Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (1982)

Warner Bros. Records ■ 23696-1

Released October 29, 1982

Engineered by Roger Nichols (Chief), Daniel Lazerus (Overdubs)
Assistant Engineering by Wayne Yurgelun, Mike Morongell, Cheryl Smith, Robin Lane
Mastered by Bob Ludwig

“Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I.G.Y.
  2. Green Flower Street
  3. Ruby Baby
  4. Maxine
  1. New Frontier
  2. The Nightfly
  3. The Goodbye Look
  4. Walk Between Raindrops

While I definitively eschew any such categorizations as best I possibly can, I remain fascinated with the lines that are drawn around any work or artist to render it “untouchable” by certain groups. A work or an artist may be unmentionable to fit comfortably under the umbrella of “serious music fan” or “metalhead” or any of the other myriad communities associated with music–some very carefully defined, and others so loose as to be questionably meaningful. I like a lot of artists that cross those lines quite heavily–the first albums I ever owned mystify people to this day, and the first mix-tape I ever had made for me (by my father, partly from my requests, and partly from his own insertions) was a slew of Dr. Demento tracks from various decades and styles (“The Martian Hop”, “The Cockroach That ate Cincinnatti”, etc) mixed with Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Cherokee Nation”), the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”, “Mother in Law”, “Yakety Yak”), Tommy James and the Shondells (“Crimson & Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), and a few odd other tracks I’ll occasionally recall out of the blue.

For a time in and around middle school, my taste remained confined by the distance I kept from my father’s turntable and thus the questionable volume of music available to someone who didn’t look to spend limited allowance-type funds on it. The local library had its share of odds and ends, and I checked some out from them here and there, but two in particular ended up sticking with me for quite a while, as my non-existent owned music meant whatever I had checked out was what I was listening to, short of hitting the radio. Those two albums were–bear with me now, and feel free to look back at other albums I reviewed (and thus own) and drop jaws or shake heads as needed–Billy Joel’s Storm Front and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad. These (and the few albums I would gradually purchase) were strangely important: listening to the same songs from each over and over would have been tiresome with the limited (and tedious) programming capabilities of my cheap (discman-style!) CD player at the time, so I ended up listening to both albums straight through many times.
In some circles, it’s probably desirable to disavow my love for Storm Front, but that tends to be unsurprising to anyone who has spoken with even mildly devoted music people (though there are, of course, always exceptions). Kamakiriad fascinates me that much more: Fagen is of course best known for his work with his primary band, that which is defined by co-conspirator Walter Becker–Steely Dan. There are ripples of discontent surrounding the group, even amongst more serious music people, whether it be for the “appropriation” of jazz, the purported sterility of carefully expert and tight production and recordings, or even the “flaccid/soft rock” sensibility many have regarding them (including, if memory serves, George Carlin ¹). It’s strange, really–the band was named for a dildo (!) in the writings of William S. Burroughs (!!), and the lyrics are notoriously clever (maybe even obnoxiously so), often sardonic or dark. Sure–the music tends to be pretty relaxed and “smooth”, and the performances and recordings are absurdly tight, but the criticism does not easily bear out.
The Nightfly was purchased some years ago, unquestionably, because of my love for Kamakiriad. I had never heard it before, and may or may not have heard any of the songs that were released to radio (and later repeated on “classic rock” stations), and it was only $3 anyway. I listened to it once or twice at the time, but didn’t run out into the streets proselytizing. It wasn’t until it was repackaged (with Kamakiriad, and the much later Morph the Cat) as The Nightfly Trilogy that I stood up and took notice. Then, I had lovingly packaged (CD) versions of each album (in some of my favourite packaging ever) and time and ease to get to know each.
It was because of that time that revisiting this album like I did was both a familiar comfort and a pleasure.
The first thing I ever recognized about the album is how appropriate it is for certain environmental conditions: the first light, chiming tones of “I.G.Y.” (clarified on the inner sleeve as “International Geophysical Year” cannot ever seem to sound as right as they do in a comfortable, dark room. Sitting, alone, together, reclined–it doesn’t matter, it just sets the tone clearly, with a lovely synthetic intro where a backing bed of rising and falling cascading notes sits behind more definitive notes that seem to spike upward from an otherwise smooth surface. It turns to a swinging beat, horns enter, and it becomes a ridiculously catchy tune, marrying Fagen’s voice to a chorus of female backing singers in a wistful, nostalgic chorus. The track is fascinating aurally: it’s perfectly balanced in pitches and tones, yet seems to keep to a narrow range somehow. It’s the ideal energy for the tone of the track–defining the tone of the album as a whole. The fabled pin-point accuracy of both men who lead Steely Dan is apparent–even the parts that aren’t electronic sound as if they could be, but they hold the right warmth and variability that marks them as physically present acoustic instruments.
I always imagine (wrongly) that “Green Flower Street” was one of the album’s singles (instead, “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontiers” hold that honour), and feel that I can be forgiven this–keys tug at the song as hi-hat marks the time to keep it going. Bass dances along the back ground as keys phase and warp from channel to channel, and lightly played, muted guitar notes jump back and forth the same way. The guitar and keys are somewhat odd, a bit cut off, approaching staccato (readily meeting it in the case of the guitar part), acting as the primary hook and melody, but leaving so much space and riding so heavily on repetition that the restless movement of the bass pulls that old trick of really moving the song’s melodic progressions, but does it without being at all obvious. A rather tasty guitar lead is met with the snarled and curly notes of a brief key lead that is reminiscent of the kind of work I personally love in earlier Prince material–dense and funky, wrapped tightly around itself. Dig that sudden exclamation point ending, too.
I’m prone to unnecessary elaboration for sure, but it’s actually quite appropriate that I brought up the Coasters earlier–many of their hits were the writing work of Leiber and Stoller, who also wrote the only cover on this album: “Ruby Baby”. While the note on the inner sleeve points toward reminiscing (as does the cover), Fagen molds the classic hit into his own style, unquestionably, arranging it into more instrumental and drifting, electronic-leaning sound the album runs on, while maintaining the flavour of the original Drifters recording. It becomes extended, playing with improvisational (if probably pre-determined) instrumental stretches, and handclaps and crowd noises that are subtle enough that, on casual listen, they just feed the feeling of the track’s placement as drawn from a time closer to the exclusively live domain of music, rather than seeming like an intended faux-live recording.
Side one closes with “Maxine”, which drops the drum beat to a steady 3/4, warm and slow like I would immediately imagine from many a late night radio would play. It’s relaxed in an album that is innately relaxed, using keys that sound more like known keyboard-based instruments. It’s the breeziest track by far, though it is actually the third shortest, oddly enough.
“New Frontier” was an excellent choice for a single, no question. Reverberating as if underwater, keys thoughtfully and dreamily establish something of the melody, while an electronic beat bounces out cheerfully. Harmonica seems bizarrely out of place–but only if you stop and think: integrated into the whole, it somehow functions. The keyboard lines that introduce the chorus have an excellently suspicious quality about them, as if something is not quite right here, though everything remains as cheerful and enjoyable as they were when they began. That bouncing electronic beat is fascinating: it runs straight through the track, but is lost, almost ignored, as if it’s being followed entirely by accident rather than design. Double-tracking the chorus vocals is a clever touch, and puts just the right kind of tonal “oomph” onto them, to bring them above Fagen’s normally easy tones.

The title track embraces the image on the cover fully, as Fagen takes on the role of “Lester the Nightfly”, WJAZ DJ and host in Baton Rouge. He’s an amalgamation of Fagen’s remembered late night DJs, taking conspiracy calls, talking of his own life, and playing classic jazz tunes–indeed, he describes the show as “with jazz and conversation, from the foot of Mount Belzoni, sweet music, tonight the night is mine, late night ’til the sun comes through the skyline”. Semi-spoken verses are from Lester’s point of view, over steady cowbells and heavily played key chords, that have just enough spin on them to take on a bit of a funky hook. Female vocalists emulate the station’s call sign interstitial, sweet and clear, with a catchy emphasis on rhythm, jumping up and down in pitch sharply, but cleanly. The drums drive the trick in that same background fashion way, but hold themselves more apparent.

“The Goodbye Look” seems slightly out of place as the penultimate track–combined with its predecessor, it might even have turned into a sort of strange conceptual album (as opposed to a thematic one), suggesting the “goodbye look” given to a DJ as a signal that their time is shortly up–whether literal or just for effect. It’s actually a sort of paranoid tale of hiding away on an island instead, with a mention of steel drums that comes through in the unusual choice of synthesized sounds that resemble steel drums, later met with the sound of more distinctly synthesized steel drums, which is a peculiar union to be sure. The relaxed pace of the verses is hurried at its end until the staccato vocalizations of the chorus, which is where the most steel drum-like sounds appear, offsetting that sudden rush of terseness in an interesting way.

Instead, the album closes with “Walk Between Raindrops”, which rides organ-styled keyboards and walking bass through a pretty rapid and upbeat tune, somewhat unexpected after the relaxation of the midsection of side two, especially at the end of the album. It’s a bit slight and peculiar in this place, especially at its call out of Miami (!) that is followed by a smoothed out organ solo. It fits in its way of course–it’s an original song companion to the cover of “Ruby Baby”, recalling the kind of pop tracks that Fagen would’ve enjoyed in his childhood, rather than the actual cover of or reference to them.

