England

"Church Going" Philip Larkin, read by Tom O'Bedlam (The Less Deceived, The Fortune Press, 1955)

A little obvious perhaps, it’s certainly one of the most famous poems written in English, well-known to any school or university literature student, but it’s still one of the most beautiful, especially in this reading. Often it’s stated baldly that this is not a religious poem, or is used to describe the increase of secularisation in Western countries, but the final verses remain ambiguous to me, as if the need - as we have seen in Paris recently - for some kind of communal space, whether it’s linked to religion or culture remains a keep aspect of what it is to be human.

“Bored uninformed knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation--marriage and birth 
And death and thoughts of these--for which was built
This special shell? For though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth 
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete 
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious 
And gravitating with it to this ground 
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in 
If only that so many dead lie round.”

(It pleases me to stand in silence here).

New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda:

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

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During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.”

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Remembering Dennis Davis, 1949-2016. David Bowie: 'Right’ (Young Americans, RCA, 1975)/ ‘Sound and Vision’ (Low, RCA, 1977)/ ‘Look back in anger’/’DJ’ (Lodger, RCA, 1979)

Drumming as an expression of freedom; without wanting to sound too out there, you can see it in the fluid movement of the wrists of the best musicians, the way the bones dissolve almost as they capture and expand the beat, allowing it to have space full of air, while remaining certain, so complete.

Remembering Dennis Davis then, who passed away in April last year. Best-known as the master drummer on Bowie's finest recordings: Young Americans (1975), Station to Station  (1976) Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Stage (1978), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980).  

Not sure about Stage, but all those others are like a soundtrack to an era and expression of essential musical genius, collaboration, risk-taking. Producer Tony Visconti remembered Davis's contribution and gift in a statement:

(Davis) was one of the most creative drummers I have ever worked with. He came into David Bowie’s life when we recorded some extra tracks for Young Americans and stayed with us through Scary Monsters and beyond. He was a disciplined jazz drummer who tore into Rock with a Jazz sensibility. Listen to the drum breaks on Black Out from the Heroes album. He had a conga drum as part of his set up and he made it sound like two musicians were playing drums and congas. By Scary Monsters he was playing parts that were unthinkable but they fit in so perfectly. His sense of humour was wonderful. As an ex member of the US Air Force he told us stories of seeing a crashed UFO first hand by accidentally walking through an unauthorized hanger. There will never be another drummer, human being and friend like Dennis, a magical man.

In a 1999 interview with Uncut magazine, Bowie said that Davis was 'a powerfully emotive drummer… The tempo not only 'moved' but also was expressed in more than 'human' fashion' (cited in the Rolling Stone tribute).

Writing about Bowie is a challenge for me. His records are imprinted on my spirit, I know every lyric, every shift, but tend to go into adolescent-mode when writing/talking about them, in awe that Young Americans could be followed by Station to Station and then by Low … (such a giddy fan-stance is not that helpful). And yet, much of Bowie’s achievement in this period, as he acknowledged freely, depends on the contribution of the musicians who provided the foundations, the so-called ‘D.A.M trio’, Bowie’s most effective and distinctive rhythm section: Dennis Davis on drums; Carlos Alomar on guitar and George Murray on bass  

Dennis Davis started his professional career with Roy Ayers, this is where he met Alomar (he also played with Stevie Wonder on Hotter than July … and on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot). He was first hired by Bowie to Young Americans – that lush, idiosyncratic exploration of Soul, a kind of love letter to the United States and its music.

Listen to the way the bass is foregrounded, along with the vocals of course, with the drumming little more than an occasional interruption, a kind of tap here and there; Davis’s understated, albeit central, style continues on Bowie’s record, Low where Davis, it is said, developed a particular snare sound that was/is considered to be revolutionary.

About that time, Bowie asked whether I’d mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into his headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer’s drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn’t do it in the mix, we did it live!

Visconti again, for more detail on this development have a read of this

There is a wonderful kind of containment and control here; something that would be reversed in the wild-eccentric exuberance of Bowie’s Lodger two years later. This record is a masterpiece on so many levels, you see I’m slipping here …  but really, it is a representative work refusing easy categorisation, while having such a firm sense of its self (and so full of joy and musical experimentation).

