Category: Shazam Project (page 1 of 3)

08. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army – Bombers (1978)

The most famous scene in Trainspotting that doesn’t involve a dead baby, or The Worst Toilet In Scotland, or statutory rape, or assault with a pint glass, or Archie Gemmill, is probably the one where Ewan McGregor’s Renton and Johnny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy are lying on the grass with the pellet gun, waxing about the ephemeral nature of genius. “Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever,” Sick Boy dryly pronounces. “All walks of life: Georgie Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…”

It’s maybe not quite universal — and I’d imagine that, by this point in their careers, Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle wish it weren’t — but he’s certainly right that there are all kinds of artists that fit the pattern of having sustained periods of incredible creative outburst that ultimately prove to be fleeting. But to me what’s maybe most fascinating about such periods in an artist’s life isn’t, as Sick Boy observes, how inevitably the flower dies, but how drastically it changes within that time itself.

The Beatles recorded I Want to Hold Your Hand in October of 1963, their first trip to America still a full four months away. Just two-and-a-half years later, in April of ‘66, they were laying down Eleanor Rigby and Tomorrow Never Knows for Revolver. Two years after that they were in Rishikesh, working on songs for what would become the White Album — the sessions for which would essentially tear the group apart. Life comes at you fast.

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Though few would put Gary Numan in quite the same category as the Beatles or the artists (footballing and otherwise) mentioned in Trainspotting, these are the things I think of as I listen to Bombers — the second Tubeway Army single, recorded in April 1978.

Less than a year later, in January of 1979, Numan would be in the studio recording the sublimely ponderous synth-driven Are ‘Friends’ Electric? for the Replicas album, with Tubeway Army’s eponymous debut LP having been recorded in between. By September of that year he’d have also made The Pleasure Principle, this time under his own name, and Cars would be topping the UK charts.

From Bombers to the pop perfection of Cars in a matter of 17 months is a hell of an evolution, even for an era when album cycles were much shorter than they are today. One song so utterly primitive, the other so futuristic.

Or at least they are on the surface.

But if you listen closely to the two songs those descriptors fall fairly quickly apart. Cars is underpinned by live drumming — albeit what one might call a slowed down, pop version of Neu!’s intentionally mechanical “motorik” beat — and the bridge is brought absolutely to life by a simple tambourine (albeit with a phaser effect on it).

Bombers, on the other hand, is far more post-punk than raw punk. And the often bouncy guitar and bass lines are as much My Sharona as they are the Sex Pistols’ Submission. There are even days, when I’m feeling particularly kind, that I might say I can hear a little bit of some of the more evolved stuff by the Buzzcocks in there, too — though that might be as much as anything because Numan sings in a vocal register similar to Pete Shelley’s. And with Numan the Bowie comparison is inevitable (and his use in Bombers of a lyrical device lifted straight from Five Years makes this a particularly easy one).

Oh, it’s not not a punk-ish song ca. 1978, and it’s certainly sloppy as hell. But there are hints of what’s to come in it, too. The robotic vocals, the dystopian imagery, paranoia, and the clear desire to do more with sound and with the studio than mere chugging guitar riffs. It doesn’t suggest the mesmerizing synth waves of Cars, but you can hear the songwriting mind in the way Numan fills, or chooses not to fill, the space of the song. There are the siren effects and the “solo” ahead of the third verse that’s mostly just someone twiddling with a delay pedal; there’s the way the whole thing moves in fits and starts; and there’s the somewhat mechanistic drumming that would only get sparer and better disciplined (with the help of drum machines and the eventual addition of Cedric Sharpley) on the forthcoming record and beyond. All of these are bedrock elements of his magnum opus.

Several songs on the self-titled Tubeway Army record that came next follow in the guitar rock mould of Bombers, but most are punctuated with bursts of synth, or are at the very least deepened by layers of it — the very Bombers-like My Shadow in Vain being a perfect example. Preceding that track, and kicking off the record, is Listen to the Sirens, which begins with a throbbing single bass note intertwined with a pulsing synth growl.

