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.  

Day Thirty-Four: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Safe as Milk

Buddah Records ■ BDS-5001

Released September, 1967
Produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow
Engineered by Hank Cicalo and Gary Marker

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do
  2. Zig Zag Wanderer
  3. Call on Me
  4. Dropout Boogie
  5. I’m Glad
  6. Electricity
  1. Yellow Brick Road
  2. Abba Zaba
  3. Plastic Factory
  4. Where There’s Woman
  5. Grown So Ugly
  6. Autumn’s Child

On the heels of an album for which my college and high school best friend and roommate is responsible, here’s another one that fits that same bill. I’d already mentioned that John started listening to Captain Beefheart in those days, but this is actually the only chunk of it that carried over to me. While he was experimenting with Can, Beefheart, classic 60’s rock (which I grew up on and, for a little while, knew better as a result–though he eclipsed my passing, rudimentary knowledge quickly), and other more experimental music, I was delving further into extreme metal, my obsession with a Japanese band (whose albums were not released on vinyl after about 1989, and would require a complicated process to order on vinyl, nevermind their rarity even in their home country), and periodically picking up much “safer” releases in the same fashion of semi-impulsive, but educated purchases.

While Trout Mask Replica is doubtless the Captain’s most famous work, it has never sat well with me. I’m usually best with such things when I take a deep breath and throw some money at a copy and sit down with a sense of ownership, but I’ve yet to feel that compulsion regarding Trout Mask yet, so it remains dusty on the shelf of memory. Safe as Milk, however, does not suffer the “refuse to wear a headset, sing to the beat of studio leakage instead, leaving vocals out of sync” problem (?) that Trout Mask does. The Zappa connection–a guided run-down of Strictly Commercial from my father pushed me toward listening to the Mothers for the first time many years ago–did lend itself toward trying, but I don’t always have the patience or right state of mind to deal properly with the weirdest of music, believe it or not (all depends on where the line is for you, past which music gets “weird”!)

I would hear songs like “Yellow Brick Road”, “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do” from behind me in the same room on occasion, and eventually they leaked into my consciousness. “Yellow Brick Road”, in particular, I remember starting to click really well. I eventually sucked it up while living up there and picked up the album on CD, and, later, on vinyl, as it was a 180g reissue for a price that was quite reasonable indeed for the MSRP-laden pricing of teensy indie record stores “land-locked” into the mountains without competitors for sixty miles except each other.

The slide guitar that opens “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do” makes it clear immediately that the blues were the primary inspiration for the song. The gravel of Beefheart’s (aka Don Van Vliet) voice is entirely appropriate for the music, bringing the right kind of soul to fit the sliding melody’s blues. John French’s drumming is not far off from what appears on recordings of Muddy Waters and Elmore James doing variations on the song best known as Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (which the song is clearly based very directly upon), but it adds just a bit more to the rhythm than usually appeared there. There are conflicting reports as to who is responsible for that slide guitar, as Alex “St. Clair” Snouffer is credited for guitars, but Ry Cooder is known to have played on at least a few tracks, and some think this may be him as well (he is definitively credited as arranging it). It’s the kind of uptempo blues that gets toes tapping uncontrollably, though, and the musicianship is absolutely in the right place for the song. Van Vliet is the star for a reason, though, of course: his voice is not just gravely, it’s vaguely elastic, pulled upward to near cracks at moments, squashed, frog-like at others. It’s never done with the feeling that it’s to make anyone laugh, but there’s no real pretension about it either–just emotive performance.

“Zig Zag Wanderer” is more unique, the guitar no longer slide-based, and Jerry Handley’s bass playing as a near match for it. French plays the snare hits as short rolls, a neat touch that fits the groove of the song very well. When the guitars drop to let Van Vliet sing only with the rhythm section, French switches briefly to direct, single hits instead, that emphasize the space between Van Vliet’s voice and the two remaining instruments. Much like “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do”, it has the kind of gut-tugging desire for movement and rhythm built into it that is the direct inheritance taken from the blues.

Seemingly somewhat out of place, “Call on Me” is more resonant of other late ’60s rock, with a guitar that sounds vaguely Byrds-ian for much of the track, and a basic rock and roll drum beat. Beefheart’s voice is more distinct in character than a lot of vocalists aimed for in that range of rock at the time, though: the gravel and the push and pull for emotion he takes from his influences in the blues (like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker) are not what pop was aiming for at the time, either, really. The song kicks into a footstomping rhythm briefly throughout, and lets the guitar really shine, not quite soloing, just taking on a bluesy lead.