For me the song, ‘Look back in anger’ is the quintessential expression of musical freedom and energy, such energy (and this is largely thanks to the extraordinary contribution of Dennis Davis that blows my mind each time I hear it) :

Elegant and expressive: nothing better, ever.

...

I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can't turn around no, can't turn around no
I am a D.J., I am what I say
Can't turn around no, can't turn around,
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I've got believers (kiss-kiss)
Believing me

I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no (kiss-kiss)

Time flies when you're having fun
Break his heart, break her heart
He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer
I am a D.J., and I've got believers

I've got believers
I've got believers
I've got believers in me
I've got believers
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I am a D.J.

(This is the perfect Bowie song on every level: the poetic, elusive lyrics that are funny/sarcastic/bitter, at times, while carrying an aggressive charge of dislocated indifference, refusing reductive explanations; and then the music: take a deep breath, be quiet now). 

In praise of: 'Breathing' Kate Bush (Never for ever, EMI, 1980)

'I see myself on the piano as a melody,’ Kate Bush sang on Lionheart’s 'Symphony In Blue' quoted by Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate Bush’ The Quietus 2012

Outside
Gets inside
Through her skin
I've been out before
But this time it's much safer in

Last night in the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

Breathing
(Out, in, out, in, out, in)

Backing Vocals – Roy Harper Bass [Fretless] – John Giblin Drums – Stuart Elliott Percussion – Morris Pert Synthesizer [Prophet] – Larry Fast

Genre: Art rock, baroque pop

That moment where Kate Bush hides almost, singing the word 'keep' so quietly, to the point we can hardly hear it at the beginning, just before the release when she sings the word breathing. The genius of Kate Bush has many, many facets but one aspect that I’ve been noticing recently is her imaginative phrasing, the way she emphasises or hides certain words when she sings (and this changes, depending on the performance). It’s a beautiful thing to observe and sense. As it is within such detail that we can see her gift, in its entirety.

 “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.” 
― William BlakeAuguries of Innocence

There’s such a sweet fragility in that half-heard word. It captures that moment of doubt, softer perhaps than fear that is felt before a decision is made, ‘to nullify (your) life’ .. or to breathe. This is especially effective here as it contrasts with the building, declamatory ‘I’ve been out before/but this time it’s much safer in …’

‘Breathing’ - the song that Bush described as her ‘little symphony’ is all about the contrast in different kinds of movement in music forward and backward (out/in) that manifests expressions of confidence and uncertainty. All of this is then upended by the magically strange section at 3 minutes: the post-apocalyptic dream-scape, that evokes the world after a nuclear Holocaust. She moves from the intimate to the abstract.

Originally, I thought the song was an expression of the intense feeling of longing, all mixed up with desire that you might have for someone you love, perhaps your mother, your beloved and the grief that is felt when they are no longer with you. It is, in fact, written from the point of view of a foetus (in the video Bush dances in an enclosed space of diaphanous material to represent a womb).    

Bush has said that her inspiration for the song came from ‘a documentary she had seen about the effects of nuclear war, while the tone of the song was inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall (side three in particular).’ The wonder of the song lies in the intimate detail and the personalised delivery – something as far removed from notions of anti-Nuclear campaigning, as could be imagined - and the way Bush represents the idea of breathing ‘your mother in, your beloved in/breathing her nicotine …’ 

‘Breathing’ closed Bush’s third solo album Never, for Ever that came out in 1980 (the album began with the over-the-top cleverness and theatrics of ‘Babooshka’ – and Kate in a revealing Clan of the Cave Bear outfit, strutting, her angular movements lodging themselves in the imaginations of curious teenage boys the world over …)

Never for Ever was the first album that Bush had full production control and is still impressive many decades on for its creative risk-taking that at no point feels forced: the personality of the artist is the unifying element, alongside her constant cultural referencing: 

