Although she threw a big party with The Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, Graham Norton and the cast of Neighbours (OK, just Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce – no Plain Jane Superbrain, Bouncer or Stefan Dennis),it didn’t get the fanfare that Dylan at 80 in three years, or next year’s 70th celebrations for Springsteen will.
Because they are albums artists and the world’s media is still run by men with the same record collections, Kylie predominantly is a singles artist in the great tradition of ABBA, Pet Shop Boys, The Carpenters and Wham! (George Michael did some great solo albums, but his real pomp was as a singles artist). She has nevertheless produced consistently strong records, sometimes over a whole album (Fever, Aphrodite) but always great singles. Even the dud albums have one or two knock-it-out-the-park zingers.
So to celebrate, here’s a highly subjective but 100% accurate quarter century list of her best tunes. Bangers, one and all. (And Red Blooded Woman was no 26).
1 What Do I Have To Do
2 Love At First Sight
3 Better the Devil You Know
4 Especially for You
5 What Kind of Fool (Heard All That Before)
6 Step Back In Time
7 Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi
8 Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love Tonight)
9 Confide In Me
10 Hand On Your Heart
11 Can’t Get You Out of My Head
12 All the Lovers
13 Got To Be Certain
14 In My Arms
16 Put Yourself In My Place
18 Get Outta My Way
19 Can’t Beat The Feeling
20 Wouldn’t Change A Thing
22 In Your Eyes
23 Did It Again
25 Spinning Around
One year on, why Leonard Cohen still captures the hearts of the holy and the broken
The guest list for the Radio 2 programme about Leonard Cohen http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cm8l7 , broadcast on the anniversary eve of his death, is pretty instructive. Singer songwriters like Suzanne Vega, Judy Collins and his grandson’s dad Rufus Wainwright are expected. So is Grumpy Old Men’s Arthur Smith who did two separate shows of his own renditions of Cohen songs. But it’s hosted by Jeremy Paxman, lifelong fan. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling features.
That’s the thing about Leonard Cohen.
Few other artists have the range of fans he does. Musicians are a given, even less than clubbable rock frontmen like Lou Reed (who welcomed LC into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame), Ian McCulloch (who covered various of his numbers and “nearly melted” when he met him aged 29), Nick Cave (he called him “the symbol of my musical independence” and “the greatest songwriter of them all”), and Bob Dylan (who talked at length about Cohen’s melodic prowess in the recent New Yorker profile – and Dylan talking for ten minutes would be a front cover for most of the weighty music tomes).
If you think the man who recorded Death of a Ladies’ Men is the exclusive preserve of male admiration, look at his sidekicks like Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas and the Webb sisters. Then there are the cover versions. Collins, Warnes with her wondrous Famous Blue Raincoat album, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Kathryn Williams, Alexandra Burke, k.d. lang (the last three delivering very different readings from Hallelujah, the song that took three years and 80 draft verses to complete)….the list is endless.
A year ago, tributes poured in from Bette Midler and Carole King, the Justins (Trudea and Timberlake), Lin-Manuel Miranda, Peter Hook and Slash.
Drilling down what made him so adored can’t be done in a short blog, but part of it was his disarming light touch over global, sexual and office politics (“Everybody Knows”), the beauty in human frailty (“Anthem”) and death (most of his last album).
Even though Q magazine in the ‘80s sarcastically called him Laughing Len, on most of his records he’s chuckling on the inside. There’s Slow on Popular Problems (which he quipped should be followed by an album called Unpopular Solutions), following the chorus of I Can’t Forget with “but I don’t remember who” or First We Take Manhattan where he proves that no matter how bleak the subject, in this case the Holocaust, he engineers a crack where the light gets in. Starting a song on a subject matter so grim with the sentence “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom…” takes bravery and artistry.
There was something about Leonard Cohen albums, though he cris-crossed genres from polka to folk ballad to light disco to torch song, that you knew what to expect. They rarely disappointed. You knew nothing would be held back, there would be wry wit, mordant touches, openness about the wonder and mystery of women, a musical diversity but also a consistent quality control. Even his most underwhelming record (probably Dear Heather) has some peaks such as the 9/11 song On That Day which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. The track length of songs on 1992’s The Future probably led to Malcolm Tucker’s barb about the to-do list “longer than a ****ing Leonard Cohen song” but it still gave us Waiting for the Miracle and Anthem. The live albums, especially Field Commander Cohen and 2015’s Can’t Forget, are almost without exception terrific.