The first real hint of the possible oddities of Beefheart, “Dropout Boogie” has Van Vliet pushing his down into a strained but powerful and controlled croak. The bassline is almost overpowering, and the extreme fuzz and distortion on the guitar lets it act less as the melody the bass is empowering, and more like a light, shaky glaze on the thumping bass. It’s dirty and rough, but when a piano enters on a similarly intense but more ramshackle rhythm, it’s like the song forgot what it was for a moment, but the bass and guitar remind it. The repetitive lyrics further the idea that this is a song driven purely by rhythm. Van Vliet is credited with the bass (!) marimbas on the song, too, which take it into a sort of peculiar territory as it fades out on the same rhythm, but now underpinned with that bass marimba.

Possibly the weirdest song only because it’s the least weird, “I’m Glad” is one of only a handful of songs credited solely to Van Vliet (many are co-written with Herb Bermann, long thought a myth or joke, but who has since been discovered). The song is practically doo-wop, and calls to mind, in a way, the doo-wop experimentation of Van Vliet’s school friend Zappa, though the attitude and voice Beefheart brings is more directly soulful and pleading. The high-pitched backing vocals are the most reminiscent of the often tongue-in-cheek works Zappa did, but they’re so overshadowed by Beefheart’s excellent vocal, that they become completely reasonable in place, and even logical.

While known for telling, ahem, stories, Van Vliet alleged that the song “Electricity” was responsible for ruining a label contract for the group (it has since been stated this is not the case at all). Bermann, after he was found and interviewed for his role in this, stated that this was a standing poem for him, which Don asked him if he could put to music. The opener seems normal enough, but when the cymbal wash and the rein-pulling guitar pick repetition pulls it to a halt, Beefheart begins singing over the wandering semi-Eastern slide guitar and more cymbal washes, until a tom roll pulls in one of his most notably weird vocal choices: “Eeeeeeelectri–sity” he croaks out over this, dragging that first “E” from the start all the way to the end. As if his voice gets stuck here, he keeps singing in that low, squashed croak for a few more lines, then comes back to his normal voice. A bouncing bassline pulls in a theremin (!), the slide guitar and the most ecstatically brilliant drum feel on an album that is driven by feel. Beefheart allegedly shattered the microphone recording this track (!?), but it’s that push/pull of the slide and drum that sends this thing rocketing into the sky.

Because why not, “Yellow Brick Road” opens with a voice (that of producer Richard Perry) saying in educational-film style: “The following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level,” followed by a wavering electronic theremin-style sound warping up and down. The slide and shuffling, clickety-tap drum beat and Bermann’s weird lyrics call to mind Beefheart wandering down some kind of bizarre fantastic yellow road, describing what he’s seeing. The chorus has a thundering bassline and distant, echoing vocals from Van Vliet himself. And, damn, is this thing catchy and bouncy. It’s still not a wonder it was the first song to stick in my head.

The weirdest song (judging more externally) is definitely the one half-named for a candybar: “Abba Zaba”. A semi-tribal drumbeat is joined by very high, clear, picked guitar and then a variety of extra percussive instruments, and strange, strange lyrics from Van Vliet. The song shifts periodically into only momentary stylistic departures. It’s heavily percussive but for a sort of bridge halfway, wherein an odd instrumental break composed of bass and drum occurs. It’s still very pleasant to listen to, and not totally out of keeping with the album–if you aren’t paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not noticing how odd it is. In the context of blues and rock just slightly contorted by the interests and ideas of Beefheart, a song that is neither but built from those same interest and ideas fits quite well.

Pulling out some great harmonica work, Beefheart opens “Plastic Factory” himself, with a more slow-rolling track, croaking and cracking his way through a description of a factory and why it is not the place for him–lyrically (Bermann, again), this is very in tune with the working class subject matter in plenty of blues stuff, despite the peculiar choice of specifically burning phosphorous and the identification of a “plastic factory” as the location in question. It’s the right voice for Beefheart to accompany his harmonica with, though, of that there’s no doubt. Keep an ear out for the outro, where the the guitars build and drop waves a few times only to leave the harmonica as the last fading sound.

Somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of some of the blues-inflected, semi-experimental (and much “safer”) artists of the same time frame, “Where There’s Woman” is spacious and disjointed, conga drums and lightly echoed, intermittent drum hits are like an extended bluesy jam–somewhat reminiscent of the “Gris-gris” segments of Dr. John’s work (though his first album was not released until the next year–but I wouldn’t have guessed it was an influence anyway). When it reaches the chorus, everyone doubles in speed and energy, no longer leaving space between any parts of performance, the second chorus just building to a relative frenzy.