Bush’s literary and cinematic influences were again to the fore. “The Infant Kiss”, the story of a governess who is frightened by the adult feelings she has for her young male charge (who is possessed by the spirit of a grown man), was inspired by the 1961 film The Innocents, which in turn had been inspired by The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. ”The Wedding List” drew from François Truffaut’s 1968 film The Bride Wore Black.”Delius (Song of Summer)” was inspired by the 1968 Ken Russell TV movie Song of Summer, which portrays the last six years of the life of English composer Frederick Delius, when Eric Fenby acted as his amanuensis. Fenby is mentioned in the lyrics (“in B, Fenby”).
— Wiks

‘Delius (Song of Summer)’ strikes me as particularly influential in terms of the light-electronic alternative acts that have emerged since the 2000s in its delicate swoon and the way it’s mixed together ...

The album also included the superb anti-war song, ‘Army Dreamers’ (that includes extremely sweet-gentle and ironic male backing vocals, again upending expectations).     

Never for Ever was Bush’s first album to reach the number one slot on the UK charts and the first solo record by a British female artist to reach this status; moreover, it is the first studio album of any woman to achieve this, rather than compilations. Bush said that the album title alluded to contradictory and conflicting emotions, which pass, as she said: ‘we must tell our hearts that it is 'never for ever', and be happy that it's like that’.

Reviews for the album have a kind of grudging tone, something you often see in appraisals of the work of artists who are women (the Allmusic review saying, for example: ‘Bush's dramatics and theatrical approach to singing begin to solidify on Never for Ever, and her style brandishes avid seriousness without sounding flighty or absurd’ ...  an 'appreciation' from Sputnikmusic is even worse, concluding that the record was ‘no masterpiece’ but that it showed Bush’s work was ‘improving in all the right ways.’ … ah, merci monsieur).   

The album is also important in terms of Bush's artistic development in the way it demonstrated her interest in new tech; this is taken from an article in the NME:

As soon as I met the Fairlight,” Bush admitted in 1985 about the digital sampling synthesiser, “I realised that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music.” The possibilities are obvious on ‘Never For Ever’, the most lush of her albums to that point, where dreamy Minnie Riperton soul (‘Blow Away’) meets berserk vamping rock (‘Babooshka’). Its finest moment is the haunting ‘Breathing’ with Bush facing up to the burgeoning nuclear crisis as weapons move into Greenham Common. “What are we going to do/We are all going to die” is as direct as she ever gets, and has all the more grim power for that.

Easily the best piece of writing I’ve come across on Kate Bush’s work, Never for ever comes from Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate BushThe Quietus 2012. It’s full of fantastic research and persuasively argues for the importance of this record, as a transition towards a more autonomous juncture in Kate Bush's career and the way it gestured to her musical future. Here is his comment on ‘Breathing’ …

Bush’s melodramatic ivory tinkling is woven into a throbbing musical backdrop. Gabriel’s trusty synth wizard Larry Fast on Prophet 5, the ‘atomic instrumentation’ of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (side 3 apparently, ‘Hey You’ in particular) and 10cc multi-tracked vocal wash are all subsumed into Bush’s striking originality: a uniquely female perspective sculpted from male sources. Breathing’s bold studio craft was a strong indication of things to come.

Again, from Matt Lindsay:

(Bush) was also enamoured with the colossal ‘gated reverb’ drum patterns, without cymbals, Gabriel was cultivating with engineer Hugh Padgham at London’s Townhouse Studios. As with the Fairlight, this would become a salient feature of 80’s rock, perhaps most associated with Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight (1981). Collins had learned the technique while working on Gabriel’s Melt album and had gone as far as recruiting the singer’s producer, Hugh Padgham. This suggests a kind of forward thinking MOR phalanx during this period. At the time only Tony Visconti’s pioneering work on Bowie’s Low (1977) was this drum sound’s only real precedent. (Visconti was briefly considered for production duties on The Dreaming before Bush assumed full responsibility).

Check out this extremely touching live performance from Kate Bush of ‘Breathing’ – her skill shows through her ability to be so heavily invested in the moment, it’s almost as if you can touch her soul, while she maintains distance (until that lovely smile at the end).