37 years ago today….

Thirty-seven years ago today saw the release of what I’d consider to be the best punk single of all time. When I began my initial explorations into The Clash at 18 years of age in 2012, the incomplete live footage of ‘Complete Control’ from Rude Boy was one of the first live Clash videos I saw.and it just floored me. I’d never seen anyone perform like Joe Strummer in that footage and he mesmerized me. Really, that performance coupled with ‘Know Your Rights’ from the US Festival quite simply changed my life. Joe Strummer may have ad-libbed the line “you’re my guitiar hero!” to Mick Jones but songs like this cemented The Clash as my guitar heroes.

Strong personal feelings aside, ‘Complete Control’ really is such an incredible song that’s special in a number of ways. It’s unique in that it’s sung by Strummer yet the vast majority was penned by Jones and it also has the honor of being the first song recorded with a certain Topper Headon at the drums. ‘Complete Control’ was the start of a new chapter for this band, one that would see them rise to dizzying heights only to implode all too soon. It was released in 1977 as a non-album single (in the UK at least) and it comfortably bridges the gap between The Clash and Give ‘Em Enough Rope. It’s more technically proficient than The Clash, it’s more polished, yet there’s still that unmistakeable raw edge and visceral feel that made it a classic album of the genre. This is still very much punk music, and punk music of the highest order.


Pet Shop Boys – I Want To Wake Up (Breakdown mix)

The last two days have seen my headphones dominated by 80s electronic music and not much else. I’ve rekindled my love for Depeche Mode in a big way and I’ve also big digging out some of my lesser played Pet Shop Boys CD’s. One of them was Actually – I love that album/era but in the early stages of my Pet Shop Boys fandom I played it to death. I think it was my initial favorite album, although Very and Behavior have become my tied favorite albums in the years since.

Anyway I decided to listen to the Further Listening CD for Actually as it has rare mixes, B-sides etc. One mix in particular that I hadn’t much cared for previously jumped out at me: the Breakdown mix of ‘I Want To Wake Up’. I’ve grown to really love it these past two days which is surprising because I’ve never liked the released version. It’s an aptly titled mix as it’s sparser than the released version (there’s not even any drums) and it serves as a better backdrop for the lyrics consequently. It’s a song about unrequited love and it feels like an actual breakdown for the protagonist is imminent if the situation doesn’t work out in their favor. I also love that the first two minutes are verging on Neil singing a capella which makes it sound more nightmarish – very much in keeping with the nightmare extended metaphor that’s the crux of the lyrics. Anyway, this mix was previously unreleased in any format until 2001 when the Further Listening series was released – it’s a gem of a mix so I’m glad Pet Shop Boys saw fit to give it some distribution!

Kate Bush – The Handsome Cabin Boy

I’ve definitely been having a very Kate Bush oriented few days inspired by the beginning of her ‘Before The Dawn’ residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo this week  It’s not much of an exaggeration to call her the most fascinating British female artist of all time. In fact, she’s probably the most fascinating British solo artist since David Bowie, period. She’s one of the few artists who you can honestly say creates their own universe. You not only listen to her records, you immerse yourself in them.

Her artistic peak is Hounds Of Love. It’s one of the best albums of all time. It’s also one of those rare eras an artist experiences were even the B-sides are as good as the music on the album – it was such a creatively fertile time for Kate Bush. I’m sharing this B-side with you because I think it’s utterly beautiful, even if it is a cover of a traditional folk piece. ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ is the B-side to the 1986 single ‘Hounds Of Love’. ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ stands out mainly because it’s so sparse in comparison to much of Hounds Of Love. There’s no descent into cacophony here like ‘The Big Sky’ – this is a song that ends exactly the same as it starts. There’s Kate’s beautiful voice and an eerie synthesized noise that strongly resembles a choir which plays the same long note throughout. That’s it. All the verses have the same melody too – it’s just a really hypnotic piece. Very effortless stuff. Aside from ‘Hounds Of Love’ singles it was also released as part of the This Woman’s Work: Anthology 1978-1990 collection. That’s been long out of print though and consequently the prices for it are ridiculous. Bizarrely, the song wasn’t featured on the special edition of Hounds Of Love, I’m not entirely sure why that is. For the foreseeable it looks set to remain a relatively forgotten track, until a complete collection of her B-sides/mixes is released. Time for that singles box set I think!

