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!


Synth Britannia

This is something I watched (finally) for the first time yesterday and would you believe it, BBC4 are showing it again tonight! It’s a documentary originally from 2009 charting the rise of synth-pop up until 1985 roughly. If you’re into the likes of Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, The Human League etc then this is an essential watch. It does spend more time charting the origins and the rise of synth-pop which was interesting and it made for something a bit different. It’s actually given me an incentive to seek out more music by Silicon Teens and Cabaret Voltaire which is always the sign of a good documentary.

The only real downside I can think of is that the documentary doesn’t even mention Brian Eno and his pioneering solo work which I thought was a big oversight. Surely he was one of the pioneers of synthisizers along with Kraftwerk (who do feature). Apart from that the documentary was very interesting and didn’t fall into that trap of sounding like it’s a 101 guide to 80s synthpop. As much as I love Pet Shop Boys, I don’t need to hear various commentators and musicians tell me how great ‘West End Girls’ is. In fact, they only get mentioned in the last 10 minutes or so. Although speaking of the commentators, they had basically everyone you really need: Vince Clarke, Bernard Sumner, Phil Oakey, Pet Shop Boys, OMD… you get the idea. It was a great watch and definitely worth recording tonight if you’re into that sort of thing!

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!

Why The Killers matter to me.

Given that I’m seeing The Killers on Thursday and I’m a fan for ten years this summer I’ve been reflecting a lot these past two weeks on the band that kick started my music obsession.

I can remember discovering them like it was yesterday. It was summer 2004, I was ten years of age and I was sitting with my brother flicking through music channels. We stopped at one – I think it may have been Q – and a song began that immediately jumped out at me. The intro was awash with synthesizers. It was glitzy and glamorous, even sexy. The song was ‘Somebody Told Me’ and the band was The Killers.

As I listened to it, the infectious (if lyrically perplexing) chorus in particular really left a mark on me. Also on a more superficial level I was convinced that lead singer Brandon Flowers and his guy-liner constituted the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The band as a whole just looked incredibly cool and stylish. I was transfixed by these guys and it soon transpired that my brother had purchased Hot Fuss, their first album, as soon as it was released in the UK. He quickly lent me his copy of the CD….. and he didn’t see it again for five years. Crazy.

Instantaneously the album was the soundtrack to my life. I was hooked. I remember one particular trip me and my parents took to Bangor and we listened to it as our road trip soundtrack.The lyrics to ‘Midnight Show’ used to actually scare me a little bit and whenever I developed an unorthodox crush, you can be sure I listened to ‘Andy You’re A Star’ plenty. Ten years on and I still consider it one of the best debut records of recent times. Of course I had merchandise also: I had posters, books, even a mouse mat. I was utterly besotted with my first real music obsession.

My love affair with the band didn’t just stop with them though. I adored their sound so much that I wanted to know what bands sounded like them, or influenced them, so I could discover bands with similar sounds. In doing so, it instilled within me a keen love of 80s music and electronic music that still heavily dominates my music listening to this day. To be honest, every band I listen to can be traced back to The Killers in some way even if they’re from the other end of the musical spectrum. For example I discovered The Clash because reading an Ian Curtis biography made me interested in checking out the punk movement properly. Ian Curtis was of course the lead singer of Joy Division and following his death they became New Order. New Order are one of the biggest influences on The Killers – in fact they’re named after a fictional band in the video for ‘Crystal’ by New Order. I could cite more examples but you get the idea.

No other band has shaped my musical taste as much as The Killers. I’m twenty years old now and this summer marks ten years since I became a fan. That’s half my life. And just as I’ve grown in every way since I became a fan, I’ve witnessed them grow too. I’ve simply adored the experience of watching them become one of the biggest bands in the world. Last year, when they played Wembley Stadium I had such a sense of pride. It makes me so happy to see that as the years go by they’re still gaining new fans. Two weeks ago I was listening to Direct Hits and it actually took me aback how many memories I have associated with their music, especially the Hot Fuss era stuff. I hadn’t heard some of those songs in a while and I still knew every word. These are songs that will always be a part of me, no matter how time shapes me.