The Nightfly‘s rather odd legacy is that of an album that has been used over the years as a test of sound systems thanks to its ultra-clear, clean production and playing. Certainly, this adds a lot of credence to the declaration that Fagen’s music is somewhat sterile, as achieving the status of ideal “index” recording to test a system–a demonstration disc, even.

While a laudable achievement, there’s something else to be said, in that all the subjective assessments of things like emotional content or flavour are difficult to render so complete and definitive: there’s unquestionably emotional content here, it’s just displayed less in the spontaneous burst of unrehearsed or knowingly loose playing, and more in the choice of tones, playstyles, genres, sounds, and all of the other detailed components used to construct it. Maybe it is a more “mechanical” assembly, but that doesn’t preclude creativity or emotion–it simply leaves it with pre-defined places to be assigned and then experienced. Any of that would be theoretical, were it not for this album, which most definitely confirms any of those thoughts has its place in reality: the album’s feel and sound are very engaging on even an emotional level, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the way Fagen puts music together.

¹This is a companion to Bill Hicks’ dismissal of a Judas Priest fan as a “future gas station attendant”–in context, it’s necessary for the joke (which is part of a much larger bit), but is vaguely dumbfounding in the context of a man who was also responsible for saying, “Let’s say that rock and roll is the devil’s music…at least he fuckin’ jams.” Someone who appreciates things that “rock” casually dismissing Priest seems to be drawing pretty arbitrary lines to me. Not that appreciation is necessitated, but–ah, well.

Echo and the Bunnymen – Crocodiles [US Release] (1980)

Sire/Korova Records ■ SRK 6096

Released July 18, 1980

Produced by The Chameleons (Bill Drummond, David Balfie) and Ian Broudie (Tracks A4, B1)
Engineered by Hugh Jones and Rod Houison (Tracks A4, B1)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Going Up
  2. Do It Clean¹
  3. Stars Are Stars
  4. Pride
  5. Monkeys
  6. Crocodiles
  1. Rescue
  2. Villiers Terrace
  3. Read It in Books¹
  4. Pictures on My Wall
  5. All That Jazz
  6. Happy Death Men
¹Not present on original UK release, but included on a bonus 7″ with early pressings
While Paul Westerberg’s strange “side solo act thing” Grandpaboy is still echoing through my head at the moment, a mild spur toward writing here has convinced me to take up the reins and launch in again, after a good many weeks of just not feeling it and not wanting to half-ass it instead. Of course, that kind of approach can occasionally work, but this is intended to be a joyful thing, not a chore, and everyone I know wasn’t even keeping up after I started slipping more toward weekly entries, so it isn’t as if I’ve left a relative gap for anyone paying attention (PS: if I have, you should probably tell me. If someone else is interested, there’s far more reason to stick to doing this more regularly!)

When I think of post-punk, my first thought is still pretty consistently of Gang of Four. It’s not fair, of course: one of the things I even like most myself is the insane variance of styles and approaches bands that appeals to me most about the genre (and its sometime-close relative, post-hardcore). Echo & the Bunnymen kind of exemplify one of the far bounds of what I think of–mostly because they aren’t a sound I think of at all. Much like The Boomtown Rats or the Talking Heads and punk,¹ I’m aware of the classification and even the justifications, but I think of them more as popular, familiar, readily grasp-able bands. Mainstream or pop, even–not in that bizarre, disparaging sense most use those terms in now, just in the sense of more familiar instrumentation and song-writing, even if with a clear identity. I can’t pin down what it is that makes my brain draw the lines where it does, except perhaps to say that here I think it’s the dominance of Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s voice, particularly over Will Sergeant’s guitar, but that’s just a guess, as it’s an instinctive thing.

As I think is probably increasingly common, my first (knowing) exposure to Echo and the Bunnymen was in 2002 (I suppose that won’t be increasingly common, for obvious temporal reasons) when I watched Donnie Darko, which quickly became my (still uncontested, for reasons that don’t belong here, as we’re talking about music, not movies) favourite movie. The theatrical cut² of the film opens with Echo’s “The Killing Moon”, which appeared on the later album Ocean Rain (the other I have on vinyl by true coincidence–I don’t see Porcupine or Heaven Up Here often, and the self-titled album is distinctly disparaged, so it was simply the other I ran into, not one pursued).

I’d actually already heard Echo in a similar but relatively peculiar context: released as a soundtrack the same month as their then final (if you will) album, the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lost Boys contained their cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”. I first saw the film with young eyes and didn’t quite catch on to the variance in sound it had from the original track, which I also heard plenty of at a young age. Maybe it was the appropriate placement of a non-goth but goth-esque³ band with a movie reveling in both goofy camp and darker violent moments, rendering it too appropriate to stand out from its predecessor.

I began slowly collecting Echo albums two years ago, beginning with the 2003 expanded CD of this very album, and culminating with the comparable releases of Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. I was in the throes of my fascination with post-punk and earlier post-hardcore, so it only made sense. It did mean that an absolute torrential influx of music into my library prevented a lot of it from fully penetrating, but I got a feel for the sound of Echo, nebulous though it was.

“Going Up” is appropriate as an opener for the way it slowly winds its way into play, Pete De Freitas pushing it forward until Sergeant jams down a chiming set of chords that drop the band right in your lap. Les Pattinson’s bass is the one element that keeps itself even throughout both the opening rise and the splashing constancy of the song as it follows. One of my favourite moments on the entire album comes just after the midpoint of the song, Pattinson continuing on as Mac’s voice fades, Pete holding a steady beat, and Sergeant layering a coiled non-solo lead over an occasional spark of clean, clear individual strings. Mac’s voice occasionally wobbles back in and out almost unintelligibly until the song fades on this curious and unexpected twist of sound.

The next track on my copy was not on the original UK release (surprise, surprise…) and was most uniformly (non-limited-type) released as a b-side to the non-album single “The Puppet”, and I continue to be baffled at it not having been released as an independent single. “Do It Clean” is a charging song, Pete riding a hiss of cymbal over Pattinson’s climbing bass until producer Balfie drops an almost Steve Nieve-y key riff in to smash the song in. As he fades, Mac takes the song over, throwing in what is, no doubt, the catchiest chorus on the record (even if it wasn’t on the original record!). It’s a rush with a throbbing bass and a nice, fast drumbeat. I guess, though, the band eventually agreed–apparently the song is wildly popular now, and was even (in live form) b-side to “The Killing Moon”, which I’ve always understood was a rather successful single, independent of its usage in (a few, actually) movies.

“Stars Are Stars” drops the pace and tone down a fair bit–for all that there’s a downward curl (mixed with a sort of sneer) to Mac’s voice even in the uptempo “Do It Clean”, this is even more miserable, in its way. It’s something like an amped up version of the most morose moments from Robert Smith, slower for Echo, but still fast for its mood. Sergeant inserts a solo that’s simultaneously knowingly simplistic and acutely unnerving at each note, repeated a second time and seeming to instrumentally echo (ahem) the words and sounds of Mac that precede and surround it. Pete’s enthusiastic drumming, particular, a periodic, bass-heavy fill are what keeps the song moving.

There are hints of that Andy Gill-style jerky, angular, strike of guitar in Will’s opening moments of “Pride”, but they are smoothed and curved back in filter by the time of the verse. Momentary interruptions of a xylophonic instrument and the crash of that sharpened intro as chorus fill out the song’s sound and identity, one that’s primarily defined by those rounded edges on the guitar, murky like the water of a lake, but still clear enough to keep on.

There’s something of the early U2 sound (slightly pre-dating, but largely contemporaneous) in “Monkeys”, a moody, contemplative rumble with flights of wiggly, springy guitar. Les’s bass is the controlling force, though, except at the chorus, where Sergeant’s reverberating squiggles become clean, sharp, and straightened points of melodic focus. It’s perhaps the most recognizably “post-punk” of tracks on the album, and that’s a very good thing.

The title track is probably the closest match the original running order had to the energy of later insertion “Do It Clean”: Pete’s drumming and Les’s bass are both at their most frenetic, even when Mac’s voice drops along with the song, for a booming moment of low-end groove–which fascinatingly ends on a sudden chime at a bright and high pitch. But Les and De Freitas won’t let the song relax long, and shove it back into overdrive, letting Will’s lead moment turn to a rapid struggle of furious riffing on adjacent chords, turning to a broken record of jagged peaks of muted chords.

While extra songs were inserted, the running order is actually mostly intact–much like the original, the US Crocodiles opens the second side with the single “Rescue”, which was released before the album initially. Not riding the intense energy of a “Do It Clean” or a “Crocodiles”, it’s still a noticeably pop-inflected song, and an unsurprising choice for single. The high-point-low-point alternation of Will’s guitar is emblematic of much of the post-punk-y hits of the 1980s, nudging even at the edges of its cousin indie-rock and the more moody work of the Smiths when at its chorus, though De Freitas acts far more as a rock drummer in his force than Mike Joyce would–a natural difference in musical styles, but a noticeable one.

