Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
I really am a slow learner. After a moderately adventurous attitude in my teens, I spent my twenties believing that love of the chart pop of my youth plus reverence for Dylan/Young/Stones/Zeppelin were enough to get by; and in my thirties all I did was search for the most accessible non-charting pop I could find. I can recall turning down opportunities to see My Bloody Valentine and Ministry, and I sat through a Sonic Youth set entirely nonplussed. It wasn’t until much later that I was inquisitive enough to seek out – and make an effort to understand – music more challenging than could be processed in one listen. I’ve owned Daydream Nation for maybe 20 years now, and only the first two tracks even registered for me until quite recently. And I didn’t bother with Evol or Sister on the basis that if I didn’t take to their breakthrough album, nothing prior was going to do it for me. So, look, I’m way behind a lot of people but I’ve finally caught up. And now I know those other two albums are the key to understanding Daydream Nation. Because their career has been a progression, from noise to tuneful noise to noise at the service of song structures to the masterful use of noise and songcraft working in harmony. Which is what we have here. The band’s early links with the noise experiments of Glenn Branca still bear some traces on this album, especially on those occasions when the longer tracks stretch out through repetition of riffs. But it’s mostly evolved into something lusher, reworking the anger and fire of early punk, no-wave and other alternative styles into a grand statement of alternative guitar rock, a rallying point for everyone conversant with the genre. I’d always regarded Daydream Nation as a song-suite, but every song taken on its own gives you something different, from the languid slacker take on “Teenage Riot” through to the urgent haranguing of “Kissability”. It sold really badly at the time, but this is a landmark record offering almost eternal gifts.
Grace Jones – Nightclubbing (1981)
It took time for Grace Jones to be recognised for the pioneer she was, mainly because the strides she took were in the fields of visual presentation and production rather than with the music itself. It could also be due to her background in modelling, which wasn’t regarded as very ‘authentic’ in a musical artist. And also because she was a bit forbidding. The androgynous look wasn’t new in the early Eighties, but until this point it had predominantly been a man thing. Jones simply owned it, and it was her total immersion that lent it cachet and inspired many others in its wake (I can think immediately of Annie Lennox). Musically, she was taking things somewhere new as well, and the speak-song of Flash and the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain” was a perfect fit for her vocal delivery, but it’s her interpretation of the song that really matters. The dryness of the original still holds, but it’s infused with depth and mystique and feels a lot less alienated. Similarly with Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”, which sounds more a statement and less a state of mind than formerly. The album is all about Grace staking out territory. “Pull Up to the Bumper” may be full of cheeky sexual innuendo, but it so clear-eyed and level-headed; with Grace it sounds more like an order than an invitation. “Use Me” is a paradox – I know what she’s saying, but the task would be impossible for all but the most self-assured men, surely? But, lest you start imagining that dominance and one-up-manship are the only tricks she has, “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” swings very easy and light, and closer “I’ve Done it Again” is a sweet little torch song. All through the album, you can hear Sly and Robbie and the Compass Point team opening up musical avenues to explore. Some of the songs are tethered to early Eighties production, others sound timeless, but it all works seamlessly.
Pull Up to the Bumper
Pere Ubu – Cloudland (1989)
“Love Love Love” was probably my first introduction to Pere Ubu. I can’t think of anything I might have heard prior to that. It wasn’t the best representation of their career, but it’s pretty damn hooky and hard to mistake for anyone else’s product. Cloudland is largely thought of as Pere Ubu’s ‘commercial’ bid; David Thomas is even quoted to that effect. But to approach it that way is somewhat problematic. For one thing, they were never wilfully non-commercial in the first place. They wrote what they considered ‘pop-rock’ songs right from the start, and it was just their sensibility that had their work appear so strange. For another, these songs might be more conventional than usual, but they’re by no means chart fodder. I doubt it’s even possible for Thomas to sing in a chart-friendly manner. If anything, Cloudland is the final proof that Pere Ubu can’t write a pop song, that their most sincere attempts in that direction still sound skewed and idiosyncratic, and that we’re all a lot better off for it. Take lead single “Waiting for Mary” for example. It hooks it up quite nicely with those ‘what are we doing here’ chants, but then the chorus goes all downbeat where it would more logically peak, there’s a strange middle eight, and the song winds down instead of fading out. Way more interesting than anything you’d hear on the radio. In fact, all the songs begin like the band are genuinely attempting to compose in a particular generic style, and then get restless and bored partway through and begin experimenting. A lot of them just get abandoned at the end. That’s the Pere Ubu way – continue on as long as the attention holds, then get out any way you can. There’s no reason to think they’d change that approach just because they were writing for an audience. Good on them.