Of course, their subsequent albums have turned into release-day pilgrimages to pick them up. I remember when I first heard ‘When You Were Young’ and I was devastated. The new sound and style just didn’t sit well with me at twelve years of age. I think I even had tears in my eyes (thank goodness I grew up). I grew to really like it and I’ll concede that objectively I think Sam’s Town is superior to Hot Fuss for the growth in songwriting alone. Battle Born I consider to be their weakest effort, but I still like it. It’s just a bit patchier in comparison to their previous three records. Irregardless I’ll always get their albums on release day – they’ve had such an indelible impact on me that I’ll always be a fan.

So I’m going to see them performing one of their shows in support of Direct Hits, as last year marked ten years since their first show in London (and thus the start of their rise to stardom). On a more personal note this summer obviously marks ten years since I became a fan and next week it’ll be seven years since I saw them for the first time,(at the same festival as the upcoming gig). Added to all this, the concert takes place on the birthday of one of my other most important musical figures, the late Joe Strummer. In short – it’s a day with a lot of emotional significance. I simply cannot wait for it. I’ve always said that going to see The Killers always feels that bit more special and I think it’s perhaps truer than ever for the upcoming gig. Bring it on.

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).

The Sopranos – Peter Gunn/Every Breath You Take (mash-up)

Wow, it does not feel like over a week since I’ve posted on here! I’ve had a busy two weeks and in my spare time I’ve been watching The Sopranos. It’s an amazing show blessed with an equally great soundtrack. It’s exposed me to some gems, one of these is a mash-up and I think it’s a stroke of genius. It’s the ‘Peter Gun’ theme mixed with The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ – it’s used in the Sopranos S3 opening episode entitled ‘Mr Ruggerio’s Neighborhood’. If I’m not mistaken it was Sopranos creator David Chase’s wife who spotted the similarities between the two pieces of music and suggested to him a mash-up might work in an episode of the show. It was created and used to great effect, they just fit so brilliantly together. You can find it on the second released official Sopranos soundtrack entitled The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs: Music From The HBO Original Series. Once I’ve finished the show I think I’ll pick up both soundtracks as the music in the show is great, with this mash-up being one of the highlights.

Madonna – The First Album 31st Anniversary

It’s a big anniversary today for Madonna fans – today marks the 31st anniversary of The First Album. I just love this album, one of the finest debut albums ever by a pop/electronic artist. All of the songs on the album do sound very similar and it’s Madonna’s least varied album, but there’s something irresistible about those scrappy and raw synths. And it’s got bucket-loads of charm and energy to boot. I far prefer it to Like A Virgin (my least favorite Madonna album). ‘Holiday’ and ‘Borderline’ still stand up as two of the definitive classics of the 80s and two of Madonna’s best singles. However, my favorite track on The First Album is ‘Physical Attraction’. It’s the first underrated Madonna gem and the best album track from her first three albums. It would have done brilliantly as a single I think. Whilst it seems to be a pretty popular song with fans, it’s never featured on any of her tours. On Youtube there’s just a few early performances in clubs recorded in 1983. I would love to see more of The First Album performed on tour actually – Holiday has featured heavily on her set-lists over the years but I think it’s time to hear something like ‘Everybody’ again or the aforementioned ‘Physical Attraction’. Honestly – I don’t think that will happen, which is a shame because The First Album still stands up really well after all these years.

Rediscovering Roxy Music

Every so often I get days were I just spent the entire time exploring music I haven’t heard before. Today is definitely one of these days, and it’s paying off dividends. I decided to listen to More Than This: The Best Of Bryan Ferry + Roxy Music and I am so surprised how much I’ve enjoyed it! I had tried to get into Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry a few months ago (after¬† loving a few of their singles) by trying out Avalon. I found it forgettable and at that pointed decided they were not for me. I think I may have given up on them too quickly – More Than This has really impressed me. I’ll definitely be going back to listen to those Roxy Music albums now (and probably some early Ferry solo material).