“Villiers Terrace” is unquestionably my favourite Echo track, bar none. I may not be alone in this, as the most extensive fan site out there shares the name. “I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/To see what’s happenin'”, goes the chorus, and it’s catchy as all hell, yet distinctly ominous and shaky–Mac’s description encourages that feeling, though, as he continues: “There’s people rolling round on the carpet/Mixing up the medicine/[…]/Biting wool and pulling string…” David Balfie’s quiet return on piano perfectly enhances the weird, discomforting and hallucinatory, semi-horrifying observational feeling of the song, with a prettily rising but somewhat off riff. The song pulses and grooves, but is spiked with those incredulous descriptions.

Sonically, “Pictures on My Wall” is a very appropriate follow-up to “Villiers Terrace”. The intro is the still-hot but low-burning embers of that fire, bellowed up to steady, even flames by the verse, crashed into a thunderous bolt at the end of the chorus, droning keys stretching out behind it. Pete peddles mightily behind it, pounding up the snare to an all-ride hiss that breaks with a round-trip fill. It would be a somewhat spooky trip through a decaying, darkened hallway (lined, of course, with old pictures) if not for Pete and Les, who give it too much motion to be completely mired in spookiness, without completely interrupting that moody darkness.

Somewhat appropriately, the wide-release of “Read It in Books” was as the b-side to “Pictures on My Wall”, which means its placement here is perfectly logical. It’s a continuation of the subdued tempos and tones (but not moods) the previous tracks have started to establish, too. While there’s power and force in the song from the rhythm section, it never really gives the track the kind of oomph that would render it something beyond moody and darkened. Mac’s voice seems to be at its most unrestrained, even when it is low, quiet and breathy.

Stompingly rhythmic, “All That Jazz” is another nudge toward that Gang of Four-type aural aesthetic, the rhythm section carrying much of the song’s groove while Sergeant’s guitars strike across the top of it. It isn’t, of course, some kind of rip on the (semi?)famous Leeds band: a late break in the song for a melodic low end ripple over a pounding patter of percussion is unusual and unique in sound, especially as the rest of the song crashes back in on top of it, shoving the entire track and the album back to a kind of energetic peak that stops suddenly when the track ends, bringing us to the final track and a more wandering, experimental feel.

“Happy Death Men” is oddly appropriate for its odd title. It seems to wander in in a daze, sprinkling random key sounds across its length. Mac’s emphatically punctuated repetition of the title in the chorus is oddly endearing and also just odd, considering the words. At something like the first third’s end, his voice leaves the instruments behind, as they seem to jam or otherwise experiment, until a horn section (!) suddenly appears, repeating the slight melody and particularly rhythm of Mac’s vocal chorus. When his own voice returns, the song takes yet another turn toward the meanderings it saw just moments before, once again punctuated by those horns, but now joined by Mac’s voice. Pete gallops off toward the end of the song aggressively, wildly–Will lets loose a furious wail of sharpened, passionate soloing, the horns find tentative footing, and everything crashes and wanders off into a slow fade.

I feel as though I wandered into an awful lot of comparison here, but it is for me (as with most people) one of the easiest methods of describing musical sounds–language alone can only get one so far before the limitations of subjective description begin to interfere and cause a kind of divergence in perception. Still, it implies a kind of “secondary” status for the band, which is undeserved–comparisons should largely not be treated in that way anyway, but instead for the reason I at least intended above: familiarity via parallel.

The cover of Crocodiles is actually quite interesting, and I cannot leave without commenting to that effect: the boys are standing, leaning, and sitting in various less-than-happy ways (and, in Mac’s case, rather bewildered or shocked) in a forest in Hertfordshire, but one that is rendered bizarre, artificial-looking and even vaguely psychedelic in its forced, colourful lighting⁴. It’s a pretty striking image–I don’t know if I could call it evocative with regard to the music, but it is at least peculiar and darkened enough to suggest the unusual tones and bleak tones of the album. Credit goes to one Brian Griffin, who certainly deserves just that.

¹I’m of the mind that both left the genre pretty rapidly and wandered into entirely different territory, but the first album from each feels pretty firmly punk-y.

²The director’s cut version restores INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to this place, which has a uniquely appropriate lyrical moment as it’s edited. I think it angers some people because of INXS’s obviously more popular (and more “pop”, often in that aforementioned disparaging sense) nature, and thus severely deprecated “cred”. Whatever. But then, I own an awful lot of INXS records.

³Mac’s lyrics and his vocals would not be too out of place in those circles, at the very least, and the dripping, downward crawl of that song (and the especially warbly sound of Will’s guitar, too) only enhanced this.

⁴Reminiscent, I feel, of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories

Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Written by guest editor, John Edge.

Sire Records ■ SRK 6093

Released in February, 1981

Produced by Brian Eno and David Byrne
Engineered by Neal Teeman, Eddie Kervin, Dave Jerden, Stacy Baird, and John Potoker
Mastered by Greg Calbi
Side One: Side Two:

  1. American is Waiting
  2. Mea Culpa
  3. Regiment
  4. Help Me Somebody
  5. The Jezebel Spirit

  1. Qu’ran
  2. Moonlight in Glory
  3. The Carrier
  4. A Secret Life
  5. Come With Us
  6. Mountain of Needles

Side One:

    1. Unidentified indignant radio host, San Francisco, April 1980.
    2. Inflamed caller and smooth politician replying, both unidentified. Radio call-in show, New York City, July 1979.
    3. Dunya Yusin, Lebanese mountain singer. (From ‘The Human Voice in the World of Islam’, Tangent Records TGS 131).
    4. Reverend Paul Morton, broadcast sermon, New Orleans, June 1980.
    5. Unidentified exorcist, New York City, September, 1980.
Side Two:
    1. Algerian Muslims chanting the Qu’ran. (Same source as 3).
    2. The Moving Star Hall Singers, Sea Islands, Georgia (from ‘The Moving Star Hall Singers’ Folkways FS 3841).
    3. Dunya Yusin (See 3).
    4. Samira Tewfik, Egyptian popular singer (from ‘Les Plus Grandes Artistes du Monde Arabe’ EMI Records.)
    5. Unidentified radio evangelist, San Francisco, April 1980.

Hey, everybody!  I made it back.  Didn’t drink too much scotch (mixed it up with a little gin, a Fitzgerald cocktail, to be exact).

Anyway, you may have noticed a bit more information up there than is the usual.  That’s because this album is a bit different from most (rock, at least) records.  All of the vocal sounds (I dare not say vocals) are sampled from various sources.  At the time of its release, this was a radical move and, in retrospect, was a pioneering one.  This makes for an interesting contrast to my Flipper review, where the lyrics were on the spot.  My Life has no real lyrics to speak of.  In fact, nearly half of the songs (Regiment, Qu’ran, The Carrier, and A Secret Life) are in Arabic1.  Some that are in English (Mea Culpa in particular) are so heavily edited and modified, that they may as well be in a foreign language.  But, this is a record where the voices are part of the music, rather than cutting through it or floating above it.  The spoken parts add to the mix of instruments (and quite a mix it was, Help Me Somebody featured 14 different instruments allotted their own tracks in the mix) and sustain or even lead the rhythm of the tracks.

A little background on this particular grouping/project might be in order (for those of you philistines who don’t know this stuff).  Talking Heads (of which David Byrne was the singer/guitarist/songwriter) had by 1980 developed a strong working relationship with Ambient musician and producer (ambient or active, I’m unaware) Brian Eno.  Under Eno’s watchful gaze Talking Heads would craft some of their strongest (by many estimates, mine included) albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light.  In collaborating on this album at this particular time in either of their careers, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts successfully melds the African beats and unusual instrumental selection of Talking Heads with Brian Eno’s trancy and textural, rather than strictly melodic, work.  The songs are not necessarily divided into strict sections of verse, chorus, middle eight and so forth.  The structures are droning and repetitive, eliciting a sense of tribal chanting and drumming, more than Western pop music.

Perhaps the most representative of this chanting quality (to my ears, and I’m the reviewer, so I get to make those calls) is the track Qu’ran2.  The track samples Muslims chanting the (you guessed it) Qu’ran set to a rollicking rhythmic backing with synths carrying a buzzing melody almost in the background.  The droning rhythms and jagged synth backing combined with the almost mechanical vocal sounds leave the listener alternately feeling lulled and having the urge to move to the persistent beats.  As Eno stated was the nature of Ambient music, the listener can tune in and groove, or leave the music as a pleasant background noise, completely ignoring it.  I imagine listeners around a fire, coming and going as they please, tending to their business, while Byrne and Eno beat out these strange sounds from electronic djembes, talking drums, and keberoes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few ‘normal’ (whatever that means) songs on the album.  The most notable being Help Me Somebody, which David Byrne actually plays live.  Interestingly, I saw him in 2009, where he made mention of the fact that literally singing the words was somewhat strange, due to the fact that they were originally sampled.  Unlike many of the other tracks, the words in this one are in English and readily understood, functioning almost like lyrics.  In addition to that, the song follows slightly more closely to a traditional pop song format, featuring lyrical and instrumental sections that could conceivably be thought of as verses, choruses, and even a middle eight (or bridge, for you uncultured folks out there).