You knew with one of his songs, from Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye to when he did find ways to say goodbye on You Want It Darker, that this was an artist like no other. A fixture of the 1960s Greenwich music scene who would retire to a Greek Island, a snappy dresser who was comfortable in the clothes of a monk, a reclusive wordsmith who would command his troupe of musicians in packed stadia, Leonard Cohen was inscrutable. I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’ biography, comes closest to unscrambling him, but the mystery remains.
There are poets who became rock stars, such as Joan Baez in the era of Cohen, or in latter days, Sleaford Mods or Kate Tempest. But few had Leonard Cohen’s playfulness. When he’s angry, he manages to keep smiling. Not every artist can whistle in the dark, few can do it like Cohen.
Who couldn’t be charmed by the growl in Tower of Song? Particularly when he (sort of) sings “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
So many people have recorded wonderful cover versions of his songs. Their wonder is rooted in the man who wrote them, the last great poet-rock star. You Know Who I Am? Well, not quite.
Where does he go from here? (Is it down the lake, I fear) The challenge of the musically evolving teen idol
Craig Ferguson tells a story about being an unhappy film actor grumbling on the set of Jim Carrey vehicle Lemony Snicket about why he’d rather be elsewhere.
The producer’s response was uncharacteristically helpful by Hollywood standards: “I’m sure that can be arranged.”
His point, one Ferguson went on to prove as host of his own talk show for nine years, is that getting famous and staying famous are two different things. The latter takes a few ounces of cast-iron will.
Don’t trust any celebrity in film or music who sighs and says “yeah, it just happened. Crazy, eh?” if asked about a long career.
If they’re still successful after five or ten or certainly twenty years, be under no illusion. It is that they, or the team around them, planned it that way or made plans similar to that.
It’s all the harder when you’ve become famous because thousands have fallen in love with you, as Harry Styles, Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik will find out over the next decade.
Two separate occasions recently made me realise how difficult it is to tread the path from beloved teen idol to creative, credible artist.
One was The BBC’s Scott Walker Prom. A teen idol of his day created the Scott 1-4 albums and inspired Jules Buckley and his Metropole Orchestra, Jarvis Cocker and his former Pulp guitarist, Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfor and the wondrous John Grant to make an evening dedicated to his first four solo records. There were some gripes, most notable a hipper than thou review from The Guardian, about not marking the later more experimental albums like Bish Bosch and Tilt. But anyone who starts off in the public eye adored for his cheekbones and becomes loved for his chord changes and use of orchestration is a rare talent indeed.
Second was Nick Heyward, who gave a fascinating interview to Radio 5 Live and another to freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt.
And Heyward knows about these things after asking Geoff Emerick (whose first job in the studio was engineering Revolver) to work on his debut solo album, North of a Miracle.
Since Alan McGee used the Oasis money in 1998 to give the Haircut 100 man a solo album release Kite, Heyward has popped up at ‘80s Rewind festivals but making enough to make new records has clearly been a struggle. He must have asked himself where does he go from here when he couldn’t find his way to the lake.
Once the screams have died down for your looks, how many heartthrobs have carved out a career as credible musicians and made consistently interesting records? Scott Walker certainly. Tom Jones, perhaps. Justin Timberlake. Damon Albarn certainly. Taylor Swift possibly. George Michael and Michael Jackson, before we lost them. Chet Baker sadly didn’t hang around long enough to bask in the reputation he deserved. It makes the achievements of Scott Walker and those select others all the more impressive. And the constant battle for Nick Heyward to keep fighting the good fight all the more admirable.
For the rest, for those teen idols who want to disappear, well that can be arranged.
Hejira: the refuge of the musical roads travelled by Joni Mitchell
If 2016 taught us anything, beyond the fact political pundits may get facts about politicians totally wrong but unlike politicians, have the brass neck to keep appearing on telly and don’t resign like the politicians, it is this.
You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, so cherish it.
That line from Big Yellow Taxi could apply to the musical foot soldiers we lost in 2016. The Mount Rushmores of that year were, to most minds, Bowie, Prince, Cohen, George Michael.
The four of them were intensely personal singer-songwriters, given to playing around with identity, dipping in and out of fashion, wonderful at collaborating but pretty darned powerful on their own.
And so if 2016 taught us anything, maybe it taught us we have to appreciate similar musical greats while they’re in our midst.
Hejira is not one of the big selling Joni Mitchell albums, it certainly doesn’t have a hit like Big Yello Taxi or Both Sides Now on it, it is the meat in the Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)/Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1976) sandwich. It is above all a phenomenal piece of work.
Take Song for Sharon, all eight minutes and forty of it. A song that long can take in playing bingo, and poker, falling in love, visiting a fortune teller, skating on an ice rink, the suicide of a friend (possibly frenemy), rhyming “leaving her man at a North Dakota junction” with a “dream malfunction”. And so it decides to do just that.