Waiting for Mary
Love Love Love
The Waitresses – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? (1982)
One of the by-products of the outpouring of pop music product in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties is the number of talented artists relegated unfairly to one-hit-wonder status. Some, like the B52s, battled through to respectability eventually. Others weren’t as lucky. There are, admittedly, plenty of artists who only had one good song in them. But Lene Lovich, the Flying Lizards and the Vapours, to name a few, all warranted more than their one short moment in the sun, and all have albums worth owning. To them you can add the Waitresses, the brainchild of Akron resident Chris Butler. The Waitresses as a band, and this album in particular, were cobbled together after Butler generated some interest in “I Know What Boys Like”. He wrote the song not as a piece of feminine triumphalism, as many assume, but more a compendium of the kinds of rejections he was getting on the singles scene. In the hands of Patty Donahue, though, it takes on a sassy irony. Her teasing drawl renders the subject matter both vapid and alluring. She’s the secret weapon behind all the songs on Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? and you can tell that right from the start, with the song that sets the tone for the album. “No Guilt” is a break-up song, but it’s neither about wanting him back nor finding someone new. It’s about learning to be independent, step by step, and boy does Patty sell it. By the end you have no doubt she’s going to be all right, she’s outgrown the dependent girlfriend thing. With that in place, the rest of the album does sound liberated. She can own up to her mistakes in “Quit”, or lament her terrible relationship options in “Go On” and you know they won’t break her. The music ranges from pop/ska to Sixties girl-group to New Wave holler, all of it overlaid with a kind of pleasant defiance and cheery self-examination. It’s the only great album they made before breaking up, but check out the EP I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts. It’s also terrific.
I Know What Boys Like
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy (1985)
Here’s where chart-oriented music started digging itself out of the hole it was in; and as is usually the case, it took a glance backward at musical history to achieve its regeneration. Not that William and Jim Reid of the Jesus and Mary Chain achieved that success themselves, far from it; but they did point the way forward. By 1985, pop music was in a dire state. The most ‘cutting edge’ chart music around was all synth drums and keytars, with lyrical inspiration from Duran Duran (seriously, their lyrics make no sense at all) and production values from INXS (that big Blat! Blat!! horn stab all over everything). Neither of those bands are bad per se, but we really only need one of each. Somewhere behind that were bland disposable white-boy R&B reductions and power ballads, which were just as horribly dispiriting. So this album meant a lot. It drew musical inspiration from Sixties pop and production values from the Velvet Underground. And that proved a killer combination – hooks a plenty, but cool and distance overlaid on it, which gave the kids something to identify with and call their own while setting itself a solid base to work from. When in doubt, go back to guitars and hooks, you can’t go wrong. It didn’t all start with “Just Like Honey”, but that’s where I clocked in. Its intro comes via the girl groups of the early Sixties, but it’s the lo-fi production and the spareness that’ll rope you in. It’s quite hypnotic. Not all the tracks grab you as easily as that, but noticing the melodies fighting through the fuzz and feedback is half the fun. Slacker rock, Shoegaze and Grunge all owe a debt to Psychocandy. And considering Bobby Gillespie was in charge of the drums on the album, you can thrown in Britpop and elements of House as well. Chart music had become so stultified in 1985 that something had to happen. That it came from Scotland’s Reid brothers and Psychocandy is a great blessing.