Even still, the song presents a strange format and even stranger (and extensive) instrumentation.  A few years back, digital copies of the master tapes were released on the Web, providing an interesting view into the creative process.  One of the first things that lept out at me was the fact that all of the instrumentation was recorded more or less as a sound loop.  Therefore, all of the structure of the song was decided on in the editing process.  Instruments could be raised or lowered (or cut, for that matter) in the mix to control where a guitar began playing, the bass dropped out, or a drum beat cut through the mix.  This sort of recording method is novel to rock music (at least, I think we would still call this ‘rock’) and is more in line with electronic music or musique concrète, where form, structure, and melody are all manipulated in the editing room, rather than during a live performance, as is typical with most music (of any form, really.)

Unlike my last review, I won’t go in depth on all of the tracks of the album.  In many ways it doesn’t readily lend itself to that in the same way that other, song focused albums do.  Instead, the best way to take this album in is as a whole, rather than eleven parts.  The ambient melodies, droning rhythms, chanted and manipulated vocal sounds, and insistent, tribal beats all mesh together to create something that is much more than the sum of its parts.  In hindsight, writing about the album is also an exercise in futility.  The music itself is frequently without (discernible) words itself, so how could words convey the feeling in the music?  Rather than reading and writing about the music, it should be set in the background, played around a bonfire, embers and ashes wafting through the air, as a storyteller regales the audience (maybe they are intently listening to the music, maybe to the storyteller; perhaps they are staring into the fire in a world of their own), and the gathered group comes, goes, and shifts about as the rhythms play in droning loop, lulling everyone into a sense of calm or urging them to dance.

So, what are you waiting for?  Go listen to the damned album, already!

1. Perhaps someone who is a native Arabic speaker may find these tracks to have lyrics of sorts.  Though, the comments I’ve seen indicate that various Arabic speaking friends who’ve been asked about the album refer to it as “Devil music”.  So maybe they just sound like Judas Priest to them.
2. For better or worse, Qu’ran was deleted from later pressings of the album and substituted with the track Very Very Hungry by request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain because of the previous selection’s use of Qu’ranic chanting samples.  Don’t get too worked up though, Eno and Byrne complied willingly.  In their own words, they were trying to make good music, not piss people off.   

Day Whatever – Flipper, Album Generic Flipper

Written by guest editor, John Edge.
Subterranean Records ■ SUB 25

Released in April, 1982

Produced by Gary Krimon

Side One: Side Two:

  1. “Ever” (Loose) – 2:56
  2. “Life Is Cheap” (Loose) – 3:55
  3. “Shed No Tears” (Shatter) – 4:26
  4. “(I Saw You) Shine” (Shatter) – 8:31

  1. “The Way of the World” (Shatter) – 4:23
  2.  “Life” (Shatter) – 4:44
  3. “Nothing” (Loose) – 2:18
  4. “Living for the Depression” (Ant/Loose) – 1:23
  5. “Sex Bomb” (Shatter) – 7:48

Or perhaps the album title is Album and the band name is Generic Flipper.  Who cares?

Anyway, RC roped me into writing these dopey record reviews which I really don’t have time for.  I’ve got a full time job, a kid, and all kinds of other shit begging for my time.  But whatever, I’ve had a particularly hard day at work and have about five brain cells to work on, so now’s the perfect time to write a review. 

This is one of those great punk albums I really cut my teeth on as a teenager.  The sludginess, the depressing/uplifting lyrics, the general us vs them attitude all made me think I wasn’t the only one who thought and felt that way.  Seem cliche?  Give me a break, we were all teenagers once and I was a damn good one.  Anyway, this album still stands lyrically as the closest to my personal worldview as any other I’ve ever heard in the intervening years.  

A little background on Flipper (the band, not the insufferable show): In the early eighties, punk rock bands and especially the offshoot hardcore groups were ratcheting up tempos and honing their sound to razor sharp clarity and tonality, Flipper hazily veered off in the complete opposite direction.  Their sound is mired in a drug fueled stupor. Flipper’s songs take the breakneck hardcore of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat and slow it to a slug’s pace.  Maybe they loved Sabbath?  Maybe they were just not good enough to play fast?  Or maybe they were just the perfect foil to Minor Threat: slow, sludgy, long songs, gleefully drunk and fucked up on all sorts of chemical entertainments.  They have two bassists.  That’s all you really need to know.  

Album represents the first LP offering scattered among various single releases, a sophmore studio album and two live albums before the untimely death of co-songwriter, co-bassist, and cocopuffs-singer Will Shatter of a drug overdose in 1987.  Unlike my usual M.O., one of my favorite things about this album is the lyrics.  Not that they are particularly nice or poetic, but their general tone veers from the pessimistic and depressive (Ever, Shed No Tears) to the (almost) bright and life affirming (Life) and the outright defiant (Living for the Depression) but also with a great dry sense of humor (do I really need another example in parentheses?)  The lyrics represent a wonderfully nuanced view of the world that was realistic and grey while still acknowledging that, as we’re all alive and in this world, we may as well make the most of it, right?  

The album starts with screeching feedback that quickly plunges into a rumbling, jaunty drum and bass led groove.  Perhaps ‘groove’ sounds too funky.  Think of it as a punk groove, down and dirty, rhythmic and repetitive, sloppy and uncoordinated.  Yet it all hangs together.  “Ever” asks the listener if they’ve “ever lived a life that’s real/full of zest and no appeal”.  Bruce Loose/Lose or Will Shatter or whoever paint life as a depressing set of contradictions (“ever wished the human race didn’t exist/then realize, you’re one too) and then nullify everything in the end (“have you ever? I have. So what?”)  It’s exactly this combination of barely controlled musical calamity and raw, yet flippant, lyrics that make Album (and Flipper) so appealing.  

Life is Cheap brings the lyrical tone down even further (“life is pretty cheap/it’s sold a decade at a time) while paradoxically cleaning up the sound somewhat (very somewhat).  Then, Shed No Tears kicks in with a similar feedback blast to Ever, leading one to believe more of the same is coming about.  However, the lyrics of Shed no Tears highlight one of the more interesting (and somewhat unusual for punk) positive facets of Flipper’s outlook.  Sure, singing things like, “shed no tears for the martyr dying/only in pain, suffering, and death/can the martyr become what he’s chosen to be” doesn’t necessarily come off as being too happy (well, maybe it depends on your personality), but in some ways it makes perfect sense.  Not every sad thing is necessarily so terrible when you think about it.  A martyr fulfills their role by suffering, despots being murdered frees their subjects (ok, it’s cops and prisoners in the song, gimme a break), a suicide frees a depressive from a cruel world.  Sometimes awful things fulfill a great purpose in life.  Or some shit like that.

(I Saw You) Shine (with random parentheses) somehow manages to slow things down a bit more before dying out at the end of side 1.  The record reaches funeral dirge like levels of speed.  Yet, despite the (lack of) tempo, the track still manages to find a groove and lock it in.  Perhaps this is one of the great triumphs of Flipper: the music sounds so sloppy you wonder if they even rehearsed beforehand.  Yet, the grooves stay so grounded it’s impossible that Will Shatter flopped out a beer-soaked bed and grabbed a bass before the engineer hit record.  

Ted Falconi… maybe.  

Which brings me to another great thing about Flipper.  Much like Gang of Four (who I imagine to be a powerful influence) but completely unlike other punk groups, Flipper are not led by guitar in the least.  Twin bassists Bruce Loose and WIll Shatter (see, I got around to actually describing who these people are) led the way, with drummer Steve DePace holding down a groove so tightly you’d think Jaki Liebezeit of Can had forsaken Germany for the Bay area.  Meanwhile, Ted Falconi sprayed feedback laden guitar riffs with wild abandon, adding a feral and uncontrolled sort of texture to the songs.  So, again, Ted may have just joined the proceedings straight from a previous night’s hangover.  

Onward to side 2, The Way of the World strips Will Shatter’s sense of humor bare for all the world to see… or something like that.  The song works up a bleak sense of how the world works (thus, the ‘way of the world’).  Such lines such as “there are eyes that cannot see and fingers that cannot touch” are inevitably demolished by the line, “there are hearts no longer beating and there’s entrails spilled on the floor/that’s the way of the world”.  The final verse paints a picture with such absurd colors that one can’t help but view the words beforehand as being just as absurd.  The deadpan singalong chorus probably doesn’t help matters much.  

Life is probably the most standout song on the record from a thematic perspective.  Here, Shatter lets loose an absolutely positive song exhorting listeners that “life is the only thing worth living for.”  Of course, he couldn’t keep his tongue out of his cheek the entire song.  Claiming that he has sung of death, chaos, mayhem, and depression (my words not his) but he’s “not going to sing that song anymore” (his words, not mine).  I’ll give him four minutes and forty-four seconds before he starts singing about that crap again.  

