Episode 6: The Sound of Young Scotland

It wouldn’t take a genius to deduce that Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka and H P Lovecraft were deeply troubled men. And that Manchester groups The Fall and Joy Division did not hail from California. Nor did Morrissey.

And yet, and yet. Listening to Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, they seem to be making a conscious effort to overcome what one can only imagine was a fairly grim urban setting of Glasgow and surrounds. Roddy Frame (actually from East Kilbride) of Aztec Camera loved The Fall and Joy Division. His clothes came from the Co-Op like Mark E Smith. He listened to Joy Division a lot. But when he sang the sound was more Venice Beach than Salford Docks.

On ‘Rip It Up’ by Orange Juice, Edwyn Collins sang that his ‘favourite song was Boredom’ by Manchester’s Buzzcocks. But the song is in fact inspired by Chic and disco synths. Stuart Murdoch’s Belle and Sebastian got Trevor Horn from the Buggles to produce them. Camera Obscura wrote an album in tribute to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and draw their sound in part from the great girl groups of the early 60s.

This is still great music, but it’s not perhaps what you’d expect from an industrial city. It’s not dour, it’s upbeat for the most part. The Jesus and Mary Chain sweetened their early obsession with feedback by lacing it with a laid back west coast sensibility.

Perhaps this is just a theory in search of a home. Mogwai sounds quintessentially Glaswegian, to my ears anyway. Batcat from The Hawk Is Howling is as unnerving as it gets: a horror movie set to music. Don’t watch the video as I once did, late at night on your own. There is no one monolithic Glaswegian sound, as it turns out - there’s no Madchester here.

What cannot be denied is that the city has produced an unbroken line of wonderful alternative groups, perhaps only rivalled by Manchester and Sheffield. So, please do enjoy a short history of alternative Glasgow tunes.

Tracklist:-

Falling and Laughing, Orange Juice

Oblivious, Aztec Camera

In Trance As Mission, Simple Minds

Just Like Honey, Jesus and Mary Chain

Downtown Lights, The Blue Nile

The Boy with the Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian

Pull the Wires from the Wall, The Delgados

Eighties Fan, Camera Obscura

Eleanor, Put Your Boots Back On, Franz Ferdinand

Friend of the Night, Mogwai

Pest, De Rosa 

Check My Heart, The Pastels

 

 

Episode 5: A Short History of Paranoia

Paranoia may not seem like the most obvious starting point for a relaxing hour of tunes, and it isn’t. Most of these songs are unnerving, in one way or another, but that doesn’t stop them being essential listening. There is a thread here, of paranoid characters having trouble with that most basic of functions: looking at other humans.

Paranoid Man Number One

You oughta know not to stand by the window; somebody see you up there

The revolutionary in Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime is hiding out in a cemetery, surviving on peanut butter, with “two passports, a couple of visas.” He doesn’t even know his real name. The character was not so much a comic caricature (like Woody Harrelson in 2012), more an acerbic comment at the end of the decade that had thrown up Watergate and Baader Meinhof (like Gene Hackman in The Conversation). 

Paranoid Man Number Two

I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back at me to see me lookin' back at you

It’s a bad idea in in English cities to look at people for too long on the street. Or on public transport. Or late at night. It’s a function of too many people in too small a space. Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm is partly about this.

Paranoid Man Number Three

Puts his head down when girls pass in the street; shakes in the chemist

Mark E Smith of The Fall is by some margin the most paranoid man in rock’n’roll and on Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room (1993) he completed a psychotic trilogy. In Flat of Angles (1979) we get to inhabit the world of the man who’s killed his wife and is hiding up: trapped in flat of angles … soap operas all day .. rooms of dirty laundry …the streets are full of mercenary eyes. His father-in-law is holding up a picture of his dead wife in the papers. Then, a year later: A prickly line of sweat covers enthusiast's forehead as the realization hits him that the same government him and his now dead neighbor voted for and backed and talked of on cream porches have tricked him into their war against the people who enthusiast and dead hunter would have wished torture on, he sang on New Face in Hell (1980). That, right there, is the voice of paranoia. 

Paranoid Man Number Four

I can’t make eye contact with anyone I see; this place has taken all my self esteem

Yep, high school can be a drag. On Self Esteem, Andrew Jackson brings it all back.

