeling uncomfortably watery at times (such as Running From A Standing Start: “There’s a new dance called the sway low / You can do it how you please / Lunchtime Lucy likes to watch me / Do the coochie on my knees”). Sister Frideswide, on the other hand, sees us back on more familiar territory, contemplating a sexually-tempted nun (not a sentence I’ve ever written before).

As always, though, these things are about balance. And with the back-to-back Go To Ground,  Silver Tongue, and Storm Clouds, they get it just about right, striking a happy medium between light and dark. The first of these is pained and heartfelt; the next mixes self-deprecation, self-loathing and self-awareness; the last is a brooding affair with menacing, apocalyptic guitars.

Overall, the album doesn’t fully represent Young Knives’ work to date. But I suspect that’s half their point; in breaking out of their norm, they may be heading down a new path. Hopefully one which continues to tread the line between pop and Wicker Man.

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Grabbed, devoured, and kicked in the showers

1985’s Meat Is Murder, The Smiths’ second studio album, was quite a departure from their eponymous debut, both lyrically and musically. The debut album was let down by poor production, resulting in recordings which sound wafer-thin in places, and meaning that the Hatful of Hollow compilation is in some ways a better representation of their earliest work.
 
By the time of the second album however, the greater force and direction of the music was done full justice in its engineering. The prominence of Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums) are particularly noticeable, and set a thoroughly concrete foundation for Johnny Marr’s melodies. While his familiar ‘jingle-jangle’ is still the defining element, Marr embraces other elements, most notably funk, showing a leap forward in his writing.
 
Morrissey, meanwhile, leaves behind most of the callow, reticent, passive persona of the first album (the girl-shy boy of Pretty Girls Make Graves, the impotent despair of Miserable Lie), and reveals a strident sense of assertiveness and outrage.
 
The Headmaster Ritual opens the album by railing against violent authority figures, rejecting education and life, while I Want The One I Can’t Have sees Moz as the frustrated lover, imploring his unwitting target to call round when they have grown up a little – this song begs more questions of his own sexuality than it gives answers. What She Said is another song which can be comfortably interpreted in any number of ways, in which a bookish, resigned girl is brought to life by a scally from the Wirral.
 
We see a little of the frailer Morrissey is on That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More (reputed to be Marr’s personal Smiths highlight), and the beautiful Well I Wonder, where even in the throws of death, defiance persists: “Gasping, but somehow still alive / This is the fierce last stand of all I am”.
 
Both Rusholme Ruffians (tainted at least a little in the knowledge that it, um, ‘borrows heavily’ from one of Victoria Wood’s piano sing-alongs) and Nowhere Fast (with its early pop at the monarchy, and wonderful train-track rhythm) contemplate life mundanities, whether the casual aggression of a northern fairground or a stultifying life of marvelling at the most basic of domestic appliances.
 
The album closes with Barbarism Begins At Home and Meat Is Murder, Morrissey decrying cruelty to children and the eating of animals. Both tracks feature unusual aural effects, from the singer’s own yelps, to the cries of distressed cows interspersed with the sound of the abattoir knife. These last two bring the album to an appropriate end, being songs of protest and outrage.
 
If I can come over all pushy for a moment, ignore the acclaim for The Queen Is Dead being The Smiths’ best album: it isn’t, this is. Meat Is Murder is their tightest, most focused, most ‘joined-up’ album. It’s not perfect, but finding the last two tracks to be over-long isn’t too bad as far as criticisms go, and it manages to avoid nearly all whimsy (Victoria Wood pastiches notwithstanding). When writing these album pieces, I generally focus on a select number of key songs from the album; I had to write about all of these (excluding How Soon Is Now?, which was added to re-issues of the album and therefore doesn’t count. The album also sounds better without it).
 
