UK

‘Why did you do it’ Margaret Singana (Tribal Fence, Casablanca, 1977)

This is one of the most covered songs, originally by UK white funk merchants Stretch released on their 1975 album Street Life. Some of the artists include Sam and Dave, offering up a perfect soul-inflected disco groove (covering all the elements, strings & horns included natch)

A 2011 article in the Guardian on the Stretch original states that ‘lyrically, it comes close (…), in its reproachful fury to Dylan’s scabrous masterpiece, ‘Positively 4th Street.’ To then add, ‘still more surprisingly, it was the rarest of birds: a work of lasting genius from a mid-70s white funk band.’

Thinking about the lyrics then, they are easily what make the song for me. Something about their ambiguity comes through the version by the South African singer, Margaret Singana, who was known as ‘Lady Africa’ (here’s some info on her background, career and discography). The uncertain perspective comes from the central premise of who was ‘wronged’ (to use an old-fashioned word) and how.

Singana states that she was was the one who was hurt, as she sings ‘the damage is much deeper than you’ll ever see/Hit me like a hammer to my head/I wonder were you pushed or were you led?’ This makes you think she is a cheated-on partner, but later this becomes less clear as the gender of the third party to her betrayal is a man not a woman:

My friends they listen to the things I say
They listen and they hear more everyday
But I know they never understand it
Because it was no accident you planned it

Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
The only one who knows the truth
Man it's him me and you

The only one who knows the truth/Man it's him, me and you

Within the canon of soul/R&B and funk/disco this perspective is truly original. Most of the time it’s a woman or man singing about how she/he discovered her partner with another and works through how they will react (disco/funk songs often take another path, frequently riffing on notions of attraction and attractiveness). This performance feels deeper, more primal linked to a profound betrayal.

Singana's rendition has a remarkable internal quality to it, especially in the way she under-sings, keeping it low in a way that is extremely powerful. She is not singing out of her outrage as most singers do when covering the song, basing it on shock to the ego (how could you do it to me?) but invokes something else. The nature of the blow is so hard, so unexpected that it affects her entire sense of self.

Yet this betrayal is never spelled-out and laid out for our edification and entertainment - Singana's performance is private, secretive. Reinforcing this impression, the 10 seconds from around 2'08" when the music goes quiet is pure brilliance.

Here’s a live performance of Singana singing her 80s hit, ‘Hamba Bekhile’ (We are Growing) which was the theme song for the TV series Shaka Zulu and in a surprising quirk of history reached the top of the charts in … Holland. 

‘Why are we in love’ Furniture (When the boom was on, Premonition Records, 1983) & ‘Shadows from nowhere’ Blue Gas, 12” (1983) Theme*

This song captures perfectly a style that at one point typified white/male/English alternative rock musicians (and counterparts in the former colonies) - the finest example is arguably here (his skin’s pallor the same colour as the swinging light) that is, the quality of being earnest.

‘The 80s’ today is shorthand for a certain look/clothes style and dominates in a lot of pop-ironic music. Nothing wrong with this, even if such irony appears to go against this quality of being hyper sincere and unaware of your effect as mentioned above; the song encapsulates this style to me (even if it was a big part of the 80s sound, across genres). Being self-aware, as any disco-diva-lover knows, is a wonderful thing in-and-of-itself, but it’s a real stretch to aesthetically and conceptually play the innocent with an 80s-inflected musical naivete, while your image is transmitted via social media, or when talking endlessly, endlessly … endlessly.

Nostalgia for a period before you were alive, or just born interests me and is something I relate to, focussing in as I tend to on the 50s/the 70s, but it is an affectation on some level, a performance (even if only internal). I should add that I’m not comparing one era with another to the detriment of the present one etc. I find that kind of backward-looking stance supremely boring and have nothing invested in this, I wasn’t buying albums in this period, or seeing shows. And yes, here is one contemporary act that manages to do both: pilfer the style, while sounding unmasked, heartfelt while doing so.