Hejira is a musicians’ album.
Not in the sense that musicians from Bjork to jazzers like Herbie Hancock to Chaka Khan (who covered the title track) rave about it.
The musicians on this album are something else.
Many of them LA session musicians who would walk through Santa Monica untroubled. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every chance we get to praise them like we should.
Hejira is a musicians’ album featuring musical greats. For instance:-
Double bassist Charles Domanico, who played on the themes for M*A*S*H and Cheers, who plays on Blue Motel Room here.
The great guitarist Larry Carlton, who added his Gibson riffs to Becker and Fagen’s vision on many of Steely Dan’s ‘70s records, as well as MJ’s Off The Wall, and the theme for Hill Street Blues. (There are Emmy as well as Grammys in this studio).
Bassist Max Bennett, so good on Song for Sharon, who also played session bass for everyone from Frank Sinatra to The Patridge Family. He also appeared on Lalo Schifrin’s Bullitt soundtrack.
Neil Young plays harmonica on track three, Furry Sings The Blues.
And the small matter of Joni herself. Her songwriting, her singing, her excellent choice in collaborators all serve to camouflage what Chrissie Hyde once told Rolling Stone: “She is an excellent guitar player…I don’t know any guitar player, any of the real greats, who don’t rate Joni Mitchell up there with the best of them.”
Other albums like Blue, Court & Spark and Clouds showcase Joni singing a song, often just her and an acoustic guitar.
Hejira highlights what she could do with an acoustic and electric, and when she let herself loose with multi-tracking too.
Only Jaco Pastorius, whose fretless bass also makes the album so good, is no longer with us, although we just lost Sam Shepard, the widely accepted muse for opening track Coyote.
All the others who played on Hejira not least Joni herself should be wrapped up in cotton wool and garlanded with Lifetime Achievement Awards every chance there is..
This Must Be The Piece I Waited Years To Read: a collection of Neil and Chris not Being Boring
Neil Tennant has given a great interview to the BBC’s Ian Youngs http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40592576 where he discusses the Top 40 domination of Ed Sheeran (he doesn’t mind but isn’t a fan), the philosopher Walter Benjamin (he hasn’t read him, but nicked a song title One-Way Street from a book in his studio which he offered to Bananarama who turned it down) and freshly released remastered albums (“Stick to the old ones, that’s my advice.”) His record company must be thrilled.
It’s consistently amusing and amazing, as most Tennant interviews are. No surprise, though. The Shoppies give the media copy as witty, waspish and wonderful as their records. How couldn’t they when one was the former deputy editor of Smash Hits and the other once said “I don’t like Country & Western/ I don’t like rock music/ I don’t like, I don’t like Rockabilly/ Rock’n’roll in particular/ I don’t like much, really, do I?/ But what I do like, I love passionately.” And this was on an actual record (Paninaro). Neil Tennant’s last interview with The Quietus features a praise to the last Zayn Malik single. Who gets to rave about Zayn to The Quietus?
Here are a very random collection of funny things they’ve said but for the real gold, go to the Chris Heath books, Literally and Pet Shop Boys vs America.Apparently, he’s written two others but they’re too rude about pop stars so Neil Tennant won’t let them go out until after they’ve popped their blogs. Pray that doesn’t happen but also that if it does (God forbid), the publishers and Chris Heath aren’t squeamish about being opportunistic.
Neil Tennant to Attitude’s David Spedding: “There’s that ludicrous thing with Hear’say where people say ‘well, they can sing, you know.’ Well, so what? Lots of people can flaming sing. What are they about?”
Chris Lowe to Andrew Harrison for The Quietus: “We had a video director once who said I stood still very well. It’s not easy, you know. A lot of people can’t do it. It’s an art form.”
Popjustice’s Peter Robinson points out to Neil that having gold discs in the toilet is a humblebrag because it’s the one room of the house everyone will visit. “Now you see, you’re looking at that as someone with no gold discs. (Guffaws) And let’s focus on which toilet they’re in. Mine are in the toilet of the studio – only used by me, Chris and Pete Gleadall. If you want a humblebrag – we worked with Blue Weaver in 1985 – he did the song ‘I Want A Lover’ on our first album – and in his toilet was a multi-platinum disc for ‘Staying Alive’. Now, I was impressed by that, humblebrag or no humblebrag. One way to handle hold discs, which don’t really work as art, but I’ve seen this in other rock stars’ houses, is just to have a corridor RAMMED with them. Now that looks great, and it does, almost, turn into art.”
