Saturday, 17 July 2010


I have presumed to mark the moment of conception: I shall now commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden [At Lausanne]. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotion of joy on recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame”.

So wrote Edward Gibbon after completing his magnum opus "The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire". I kind of know how he feels. True, I haven’t toiled for the twelve years that it took Gibbon to produce his text, but it’s been over three and a half years since
I started this project, which is a good two and a half longer than I initially planned. And over the course of that time, what started as a labour of love has just become a labour.

But why stop now? After all, Gibbon was working to certain parameters with his tome; the Roman Empire rose, the Roman Empire fell and, having fell, Gibbon had a clear cut off point to put down his pen and get on with the washing. Clearly, 'Crazy' does not mark the 'end' of UK number ones; there was a 'next one' after it (it's Sandi Thom’s delightfully titled ‘I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)’if you're interested). Not only that, from my current vantage point in 2012, there are six years and counting of 'other' number ones waiting
in line for attention that isn't going to come. Not from me anyway.

So, why stop now? Well, let me explain; I was browsing the second hand vinyl in a charity shop (as I'm wont to do) the other day and I came across this
copy of David Bowie's 1972 'Starman' single in the box. Just seeing it there stopped me in my tracks. It only got to number ten in the charts so we haven't come across it on these pages, but there it was - orange RCA label, white/green RCA paper sleeve and 'Suffragette City' on the B-side. Two songs scratched into vinyl and sent out into the world to try its luck with the public, a perfect artefact from another era and an item of substance and meaning that would not look out of place hung behind glass. Which I guess is apt, seeing that it and its kind have become something of a museum piece. Give that copy of ‘Starman’ (or any other single) to your average clued up teen today and I've little doubt they wouldn’t know what to do with it.

And why should they - in a digital age of MP3 where Itunes and Spotify stream music straight down the phoneline, the thought of having two or three songs 'burned' onto a cumbersome plastic disc probably seems as ridiculous and cumbersome as the stack of eight 78rpm discs once needed to house Beethoven’s' 9th symphony at a time when the whole thing could be fitted onto two 33rpm discs. Or, as ridiculous and cumbersome as my own two disc box set of ‘Beethoven’s' 9th' (Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) would seem to anyone who has it on a single CD and can listen to it in one go without getting up to change any discs at all; give me convenience or give me death. Or better still, give me seven inches of vinyl.

You see, I've long thought that the 45” single was the best medium for music. Seven inches of plastic over which to make your definitive statement. Yes, people have made definitive statements over the course of an album too, but the extra space also encourages filler and patchiness - song one not up to scratch? Well song two might be, or song three. And so on. But a 45” single is a one shot at the title affair, a condensation of talent and conscious decisions that leads the artist to think that
this song is the best statement we can make. It doesn't always work out that way, but even with the most horrendous of singles, somebody somewhere must have thought that it had a decent shot at the title.

Growing up, singles weren’t exactly cheap. Buying 10 or 12 singles cost more than buying an album of 10 or 12 songs, but there was little risk involved - you heard the song on the radio (not YouTube or Itunes) and thought 'I like that'. True, some rich folk may have bought them on a whim, but I wasn't one of them; if I bought a single there was a reason behind it and the thought of owning a 45 I didn't 'like' was as bizarre as going out without your trousers. Buying the parent album
was a risk - the remainder of the songs were unheard and might be rubbish (and, as I’ve so often found out to my cost, most were), but you knew where you were with a single in your hand.

I can remember the first singles I bought ("Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and ‘I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper – one to be proud of, one not so), most people can, but how many can remember the
last one I wonder? I can. For me, it was Neneh Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance' and it was bought from the leftover vinyl bargain rack of a local supermarket long after the song had dropped out of the charts and contention. It wasn't consciously my last - I didn't come away thinking 'this is the last single I'm ever going to buy'. It just turned out that way. Local shops had slowly stopped stocking them in favour of CD singles anyway so they weren't that easy to come by anymore and besides, my tastes had moved away from the top twenty by that stage. Where mine and popular opinion did converge, I was by then working full time and had money enough to buy the album without worrying too much whether the bulk of it was up to scratch or not. So I guess that for all my railing, I myself played my own small part in their downfall.

Which in a roundabout way is my answer to the question ‘Why stop now?’ Well, in one way the decision wasn’t mine at all; it's called itself to a natural halt really. You see, my own idea of what a 'single' is has been obscuring like the hazy horizon on a summers days over the past decade or so that I’ve reviewed. Singles in their traditional form have become marginialised and acquired the status of artefact. You can still buy them, even in the today that I’m writing in, but to do so has almost become an act of bloody mindedness when you can download the same thing without even leaving your bed. It’s akin to making your own furniture instead of buying it flat packed from Ikea. Some handy people
do make their own furniture in the sprit of naturalness, but as George Orwell wrote “from the very start there is a touch of artificiality about the whole business, for the factories can turn out a far better table than I can make for myself. But even when I get to work on my table, it is not possible for me to feel towards it as the cabinet maker of a hundred years ago felt towards his table, still less as Robinson Crusoe felt toward his.