This is simply an outstanding piece of work. You’ll have spotted I’ve linked to every single song mentioned above (including those not on the album) bar one, and here it is, perhaps my all-time number one (including a video featuring Moz in several lovely blouses):

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Party like it’s between 1998 and 2001

As part of my ongoing attempts to manage my music through iTunes, rather than have iTunes derange me to the point of murderous intent (so far it’s winning comfortably), I recently stumbled across a home-made music compilation I’d nearly forgotten about. Harking back to the very late 90s/very early 2000s, this compilation is something of a personal time-stamp for me, reflecting as it does what I thought of as the definitive soundtrack to a night out back then. It was inspired by a long-standing weekly Saturday night out in a club called Le Bateau in Liverpool. The full track listing is below, but before we get there, a few (self-)reflections:

…could I be/have been any more of an ‘indie kid’? Two Charlatans tracks? Two?? Jesus Christ… Loaded by Primal Scream now sounds like just about the dullest thing I’ve ever heard. Clearly I was becoming obsessed by The Hives. The inclusion of Skeleton Key reminds me how the club played The Coral’s debut album in its entireity on the night of its release, them being local rising stars and all (the Wirral being part of Liverpool when it suits, of course)…

Side A   Side B
Track Artist   Track Artist
Sexy Boy Air Brown Sugar The Rolling Stones
Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth The Dandy Warhols Do You Remember The First Time? Pulp
Trash Suede 21st Century Rip Off The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over The Charlatans Hate to Say I Told You So The Hives
This Is Love PJ Harvey Fools Gold The Stone Roses
Town Called Malice The Jam Last Nite The Strokes
Loaded Primal Scream Main Offender The Hives
There She Goes The La’s Love Will Tear Us Apart Joy Division
Kung Fu Ash Animal Nitrate Suede
Panic The Smiths Bigmouth Strikes Again The Smiths
The Only One I Know The Charlatans Laid James
Waterfall The Stone Roses Once Around the Block Badly Drawn Boy
Skeleton Key The Coral I Am the Resurrection The Stone Roses
Doledrum The La’s Die, All Right! The Hives
    There Is a Light That Never Goes Out The Smiths

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The world’s gone and passed me by

At the time, the genesis and birth of Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) must have felt like something of a waking nightmare for Ray Davies and friends. The concept was to write a soundtrack to underscore a Granada TV play, to be written by Julian Mitchell, but while the recording of the album progressed nicely, the development of the TV programme was troublesome, culminating in last-minute cancellation after funding fell through. After seeing the best part of a year’s work come to nothing, the album was to be released as a standalone concept album – but with the concept itself much less tangible than was first expected. With hindsight it perhaps unsurprising that two pre-album singles were released (Plastic Man, and Drivin’) to either limited or no chart success.
 
The album paints a picture of a fictional Arthur Morgan (based closely on the Davies’ brother-in-law) in the post-Second World War years. He is depicted as an essentially good, decent man who is confounded, let down, and ultimately brow-beaten by the world around him, inevitably serving as a metaphor for the once-great British Empire.
 
Davies’ themes are clear and prominent: nostalgia for a forgotten Britain (the excellent Victoria, and Young And Innocent Days), the fundamental emptiness of life (Shangri-La, and Nothing To Say), and the war (Yes Sir, No Sir is notable for its memorably scathing take on the army’s attitudes to its recruits: “Give the scum a gun and make the bugger fight / And be sure to have deserters shot on sight / If he dies we’ll send a memo to his wife”). Indeed many of the album’s subjects are treated with thinly-disguised scorn. Australia is presented as an apparent land of opportunity which its immigrants expected to believe has “no class distinction, no drug addiction”, while in Mr Churchill Says, the war-time British public is portrayed as both resolute and desperate (“All the garden gates /And empty cans are gonna make us win”).
 