Chris Lowe to The Quietus again “Actually where we are rarely affects what we write except when we were in South America and we heard a lot of reggaeton. We’re the opposite of Damon Albarn and – what’s it called? – world music. We don’t go to Africa and come back with lots of African vibes. Wherever we go it always ends up 80s electro.”
Neil Tennant to The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis “We had a manager in America who used to manage a lot of big rock bands and he said, ‘You are without a doubt the most rock’n’roll people I’ve ever managed.’ We were the most decadent. We had make-up artists, dancers, wardrobe, the guys who just do the wigs, so there was this huge, mad entourage, which gives it this kind of party ambience. It’s a bit of a circus. Oh, you’d be really surprised. Heavy metal bands are always in bed by 11 o’ clock.”
Chris to THE FACE’s Sylvia Patterson: Eminem’s film is coming out this year. Excited about that?
“In which he plays…himself? Not really. He should do more cross-dressing. I think that’s his forte: Eminem as Britney in the The Britney Spears Story, that’d be great. Britney doesn’t do it for me I’m afraid. She doesn’t seem terribly good looking. And her voice! Unbelieveable.
“The only thing I truly loved last year was the video for ‘Crying At The Discoteque’, by Alcazar. It was very discoey and trashy. They’re wearing sequinned hot-pants with these mad people dressed as chickens and this brilliant roller skating dance, just hilarious and uplifting. Whenever I’m getting ready to go out, I put that record on.”
Neil to The Observer’s Miranda Sawyer: “The contemporary idea of brand didn’t really exist when we started, the idea of a group where the name and the songs were more important than the individuals has always existed. The Bee Gees were like that, and Abba. We’re a brand now, so fans always have advice for us. Actually, it’s exactly how I am about David Bowie. I met him backstage, and, being a fan type, I said, ‘Why haven’t you released ‘Hello Spaceboy’ as a single? It’s the only single on the album.’ Which is exactly what people do to us. They get annoyed, because these two stupid old gits – us – are ruining the Pet Shop Boys project.”
Chris to The Word’s Andrew Harrison: “Is anyone allowed to say that they don’t like Fairtytale of New York. Cos I don’t.”
Neil: “I don’t either. I feel a bit aggrieved when they play it on the radio and they go ‘Well, it’s amazing this great record was kept off Number One by the Pet Shop Boys.’ As if we are the villains of the piece.”
Chris: That’s not why I don’t like it. I just don’t like it. Is it meant to be jolly? I find it depressing.
Neil: “It’s two drunks shouting at one another.”
Neil Tennant to SPIN’s Kenny Herzog: Speaking of growing pains, have you met any of the babies from ’89’s “It’s Alright” video?
“Oh, I’m always meeting them. In the last 18 months, I think three of the babies have come up to me. One was on the street. I think one was in an airport, maybe even on the same flight. And another one was in a club or something. Actually, one of the mothers of the babies came up to me and said, “My baby was in your video.” It was a really enjoyable video. It was in Notting Hill somewhere, and we got there, and all the babies were asleep — all the 50 babies. And then one of them cried [and] they all woke up. It was Chris’ idea, that video. I still think it’s a very original idea, and it terms of the style, it was meant to be a tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, the way it was lit in black-and-white.”
So all the babies seem to be well-adjusted?
“Oh yeah, they seem to be thriving. We should get them all together for a party. We could have a joint 30th birthday party for them.”
The Joshua Four
Photo courtesy Anton Corbijn (an out-take)
What is it about U2 that means they can recreate that garage band effect in front of a packed rugby stadium? At Twickenham at the weekend, they had a way of the two, tree (sorry) or four of them dusting down an old record from three decades ago with some new material and making it feel contemporary. In honour of their return, here’s an entirely personal top five.
“Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?” Writing a break-up song that ends up as a wedding dance down the aisle is the opposite of disappointing anyone. A song that transcends its intention has morphed into something bigger than 50,000 voices singing along in a stadium, or one heartbroken individual on his or her headphones. One thing to some, but not the same to others.
2 Where The Streets Have No Name
Sometimes it’s uncool to admit you have a favourite member of a group. Uncool follows U2 around the way, well, world leaders used to follow Bono. Often it’s the singer. A few times it’s the drummer. But the intro on this track is dragged by the scruff of the neck by its guitarist and taken to a special place. When The Edge’s guitar kicks in – the most distinctive jingle-jangle outside of Johnny Marr or Bob Dylan’s mornings – we go there with him (it’s all we can do). My favourite member.