This, it turns out, was more than mere electronic garnish. It was a deliberate statement of intent.

Numan says that he saw his first Minimoog when recording that Tubeway Army album, and it absolutely changed everything. In 2012 he explained the moment to Public Radio International’s Echoes podcast like this: “I went into the studio to record a punk album, and there was a synthesizer in the corner. I had never seen a real one before. So this thing was sitting in the corner, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ Quite fascinated by the tech of it — the dials and the switches — and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s quite cool.’ Pressed it and the whole room shook as if an explosion had gone off. I’d never heard anything as powerful in my whole life.”

“In that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he told the Guardian in 2014. “I converted all our guitar-based punk songs into electro-punk numbers.”

It was a conversion in more than just the one sense. He had renounced the sins of the guitar and accepted the synthesizer as his saviour. And given the synthesizer’s place in punk rock and popular culture in 1978, the move was ballsy as fuck. Not to mention an especially inspired one for something to have come about by such chance.

“There are people still trying to work out what a genius he was,” Prince would say of Numan a decade later. Gary, at this stage, was one of them.

“By the time [the Tubeway Army album] was in the shops, I’d written another track called Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” he told the Guardian. “I wrote it on an old pub piano my mum and dad bought, which I didn’t realise was out of tune. It was initially two different songs, which is why it’s over five minutes long. I had a verse from one, the chorus from the other, and was struggling to mix them together. I got so fed up, one day I played them one after another and suddenly they sounded right.

“So the song is a combination – of me not being able to write songs, and not being able to play them either. The main melody is one note sharp, since I hit a wrong note on the old piano, and it sounded better. I ended up recording it on a Polymoog synthesizer played with one finger. It sounded very different and futuristic, but there was still some bass and drums in there, so people had something familiar to connect with.”

As he explained to the Echoes podcast, his next smash was also the product of a happy accident:

“Cars I actually wrote on a bass guitar. I’d been looking for a way to play bass better, because I didn’t really play it very well. Went up to London and bought a bass guitar, got home, picked the guitar up, and the very, very first notes I played went doo-doo-doo-doot. ‘Oh, well, that’s alright.’ Y’know? And then I thought, ‘What should I do what that?’ — doot-doo-doot — Easy! Whole thing took ten minutes.”

Amazing! And anybody who has done any kind of creative work will surely recognize the feeling of hitting on something you understand as absolutely perfect without quite knowing why or how you happened to get there.

On a scale less grand, this is what’s really at the heart of Sick Boy’s cruel assessment; the notion that inspiration sometimes flows through an artist from a higher plane of consciousness, and the idea that just as quickly and bewilderingly and unequivocally as this inspiration arrives, it goes away. Had it, lost it. Often it seems that simply becoming aware of the immensity of one’s gifts, or of the impossibility of repeating such preposterous strings of happy accidents, can be all that it takes to trip these people up.

I bring this up not to diminish these two particularly incredible songs, or his output over the 35 years that followed — especially given how easy it was for so long to dismiss his work as facile and emblematic of the early eighties’ worst synth sins. Like I say, the elements were all already in place, if somewhat shabbily formed at first. And it took no small measure of work and talent and daring to get there — the latter in more ways than one, as in the piece for the Guardian Numan describes nearly getting in a fistfight in the record company offices after he first “came back with this weird electronic stuff.” It’s just fascinating, to bring this all the way back to Bombers, that in that song we have a document of the moment just before his genius fully bloomed.

The Tubeway Army album was recorded in July and August of 1978. Bombers was released on July 21st. By then Gary Numan, fittingly, was already living in the future. He had it.