To return to the aptly strange-named English group ‘Furniture’ - and that instance where he sings out, with an apparent loss of self-control, how they ‘sleepwalk back to each other’s arms’ just before the outburst that is just as quickly resolved. Musically this piece is special for the way the bass is so dense it almost overwhelms all the other elements, the swirling sound of the an instrument that sounds like a clarinet and the pock-marked percussion. And yet this effect seems to depend on how you hear the music; it lessened when I listened to the song with headphones, not via speakers. Here is some information about the group, some of whom went on to form Transglobal Underground. This song is pretty beautiful as well, ‘I miss you’ for the same sorts of reasons … 

Listen out for the minor explosion effect throughout this song by Blue Gas (a ‘one-off Italian electronic studio-project from Celso Valli’), a 12-inch from the same year, even if the effect sounds pretty standard here, I mean most pop commercial songs included these little blasts for emphasis.

Theme: *sudden explosions in music, 1983

‘Be True’ Commix (Call to mind, Metalheadz, 2007)

Contained within it all the elements of pop-perfection, the most important being a sense of anticipation and mild unfulfillment, this song has an intense following, with as you’ll see below people likening it to their JFK-moment, sharing that it is one of those songs where you remember where you were when you first heard it.

What I appreciate is the way none of the elements are overplayed, even the first drop how tempting it would have been to make it just that bit more dramatic and the sweetness of it too, of course. Everything remains simple, as it should be, just like any great pop-song, as the drums make space for the repeated vocal sample as it morphs and transforms (in a contradictory way maybe maintaining the foundations, the spine of the music).

The sample comes from Sade’s ‘I never thought that I’d see the day’ from 1988, apparently though I couldn’t hear it. Here’s the Burial remix from 2010, which is similarly unrecognisable (not so much a remix as a tiny sliver of a sample perhaps, though there are no rules for remixes, she says confidently based on nothing much at all).

Liked this piece of writing on the Commix track by Dave Jenkins published in 2017, here's part of it:  

A genuine palette cleanser for any DJ and the perfect balance of all the vital elements – weight, soul, atmosphere, instrumentation, variation, vocals and space – Be True is one of the rare breeds of tunes that you remember exactly where you were when you first heard it. It’s also the type of tune that will fit into any style set at any time and enjoy a hurricane reaction of energy, joy and appreciation whether it’s used to elevate a warm-up, capture that special moment at the end of the night or throw people sideways in a surprise double drop.

It’s been this way from the moment it dropped on dubplate in early 2007. Be True has complemented and remained relevant to drum & bass’s every stylistic twist and turn: be it as a key waymark in the perennially mutating ‘liquid’ sound that had reached a peak in the mid 2000s when this first came out; a knowing nod back to the classic genre-forming productions from the likes of Marcus Intalex, Photek and Hidden Agenda or an antidote to more recent commercial and neuro movements.

The best thing was that Be True wasn’t just a stand-alone moment that year for Commix (who, at the time comprised now-sole member George Levings and Guy Brewer) It was part of a much bigger picture: Call To Mind. The first non-Goldie/Rufige Kru related artist album to drop on Metalheadz, Call To Mind enjoys the same stature and respect as Be True does.

Jenkins links to an interview he did with George Levings in 2016, which is really interesting and worth a read as well. 

‘If I Could Only Be Sure’/’Keep On Keepin’ On’ Nolan Porter (Nolan, ABC Records, 1972) plus P. Weller & Joy Division

This is such a distinctive sound, few other songs resemble it, even earlier Soul/R&B releases that are defined by their innocent musicianship a lot of the time and a kind of straight from the heart directness lack its essential grace.

Most notable is the guitar-line; this is what first attracted Paul Weller who covered the song on his 2004 album Studio 154 (and helped in the revival of Porter’s career in the UK/Europe from the ‘90s on).  Here are Nolan Porter’s comments on how Weller first fell for the song from a 2014 interview with Michael Grieg Thomas published at The ‘45s Club, focussing in on this:  

MT: Do you remember what kind of guitar it was recorded on?

Nolan Porter: I don’t remember the type of guitar, but I remember the guitar flair. You might know. That was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That’s probably what got Paul Weller about the song more, was that guitar lick. And that’s Johnny singing with me on the background in some parts. He was really, Johnny Guitar Watson was something else, he spent the last few years of his life in England. He’s got one of his last few CDs he writes about is very cool. I remember he was one of the best R&B guitar players. I used to see him at the blues club a couple times in LA before I even met him and he was just so multi-talented. Him and Frank Zappa became really tight friends at the end, in the last few years of Frank’s life. And he recorded Johnny on a few tunes and it’s just wild. He was with Lizard Records for awhile and he liked Gabriel Mekler a lot.