Twickenham, Saturday July 8 and The Unforgettable Set, courtesy of Es Devlin and team
3 Beautiful Day
To be popular is sometimes, occasionally, to be underrated. To concoct a stadium anthem devoid of snark – “feel-good” and “rock” are rarely in the same sentence unless it’s Dr Feelgood – is quite an achievement.
4 Stay (Far Away So Close)
If someone other than U2 had recorded this, they’d be building statues to it. Maybe they will one day. Film soundtrack man Craig Armstrong built his own monument in 2002.
5 I Will Follow
The earlier U2 stuff has a clumsiness to it, but also an urgency and passion. It can be rare for them to play pre-Unforgettable Fire material. So when they do rock this out, it’s a treat.
Baby Baby…How Edgar Wright Shoots and Scores
Baby Driver is the film with the best score since Pulp Fiction.
Although other films like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Jason Reitman’s Juno and Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation have used pop songs to great effect, the movie Edgar Wright wrote and directed uses its music as a plot point.
From the moment the tinnitus-plagued driver “Baby” played by Ansel Elgort, plugs the Jon Spencer Blues’ Explosion’s Bell Bottoms into his iPod to the point he listens to his mum (in reality Sky Ferreira) sing The Commodores’ Easy, Baby Driver is a joy ride with the volume on ten and even the speakers on the back turned up..
Even the dialogue is music related as the lead couple – Baby and Debora discuss songs around their names as an excuse to air consecutive Debra songs by T-Rex and Beck.
Wright drops the perfect mix of rock, roll and soul with nothing overstaying its welcome.
Queen’s Brighton Rock from Sheer Heart Attack, Blur’s doleful piano Intermission from Modern Life Is Rubbish (an album which sold under 19,000 copies in the States), a joke around Egyptian reggae as an excuse for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Jon Hamm singing along to Barry White’s best song Never Gonna Give You Up, the film works because the music does.
And if you don’t have the yodelling in Focus’ Hocus Pocus as an ear worm for days afterwards, your iron will is saluted.
But why does it work? There are film directors who have written about music in the past, most notable among them Cameron Crowe, and there are directors who have made their name making pop videos (David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Francis Laurence) and musicians who’ve ended up as film directors (Damien Chazelle, Gore Verbinski). But not one of their films, with the possible exception of Crowe’s Almost Famous, has pulled off this high-wire act like Wright has on Baby Driver.
Maybe it’s because he dated a musician, Ash’s Charlotte Hatherley, as well as an actress who is no slouch in film musical roles, Anna Kendrick from Sondheim’s Into the Woods and the Pitch Perfect movies.
Perhaps it’s because he kicked his heels between movies making music videos for Mint Royale, The Bluetones, Hatherley and Pharrell Williams among others.
Or worked in TV with comedians like Bill Bailey, David Walliams & Matt Lucas, Dawn French & Jennifer Saunders, and of course Simon Pegg & Nick Frost on Spaced and then the Cornetto trilogy. Comedians and musicians have plenty in sync from the importance of rhythm, improvisation and partying to the best ones being able to work a room from downstairs in a pub to an enormodome.
The fact he’s cast Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey, two actors with musicality hardwired into them (ask Kanye West or the estate of Bobby Darrin), doesn’t hurt.
It might be his age. If you can remember the Sixties, maybe you weren’t there or insist on hitting viewers over the head with it every chance you get. That’s how you end up with The Doors. Wright was born in 1974, the year of Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Grievous Angel and Court & Spark. He belongs to the age bracket who grew up with iPods when disposable income was arriving, where your record collection was jumbled together, liking hip hop and rock was no big deal – as opposed to previous or subsequent generations which fixated on genre. Coming from a generation under Quentin Tarantino (Wright moved to London the year Pulp Fiction and Parklife/Definitely Maybe came out), Wright can confidently set chases to both Young MC’s Know How and a relatively deep cut from Queen, Brighton Rock from Sheer Heart Attack. He knows it’ll fly. And every choice does.
Or it could be that the producers just finally gave a man the opportunity to put The Detroit Emeralds, The Damned, Golden Earring, Carla Thomas, Run the Jewels and Simon & Garfunkel (whose song provided the title’s inspiration) into a movie.
They should do that more often.
In honour of Radiohead’s return to Glastonbury, a deeply arbitrary playlist
1 Nude (In Rainbows)
So glad they featured this in their Glastonbury encores. So many of the interesting parts of Radiohead are in the production, the percussion, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar. Anyone can play guitar but not like that. On Nude, however, Thom’s voices soars and swoops like an eagle with its eye on a 99 cone.
2 Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)
Thom Yorke thinks this song is where everything started to go right for him as a songwriter. It took sending the rest of the band away, John Leckie driving Them to tears after recording it and a Jeff Buckley concert to jolt the song into shape. Worth it.