For Reference…

Tubeway Army – Bombers
iTunes | Spotify

Tubeway Army – Self Titled LP
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | On vinyl from Amazon

Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | On vinyl from Amazon

Wikipedia: Gary Numan | Tubeway Army | Cars | Trainspotting | Archie Gemmill

Download the Shazam app iTunes | Google Play
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07. Muse – Uprising (2009)

Oh. It’s this fucking song. Am I watching City TV? Why does this song make me think of City TV? Is it the slight touch of Animotion’s Obsession in the keyboard melody maybe? Whoa. And… uh… holy fucking Radiohead! Is this what Muse sound like?

So it seems that what we’ve got here is a familiar sounding yet modern, painfully Radiohead-chorused, cynical arena anthem that can obviously fuck right off. Cock rock for dudes pretending they mostly don’t have cocks? Er… OK, that’s me trying to be a bit too cute with my words, but holy shit, this song trying very hard to imagine itself as the kind of thing preening wankers would pay 70 quid a head to line up at the O2 to see. (DID I DO THAT RIGHT?).

I’d say, “No offence to anybody who actually like this band,” but we’re probably already in too deep for that, eh?

Seriously, though, this is some professional grade pandering bullshit right here.  I say “professional” because production-wise it’s certainly that —  like a well put-together piece of furniture its dipshit owner thinks is really bold and provocative. It’s just a sofa, Dan! The growling bass made me think for a second of Justice’s Genesis, which is easily the best thing this song has going for it. The hand claps and the big drum sounds and the unthinking metronomic “Hey” chants all work. But they work only in service of the song’s eye-roll worthy rallying to a cause so vague it’s nonexistent thing — something that made me think for some reason of P.O.D.’s Youth Of The Nation, which, as far as cynical teen-baiting trash goes, at least has a fucking discernible theme (and if I was an asshole — and I am — I’d try to argue is genuinely a better song than this).

Building a world in your lyrics where you’re a proselytizing leader rallying the cause against a nebulous “they” is some amazingly narcissistic shit and profoundly uncool. Maybe if the lyricist had something insightful to say they could pull it off, but I think that’s asking a lot from the doofus who took until 2012 to come around to the fact that 9/11 wasn’t actually an inside job.

It’s all tell and no show, like a horrible movie score that hits you over the head with the fact that this is the sad part. Only instead of telling you to be sad, Muse are telling you, with the subtlety of a piranha, that you should be uplifted by hollow sloganeering about “red tape” and “fat cats” from millionaire pop stars.

Which isn’t to say that political songs need to be subtle. There’s nothing subtle about Loretta Lynn, or Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me, or Public Enemy, or Rise Above — which Uprising is essentially a wholly pompous version of — or Alternative Ulster, or What’s Going On, or Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), or any number of other great ones.

There’s nothing particularly subtle about the gunshots or the ringing of the cash register in M.I.A.’s Paper Planes, either, but still that’s a song that is just about everything Uprising is not. It’s relatively simple and hardly slick. It has a natural singsong quality, rather than ham-handedly demanding you pump your fist along with it. It can be tongue in cheek, unsure of itself, and though the speaker’s politics are sometimes ambiguous, the song’s are not — especially being built, as it is, on the Clash’s Straight To Hell, deftly recontextualizing Joe Strummer’s “colonial melancholia.” It’s almost all show and no tell, and the product of an artist that obviously understands and is grappling with a complex and challenging world.

Uprising, on the other hand, is like Muse’s own Kony 2012 movement: a glossy, dumbed-down, black-versus-white call to action designed to make people feel good for having a vague awareness of something, absent any of the necessary nuance, which ultimately falls in on itself while its leaders masturbate on the sidewalk.

I’ll take a hard pass on that shit.