Nothing and Living for the Depression bring the pace up quite a bit with the latter almost becoming a hardcore punk song.  Too bad Flipper still manages to screw it up and make it sludgy and bassy.  Oh well, why defy expectations now?  We’re almost through!  By the way, I have no idea who the Ant guy who co-wrote the song is.  It’s probably Adam Ant.  In fact, it is Adam Ant.  I’m sure of it.  

Finally, we have Sex Bomb.  The Sex Bomb.  The “we’ll play Sex Bomb if you throw one more beer onstage” Sex Bomb.  Take a rolling, churning bassline.  Add a metronomic drum beat.  A pinch of synthesizer (or something) for flavor.  Add a dash of saxophone.  Shake well and yell “sex bomb baby, yeah (or waaaah)” over and over.  Repeat until the whole thing clatters to a stop.  

Ok, are you happy now?  Here’s a song by song overview for those who are still reading this crap.  

Ever is good.
Life is Cheap is depressing.
Shed no Tears is also depressing, but somewhat reassuring.
(I Saw You Shine) is long.
The Way of the World is hilarious.
Life is reaffirming.
Nothing is nothing much, but I want out.
Living for the Depression is almost hardcore.
Sex Bomb, baby, yeah! (Repeat x26)

Oh yeah, it was released by Subterranean Records or some shit like that.
[Editor’s Note: Sorry, John, I added the info above, I’ve got to have some consistency here!]

Now, in the immortal words of Will Shatter: “Is that enough?  Can we go home now?”

Postscript: all jokes aside, I really am quite honored that R.C. selected me to contribute to VoV in his absence.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my awful, contrived writing in the meanwhile.  Anyway, there should be more to come if I don’t drink too much scotch.  

Thomas Dolby – The Flat Earth (1984)

 Capitol Records ■ ST-12309

Released February, 1984

Produced by Thomas Dolby
Engineered by Dan Lacksman
Mixed by Mike Shipley (“Hyperactive!” mixed by Alan Douglas)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dissidents
  2. The Flat Earth
  3. Screen Kiss
  1. White City
  2. Mulu the Rain Forest
  3. I Scare Myself
  4. Hyperactive!

Oddly, I’d never really heard “She Blinded Me with Science”, nor have I (really) even now, though it was a big hit in the decade I’ve spent my life unabashedly enjoying the resulting pop music from. I bought this LP as well as the Blinded by Science 12″ EP/mini-album simply because I saw them for a low enough price. I’m honestly not sure at this point if they pre-dated or followed my father stuffing a copy of 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics on CD into my hand while visiting a used music store. It’s entirely possible they followed it–“I Love You Goodbye” is a stupendous song, on a really great album. I’d still only heard the clips of that biggest of singles though, on the commercials for 80s compilations, or on any show that was referencing it as indicative of the decade.

When I had the poll up (due to the absence of votes, I simply removed it), a single vote appeared and then disappeared, for the Blinded by Science mini-album, which I decided to sit down and listen to first. While I naturally couldn’t recognize the original, I strongly suspected the version of “She Blinded Me with Science” was a 12″ extended mix, and I later confirmed it was just that. Those things are difficult to pull off and it rarely happened with much success. The hooks are either beaten into the ground or so severely cropped or inverted as to become thoroughly un-catchy. This wasn’t much an exception, so I didn’t feel much like trying to write about not only a mini-album that was an attempt to capitalize on the now rather confused release history Dolby had built up (in his native U.K., The Golden Age of Wireless did not contain that enormous single, though the original U.S. did not either–it was initially released, instead, with tracks omitted and replaced with b-sides, in typical U.S. fashion for U.K. releases–though I still don’t much understand a lot of the reasons this was and is done) but one that contained one of those mixes.

So, instead, I took out The Flat Earth and decided to let a complete album (his second, left alone for its U.S. release) represent him here as I attempt to translate the disparate elements of my record collection to all souls brave enough to tromp through them.

While I truly cannot remember whether his later album or these two records entered my hands first, I can state unequivocally that I heard Astronauts and Heretics many times, and listened to neither of these more than a handful of times after purchasing them. While I wanted to hear more of this artist I’d heard good things about, the notion that this sample-heavy semi-novelty hit was what he was known for and no album names, singles, or anything else seemed to get mentioned, I didn’t have much of a hook to dive in any deeper, and guessed there was both a more “flamboyant” and a more brazenly pop bent to his earlier work that didn’t immediately encourage my explorations with any great urgency.

“Dissidents” quickly erased this notion–or at least tempered it. A semi-funky bassline from Soft Boys bassist Matthew Seligman and sharply ringing guitars from Kevin Armstrong back a pseudo-paranoid, bizarre and confused set of lyrics. Dolby’s voice is sliding and smooth in the verse, but as he sings “Hold it, wait a minute…” and backing singer Adele Bertei joins him, a tense edge and sharper, shorter syllables chop the song down rhythmically to match the interwoven sound of a mechanical typewriter. Twanging synth noises sound like coiled springs and keep the song wound itself, the computerized drums of Cliff Bridgen openly synthesized. It’s all weird angles and pointy bits, curious and interesting, and rather catchy (indeed, later a single!).

The title track begins the run of tracks Dolby wrote alone, which continues for almost the entirety of the album, stopped only for a single track. “The Flat Earth” was actually a solid bridge to the album that would come after follow up Aliens Ate My Buick–that second follower being Astronauts and Heretics. A number of tracks on the album marry texture and atmosphere to more clear pop song backings, and “The Flat Earth” really sets that tone. Anticipatory percussion, bass-y keys and scatters of synthetic noise propose the backdrop for the thick bass tones Seligman begins to build with Bridgen’s percussive tracks, Armstrong’s guitar coming out through a strangled single stroke, Dolby’s own keys (an acoustic piano) are free and light, though firm and clear by comparison to the others. It’s a full minute and a half of introduction before Bertei returns with the added voice of Lesley Fairbairn, singing “Hold me, baby, love me, darling, believe me, honey…” in loops behind Dolby’s passionate lead vocal, which clings less firmly to the rhythm of the track, spreading across it as the words and performance dictate instead. The song takes off down its own organic path, determined largely by the contrast between Seligman’s rubbery bassline and Dolby’s sadness-tinged piano, coming out something like a successful melding of soul ballad and dance track in a very strange way–perfectly realized by the way Dolby’s voice progresses down through the line “And maybe why for me the earth is flat…” which drops downward on the latter half, but plateaus and rescues the line from being maudlin. Honestly, this may easily be my favourite track on the album. The underlying vibraphone-style percussion rounds and smooths it all out in a wonderful way that expands the whole thing past even that bass-y nudge toward movement and the piano and vocal movement toward melancholy.

“Screen Kiss”, appropriate to its lyrical content, does not attempt to “rescue” itself from the tone “Flat Earth” seems to pull up from at the last moment. There’s a nostalgic sort of sense to it, but it all leads somewhat inexorably toward sadness, dreams and plans dashed and lost, but not at any great speed so much as slowly leeched away. Seligman hits those piercingly bright, high notes on bass that seem to elicit the sense of a film “jazz club”–the vocal kind, and the kind not overly familiar with jazz. Guitar and synths wax and wane over the track, all acting as a sort of smooth but internally marbled surface over which Dolby lays his ever-intense vocalization–never so much melodramatic as intent. The song fades on a fuzz of overlapping recordings of women speaking and a heartbeat, dissipating as it does so fade.

Having left the first side with a mere three tracks, the second opens with the dramatic burblings of “White City” which rapidly turn to the pounding rhythms and sharp tones indicative of much of the new wave’s more popular and familiar segments, layered with a sort of sci-fi synth line. An interesting fade carries off briefly before Dolby opens the verse, thick bottom end moving the song forward at a pace that feels fast after the first half, but is also noticeably deliberate. Seligman manages some great touches here and there, little fills from the bass. Dolby is less commanding of attention with his voice, the implied drug-fueled fantasy and personal isolation matched by that lockstep marching of coke-fueled energy the song conveys. Seligman’s former bandmate Robyn Hitchcock appears, though, and begins to ramble madly, though in his inimitable style, quietly rumbling along beneath the track, left as the only thing to accompany a sustained note from synthesized strings.

Unusual and unique for the album–if not in general–“Mulu the Rain Forest” elicits the tone it aims to immediately. A synthesized melody is backed by insects chirping and joined by hand-drumming and the kind of woodwinds so readily associated with rainforests (accurately or not). It’s lush though it is spare, carrying a sort of jungle-esque mugginess in its lethargy, thick with only quiet noises and the silent spaces somehow. It’s all atmosphere, a track added up from a clear lead vocal and backing music that never seems interested into building itself into a distinctly recognizable tune or melody, nor even establishing a clear rhythm–in the sense that ambient music does, I mean. It’s fascinating, and starts to dig itself in more thoroughly toward the end, when a synthesizer begins to contribute more concrete melodic lines to back the spasms of Seligman’s bass playing warps.