3 Everything In Its Right Place (Kid A)
If Exit Music (For A Film) has been soundtracked out of existence on a record, this pushes it close for Entrance Music (for a film).
4 Lucky (OK Computer)
This is Fake Plastic Trees Deluxe, the sequel, the upgrade, the Great Leap Forward…
5 Just (The Bends)
They’re not really a garage band, or conventional guitar band but when they do without and go Route-One, they do it pretty well on this.
6 The Numbers (A Moon Shaped Pool)
Zing! Zing! Zing! Went the strings on this track…
7 There There (The Boney King of Nowhere) (Hail to the Thief)
Another rock-out number, but of course what’s going on in the ‘Head’s rockouts is always different.
8 Codex (King of Limbs)
An album built on percussive rhythm – who can forget Thom’s “time to start paying in sweat” video for Lotus Flower, still makes space for beautiful, atmospheric moments like this.
9 Idioteque (Kid A)
Because no one uses percussion like Radiohead and Nigel Godrich. See also 15 Step from In Rainbows., if this was a top eleven, which it isn’t.
10 Street Spirit (Fade Out) (The Bends)
Another one ‘dropped’ at Glastonbury, where the video matches the atmosphere and general floaty otherworldliness.
30 great things about Sign O’ The Times, 30 years on
There are other articles (indeed some I’ve written here and here) and books about Sign O’ The Times, the masterpiece released on March 31st, 2017.
There are other, too many, listicles. But how else to celebrate 30 years since it was released in a concise, punchy way? Here goes….
1 The title track. What’s Going On, A Change Is Gonna Come, I Shall Be Released, Everybody Knows. All great state of the protest songs. But they weren’t funky. 2 AIDS, unusual to mention in 1987. Gangs on crack toting a machine gun. Brave for a radio record, the first single off an album following two comparative flops. But spending on space programme? Out. There. Whitney Houston wasn’t singing about that. 3 “Ooh, doggies!” Other ‘classic albums’ do not start their second track like this. Wish they would. 4 “Without the help of margarita and ecstasy”. This is a man thinking clearly, strategically, without the help of most of the Revolution too for that matter, who’d been let go in October 1986, about how to make his best ever record and decided, in album form only, to “make mine a double.” 5 “Shut up already…damn.” What a way to start (and finish) a song. 6 Even three decades after making-of features, documentaries and books about every single pigging classic album known to man (and a few that aren’t), mystery shrouds this record. Prince was at this stage deep in prep with alter-ego Camille being his alter-ego, but was the speeding up and slowing down on Housequake, a mistake by engineer Susan Rogers loved and uncorrected by Prince, an attempt to be Camille, or just a man totally in control of what he was doing in the studio. Princeologists may know but does anybody (else) know ‘bout the Quake? I mean, really? 7 Last word on Housequake. In the States in the ‘80s, black radio used to play album tracks. Which is cool. And Questlove from The Roots heard this track and ran home to tape this off the radio. Which is also cool. And he told this story in his autobiography which, again..well, you get the idea. 8 Storytelling in song is a fine art. Few nail it completely. Billy Joel’s Scenes from An Italian Restaurant, Bob Dylan’s Hurricane, The Divine Comedy’s A Lady of a Certain Age and this, a man meeting a waitress and chatting her up, or her chatting him up, is hardly The Greatest Story Ever Told but it is different. And unusual. And funky again. And fruit cocktail?!? 9 The musicality astounds.The simplicity of the drum machine and keyboard line, clearly knocked up by the wee man, but even in the telling of the tale, the way he weaves his order, the object of his affection singing Joni Mitchell’s Help Me and the “brrrring” ringtone of the cafe all into a couple of lines without breaking his musical flow is matchless. 10 A truckload of musicians namecheck The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd but Joni Mitchell? Nice. As well as frequently performing A Case of You live, here he drops in the opening track from another stone-cold JM piece of greatness, Court & Spark. (For the record, his own favourite Joni album was Hissing of Summer Lawns.) 11 It. Not the finest offering in the man’s canon but his willingness to go to atonal, interesting places (see also Tambourine, Something In The Water Does Not Compute) is part of what makes him different. And Prince. 12 The alarm noise at the start of Starfish and Coffee. 13 The fact it’s the kind of song which would end up on Sesame Street. And did.