If you compare Porter’s original first released as a single and then as part of his Nolan record, and Weller’s cover decades on you can see why the former is so unexpected, so lyrical. Weller takes a classic rock approach, a full-band sound with all the instruments at once, his voice too is more urgent, demanding, potentially angry, definitely frustrated. In contrast, Porter’s arrangement is subtle, allowing his voice to dominate over the guitar, drums/bass. The simplicity and cool of it makes it so powerful; it operates as a gentle entreaty. Porter’s delivery also works because of its understatement; there’s no shrieking, or plaintive wails just a few very cool ad-libs every now and again. The music, the voice and the arrangement operate as one, as a model of restraint.

Lyrically, too, it’s interesting for its plain language and repetition, and then the curious inversion intended to represent the depth of his dedication: ‘I'd turn my world upside down/I'd turn my smile all into frowns/I'd do anything at all/ If you'd only let me love you baby/Let me, let me love you baby …’

Porter is also known for the song ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ …

The song went on to inspire Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’ from Unknown Pleasures, with the 1979 song borrowing the original Porter riff (apparently the latter song came about after the band was trying to learn the Nolan song).    

To give the final words to Porter, from the same 2014 interview quoted above:

MT: So we have some questions from the fanpage: What keeps on keepin’ you on?

Nolan Porter: It’s primarily the love of music, I would say that. Also, I don’t think in terms of age so much, when you have some something that you love and that you desire that you should try to develop a passion for, you’ll keep working, you’ll keep going if you have a passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re not going to keep moving on. I love these old songs. They’re kinda like my children. They were never dead to me in my heart, in my creative heart. But I didn’t know that halfway across the world that they were alive, that people were digging on them. I know it sounds a little strange but I have a personal feeling for each one of those songs. So that; and the love of old music, the love of interaction with people, like yourself, the opportunity to do music with different people, that all keeps me going. 

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.   

‘I’d like to walk around in your mind,’ Vashti Bunyan (Some things just stick in your mind: Singles and demos, 1964-1967, Fat Cat, 2007)  

I’d like to walk around in your mind someday
I’d like to walk all over the things you say to me

I’d like to run and jump on your solitude
I’d like to rearrange your attitude to me

You say you just want peace and to never hurt anyone
You see the end before the beginning has ever begun

I would disturb your easy tranquillity
I’d turn away the sad impossibility of your smile

I’d sit there in the sun of the things I like about you
I’d sing my songs and find out just what they mean to you

But most of all I’d like you to be unaware
Then I’d just wander away, trailing palm leaves behind me
So you don’t even know I’ve been there

The quotation below comes from an appreciation by Mike Wojciechowski, published in Tiny Mix Tapes in 2012, yes, it is a bit explicit and literal and I'm not sure how you can be passive and vicious, but there is some interest here. At the end of his article he suggests that the song might in some way act as a premonition about Bunyan's lack of success - she received critical acclaim, but apparently didn't sell many records - but I cut that part.      

"The one song that has always stuck out for me in Bunyan’s catalog is 1967’s “I’d Like To Walk Around in Your Mind.” Produced by Mike Hurst (who also worked with Cat Stevens and the Spencer Davis Group) and intended to be a single for Immediate Records, it’s a sparse arrangement — double bass, cello, acoustic guitar, voice, and light percussion. Her voice is as beautiful as ever; floating calmly over the gently fingerpicked guitar.

The song appeals to me for many reasons, but primarily it seems to offer a raw line of communication into the mindset of a British female songwriter during the late 60s. Despite sounding sweet and folky, the lyrics are still passively vicious. “I’d like to walk all over the things you say to me/ I’d like to run and jump on your solitude… I would disturb your easy tranquility…”

You can read the rest of the article here. 