But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out… IN

For Reference…

Muse – Uprising
iTunes | Spotify

Muse – The Resistance
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | On vinyl from Amazon

M.I.A. – Paper Planes
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | Kala on vinyl from Amazon

P.O.D. – Youth of the Nation
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify

Wikipedia: Muse | The Resistance | Paper Planes | Kony 2012

Download the Shazam app iTunes | Google Play
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06. Joe Meek and the Blue Men – I Hear a New World (1960)

I’m somebody who will definitely give certain songs points for context. A truly great song will hold up regardless of where or when it’s being listened to and by whom, but sometimes it can be a powerful trick to try to let yourself experience it through the ears of those who heard it first.

Sometimes context is necessary, even.

Maybe this is just the sort of thing that only vinyl snobs and people obsessed with old music think, but I have an early pressing of White Light / White Heat, for example, and it’s not especially valuable or super-duper rare or anything, but when you’re listening to it you get a real extra bit of shine off that record. It’s not just thinking on how it isn’t merely a digitized reproduction of sound as instructed by ones and zeroes encoded on a disc or streamed to the cloud. It’s that there is a tangible physical connection to the actual recording, and to whichever hip asshole put their needle in those exact same grooves back in 1968 — when there was nothing else like it in the world, and what was there hardly anybody had heard.

I say this because I Hear A New World by Joe Meek and the Blue Men needs to be understood through the prism of its times to truly be appreciated. Otherwise it probably comes off as little more than a cute, tinny-sounding space age ditty — a piece of Googie architecture come to life. It lumbers just a little bit awkwardly, the vocal rounds are just a touch too lethargic, the chipmunk voices grate, and it sounds like it was recorded in a damned kitchen.

Which, of course, it pretty much was.

Joe Meek. If you don’t know his incredible story, you really should. A star-making record producer working out of his apartment. An indie businessman pushing back against the big companies. A peerless innovator in the recording studio. The perpetrator of a murder-suicide.

Meek was an occultist and a paranoiac, but also the subject of very real blackmail and police harassment because he was a gay man in a time of actively enforced anti-homosexuality laws in the U.K. He was a man, at the end of his life, distraught and crushed by financial burden, in part because he had been sued for plagiarism of his biggest hit, the Tornados’ Telstar, the royalties withheld while the case was pending.

The Telstar case was ultimately judged in his favour… three weeks after, as the Daily Express put it in a 2009 piece, “he blasted a hole in [his landlord] Violet Shenton’s back before turning the shotgun on himself and blowing off his face.”

But the more salacious details of his life really shouldn’t be the focus, except in that they underline how we’re still only just starting to come out of the dark ages in terms of understanding the importance of mental health (in a 1991 documentary, seen below, one of Meek’s brothers says Joe had been taking pills for depression, but that “he should have come home and had a good rest and he’d have been alright”), and of letting people live with dignity no matter their orientation or gender.

Meek was an auteur working out of a modest flat, pushing the boundaries of sound recording and engineering — boundaries that we’ve now pushed so far past as to make the original ones seem quaint. He was experimenting with mic placement, overdubs, effects, tape loops, home-built instrumentation, and more. He was exploring different sounds and using the studio itself as an instrument years before Dave Davies was cutting his speaker cones.

I Hear a New World is the title track off an EP inspired, as U.K. mag The Wire put it, by “transmundane” sounds that Meek had become obsessed with during his time as a radar operator in the National Service. This is maybe the most conventional sounding track on a very intentionally unconventional record. It shows off much of what Meek was capable of using his studio to do, it’s just not quite as fabulous a demonstration of it in a pop format as the more subtle studio-craft of the Honeycombs’ Have I The Right, Mike Berry and the Outlaws’ Tribute to Buddy Holly, or John Leyton’s incredible, ethereal Johnny Remember Me.

And, of course, there’s the aforementioned Telstar, too.