There’s no doubt about it, buying singles is now the exception rather than the norm that downloading has become; the days of the top twenty set out in a rack at your local record shop have long gone. CD singles came first of course, arguably the same thing (albeit on a single disc) but arguably completely different too. When did they gain dominance? I'm not sure, but I've noticed that since circa 1994, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a true square image of the single sleeve to accompany each review I've written. In the majority of cases, all I've been able to find are the slightly rectangular images indicative of the rectangular CD case they came in which, in my own bloody minded way, I've compressed into a square. It's not ideal (or factually true), but it was enough to keep the ruse going - even though I wasn't buying them, I could still imagine that rack of vinyl down at Woolworth’s with the latest releases all nestling there in their paper sleeves and waiting for me to call in and browse them.

That all changed with 'Crazy'. With a fact of popular that's surely going to become as widely ingrained into common knowledge as surely as ‘Flowers In The Rain’ was the first song played on Radio One’ or ‘Here In My Heart’ was the first UK number one, 'Crazy' managed to reach number one on the strength of downloads alone. Which means, to put it bluntly, not one physical copy changed hands in order for it to be the best selling song in the UK. And that bothers me. As much as I've embraced electronic media myself, there remains something special about the physical act of buying and owning music, especially the definitive statement of that one shot at the title single. And now it’s gone.

But the music is still there and people are still listening, so does it matter? Well yes it does. The sense of loss is troubling – it is to me anyway. I still own all the albums and singles I ever bought from pre-teen to present day and, apart from the music within the grooves, their physical presence stand as ‘exhibits’ in the museum of my life. If I turn the sleeve to my copy of AC/DC’s ‘If You Want Blood’ to the light, I can still read the History homework indented into the cardboard where I’d used it as a laptop desk to write on back in 1979. That ‘Starman’ disc I found has ‘Steve’ written on the label in ink – who was Steve? Did he buy this disc? Was he given it as a gift? Does he know it ended up in a charity shop box and would he care if he did? Who knows – my point here is that even in something so incongruous and low-key, there’s a small history of someone there just waiting to be uncovered.

It’s not just the covers either. My well-worn copy of ‘Atomic’ has two big clicks on the intro, making it unique, my own personal Christian Marclay remix. Imperfect in itself maybe, but no other copy can boast the same. And even though I’ve not played that actual single in over twenty, those clicks have become so ingrained that I’ve been conditioned into thinking this IS how Atomic is
supposed to sound and I mentally put them in place myself whenever I play my CD copy of ‘Eat To The Beat’, be it the 2001 ‘remastered’ version or the 2007 ‘Collectors Edition’ double disc set with DVD. Other examples abound, but you get the picture.

And not only that, in their own small way every piece of mass-produced vinyl I own has become personal to me and comes with its own associated memories. I can generally remember the shop I bought them from and the circumstance of why I bought it. You don't get that with downloads do you? You don't get the physical connection between you and the record, the needle and the groove, the personal touch or individuality. You don't get the hanging around the local record shop with your mates, the browsing through the racks, the reading the sleeves. (though on the plus side, there will be no more frustration courtesy of the disinterested shop girl's attempts to find the vinyl to go into the blank sleeve you offered to her. This might be nostalgic cliché, but it doesn’t mean it’s not fact. Because it is. All now it’s gone, like tears in the rain.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe people neither want nor miss it and clinging steadfastly to the ‘old ways’ is the domain of the same kind of 'special' person who dutifully pedals around on a penny-farthing rather than a light frame road bike. Or still listens to Beethoven’s Ninth over eight scratchy shellac discs on a wind up Gramophone. Or maybe I’ve just got old without knowing it. But whatever, I miss it. And though I may be a Luddite dreamer, I know I’m not the only one – as comedian Stewart Lee put it:
"…….tapes and records and things. And for the younger people, a record was like a massive flat MP3, and there was almost no information on it at all. It was very impractical, it could break or warp in the heat or get scratched. But it was better than your life."

Amen to that. But with ‘Crazy’ putting that final brass screw into the coffin lid of the seven-inch vinyl, it’s time to close the lid on this project too. The hits still keep on coming, and I'll still keep listening, but if they’re no longer in a format that will be browsable in a charity shop box some twenty years hence, then I’ll leave it to someone else to do the writing. My work here is done.

2006 Gnarls Barkley: Crazy

Unique insofar as it's the first number one to date to be crowned the best selling single in the UK on the strength of downloads alone, Gnarls Barkley are/were a readymade combination of noted producer Dangermouse and funk soul singer Cee Lo Green. The input of both pronounced and obvious; Dangermouse provides a sprung floor of a beat built on the shoulders of a moody Reverberi Brothers spaghetti Western sample* that in turn provides the wide open sky room for Green to float through with a loose limbed (check out the chuckle at 1:20) vocal of gravel and honey that tips a hat to both Al Green and Sam Cooke. Instantly likeable with an impressionistic lyric ("Even your emotions have an echo in so much space") you can take as meaning nothing or everything, 'Crazy' is a work of organic timelessness that manages to sound spontaneous yet controlled, experimental yet traditional all at the same time. And it does it all in less than three minutes to boot - 'Crazy' is exactly the kind of song that modern day naysayers and deniers believe 'they' don't write anymore, and it really is rather fine.