Tracklist

Life During Wartime, Talking Heads

A Song from under the Floorboards, Magazine

Passover, Joy Division

Yashar, Cabaret Voltaire

Kundalini, 23 Skidoo

Schizophrenia, Sonic Youth

Where is my mind?, Pixies

Safe from Harm, Massive Attack

Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room, The Fall

Paper Thin Walls, Modest Mouse

Afraid of Everyone, The National

Self Esteem, Andrew Jackson Jihad

Paranoid, Hellsongs

Episode 4: Short Stories in Songs

Way back, the words and the music could not be divided. These were the days before the actors arrived on stage. This episode is a tribute to that Athenian world of the 6th century B.C.: where lyrics and music were, quite literally, in perfect harmony. Only without the masks and olives.

Short stories don’t sell, publishers will tell you. Short stories in songs aren’t much in vogue these days either, but when were they? The 1970s, perhaps, when Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks got to number one - not only a short story in a song, but also a sentimental one in which the protagonist is about to die. Or maybe he’s emigrating, which might be a relief for those he’s left behind, by the sound of it.  

No Seasons in the Sun for us; it fails to hurdle the demanding quality bar Sombrero Fallout demands of all successful candidates. What we’re looking for is a great song, of course, but one that could work as a piece of literature as well. And a way with words, as Chris Difford’s sustained deployment of the half-rhyme delivers in Squeeze’s Up the Junction.

I got a job with Stanley; he said I’d come in handy                                                                            And started me on Monday; so I had a bath on Sunday

Sometimes the little details give away a song’s age, such as making an event out of watching The Simpsons in The First Big Weekend by The Arab Strap. But low culture can invoke strong emotion, and that in turn renders the song universal.

Sunday afternoon we go up to John's with a lot of beer in time to watch the Simpsons. It was a really good episode about love always ending in tragedy except, of course, for Marge and Homer. It was quite moving at the end and, to tell you the truth, my eyes were a bit damp. 

Dry Your Eyes by The Streets was, amazingly for a short story song, a number one hit. What works here is the fumbling attempt by the dumpee’s pal to cheer him up, with his inarticulate homespun wisdom, complete with clumsy passive voice and ready cliche.

Dry your eyes mate, I know it's hard to take but her mind has been made up                                  There's plenty more fish in the sea

Sometimes the songwriter is intent on memorialising a peripheral character with whom nobody would ordinarily bother. This is how Mark Kozelek begins his great album Benji: penning a tribute to his distant trailer trash cousin; and this is is what Conor Oberst is aiming for in Light Pollution.

John A. Hobson was a good man; he used to loan me books and mic standsHe even got me a subscription to the Socialist Review

It’s no surprise John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is turning his hand to novel-writing these days. Though most Goats songs would work as well, here we have the two minute masterpiece, The Fall of the High School Running Back, who blew his knee out in an out of town game and now there is nothing but the ground left for you to fall to.

But selling acid was a bad idea; and selling it to a cop was a worse one                                               And the new law said that seventeen year olds could do federal time; you were the first one                     So I sing this song for you, William Staniforth Donahue                                                                   Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland; but you made a bad decision or two

The pop lyric can mean everything and nothing, and is, naturally, dependent on the music that accompanies the words. I wanna hold your hand - a sentiment bland beyond belief, but in the right context with the right music and the right attitude, a commercial goldmine. These songs aim higher. Listening, you can, just for a moment, hold life in the palm of your hand, the noble aim of Carver and Chekhov and Mansfield. And these bands have something the master short story writers lacked. The music inherited from Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides.

Tracklist

Up the Junction, Squeeze

Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, The Jam

The First Big Weekend, The Arab Strap

Jonathan David, Belle and Sebastian

Ellen and Ben, The Dismemberment Plan

Dry Your Eyes, The Streets

On the Bus Mall, The Decemberists

Light Pollution, Bright Eyes

My Dog Was Lost, The Fiery Furnaces

Papa Was A Rodeo, The Magnetic Fields

Fall of the High School Running Back, The Mountain Goats 

Jim Wise, Sun Kil Moon

Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

Frank’s Wild Years, Tom Waits