Is there some hopelessly dull stuff in his catalogue? For sure. But with the right context…

This is very 1991, but still worth your time, I think — especially once it really gets going…

For Reference…

Joe Meek & the Blue Men – I Hear a New World
iTunes | Spotify

Joe Meek & the Blue Men – I Hear a New World (EP)
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | On vinyl from Amazon

The Tornados – Telstar
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify

John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify

Wikipedia: Joe Meek | I Hear a New World | Telstar | Googie architecture | Heinz

Download the Shazam app iTunes | Google Play
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05. Clutch – Escape From The Prison Planet (1995/2010)

“Oh lord fuck,” I think as I listen to the first 15 seconds of this track I can’t possibly imagine anyone actually having played out loud… for other people… in public. “It’s erudite-posturing funk metal or some shit, isn’t it? Oh lord, oh lord, oh fuck — how long is thi — SIX MINUTES AND THIRTY FOUR SECONDS. Faaaaaaaaaack.”

Preach on mediocre white dude! Preach on!

So where do I even begin with this? “Just stop playing music” seems an unnecessarily cruel note, and yet I keep circling back to it. Or I would if not for the fact that people seem to enjoy this, and so what the hell is it to me if they do or don’t or anything in between? It all subjective maaaaaaaaaaaaan. But this song right here? This fucking sucks.

I will grant, however, that what ended up in my Shazam app was actually a live version — which somebody elected to play out loud… for other people… in public — and that the studio version you hear above is actually a hell of a lot better. Not good, mind you. But better.

The guitars in the studio version have some Black Sabbath to them. A lot of the funk bounce is stripped away compared to the live one. And the vocals early in the track are less a cheesy faux-theatrical omniscient chest-thumping space-asshole warble and more a cheesy Maryland-accented faux-growl that eventually builds to a chorus of multiple shouting voices that — holy shit! — actually kinda work really well.

Ugh, but the verses. Still the verses. I know it was the 90s, but how did nobody stop this??? I don’t need a band to take itself super seriously or anything, but… yeesh. Among far too many others, Dave Mustaine can do a thing vaguely like it in the verses of Symphony of Destruction, for example, because that song is actually going somewhere (note: somewhere awesome), and his band is technically proficient and capable of handling counter-melodies and key changes and a tempo above stoned out of my fucken gourd.

These guys asked a sentient hemp knapsack with weed crumbs in it to slap a little bit of half-assed organ in there during the verses so we have something to listen to instead of straight ride cymbal and embarrassing lyrics. But despite the white-guy-in-dreads elements Clutch seem rather angry about something here, too.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Fucking weirder still: against my better judgment I went ahead and listened to a few of the other tracks on this record (the studio one, that is) and — holy shit again! — I actually completely didn’t hate them. Er… some of them.

The vocals worked in spots, Clutch are far better musicians than Escape From the Prison Planet alone leads on, and, apart from a bit where they did a nursery rhyme thing like Korn’s cringeworthy Shoots And Ladders, the lyrics didn’t make me almost puke in my mouth. Or at least I didn’t notice them for their badness.

Seriously, give Big News a try — it’s alright. And frankly, the fact that the live version of Escape… that I heard was recorded at D.C.’s 9:30 Club (though obviously the new one and not the iconic original) probably should have tipped me off that these guys are not entirely preening sci-fi stoner funk-metal trash.

Way to go, Clutch! You almost won me over! … A little bit… sort of.

And way to go for the fact that the studio version of this song apparently appeared on the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A., which means two things: One, that it is then at least tangentially related to the excellent documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, and for no reason other than the fact that it sure as fuck beats continuing to talk about this song, I can encourage everyone to go watch that. Aaaand two, surf’s up!!!!! Hang on Snake, AWOOOOO!!!

For Reference…

Clutch – Escape From the Prison Planet
iTunes | Spotify

Clutch – Self Titled
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify | CD from Amazon

Clutch – Live at the 9:30
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify

Megadeth – Symphony of Destruction
YouTube | iTunes | Spotify

Wikipedia: Clutch | Clutch (Self Titled LP) | Megadeth | Escape From L.A. | 9:30 Club

Download the Shazam app iTunes | Google Play
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