Teaching the shy lads to dance
Alistair's musings on 'Jonathan David', the recent Belle and Sebastian single, got me thinking about pop. It took me back to the days when B&S joined in that procession of bands, starting with New Order, passing through Oasis (great rock'n'roll first album then pap), onto B&S then Lambchop, who I can say I have been obsessed with. All of them, in completely different ways have characterised the spirit of pop and have shown just how important pop is to everyday life. How it weaves its way through everything we say and everything we do. How every human emotion is, intangibly, reflected through pop's tuneful prism.
Alistair's article took me back to a recent and very surprising gig. The venue was the Albert Hall and B&S the band. I thought that 'Jonathan David' was fey crap of the worst kind and was expecting to be left disappointed and wistful, reminded how the bands you love will always let you down in the end. But, amazingly, they were superb! Having seen them live at Shepherd's Bush a few years back I thought they were bordering on shambolic but this time they were, to coin a quite horrible musical cliché, professional. The ropey recent stuff, like nearly the whole of the last car-crash of an album, was kept pretty much to a minimum and the set was filled with superb tracks from the name-making EPs. 'Le Pastie' had spine-tingling 3 or 4 part male/female harmonies and was so exciting! 'Lazy Line Painter Jane featured Monica Queen' in all vocal finery and was elongated and drawn out to perfection. Damn it, it was actually bordering on the loud! The only dud moments were Isobel's breathy gurgle (will someone in the band please tell that woman that she CANNOT sing!) and the utterly limp 'Jonathan David'. Oh, and getting a member of the audience to sing ALL of 'The State I Am In' is sacrilegious. Having endured similar at a desperately tedious Badly Drawn Boy gig several weeks earlier, I am drawn to wonder what is it about the Royal Albert Hall and ill-advised audience participation?!
And so I was drawn to go back to the source, basically those first three EPs that made me fall in love with B&S in the first place. Listening to 'Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie', 'Beautiful', 'Put the book Back on the shelf' and 'Songs for Children', reminds me of just how beautiful pop can be. How simple songs, beautifully played, invested with conviction and a sense of timing and the moment are capable of rocking my world and changing my perceptions of music. Something in Stuart Murdoch's voice back then sounds so sad and so truthful ('Are you happy with yourself/Put the book back on the shelf'). Good pop should change things in your life and make them better. Pop should make you smile. Pop is about life, not commodity (hello Hearsay!).
I doubt whether Belle and Sebastian can ever recapture what they had. At least not on record. Pop is about mood and timing coinciding with music. The mood has gone (totally now after the last fetid album) but if they're going to carry on playing live shows as good as they currently are, then maybe it's not so bad after all!
In general though, music has disappointed me lately. Every album I buy seems to sound as if it has had the feelings that should envelope music hermetically sucked dry. I know that most Tangents readers will never agree that Travis ever had anything worth writing home about, but, to me, The Man Who, was a quintessential moment of pop melancholy. But the new album sounds desperately rushed and the lyrics are laughable. OK, Fran Healey was never Bob Dylan but popular pop music should, at the very least, send out some rough-hewn carving of real emotion. Not, I repeat, not a load of witless bollocks.
Even stuff I've liked, like Elbow and Ed Harcourt, doesn't quite connect emotionally. In fact, there isn't much music I emotionally connect with now. I always seem to be one step away from the experience. I hear good songs, with the melodies to hook me, draw me in, but I'm never quite reeled in. I honestly can't remember the last great album I heard.
Even Lambchop have lost their lustre. I learnt about them from a review of Nixon in NME. This led me to their gorgeous back catalogue (I particularly recommend How I Quit Smoking). But the last couple of times I have seen them they have done what no band should ever do: they have bored me. They have played a whole new set of rambling songs, that go on for 5,6,7 minutes and have no choruses. This is my idea of purgatory. The chorus should be the moment of joyous release; the moment of orgasm when you touch the peaks of what pop is. When the big smile should break out all over your face and you feel alive.
The last song to do this for me was Mull Historical Society's first single 'Barcode Bypass' way back last autumn. Just the most poignant pop song with a chorus of huge, huge beauty that wraps you round, envelopes you, then gives you a cathartic thrill. Their more recent singles ('I Tried', 'Animal Cannabus') have leaned more towards guitar orthodoxy (though with a refreshingly weird, off-kilter sense of the absurd both musically and lyrically), but whatever they do I will always treasure 'Barcode Bypass' as a paradigm of pop.
Of course as far as paradigm's of pop go I can never better New Order's 'Regret' single. This was the song that really brought me alive to pop. From the opening explosion of widescreen keyboard and guitar churn I am taken into another place. And then it builds and builds, through cascading drums, melancholy verses to a chorus of pop perfection; of yearning, of disconnection, all inflected with Barney Sumner's sad, sad voice yet backed by the sound of the pop gods scoring a perfect 6. It shouldn't make you smile but it does. It so, so does.
But they let you down in the end. They always do, they always will. The big, comeback New Order single is a complete farrago. Horrible, horrible Smashing Pumpkins-esque guitars (why work with Billy Corgan? Why, why, WHY?) and terrible distorted vocals. In fact, the whole bloody track sounds distorted). Hook's bass soars above surveying the flaccid carnage below. From pop perfection to trad shite in the space of one album. As I've said, when the moment goes, when the mood goes, you're done for. Just give up and count your money and don't soil happy memories.
So where does my disaffection lead me? Well, sad to say, and terribly, terribly wanky, I know, but the only songs I'm really into at the moment are my own. I never thought for one moment that I had anything to say in the pop world, but, with the encouragement of a good friend, I began writing songs a couple of years ago. And the more songs I write, the better songs I write, the more faith I have in them. I really think I may have something to say. I think I can do the things I believe are quintessential to make good pop. I hope to record a proper demo later this year, and who knows? God only knows I'm not a great, or even good, singer, but, as the blonde one from The Human League (glib, but I don't know her name) said on one of those tacky, yet always watchable, C4 Top Ten programmes, the best singers are usually singing the worst songs. Singing should be about communicating feelings and emotions; I honestly believe I can do that. I feel what I sing. I cannot showboat; I cannot layer in levels of artifice. My voice is my own. The feelings are mine. Can fucking Atomic Kitten or Gorillaz say that?
So who knows where it will lead. Probably absolutely nowhere and anyone trailing through the Tangents archives in years to come will probably think, what a self-possessed asshole. But I don't care. Pop has given me confidence in life. It taught a shy lad like me how to dance. It taught me what true happiness could be. It means everything to me. Most people don't seem to appreciate how utterly essential is the spirit of pop to the fabric of life. Pop is spiritual, intangible, contradictory and essential. Utterly essential.
© Jon Wren 2001