The centrepiece of the album is quite rightly Shangri-La. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that this is possibly my favourite song ever written. It is simply majestic, effortlessly describing the mundanity and desperation of Arthur’s quiet suburban life, which has been reduced to a pursuit of modest material aspirations (his lifetime achievement being that of no longer having an outside toilet archly contrasting with the album’s finale which tells us Arthur “was young, and he had so much ambition”). Arthur’s life is now one of a TV, a radio, and a ‘dream’ car (all on the never-never), in a world of resignation where he knows his place; his place being in his rocking chair by the fire, cup of tea in hand, scared of his own insecurity, enduring execrable visits from nosey neighbours.
 
These lyrics could be taken to be an aloof, damning indictment of the aspirational working man, but in Davies’ hands they are agonised, sympathetic, and bittersweet, despairing of the world we’ve inherited and of what the Empire has become.

This song and the album as a whole are simply musical and lyrical masterpieces.

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I don’t want to die in a nuclear war

Released at a time when The Kinks appeared to be on the wane, 1970’s unconventionally-named Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One brought them back into the public’s conscience largely off the back of perhaps the most celebrated ode to transvestism in pop history.
 
The album itself failed to chart in the UK, which seems somehow fitting, given that large parts of it are a feast of Ray Davies’ cynicism and bitterness about the music industry and its principal actors – agents, managers, the press.
 
Top Of The Pops takes us on an entertaining jaunt through the lifecycle of a hit single climbing up the charts, leading to recognition in the streets from screaming fans and interest from the Melody Maker (ask your Dad, kids). This culminates in a momentous phone call from the singer’s agent with the news that the song has gone to number one, resulting in the opportunity to “earn some real money!”. Similarly, Moneygoround laments the complex web of music industry types who each dip their hands into the money earned from a song’s success, leaving Ray initiating litigation with survival his only goal, while Powerman is both defiant and resigned.

Other themes on the album include alienation, paranoia, and despair at modernity. Perhaps the most touching song on the album is Get Back In The Line, based on the Davies’ father’s experience of unionism and the effects it had on him, not to mention those it had on the young Ray seeing his father return home, jobless still. Also memorable are two Dave Davies-penned songs: Strangers, and Rats. The former is somehow both existential and full of human warmth; the latter drips with fear and paranoia, features a class-A addictive intro, and is oddly representative of my own feelings on my infrequent trips to that London. We also have the call of nature which is Apeman.

For me, despite (or indeed because of) its imperfections this album is essential listening for anyone with even a passing interest in The Kinks: it is executed with characteristic humour, and in a way that belies its underlying negativity, showing some of the Davies brothers’ finest moments.

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A book at bedtime (3)

Country Of The Blind by Christopher Brookmyre (1997)

This is Christopher Brookmyre’s second novel, the follow-up to Quite Ugly One Morning. While his first novel began with a detective uttering “Jesus fuck” at the discovery of a stool upon a grotesquely murdered man’s mantlepiece (we’re not talking furniture re-arrangements, either – quite an opening gambit from any debut author), Country Of The Blind begins in a much more genteel fashion: with a cup tea. Admittedly, this cup of tea was prepared by a man who has just been arrested for breaking and entering, robbery, and, of course, quadruple murder. His new-to-Glasgow lawyer initially finds her only potential line of defence to be that he had previously made her, yes, a nice cup of tea. That, plus a mysterious envelope he had handed her, on condition that it should only be opened were he to fall foul of the law.

And so we get a quick overview of some of Brookmyre’s favourite topics: murder and stitch-up, the law and its long arm, Scotland and some of its seedier inhabitants. Allied to these throughout his novels are fond(-ish) reminisence of school days, computer games, music, not to mention his evident disgust at the British Conservative party, Christianity in all its organised forms, the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic, the right-wing media, casual racism, and corruption of  The Man’s and/or The System. Fortunately these topics are addressed with a monumental dose of humour and copious amounts of sweary words, often in his native dialect – so much so that one of his later novels includes a glossary (sample entry: moolsy - Selfish, ungenerous, disinclined to share one’s sweeties with half a dozen cadgers who wouldn’t give you the steam off their shite if it was the other way round).