“I Scare Myself” is the lone exception on the album to Dolby’s writing credits–Armstrong and Seligman co-wrote the music to “Dissdents” with him, but the rest of the album was his. Dan Hicks’ song, though, is pure cover. Like “Dissidents” and closer “Hyperactive!” it did see a single release. Something like a Central or South American flavour (toward the salsa end of things) composes the backing track’s guitar flourishes and thrumming bass, a drumstick against a snare rim acting as much of the rhythmic accent. There’s a shot of tension running through Dolby’s piano that contradicts the clean and comfortable instruments around him. Appropriate, perhaps, in that he scares himself, I suppose! Armstrong also throws in a muted trumpet that crests the track as it builds into a more rapid pace and a more full composition that is left to fade off, never released from its underlying tensions.

I often confused myself reading the title of Dolby’s major single from the album (major in his homeland, anyway), “Hyperactive!” I often find myself thinking, instead, of Robert Palmer’s shockingly non-single track from 1985’s Riptide of the same name (sans punctuation), which has been a long time favourite anyway. This one, though, is built on a trombone lick from Peter Thoms, which drones out bemusedly behind Dolby’s duet with the returned Adele Bertei. It nudges back more toward the sensibilities of “Dissidents” than anything else, rhythmic and energetic after the relaxed tones of the tracks that come between (barring “White City”, anyway). It’s catchy and somewhat peculiar, paranoid and kinetic. It’s a strange sort of song, yet understable as a single. Bertei carries the song on to its outro describing the rather complete set of circumstances under which Dolby is “hyperactive”.

Finding that some of the album reminded me of the (admittedly later) Astronauts and Heretics and particularly the parts about it I enjoyed, as well as the discovery that the more uptempo songs were rather off-kilter was a pleasant surprise. I’m inclined to look further into the man’s work for certain, and will need to track down a more reasonably tracklisted version of his debut–one that doesn’t jam itself up with all those U.S. label modifications.

Dolby’s a fascinating character outside his music, as a sidebar–he’s involved in plenty of synthetic music creation, up to and including a rendering of Nokia’s cell ringtone, as well as the tech side and creations therein, even giving TED talks, sometimes. His name, of course, is not indicative of a connection to the audio company responsible for many audio standards, though it did result in some minor legal knots between them–it’s not even his real name, which is Robertson.

In any case, so long as you don’t have that immediate allergy some do to electronic-based pop music, this is a really great record, I’ve found. Interesting as a curious exception to a lot of standing rules of the sounds that surround it, rather than being just a strong example of them.

Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward (1984)

Sire Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released September 24, 1984

Produced by Daniel Miller, Depeche Mode, and Gareth Jones
Additional Engineering by Ben Ward, Stefi Marcus, Colin McMahon

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Something to Do
  2. Lie to Me
  3. People Are People
  4. It Doesn’t Matter
  5. Stories of Old
  1. Somebody
  2. Master and Servant
  3. If You Want
  4. Blasphemous Rumours

In high school, I was sent–as we could now do this–“Enjoy the Silence” in trade from someone I knew at the time (previously mentioned as responsible for the purchase of another album on my behalf), but, somewhat oddly, it had little resonance with me. This is odd, of course, because I’ve had a life-long love of synthesizers and 1980s musical styles–a sort of misaligned nostalgia, I guess you might say. It’s that much more odd when one considers how many covers of Mode songs are out there,¹ including plenty by bands I liked at the time. It gets that much more odd when one includes the fact of my rather bizarre–embarrassing, no doubt, if I were anyone but me–love of the Erasure song “Always”, established many years prior when I was all of ten or eleven years of age (I only bought I Say I Say I Say last year, despite spending every trip to a used record store in those days looking for it, simply because of that song).  If that means nothing to you: Depeche Mode’s original leader was Vince Clarke, who left after Speak and Spell to form, well, Erasure (okay, after a few other bands, but, still…)

Covers would of course flit by–particularly Rammstein’s version of “Stripped” (which omitted the last four words of the chorus’s titular refrain) and A Perfect Circle’s nearly unrecognizable version of “People Are People”. Bands I’ve loved for years–Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral was one of the first albums I ever relentlessly pursued–would mention them as an influence, and the name continued to filter down, but I didn’t recall a single song I’d ever heard, beyond the rather glossed over single listen to “Enjoy the Silence” as I was directed to it–heck, might’ve been one of the 24+ versions of the song that the Mode have released over the years, and not the original album or single mixes.

It was during one of my most adventurous musical phases that a fancy version of a DM album appeared in front of me and I decided to gamble on it all–1986’s Black Celebration, which was packaged with a short DVD documentary and DVD-A of both the album and a few associated tracks, most importantly including the rather unusual (for them) non-album single “Shake the Disease”. That was the song that finally clicked with me–and the album followed not far behind, and then so did the rest, and the remixes and b-sides, and all sorts of other madness, eventually leading to the more casual but deliberate purchase of Some Great Reward on vinyl, no more than a year and a half ago.

“Something to Do” makes it immediately apparent that this was an electronically driven band–all synths, drum machines, keys–and one oriented, as often happens with that make up, on beat and “danceability”. I’m not a dancer–not even in the “go out to a club” sense, so it may only be theoretical, but it’s definitely at least that. Strange sounds actually precede the track proper: weird burblings that turn to a nervy, deep beat. Dave Gahan’s voice is a smoother sound over it, though it has the slightest cracks of desperate tension in it. Martin Gore’s backing vocals are rapid and even more openly cracking–the song focused on boredom with sexual undertones, but a big hint of quiet desperation of a kind (“I can’t stand another drink/It’s surprising this town/Doesn’t sink[…]Your pretty little dress is oil stained/From working too hard/For too little”). There is a peculiar bridge of flattened horn sounds that, if they had been untouched, would’ve seemed quite incongruous, yet the flattening of their sound works them in perfectly to the rather frenetic opener.

The beginning of “Lie to Me” is a bit more refined, a mix of unusual sounds that form a melody and texture that is built on a distinct beat but works more toward the atmosphere than the beat. It’s a peculiar layering of airy hisses and repetitive keyboard lines. It’s typical Mode in many senses: vaguely dark, vaguely sexual, but reliably comfortable in themselves for this, while also avoiding any extreme movements in either direction to really push away those who would not be drawn to either (or both, especially in combination). Martin’s backing vocals are somewhat harmonized and lay in the song easily but without disappearing completely into the frame of it all. It’s largely his voice that drew me to the band via “Shake the Disease”. He has a very tremulous quaver in his rather high voice that just exudes a kind of sincere vulnerability, put to even greater effect as a lead on appropriate songs (one of which appears on this very album!).

Almost guaranteed the most famous song on the album (though actually one of three singles released from it), “People Are People” is one of the first Depeche Mode songs I ever knew, though I knew it in a severely altered cover form, as mentioned previously. While Martin is credited with writing it, he’s been known to make clear his disinterest in it at this point–allegedly suggesting it was a bit too “on point” for him, and devoid of ambiguity. It’s a mess of peculiar, metallic sounds–many the kind that would later be identified by much of the public with “industrial music” (though typically this was a reference to early industrial metal, like Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, rather than the more difficult and bizarre work of, say, Throbbing Gristle). Gahan’s vocal is frustrated and accusatory–appropriate in a song that’s based on what is indeed a very clear message: “People are people so why should it be/You and I should get along so awfully”. Gore’s voice, again, is the hook for my ears–be that odd or expected. His voice is, like many times it appears in their career, recorded in a fashion that gives it a few peculiar qualities; there’s a sort of closeness to his voice, and there’s a kind of clarity that is absent in Dave’s singing, though it’s not something that would fit with or make sense for his voice. It’s a deserving hit all the same, and may be a solid reference point for anyone who is a bit of a Depeche Mode neophyte (even moreso, that is, than  myself).

Gore has not often been inclined to write terribly happy songs and has admitted this himself–and, in truth, “It Doesn’t Matter” is tinged with darker edges, but it’s largely hopeful, thoughtful, peaceful and happy. He sings the lead on it, in fact singing it alone. The music is heavy on electronic sounds–the sort of dancing electronic chimes that have been used with early CGI² to represent the relaxed atmosphere of brightly coloured aquatic life. It’s a bit like bubbling, which is why I think it was used that way–but there’s this sort of flat horn that honks its way in at the end of some of Martin’s lines and is like an elbow nudged at the ribs to grab your attention, point it toward something–though I’m not sure what exactly. It’s as if to imply the semi-broken nature of Martin’s happy thoughts: he is thankful for someone who is not quite there, thoughts he finds embarrassing. It’s a sweet song, which is intentionally “marred” by that noise, it seems, to toughen the mushiest bits, perhaps.

In completely the opposite direction, we find “Stories of Old” and one of Dave’s most appealing vocals. Musically somewhat “mysterious” and sparse at open, it adds peculiar layers of keyboard, non-verbal backing vocals and synthetic horn stings. Gahan describes a positive desire, and the “stories of old” that describe abandoning the gains of single lives for love–and then immediately stamps out the idea of replicating them, suggesting neither he nor the person he sings to is or should be moving toward such a compromise. It’s most evident in the first lines, which reappear throughout, punctuated with the horn stings, and twisted into sharp and rhythmic endings by Dave’s own voice: “Take a look at unselected cases/You’ll find love has been–wrecked.”