It’s even made me discover a song I’ve loved for a year or so without knowing who it was. ‘Let’s Stick Together’ was featured on a TV advert here and yet even with that unmistakable voice I never realized it was by Bryan Ferry. It sounded more like a 60s song to me, so I assumed it was from that period. Well, I wasn’t too far off the mark there to be fair as it does date from 1962 in its original version. Wilbert Harrison recorded it originally, whilst Bryan Ferry recorded his version for his 1976 third solo album, also called Let’s Stick Together. Bryan Ferry’s version proved very successful, reaching #4 in the UK Chart. It’s a song that’s just impossible to dislike really, it’s just got this irresistible pound to it. A great cover version that still stands up today!

Pet Shop Boys at BBC Proms 2014

Hello – apologies for being quiet these past few days but the heat here in Belfast is absolutely sweltering. It is, quite simply, piping hot.Too hot to really do anything constructive even.

Anyway, last night was arguably the most important date of 2014 for Pet Shop Boys fans as they performed at the BBC Proms last night (in London’s Royal Albert Hall). It was broadcast live on radio as well. I’ve just finished listening to the full show (which runs about ninety minutes I think) via BBC iPlayer and this is what I made of it:

The show opens with ‘Overture to Performance’ – a melody of no fewer than nine classic Pet Shop Boys hits which opened the start of every show on their Performance tour of 1991. They just used a recording of the piece to open the shows though. It’s never actually been performed live until last night. It made for a very fitting opening and I really liked how they opened with a relatively obscure piece. After all, it’s never been used at all after the Performance tour and it’s only available on certain versions of the ‘DJ Culture’ and ‘Was It Worth It’ singles.

At the conclusion of the overture (and following a brief introduction by Neil), Chrissy Hynde of Pretenders fame entered the stage to perform four Pet Shop Boys songs… with a twist. The four songs were rearranged for orchestral performances, all in the key of A minor. Chrissy was in fine voice and performed ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’, ‘Later Tonight’, ‘Vocal’ before singing with Neil on ‘Rent’. All four songs sounded marvelous – especially ‘Vocal’. It just shows the true versatility of Pet Shop Boys as composers as their songs can be readily interpreted in so many different ways. Special mention must go to Neil also, his vocals in ‘Rent’ were brilliant. His voice just gets better with age.

After this, attention turned to the main part of the evening. Receiving its full world premiere last night was ‘A Man From The Future’ – a song suite chronicling the life and tragic death of Alan Turing. Turing was a true pioneer whose findings paved the way for computer science, and thus technology as we know it today. Without his work computing wouldn’t exist (an unthinkable concept really). Not only that but in World War II he cracked various Germany military codes – including the Enigma code which was believed to be impossible to crack. His contributions to the Allied Victory cannot be disputed nor ignored. However, Turing was also gay and in 1952 he was arrested for homosexual activity. He was found guilty and received “treatment”, something which proved so detrimental to him on every level that he committed suicide in 1954. It truly was a despicable way to treat a unique and gifted genius.

As you could imagine, ‘A Man From The Future’ is a moving and experimental piece. Turing’s life story is narrated by Juliet Stevenson against an elaborate backdrop of music which can be divided into eight portions. The BBC Singers (and Neil) add their vocals from time to time into the mix as well. The music seamlessly blends more avant-garde orchestral work with more familiar classic sounding Pet Shop Boys electronics. Even without the narration and knowing the rough gist of Turing’s story, I still found it very moving to listen to. The music is very powerful by itself. The overall feeling of celebration though permeates throughout. All of the eight sections are beautiful, though it’ll take another few listens before I fully become familiar with the piece.

You can listen to the full show on BBC iPlayer. I strongly recommend you do so – it’s a fabulous piece of music that provides another gem in the Tennant/Lowe catalog. It further cements Pet Shop Boys’ status as gifted musicians who continuously put out rewarding music, even after thirty-three years in the business. Just superb.

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.