As a footnote – I can’t recommend The Kate Bush Story: Running Up That Hill and its companion piece Kate Bush At The BBC highly enough. They aired for the first time last Friday night on BBC4 and they were simply fantastic, especially the documentary. Very much worth watching!

On This Day: The Clash release ‘Bankrobber’

Since it’s 34 years to the day since it was released, I thought to reflect on one of The Clash’s most popular singles. ‘Bankrobber’ was originally planned to be the first single released in a single-per-month release strategy by the band throughout 1980. Those plans were swiftly jettisoned when CBS heard the track though. They hated it and even went as far as to describe it as “all of David Bowie’s records played backwards” – a comment which still baffles me. It sounds nothing like David Bowie, and nothing like The Clash had released before either. It sounds nothing like London Calling, it’s a dub-heavy track and served as an indicator to the sound they would develop for Sandinista. The thing that really irks me about ‘Bankrobber’ though is the way the lyrics have been misconstrued. Upon release they were mocked for not exactly being true: Joe’s father was hardly a bank-robber, he was a civil service diplomat. It’s a bit of a silly point to make however as Joe wasn’t writing autobiographically in ‘Bankrobber’. It’s a lyrical persona, which is totally different. That grievance aside, I’ve always liked ‘Bankrobber’, even though I wouldn’t class it as a favourite Clash song. Its fluid sound is very charming and you hardly need to be into punk to enjoy it – which is probably why it became their second-highest charting UK single (discounting re-releases from after their break-up).

Madonna – ‘X-Static Process’

A very underrated song from an underrated album. When ‘American Life’ received a critical panning it automatically turned many away from the album, despite it being one of the album’s weakest tracks. American Life is definitely an album that needs repeated listening. The album has songs – like ‘X-Static Process – which really should garner more attention. ‘X-Static Process’ is the purest folk song on the album with no electronic elements whatsoever. That’s ironic in itself given that Stuart Price co-wrote the song. He’d produce and co-write the follow-up album Confessions On A Dancefloor which couldn’t be more electronic if it tried. It’s the lyrics though that make ‘X-Static Process’ special. The verses deal directly with feelings of confusion and uncertainty which are two of the main themes on the album. So far, it’s quite a bleak song. Then there’s a powerful and affirming chorus which reminds us that amidst the confusion we face we must remember that we’re just as special as the people we love and idolize. And that we should never try and emulate someone else because to do that is to loose what makes us so special and unique. It’s a sentiment often repeated but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Such a beautiful song and lyrically far superior to the vast majorities of Hard Candy and MDNA.

Morrissey – Staircase At The University

Undoubtedly, the biggest music release of this week is the return of the ever-enigmatic Morrissey, with the release of his 10th studio album World Peace Is None Of Your Business. It’s a good album even though I probably will always prefer The Smiths to Morrissey solo (blame Johnny Marr). I don’t mean that as a criticism of his solo material though. Staircase At The University’ is a little gem and so far is my favorite from the new album.  It has a very upbeat arrangement with little trumpet flourishes but the lyrics are much sadder. The lyrics are actually something I can empathize a lot with at my current age. ‘Staircase At The University’ is about a girl who ends up so downtrodden with the pressures of having to succeed academically that she ends up committing suicide. Bleak stuff, but it’s a very relevant topic. I talk at length about how there’s too much pressure put on young people to go to university (I won’t). I’m 20 and when I was at school the expectation to go to university was rampant. It became frightening. It’s an individual choice to go and I commend Morrissey for making a stand in my generation’s favor. I disagree with a lot of his opinions, but I’m definitely with Morrissey on this one. Excellent stuff.

Suicide – ‘Frankie Teardrop’