His chief protagonist is Jack Parlabane, a freelance journalist with a fierce sense of moral outrage (coincidentally, against many of the more egregious subjects listed above) and a handy lock-picking toolkit. Parlabane is an immensely likeable character, despite (or because of) his ability to start (and win) an argument in an empty house.

The plot details of Brookmyre’s novels don’t really lend themselves to too much description. It’s a little like trying to steal just a small piece of a large un-cut cake: nibbling at one slice of the plot tends to necessitate revealing at least part of the rest, and so on and so on until you realise you’ve eaten the whole cake and spolit the fun for everyone. So for now, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of any of his novels.

Incidentally, I chose this particular novel of his simply because I had the immense good fortune to find a very good condition, first edition hardback cover of it in a second-hand bookshop in Whitby, for just £5. It’s not often the cosmos deals me such cards, let me tell you. It was all I could to remember to pay for it before I ran out of the shop with it tucked under my arm, cackling.

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A disregard for health and safety

I really do think more people should blog about The Young Knives, you know.

Of late (that is, for about 2 months), I have been obsessed with Counters from their second album, Superabundance; obsessed to the point of absorption, assimilation, and integration. I was initially fooled by the gentle, almost sing-song start, but their familiarly choppy, angular guitars soon take over, along with feral dogs barking: a snatch of the chaotic, bleak, grimy demi-monde just next door to where the Knives live. At least, that’s what I hear.

The song is a tale of anger and bitterness, mostly aimed at an un-named target (“It seems that everything’s gone wrong / Since you entered my life”) but I get a sense of a healthy slab of self-hatred too, culminating in “sitting in the front seat / turning on the motor / sucking on the hosepipe / keep it turning over” – an unlikely, but successful, candidate for a sing-along chorus if I ever heard one.

The repeated sing-song lines offer perhaps a glimpse of the reason for the sweat-stained shirt and sour milk. It could just be that I have spent far too much time with accountants these last couple of years, but relegating other people from ‘numbers’ to mere ‘counters’ sounds to me like a natural progression if you’re financially-minded. Now, where are my car keys?

Also, I have no idea what’s going on with the video.

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A book at bedtime (2)

La Bête Humaine by Emile Zola (1890)

Jacques Lantier, brother of Etienne, is the main character in La Bête Humaine, in which Zola considers the rage within man. I find the novel’s setting strangely evocative, based as it is around the Le Havre-Paris railway line, travelling through the Normandy countryside; a route and final destination of Paris’ Gare St Lazare which are still close to my heart. I can also confirm that this setting is much more apt for literary treatment than the coach station in fin-de-siècle (fin de 20th siècle, that is) Rouen: another Norman vehicular setting, but, from my experience, populated by many more weirdos than Zola’s – even allowing for the ‘human beast’. 

Unlike many of his ancestors, Jacques avoids the old green fairy but instead finds himself consumed with murderous desires, which he attempts (unsuccessfully, natch) to suppress. There are several occaisons where Jacques comes close to succombing to his rage; he manages to rein in his homicidal urges, but finally snaps and kills his lover.

Indeed, lust, sex, and desire are never too far away in this novel (and are usually inter-twined with a dose of murder for good measure): an(other) extra-marital affair is central to the plot from the very beginning, Jacques is deeply attached to his engine (‘La Lison'; this relationship even seems to keep his rage in check) and, well, trains and tunnels and that. You know.

At the dénouement of the novel, Jacques attacks a colleague; the train they are supposedly in charge of hurtles down the tracks, throwing them to their deaths as their unknowing passengers drink themselves into a stupor. Zola being Zola, these passengers are of course patriotic soliders on their way to the border to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. Train or bullet lads: either way, you’re screwed.

Incidentally, I’m fairly certain the image above is not from the original 1890 edition of the novel.

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