14 Important Artists (those initial caps again), with honourable exceptions like The Beatles, Queen, Paul McCartney aren’t silly and playful and fun and child-like. This song, and large chunks of SotT, are. 15 The brass “rolls” (if that’s the technical term) on Slow Love. 16 “The man in the moon is smiling cos he knows what I’m thinking of”…just as well cos there isn’t anyone else on Planet Earth communing with this man’s muse. 17 Hot Thing. Leaving aside the dodgy sexual politics of the lyrics, listening again to this makes you wonder where the brass riffs stop, and Prince’s programmed keyboards begin. And that guitar….. 18 For any British pop fan of a certain age, the fact the Hot Thing was “looking for Big Fun” never failed to amuse. 19 Forever In My Life. People who choose this song at their wedding have got good taste. Even if Prince and Susannah never made it to the altar. 20 “Here we are folks, the dream we all dream of, boy vs girl, in the world series of love.” A theme is emerging. This is the best record for talky-bit intros in the history of records. 21 If I Was Your Girlfriend Clearly, the intro suggests (see also Let’s Go Crazy) that he has given a church wedding some thought. But that brooding, ticking beat that kicks in and takes over the song, with that digitised voice again (is this Prince? Camille? Prince as a girl? someone else entirely?) in a weird but wondrous direction. And all cos the home studio got the wrong tempo and he ended up liking it. 22 That track, It, Forever In My Life, Ballad of Dorothy Parker…listen to how simple they are. As Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip noticed: “It leaves space for things.” 23 Prince is a bath man, not a shower man. He clarifies this on two of this record’s songs. So now we know. 24 “For you naked I would dance a ballet.Would that get you off? Tell me what will. ” You don’t hear Thom Yorke singing that on OK Computer. 25 “Baby I Just Can’t Stand To See You Happy/More Than That, I Hate to See You Sad”. The not-getting-married thing is beginning to make sense by now. 26 The Sign O’ The Times record is amazing in part because it was part of a recording session which included a triple album workout, the Camille project, The Dream Factory, The Black Album…the list is longer than the heels in which he used to dance on stage. But to have tracks like I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man kicking around from five years previous, and drop them in here shows a certain forethought. This album certainly wasn’t all just thrown together. 27 The Cross. He means it, man. Susan Rogers may not have liked his drumming (“too technical”)
but the vocal is as intense as the subject matter demands. 28 The nine minute track on the classic album will introduce feelings of dread from most listenings. The Artist has Something Important to Say. And won’t stop Initialising Capital Letters. Eugh. It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night is a 9:02 party in Prince’s head which doesn’t let up for a second. You wonder if James Brown heard this and felt envy or if he was just too busy dancing. 29 Sheila E’s rap (seemingly down the phone) on It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night is much better than all of Tony M.’s on Diamonds and Pearls put together. Prince got worse at hip hop the bigger it got. 30 Adore is Teddy Pendergrass, Maxwell, The Stylistics, D’Angelo, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and all the other good things with the lights down low. In some ways a strange way to close the album but a sweet way too. Adore does make one thing abundantly clear. The brass lifts, the keyboard, the programmed drum patterns, Eric Leeds’ sax, Prince’s guitar, in particular the soul claps are all brilliant. But Prince’s voice is the greatest instrument by far on Sign O’ The Times. Mess with your mind? No doubt about it.
The A to Z of 2016
This site was named after a Prince single with alphabet in its title, so if there is to be an end of year review….an A to Z seems a better way than 50 records or the calendar year which would only start with that depressing moment Duncan Jones’ tweet, the Radio 4 programme, 6Music breakfast gave us the grim news. Trying to go through it in order (pointless), in terms of releases (it wasn’t all that, as the Best of/End Of year lists suggested…a list more of brand names in music than album achievement) seems an errand for another fool so without further ado….
Adele won most of the big awards for work she did in 2015, was brave enough to discuss her post-natal depression to Vanity Fair’s Lisa Robinson and announced four summer 2017 dates for Wembley Stadium by singing Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. A is also for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool because R, M and P were taken.
Bowie and Blackstar. What a way to leave the stage.
Christine and the Queens: The freshest newest act to hit magazine covers, the TOTP Christmas Day special and endorsement from Sir Elton Hercules John. Heloise Letissier sat regally above all the other pretenders to the French dance music throne who put out music in 2016. As that includes Daft Punk, Justice, Cassius and M83, she’s ruling over some pretty distinguished courtiers.
D is for Down Down. If Kings of Leon or Kasabian did something this good….imagine the music press….except they wouldn’t, would they? RIP Rick.
This whole alphabet could have been musical talents gone forever. Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White and The Eagles’ Glenn Frey were another two lost to us this year.
G is for Mark Giuliana, the incredible drummer on Bowie’s Blackstar. Bowie’s always had good drummers from Woody Woodmansey to Omar Hakim, but this guy…this guy is good.