Interestingly, they couched Gore’s most romantically dismissive song between “It Doesn’t Matter” on the one side, and “Somebody” on the other–while both are twisted at their ends to admissions of embarrassment and self-critical eye-rolling at their very notions, their sincerity isn’t questioned even then. “Somebody” is the most acoustic of tracks–Gore sings alone to piano (which, I have to add, he apparently played naked in the studio for that extra touch of vulnerability). While the prior two tracks suggested a relationship that hasn’t blossomed (and might never), and one that was being stopped from doing so, this one is about an ideal relationship–an honest and open description of selfish desires, but manifested in a rather appealingly symbiotic and even relationship. That thing I mentioned before about Gore’s voice being vulnerable? It makes it perfect–while he wrote eight of the nine songs on the album, he clearly does not sing them all, and this helps to both clarify why he sings the ones he does and emphasize that differing vocal quality. There’s a clever addition (it’s apparently an unstated fact that most “clever additions” to Depeche Mode songs are the fault of Alan Wilder, until, of course, he left the band) in the form of sampled street noise that hovers around the track–I forget if they layered it in in the studio or recorded it “live”, but it places Gore in a real context as he sings, until it slowly transforms into an overpowering heartbeat instead: as if to say, he expressed these thoughts from the midst of the rest of humanity, but it’s an intensely personal set of thoughts–at least, that’s what I hear, in my strange little way.

The second single from the album, “Master and Servant” is endearing and “cute” as a song can be when its subject matter is pretty explicitly BDSM (I suppose you might have guessed that from the title–else you likely have no idea what those letters are, I’ll guess). The strange vocals that open it sound as if they are sped up samples of vocal tracks that appear later in the song, but here alternate high and low: “It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot/It’s a lot…like life”. Faked whip sounds (apparently just Wilder hissing and spitting!) and metallic clangs bring the song into the same sonic arena as “Something to Do”, but with a darker edge–though a “darkness” and “edge” that remain thoroughly unthreatening. The boys sound very much as though they are somewhat new to the idea of dominance and submission, but manage to convey it reasonably well (he said, as a non-practitioner, but one who has known some), both avoiding any false sugar-coating and any fear-mongering. Gore even works in a lyric that associates it with the perversely (ahem) inverted dynamic of control through voluntary loss of control, and the contrast this has with the unavoidable submission of most lives to the demands of society (if not accurate, certainly a reasonable understanding of the appeal). I will say the single never made much sense to me–perhaps because it holds neither taboo nor personal appeal for me, or perhaps because the chorus has always struck me as just slightly awkward. Of course, the production work behind the track makes this something totally unimportant–just a strange choice for a single.

The only song not credited to Gore, Wilder’s “If You Want” is crawling and odd, if only in the context of Gore’s songs. It’s still thoroughly accessible and appealing, but its usage of keys is strangely buzzing and hazy. It’s something like a mix of darkened, foggy moors and semi-campy (though serious) mysterious tones. It gains a beat shortly, and works it into that atmosphere, shedding a lot of the peculiarities and fitting more completely in with all of the previous songs more readily. It’s actually one of the few tracks that might place music ahead of lyrics and vocals–maybe that’s something to do with Wilder’s influence, as he is known to have been far more invested in the production angles of the group’s sound, and is given credit for much of what made them most popular in their heyday. Or, perhaps it was just a choice for the track!

The last song on the album was also the third and final single for the album: “Blasphemous Rumours”. It’s significantly longer than any of the others (over six minutes) and runs through more serious changes–or at least a greater number of them–than any of the others. As it starts, the album version of the song is subdued keys and a light melody, enhanced by another “industrial” beat, then expanded with a synthetic bassline. Rolling metal clatter adds a splash of chaos. Gahan’s vocals are vaguely sardonic, speaking of a girl who attempts suicide, and the reactions of her mother when the attempt fails–if any of the other tracks on the album could be called dark, then this is pitch black. Of course, it’s black humour (or at least bitter cynicism), which the chorus makes clear: “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/And when I die/I expect to find Him laughing…” It’s a strangely cheerful, catchy, poppy chorus, and it balances well with the darkness of the verses. If you don’t hear the words, it might sound an awful lot like a general 80s synthpop tune, perhaps one tacked onto closing credits of a movie from the same time frame. While lyrics are often not something that factors into my understanding of or appreciation of a song, it’s not an impossibility, and this is definitely an instance in which it does so quite readily–it’s clever, and it works very well.

This was only Depeche Mode’s third album, the first being the one previously mentioned as being written largely by the now-absent Vince Clarke, and the follow up A Broken Frame being considered a bit of a stumble as the remaining members found their feet. Some Great Reward functions very much as a progression along the way toward future monsters like Violator or Music for the Masses, as it still has the relative limitations of the band’s early work, while Gore has gained leaps and bounds at songwriting, and the sound of the band has become established; in many ways, this is sort of like the “real” beginning of the band (a sentiment I think the band itself has expressed, in fact). Depending on your taste, this might be the first or last place to start–Gahan and Gore both have strong voices that don’t date the material overmuch, but the electronic instrumentation definitely gives it a clear time of origin, and it does take a good listen to get past that, if it is the kind of thing you find offputting–and, in truth, that’s exactly the attitude I intend to spread: avoid leaping too quickly from that first impression, particularly if something is recommended. Someone has seen something interesting there–it may be worth a bit of a dig to find.

  • Next Up: Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design

¹There are two hundred and sixty-eight established covers of “Enjoy the Silence” alone. Polish death metal band Vader covered “I Feel You”–yes, the band whose leader produced Decapitated’s Winds of Creation. The Cure has covered “World in My Eyes”, and just to be ridiculous, their own song “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” was covered by Deftones, who covered Depeche Mode’s “To Have and to Hold” on the same tribute album The Cure’s cover appeared on. Heck, that album also contains the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of “Never Let Me Down Again” (which later appeared on a soundtrack alongside Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland’s cover of “But Not Tonight”). Tangerine Dream (!) covered “Precious”. Rammstein covered “Stripped” (which was remixed enough times it might be mistaken for an actual Mode track). Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat covered “But Not Tonight”. Swedish melodeath co-forefathers (alongside At the Gates and Dark Tranquility) covered “Everything Counts”. Converge (!!) covered “Clean”. Honestly, there’s a whole website databasing these covers.

²I’m not going to claim the mental images I have will–or even could–make sense to other people, but it’s the immediate impression I get.

Day Forty-Nine: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Fiction Records ■ BEG A 65

Released April 18, 1985

Produced by Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Assistant Production by Chris Parry and M L S
Engineered by Mike Hedges and Mike Dutton
Assistant Engineering by Nigel Green and Andrew Warwick

Side One: Side Two:
  1. A Reflection
  2. Play for Today
  3. Secrets
  4. In Your House
  5. Three
  1. The Final Sound
  2. A Forest
  3. M
  4. At Night
  5. Seventeen Seconds

I don’t remember now how I found myself listening to The Cure. I think it was finding the video for “Lullaby” (meaning I probably saw it on the same tapes that led me to Marshall Crenshaw and listening to more Elvis Costello), but I’m really not sure. It meant I kept an ear out for Disintegration, but was never sure what to do with the rest of their discography. Someone I know–forgive me, for once, I can’t remember who–posted video of a live performance of “Killing an Arab”,¹ and I finally found myself asking: what album do I go to next? Pornography was a quick response, and I filed it away mentally–I’d picked up Bloodflowers on somewhat a whim, but had listened to it only a few times, and “Killing an Arab” told me there was something else back there, an entirely different style than what I’d heard so far.

I finally picked up a copy of Pornography, and soon found myself picking up every one of the deluxe-ified Cure remasters I saw (each came with a bonus disc of demos and live material from the time frame surrounding the album in question), Seventeen Seconds and Faith following rapidly behind Pornography, and all of it being settled when I purchased Three Imaginary Boys four months later (about a year ago). My ever-referenced used vinyl haunt last year, Hunky Dory, happened to have a copy of Faith on vinyl, though–the owner mentioned a copy of Pornography waiting in the wings, but, alas, it never appeared when I was there. In a sense, though, that has its benefits: I already really liked Pornography, but had only listened to most of the other albums a few times. That it was Seventeen Seconds and not Faith (they are the two immediate predecessors to Pornography) was even more fortuitous, as that album had stuck with me far better than Faith ever has.

If, like me, you only know/knew the Cure for songs like “Lullaby”, “Lovesong”, “Pictures of You” and similar, “A Reflection” might strike you quite immediately for its simplicity and its rather open structure. A repetitive twang sounds very quietly in the background, and then a single guitar and piano chord blares out–though it’s apparent after the initial surprise that it’s not so much blaring as at a reasonable, average volume. Smith’s guitar continues to strum single chords at the first beat of each measure, while Matthieu Hartley’s keys take that downbeat and plink and plunk up from it to link each together. The tone is somber but vaguely inhuman, the feeling of nature making that somberness a sort of flatline of feeling: instinct, not emotion. And then, Smith unexpectedly brightens the guitar, just slightly, but at the next chord it’s fully there, the song feeling like a peeking light is now coming up over the horizon, still slow, spacious–but it loses this quickly and finds itself at the initial darker chords and generally downward stride of the opening. A distant yawning wail fades in with a sort of obscured sound, and then fades away, and the song ends on a chord that simply is not, this time, followed by another.