Just Like Honey
You Trip Me Up
3rd Bass – The Cactus Album (1989)
Functionally. 3rd Bass probably occupy territory somewhere between the Beastie Boys and De La Soul. The Cactus Album is playful and (for want of a better word) inclusive in a similar way to Three Feet High and Rising, and it signposts a kind a jazzy hip-hop we’d see a lot more of in the Nineties. But it’s also smart-arse and knowingly hip like Paul’s Boutique. Or to put it another way, DJ Serch and Pete Nice were more cutting than De La Soul and more integrated in the milieu than the Beastie Boys. The driving force behind their music was that, in contrast to most crossovers from Black music, white rap didn’t need to be a commercialised travesty of the genre (this was the basis of their animosity toward Vanilla Ice). They wanted to be immersed in rap culture while still retaining some ironic distance, and on this album they’ve largely succeeded. Funny thing is, the clever sampling and jokey jokey stuff is what you first notice, but this album gets harder and sharper the more you listen to it. What really puts it across is the drum sampling, the fundamental layer that drives on the vocals, pushing them into attack mode on most of the tracks with relentless force. They almost relegate the gleeful horn samples and piano runs and other overlaid sounds to window dressing. 3rd Bass rarely have the commitment to social issues of Public Enemy (“Product of the Environment” is a notable exception) but their commitment to what they’re addressing is pure in its own way, it feels authentic. They had some interesting run-ins over their short lifespan – most publicly with the Beastie Boys (the result of a personal slight as it transpires) and MC Hammer – and eventually Serch and Nice turned on each other, which brought the band to a premature halt in 1992. The Cactus Album did change attitudes, however, and stands as an important signpost on the road rap took.
Steppin’ to the A.M.
The Gas Face
Mental as Anything – Cats and Dogs (1981)
It is conceivable that Mental as Anything could have slipped by the wayside in 1981. After scoring a surprise hit with “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” in 1979 and seeing their debut album Get Wet peak at 19, their next two singles (great as they were) stiffed. The follow-up album, Espresso Bongo, produced a couple of modestly charting singles, but the album itself only just scraped into the top 40. They were likely under more pressure to produce at the time than in seems in retrospect. After all, if you’re a fun-time outfit the only thing you have to offer is chart hits and they were coming across as a little slight. At any rate, the release of Cats and Dogs righted the ship quite emphatically, not only storming into the top ten, but spawning a couple of top ten singles and sparking the first interest in the band outside of Australia. For mine the key track, though not a massive hit itself, is “Berserk Warriors”. It gave the first indication of the band’s ability to create singles that ranged outside standard subject matter – well, it’s still a melancholy love song, but it is premised on the break-up of Bjorn and Agnetha from ABBA and re-imagines them as vikings. The release of it as a single immediately cast Mental as Anything as a more interesting unit. Other than that, and the more off-beat album tracks they’re always capable of, the Mentals plough similar turf lyrically to Madness. Their songs often view relationships as under some kind of stress and people as a prey to their own flaws. But the keynote is always resilience and optimism in the face of such trials. Their other key advantage was having four songwriters (two singers as well), all equally capable by this point, which not only spread the workload but kept their output diverse. More than anything, Mental as Anything captured the Aussie spirit, humorous and game under any circumstances, egalitarian and gregarious, but not afraid to acknowledge doubts and difficulties. And just a little offbeat. Cats and Dogs captures that spirit at its best.
Too Many Times
If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?