'Gharbzadegi’ Robert Wyatt (Old Rottenhat, Rough Trade, 1985) plus live performance, 2002

It's so easy to decide on a name
It's a name caller's game
It's so easy to look down from above
Helicopter vision
Get the picture when you're outside the frame
Retrospective my eye
Call it art and you can say what you like
It's a name caller's game
Your perspective describes where I stand
Out of line, out of mind
Calling myopia 'focus', of course,
Makes it easier still
Gharbzadegi means nothing to me
Westernitis to you
...We get so out of touch
Words take the place of meaning

So sweet this drum-beat, splintered and fragile like birds’ bones and the instruments taking the part – the piano repeating a few notes over and again to provide the foundations, (apparently, arguably) echoing Coltrane

with an English accent, poetic-abstract lyrics conveying a radical critique (damning ‘Westernitis’ – Gharbzadegi in Farsi … or Western Imperialism) sung so carefully and consciously as if it were a lullaby; could any listener ask for more? 

Listening to this you can see the deep influence Robert Wyatt had on Radiohead; I could pick any of their earlier/less-commercial tracks to provide proof of the fact, the influence of the Soft Machine alumnus seeps from their music (the way they use momentum, or not – and lyrically as well, the off-hand allusions to politics and the overriding emphasis on the creation of mood).

Wyatt’s song ‘Gharbzadegi’ is labelled ‘rock’/’progressive rock’ on websites of record, but this is jazzy, of course it is; in the way draws attention to the materiality of the instruments and the parts -  focussing on sound as quality in and of itself. 

The way the music disrupts our expectations of the parts the instruments should play (the piano provides the foundations, as if it were a bassline, but then the flourishes and exuberance); in the way the parts rise and fall, the gentleness of it all; the submerged momentum.  

As for the concept: Gharbzadegi 

Gharbzadegi (Persian: غربزدگی‎‎) is a pejorative Persian term variously translated as "Westoxification," "West-struck-ness"[1] "Westitis", "Euromania", or "Occidentosis".It is used to refer to the loss of Iranian cultural identity through the adoption and imitation of Western models and Western criteria in education, the arts, and culture; through the transformation of Iran into a passive market for Western goods and a pawn in Western geopolitics.

The phrase was first coined by Ahmad Fardid, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tehran, in the 1940s. it gained common usage following the clandestine publication in 1962 of the book Occidentosis: A Plague from the West by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad. Fardid's definition of the term as referring to the hegemony of ancient Greek philosophy, differed from its later usage as popularised by Al-e Ahmad.

Al-e Ahmed describes Iranian behavior in the twentieth century as being "Weststruck." The word was play on the dual meaning of "stricken" in Persian, which meant to be afflicted with a disease or to be stung by an insect, or to be infatuated and bedazzled. "I say that gharbzadegi is like cholera [or] frostbite. But no. It's at least as bad as sawflies in the wheatfields. Have you ever seen how they infest wheat? From within. There's a healthy skin in places, but it's only a skin, just like the shell of a cicada on a tree."

Al-e Ahmad argued that Iran must gain control over machines and become a producer rather than a consumer, even though once having overcome Weststruckness it will face a new malady - also western - that of 'machinestruckness'. "The soul of this devil 'the machine' [must be] bottled up and brought out at our disposal ... [The Iranian people] must not be at the service of machines, trapped by them, since the machine is a means not an end."

Live performance taken from the 2002 Robert Wyatt documentary Free Will and Testament

Words take the place of meaning …

Coda: 

'You trip me up’ Jesus and Mary Chain (Psychocandy, Blanco y Negro Records, 1985) original/acoustic plus ‘My Girl’ cover & Spacemen 3 'Revolution'

With skin so Scottish pale it reflects the glare, it's hard to imagine the logic behind this video-shoot location on a sunny Portuguese beach other than it was meant to be a joke of some kind; as one person adds below the video, ‘The first time ever the band had seen the sun.’

This mix of a 60s pop-aesthetic and noise became standard the following decade, but when JAMC bubbled up onto the surface it was new, for some time. Check out this typically good feature from The Quietus Brown Acid Black Leather: the story of Jesus and Mary Chain’s Pyschocandy’ by Julian Marszalek, published in 2011.

Despite the overall serious tone of the interview, some of it is very funny. I like, for example, the image of JAMC rehearsing at the local community centre in East Kilbride, where the night before ‘old ladies played bingo’ or this quote from Jim Reid: ‘People would look out of their windows and see these skinny guys with sunglasses on pushing all this fucking stuff down the road. And we’d get there and argue for half an hour and then go home.’

Coda:

Released on Fire Records, 1988