Hype. Beyonce and Frank Ocean released records in the dark of night without pre-release interviews and hype. Which was the biggest hype they could have given them. Result: in this day and age, the dreaded insta-review, and the rest of us taking stock to figure out how good Blond and Lemonade are. And Beyonce did a new one at the Superbowl which, whoever you are and not withstanding the importance of the Black Lives Matter cause, was just disrespectful.
If You’re Feeling Sinister..anniversary gigs at a packed Royal Albert Hall, the same night at Brexit. Belle and Sebastian had them dancing from the dome to the soundstage on the floor.
Just Change It. Insta-reviews, ticket booking fees, secondary booking agencies buying all the tickets through bots, streamed records finishing top of the charts over songs which have sold more (Drake vs Justin Timberlake) and the BBC only showing two Top of the Pops a year. There are other changes in music it would be nice to make but we’re only in J.
Michael Kiwanuka. Difficult second album syndrome? Not really. This was the year when the man who came be known for the Sound of 2012 poll delivered one of the Sounds of 2016 with Black Man in a White World.
Lemmy died in the Christmas holidays of 2015 so L is for Greg Lake, who left us in December, sadly not leading to a concerted campaign for I Believe in Father Christmas to reach the top of the festive 40. The man who suggested Keith Emerson (also lost this year) should try the Moog and the rest was history (and a tour which cost them a fortune years before the Pet Shop Boys lost £1.5m on the Performance tour. Their dates at the Royal Opera House were exquisite, and presumably didn’t lose them that kind of cash).
George Michael’s death on Christmas Day was sad, inexplicable, miserable, unexpected (maybe not entirely), but a reminder of the fact this man was such a creative fulcrum from Wham! Rap aged 17 to Cowboys and Angels before he’s out his twenties, is staggering.
Nobel Prize. This was the first year they gave one to the guy in Wyclef Jean’s Gone ‘Til November video. Unless Herta Muller or V.S. Naipaul were in it and I missed them.
Lapsley, Operator. Another sound of 2016. And (sort of) 1977, or whenever you carbon date the height of disco.
Phife Dawg and Q-Tip joined forced for A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, their final album and first for eighteen years. 2016 wasn’t just the year of the musician death, it was the year of the fitting valedictory statement. In place of a last will and testament for the fans, they got to leave a great record without the hassle of probate.
Revolver. Like Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds, 50 years young. Anniversary pieces all round, including this one I wrote for Reaction.life. http://reaction.life/revolver-50-beatles-masterpiece-still-hasnt-outstayed-welcome/
Songs In The Key of Life…performed in full at Hyde Park. A magical four-hour night. Critics sniped that it was overlong, but any gig where the setlist actually has the words “Superstition etc” written and Stevie drops a DJ set including When Doves Cry and Kiss into the encore, is not too long for me.
Tapestry was also performed in full at Hyde Park. Carole King tore through that in around 40 minutes. So we had the cast of Beautiful, a selection of her hits for other people like It Might as Well Rain Until September but, above all, we had the unimpeachably great set of songs from 1971. (A book on that year, 1971, by David Hepworth, was probably the music book I enjoyed most in 2016).
Unforgettable. The orchestra pulled together by Jules Buckley performing Soul Bossa Nova in front of Quincy Jones himself for the Quincy Jones Prom. It’s etched on my memory but finding it online means it has to stay unforgettable.
The Vault. With Prince gone, and half-sister Tyka in charge of the estate, the questions remain. He’s made two unseen films. The Crystal Ball triple album. Every live show recorded for posterity, including the Piano and a Microphone shows. All in the mythical vault at Paisley Park, waiting to be opened. When? When? When?
X Factor. Respectfully, it’s over. With two episodes of TOTP a year, and Jools Holland starting Later and Later (gone midnight) and taking the self-indulgent move of heading to Maidstone, the only music show on TV that matters – even if you despise it, it breaks new acts and it’s where the big acts come to perform their hits – is in trouble. The second Christmas single in a row to miss the top three, a lack of big acts (no Beyonce, Justin Timberlake or Adele performing but they did have Honey G, James Arthur and Louisa Johnson, twice) and a feeling that another reinvention may be beyond them.
You Want It Darker. Leonard Cohen says goodbye in just as classy a way as Bowie. A meditation on death, hope, love and unfinished business getting close to being cleared up.
Zoolander. The sequel had Sting. The Original had Bowie. So thank you 2016 for making us remember how good 2001’s Zoolander was by giving us Zoolander 2. For those clamouring for a sequel to a film we love, Zoolander 2 gave us pause for thought.