Friday, 16 July 2010

2006 Ne-Yo: So Sick

"You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs" sang Paul McCartney in 1976. And while by no means an 'answer' song (not that a question was being asked anyway), American R&B artist Ne-Yo (aka Shaffer Chimere Smith, Jr.) goes some way to addressing the point McCartney makes."Cause I'm so sick of love songs, so tired of tears. So done with wishing she was still here. Said I'm so sick of love songs so sad and slow. So why can't I turn off the radio?"; love then, or else its fond remembrance and loss at its absence is what keeps them coming. And on that score, 'So Sick' elevates itself above its own generic slowjam by virtue of a lyric of observational everyman hurt ("Gotta fix that calendar I have that's marked July 15th, because since there's no more you there's no more anniversary") and a vocal of genuine dark night of the soul fragility that, in a genre usually marinated in testosterone and battered by bump and grind, for once shows some respect by keeping its pants buttoned. As McCartney went on to argue "Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what's wrong with that?" - on the strength of 'So Sick', the answer Paul is 'nothing'. Absolutely nothing.

2006 Orson: No Tomorrow

It would be easy to tag Orson as the American Busted, though while that description gives an idea of the genre they operate in, there was always more bite and a foundation in the poppier end of American Hardcore about them than that (think Green Day or Blink 182). 'No Tomorrow' is a case in point, being a short, sharp slap of contemporary teen hedonism; that title isn't a Sex Pistols "No future" shout of despair but live for the moment call that would have done the Situationists proud. Built around a tight but loose latter period Stones riff (try 1989's 'Terrifying'). 'No Tomorrow's sugar rush gallop might be too much of the Pepsi Max generation for some tastes ("I have a girl who thinks I rock and tomorrow there's no school, so let's go drink some more Red Bull and not get home 'til about 6 'o clock"), but there's snap enough about the no flab racket to make it shine in a genre that, by 2006, was massively oversubscribed.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

2006 Chico: It's Chico Time

Well we've had Hammer Time, now 'It's Chico Time'. Who he? Yousseph 'Chico' Slimani was a (non winning) 2005 X Factor contestant drunk on self confidence and the splendour of his own personality with a debut single that's the crudest slice of self promotion since 'Mr Blobby'. And like 'Mr Blobby', 'It's Chico Time' comes shat straight and fun free from the arse end of a pantomime horse onto the platter of a coprophilic public eager to tuck into the latest course of bad light entertainment, this time a platter whisked into a poppy froth by the whirring hyperactivity of a thirty four year old adult whose behaviour in any other context would see him branded a right twat. And rightly so.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

2006 Madonna: Sorry

Following the back to the clubs basics of 'Hung Up', 'Sorry' sets up a permanent base camp there with a pumping jog of a tune that pulls off the trick of sounding comfortably retro yet edgily contemporary. 'Sorry' has the confidence born of restraint and, sans the distraction of an attention diverting sample (though keen ears may pick out the bassline from The Jacksons' 'Can You Feel It' buried in there), is content to throb like a busy vein under the power of it's own sensuous pulse as Madonna lays down the law to a would be suitor ("I don't wanna hear, I don't wanna know. Please don't say you're sorry, I've heard it all before"). And by not trying to be ahead of the game, Madonna ends up leading the pack anyway - this is what Madonna does best, always has been, always will be.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

2006 Meck featuring Leo Sayer: Thunder In My Heart Again

I don't think Leo Sayer was on too many minds in 2006. Not mine anyway, and it was with no small degree of incredulity that I found out he was back at number one that year (made all the more incredulous by being 'told' this by Tony Blackburn on the radio. Just for a second, time was out of joint and it felt like I'd slipped through a wormhole back to the seventies). Not with a new song mind - 'Thunder In My Heart Again' is a dance remix of Sayer's 1977 single 'Thunder In My Heart', and while this doesn't sound the most engaging of propositions on paper, it works Godammit! Sayer's vein bulging vocal always sat ill at ease within the polite, tacky mirrorball disco setting of the original where it seethed like a captured lion pacing up and down its cage. Meck's remix opens up the door to let Sayer out by blowing apart its low end glamour and reassembling it in a widescreen cinemascope that gives Sayer the room to roar like a man who's seen the sun for the first time in thirty years. It's not enough to fully exorcise the whiff of cheese that's part and parcel of Leo Sayer per se (it'll take more than this to rid my mind of 'You Make Me Feel Like Dancing' anyway), but it's more than enough to curb its worst excesses and make him sound relevant. Or at least as relevant as he's ever going to be.