A song so disturbing that listening to it surely verges on masochism. It’s the centerpiece of Suicide (one of the finest debut albums ever made). The main reason ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is so chilling is the subject matter. Frankie works in a mundane factory job and has a wife and child and they live in deep poverty. These difficult circumstances makes Frankie become insane, until he eventually murders his wife and child and then commits suicide and winds up in Hell. It sounds like it doesn’t get any more harrowing but yet it does. It’s a deeply claustrophobic track with only a recurring, basic keyboard motif, a drum machine, and Alan Vega’s vocals. The keyboard plays the same brief melody for ten minutes – it feels like it symbolizes the repetitive nature of Frankie’s job. That’s not even the creepiest thing about the arrangement either. It’s Alan Vega’s vocals that really leave a lasting impression. The song is laden with his screams that really just cut right through you. They’re so primal that even without the sparse arrangement and chilling subject matter they’d still sound harrowing. Add all these various components together though and you’ve got one of the most gut-wrenching pieces of music you’ll ever hear. And without sounding like a masochist, I think it’s a brilliant song. There’s a definite political subtext to it. It manages to be more evocative and effective than many more overtly political songs really. Essentially, the song is criticizing dead-end, low paid jobs. It uses an extreme tale to illustrate the point for sure, but the core message is the same. It may be something you’d only want to hear once in your life, but one things for sure: it’s an unforgettable piece of music.

Michael Jackson – ‘P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)’ demo

Following the release of Xscape, I’ve been rediscovering my love for Michael Jackson’s other unreleased songs and demos, of which there are many lost gems. One in particular that stands out is the demo version of ‘P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) which surpasses the Thriller version. The two songs sound very different with only the title providing any real link between them. The original version was co-written by Michael Jackson and Greg Phillinganes although Quincy Jones rejected it and co-wrote a new version along with James Ingram. A bizarre decision which is underscored by the popularity of the demo. The released version of ‘P.Y.T’ is a slice of frothy pop-funk which does sound very much of its time. It’s an enjoyable dance number though it’s still one of Thriller’s weaker offerings. In its original form it’s a slick mid-tempo ballad, something that Michael Jackson excelled at. This version of ‘P.Y.T’ would definitely have held its own on Thriller. The sleek production has also aged immeasurably better than the final released version. It’s better than the final version in every way really and it still sounds fresh. If Justin Timberlake recorded vocals over the original demo and released it right now, it’d be a smash hit. It’s little wonder that Will.I.Am’s 2008 remix of ‘P.Y.T’ for Thriller 25 was actually based on the demo and not the final version given that it still sounds contemporary. Thankfully the demo version itself was officially released on 2004’s The Ultimate Collection along with other rarities. To this listener though, it’s simply sheer madness that it wasn’t released in 1982 when it should have been.

Fleetwood Mac – Ricky

I’ve been listening to this very unusual song a lot over the past few days. Ricky is the B-side to Little Lies, which was released in 1987. I’ve always maintained that Buckingham-Nicks era Fleetwood Mac were more musically adventurous than they get credit for. Ricky underlines that point (as if Tusk wasn’t proof enough). It’s definitely the most experimental song from their Tango In The Night period. So much so that I’m not even sure how well this would fit on Tango In The Night. I think it’s best left as a B-side. Everything about this song is strange, from the arrangement to the vocals. Christine McVie is borderline unrecognizable here, but her voice blends so well with Lindsey’s. There isn’t much in the way of lyrics but the few there are, are continuously repeated throughout. It makes the song feel like it’s longer than what it actually is. That minor qualm aside, I’m really developing a strange liking for this curious little B-side!

Electronic – Disappointed

Boy, have I rediscovered my love for this song over the past few days. About two years ago this was pretty much my all time favourite song. I played it to death, then played it some more. It’s so gorgeous that I’m always a bit gutted (disappointed?) that Neil Tennant wrote this song for Electronic didn’t keep it for Pet Shop Boys instead. It’s the Pet Shop Boys classic that never was.

There’s so many reasons I love this song. Firstly Neil’s vocals –  are utterly beautiful here (and the harmonies are stunning). Then, there’s the lyrics. They have a certain degree of optimism for once – happy love songs aren’t something Neil Tennant has written a lot of. It makes for refreshing listening. The song has a beautiful arrangement too, with plenty of synth strings, house pianos and brilliant guitar playing from Johnny Marr. The whole song just sounds so damn euphoric. Disappointed  became Electronic’s highest charting single on the UK charts, although it doesn’t seem to be remembered nearly as much as Getting Away With It. In fact, Disappointed isn’t even on any of Electronic’s three studio albums. It was featured in the film Cool World and as such could be found on the film’s soundtrack, but not any any Electronic release until 2006’s Get The Message – The Best of Electronic. I think the song is highly underrated. In my opinion – it’s one of the best songs of either Bernard Sumner’s, Johnny Marr’s or Neil Tennant’s careers.