Big Black – Atomizer (1986)
I have to admit, I’m more interested in the sounds being created than the subject matter being addressed. It’s hard rock, but some of it clearly sounds industrial, which I guess it what gives Atomizer that hard Midwest feel, redolent of abandoned factories and farm machinery. I can’t summon the same grinding emotion from the follow-up, Songs About Fucking, good as it is. This one feels less cluttered, more direct and confronting. I gather from comments Steve Albini has made that he didn’t place a lot of importance in the lyrics – he describes them as supplementary to the music, something required to fill it out. They’re deliberately provocative (and he has a few things to say about the license to use taboo words and phrases as long as your heart’s in the right place) but I suspect that they’d need to be if they’re going to fit the sound, which is brutal. It sounds at times as if the guitars are going to come out of the speakers and kill you. And they’re anchored by what really is the signature innovation of Big Black, the use of a drum machine – ostensibly employed to ensure the beat doesn’t flag at any stage but effectively rendering the songs relentless and inescapable, hammering at you with violent precision. The sound took Albini a few years to perfect, and during that time he also adhered strictly to a DIY approach, keeping the band well clear not only of record labels, but promoters, support staff, even road crews (they could do this owing to a drum machine being much more space-effective than full drum kits would be). It kept them profitable during their development and gave them full creative control as well, serving as a inspiration to countless other bands. The sound is uncompromising as a result, a pure distillation of Albini’s bleak aesthetic. There’s really nothing like Atomizer out there. Albini kicked on, as we all know, but Big Black left their massive footprint on the mid-Eighties in a way few other bands could manage.
Soft Cell – Non Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981)
I wasn’t sure about including this one, not until quite late in the piece. In the end I really couldn’t resist it; it’s so obviously, flagrantly cheeky in its provocation that it’s impossible to take seriously, and that makes it a whole lot of silly fun. It’s day-glo smut, with Mark Almond continually pushing the boundaries to see how far you’ll go with him. And yet you can still feel the sadness and emotional identification underpinning it, especially in closing track “Say Hello,Wave Goodbye”, which really is quite affecting. At the other end of the scale, there’s “Sex Dwarf”. You won’t fully comprehend the scope of Soft Cell’s outrageous sleaze until you’ve seen the original, banned film clip for it – it’s on YouTube for those interested – which is so provocatively over-the-top (it actually features a sex-dwarf) that you can’t help but laugh. Forget “Girls on Film”, forget Frankie Goes to Hollywood, these guys represent the outer limits of erotic pop. The sound of the album is cheap and cheesy, the result of Dave Ball’s use of only drum machine, synthesizer and synclavier. Plus some inventive use of sound effects and background vocals. At its soaring best, on “Tainted Love” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye”, Non Stop Erotic Cabaret is a sweeping soulful glory. Elsewhere it seems determined to drag you into its vortex of back-alley degradations. Soft Cell were somewhat unfairly pigeonholed as a one-hit wonder at the time, and this album was mostly overlooked in favour of a slew of acts who took their pretensions a lot more seriously. Time’s been kind to it though, and it now sounds a lot more authentic and representive than most of its competition. Try to get hold of the Deluxe edition, as the extra tracks are of equal quality to those on the original release.
Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
The Stone Roses provided the bridge between the Eighties and Nineties, with an album both weirdly nostalgic and innovatively fresh. I’m a touch bemused by the vitriol that’s been loaded on both band and album, even decades later. Some reviewers really hate it, seemingly for no better reason than it was more popular than they expected, and maybe not as ground-breaking musically as they felt it should have been. This sort of attitude seriously under-represents the achievement of The Stone Roses in rejuvenating British music and kicking off the Madchester scene. It’s a kick in the teeth to the musical achievement here as well, which recontextualises Sixties Britpop (and folk and jangle-pop and psychedelic pop) for a new era. But that’s been done before; revisiting older musical styles is nothing new. What’s new here is the attitude. Insular, extremely confident (as witness “I Am the Resurrection”), a little punk-snotty but quite assured that it can reach its fans without assistance from the established musical media. That’s what set the tone for British alternative for the next decade. Reviews for the album were initially dismissive and casually disparaging. But its sales forced the critics to take notice eventually, and then the praise came. For mine, my first listen to The Stone Roses (and this was after I heard “Fools Gold”) convinced me it was an essential album. It didn’t blow my mind, not all of it (some tracks – “I Wanna Be Adored”, “She Bangs the Drums”, “Made of Stone” – did), but it was superior to anything else I heard from Britain in 1989. And it’s a grower, providing a mellower, deeper listen every new time you hear it. Sure, the lyrics aren’t up to much, Ian Brown’s voice won’t move mountains and some of the tracks are a bit long. But so what? Those sorts of things never held back other bands. The Stone Roses sounds great, and that’s all that matters
I Wanna Be Adored
She Bangs the Drums