“Play for Today” suddenly ups the tempo, Lol (still “Laurence” at this point) Tolhurst playing a beat that fairly well shifts it–a dance speed, really. An expulsion of air–electronic, one imagines–helps to punctuate the song. Smith enters on confident harmonic notes that seem to linger and consider their next movement, even as those changes seem practiced in the performing. Simon Gallup drives the majority of the melody on the pulsing eighth notes of his bass, until Smith takes the reins and his harmonics become clean, clear, but very warmly toned chords, running at the same tempo and rhythm as Gallup’s bass had been. “It’s not a case of doing what’s right/It’s just the way I feel that matters/Tell me I’m wrong/I don’t really care/It’s not a case of share and share alike/I take what I require/I don’t understand/You say it’s not fair”, Smith adds the first words of the album. The song travels at a fair pace, as established by Lol, but Smith’s characteristic down-turned voice (though still in the infancy of what it would later develop) and his stripped-to-minor chords imply a downbeat sense that’s more misanthropic or apathetic than it is “depressed”. For all that Tolhurst set the beat, his drums are low-key, the heads all dry and short, keeping a backing role to the swirling of warm guitars played coldly.

Simon Gallup establishes the tone of “Secrets” with a lead bassline that draws a melody and then slides downward to abandon it and joins the newly-entered Tolhurst in the rhythm. Smith, having played short, controlled palm-muted rattling with just enough release to give it clear and pretty tone, takes up the reins, alongside Hartley’s keys. Single chords from Hartley accentuate the start, while Smith’s playing loosens the muting just enough, while increasing the volume in kind, to give him control. Gallup’s playing is minimalistic, Tolhurst’s is a heartbeat of kick and very light hi-hat that gives a spine to the track while staying off and behind. Smith’s vocals are quiet and almost hidden, a distant, more passionate echo almost a flare that leads back to their whisper. His guitar, though, continues its lead role, briefly wandering up and down chords in dissectionary ways, but never takes the song past the subdued sound it shows so clearly in his vocals.

“In Your House” is Tolhurst’s kick at its most heartbeat-y, snares on the offbeat being the attack to counter this. Robert’s guitar is all murky single picking, steady and almost mysterious, the lower notes drifting up and down the neck while the higher ones that follow them are almost the same each time. Gallup’s bass is at its most active, bubbling up along the heartbeat kicks of Lol. Warping washes and heavily electronic keys dot the track periodically for texture, Smith again seemingly bored in his singing, or perhaps just darkly, callously confessional. The guitar leaves its incessant picking at the same notes only briefly, only a mild shift upward, but one that takes the song on a reasonable sidetrip into a kind of questioning, a wisp of smoke beckoning supernaturally outward that dissolves after the gesture.

A reverberating key sounds–think the Kinks’ “Death of a Clown”²–to open “Three”, a seemingly random set of  reverberating keys is strewn across it, distant mumbling hiding far behind it. An actual dance-like beat drops in from Tolhurst, the keys continue in their diffuse pattern, the track pounding hypnotically until it clears away in an abrupt electronic noise seemingly like a ball dropped and bouncing lower and lower to short frequency vibration.

Intended as an instrumental of great length, “The Final Sound” is a slightly dissonant clutter of sustained and echoing keys, growing in their low-end murmurings of somewhat disturbing nature, the keys climbing in fumbling fashion, wandering up and down before the volume drops out–the tape ended, and there was no money for another. (Really.)

The lone single from the album, “A Forest” is moody, dark, electronic waves, a cold echo of single-picked guitar slowly gathering up to a slow walk in tempo over it, but rising in pitch just a bit. A soft, unusually high bass lick loops around once, trying to pull the song up. Tolhurst’s drum machine like beat pops in, a bass followed by a light snare roll on the second beat, repeated consistently. Robert’s guitar returns with a faster (though still economic) version of that first riff, the guitar less dry and far off, curved and warm instead, though it only lasts one run of the riff, the second time going up and then running into a more speedy lead before dropping off. Lightly phased muted chords take over guitar, Gallup’s bass bouncing along faster than Lol’s drums. Robert sings in the most wonderfully rapid, rhythmic way, perhaps the most immediate and engaging vocal on the album (no wonder it was a single!). Hartley takes the keys up into a sonorous hold, Smith opening the guitar again for a mild crescendo that crashes into his voice’s renewed presence. At the end of his last word, his guitar jangles and strums out to an ending that drops drums and a bass spliced to half its beats, the guitar rising and spreading outward and upward and into the ether, leaving the steady thumps of Simon behind.

Rich and entwined guitar chords splay across “M”, a panning wash of white noise sweeps in Simon’s bass and Lol’s light, simple drumming. One of the few instances of lyrical chorus, “You’ll fall in love with somebody else/Tonight” is matched to the staccato thud of bass and drum, nodding up and down with both. Smith actually follows his final words in the song with the steady picking of an early rock style lead or solo, which wanders up and down and around until it finally settles on a high pitch it holds nervously, dropping off only with the rest of the song.

The most wonderfully fuzzy bass appear when we come to “At Night”, Lol’s drums spare, clean, and dry, but the intermittent fuzzy driving riff lending a sort of sneer to them–yet, driving though it is in construction, it’s quiet and comes off more as actual “fuzz” than it does a crush of even nihilistic dismissal. Hartley has a few well-placed, reedy keys texturally intertwined with those standing elements, buzzing lightly but with a hint of majesty, or at least gravity, about them, despite their relative lightness. Robert’s voice is hiding in the middle of the mix–surrounded by the darkness of night, perhaps–and it brings out the clean guitars, which use their lovely clean jangle alone, but carve a dissonant swathe through the returned fuzzy rumble of Simon. Gallup takes the opportunity to play a plodding rise of pitch through his fuzz, climbing slowly at each measure’s new note. This style is taken into a sort of lead at the end of the track, Smith’s contrasting clean guitar brilliantly acting as the dissonance to the harsher fuzz. A buzz of electronics hangs over the final moments, even as Lol’s drums fade out alone.

The song that has always stuck with me most on the album–perhaps because it’s the last one you hear, perhaps because it’s the title track, perhaps because its title is apparent in the song, or just maybe because it’s so damned good–is “Seventeen Seconds”. Lol counts the beats on the hi-hat, alternating snare and bass only at the beginning beat of each measure (seriously, it’s unbelievably noticeable in its pace). Smith enters  after five bars, a circling guitar in the languid, part-calloused, part-moody, all downbeat style that he employs throughout the album. Simon gives a little more emotive performance here, his bass line characterized by diminishing bends that eventually become steady eighth notes that continue to build the song up to a full drumbeat from Lol, allowing Simon’s bass to return to a melodic role at the same pace. It’s a minute and a half before Robert’s voice comes in, waiting for the song to reach its full sound before he begins. His words are that of ending, as if recapping the prior tracks on the album, telling us everything to this point was all fated and inevitable. “Seventeen seconds/A measure of life/Seventeen seconds…” he sings, his guitar suddenly energized to emphasize those words. Simon’s bass returns to its plaintive bends, Lol’s drum slows back to its snails pace, Simon disappears, Robert frays, and we’re down, again, to just Lol’s crawling beat.

Okay, if nothing else, putting that showstopper at the end of the album was a brilliant move. It hasn’t got an expected construction in any sense. Sure, the build up, tear down approach to instrumentation has been done, but the way that Robert sings those last phrases is just–there is nothing extra, no fat, and yet it’s also not exactly a hook, or anything else like that. It’s just phrases thrown out there, though they have their meaning in context. That they don’t actually end anything, but the song also seems to respond to them, appropriately, makes it that much more brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s not at all obvious. It doesn’t feel designed, yet it feels perfect.

For a band that ended up lush and dreamy and dramatic and maybe even melodramatic, the album is sparse, spare and light. Its tone is what you would expect, whether you know the Cure at a glance, or just by reputation, though it predates the most familiar images of Robert Smith (who wore no makeup, kept his hair short, and wore snazzy, if peculiar, suits at the time). It’s been dismissed as “soundtrack-y”, but it’s not at all. It’s minimalist and atmospheric, but it’s all creating a mood for an album, not for images or movies or unsung words or anything else. It’s a cohesive whole, and a stunningly good one. I may still prefer the likes of Pornography³, but this listen gave me a new-found appreciation for why I always liked this album at least a bit, and never found it boring or iffy. It’s really quite good, and an understandable favourite for many (and if it isn’t, it ought to be).

  • Next Up: Cursive – Happy Hollow

¹If anyone finds yourself aghast at the title, Robert Smith has “retired” the song for that reason. Of course, it was originally written in reference to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, and had nothing to do with a suggestion or nonchalance about the title’s subject. Okay, well, not about Smith’s nonchalance anyway.

²Holy cow that feels like a pretentiously obscure reference (in context, at least, because I don’t imagine many people associate the Kinks and the Cure beyond “British bands”), but it was what I thought of immediately when I heard it.

³If we remove the formatting, this entire thing is going to read very, very strangely.