The guitar that opens “Grown So Ugly” is just tasty blues work (no surprise this one is most definitively credited to Ry Cooder). When Beefheart comes in singing, “I got up this morning”, you hear the instruments answer him, and think it will be some variation on the clichéd blues riff, or perhaps something like the more standard but more often real kind of instrumental answer to a line in the blues. As previously, French carries the beat further, at the end suddenly switching to drag it into a more complex musical phrase, which the guitar and bass follow him through on. Instead of letting his voice crouch low and frog-like, Beefheart floats his voice up at the cracking top of his register, for a lot of the song. In most other respects, it’s structured like many blues songs, though the ringing riffs that make up the latter half are unusual in this context.

The album closes with “Autumn’s Child”, based at open on a simple melody played on guitar and answered in bass. Suddenly backing vocals and theremin (probably) come in: “Go back ten years ago”, like a group shouting a command. The instruments punctuate it, and then go back to more spacious, wandering melodies, that lay the ground for the mid-ranged passionate, blues-hurt singing of Beefheart, themselves abruptly responded to with that (musically) shouted group phrase. A high bassline moves the song along rapidly, the guitars playing shortly, sharply and speeding up the feel even more, but slowed by Beefheart’s voice–well, likely the other way, but it feels as if he’s leading them back to this slower speed.

I felt very restricted by the limitations of my musical knowledge here, but it’s also difficult to express the feel of a well-played blues group, which is all about feel, usually. It’s best to hear it, but it’s good to understand the kind of constructions at play here, however roughly, to know that this is a sort of deviant blues-rock album, but not to lean too heavily on the deviant–likely the most emphatic assumption to make if the name Beefheart means something but not much. This is a very “normal” album, and is often at least semi-shrugged at by Beefheart fans as a result–his challenges and influences related far more to Trout Mask than Safe as Milk, but, for my money, at this point in my life, I’d rather listen to Safe as Milk, and I will most definitely and happily enjoy doing so.

  • Next Up: The Cars – Shake It Up (yes, bit of a jump)

Day Thirty-Three (and a Third): Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I.R.S. Records¹ ■ SP 001
Released September, 1979
Produced by Martin Rushent
Engineered by Alan Winstanley (S1 – 1,8; S2-1,8), Doug Bennett (S1 – 2,3,5,6; S2 – 2,3,5,6), and Martin Rushent (S1 – 4,7;S2 – 4,7)
¹International Record Syndicate. Abbreviation not used on this record, but used on most releases from this label.

Side One (A-Sides): Side Two (B-Sides):
  1. Orgasm Addict
  2. What Do I Get?
  3. I Don’t Mind
  4. Love You More
  5. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?
  6. Promises
  7. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
  8. Harmony in My Head
  1. Whatever Happened To…?
  2. Oh Shit!
  3. Autonomy
  4. Noise Annoys
  5. Just Lust
  6. Lipstick
  7. Why Can’t I Touch It?
  8. Something’s Gone Wrong Again

As we go, if you were to check, you’d find there are very few compilations in my record collection, and an even smaller percentage amongst my CDs. I don’t normally go in for compilations, as, sometime around Rubber Soul, the album became the preferred format and was eventually considered as the construction in which people bought, enjoyed, experienced, and were provided music. Of course, not everyone (including some artists) had any interest in the idea, but it’s less harm to have an album that isn’t definitively an assembled, crafted set than it is to have parts excised from one that is and doled out by popularity. As it stands, a single compilation has appeared here. Another was mentioned in polling, and a small number will appear later. Largely, though, I leave them be, for fear of missing interesting interesting deep cuts, or getting things out of context that have very real contexts like Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave. Still, Singles Going Steady was my introduction to Buzzcocks, at the hands of–to the surprise of no one–my friend John.

While we were in college (and rooming together), John took up a variety of bands–Can (to the chagrin of another friend, not appearing in my vinyl, though I have a healthy CD collection), Captain Beefheart (wait a few hours…), Gang of Four, and Buzzcocks. Plenty more, of course, but those were ones that tended to stand out. I tended to lump the last two together for some reason, despite being almost polar opposite branches from the same tree. The Buzzcocks would never have written a song like “Anthrax”, nor any like “Natural’s Not in It” (which some may remember from its hilariously inappropriate appearance in an X-Box Kinect commercial, if they don’t know it already). The subject matter and sounds of the bands were very different, but they did their best work (and most of their work) after the earliest considered end of punk–the demise of the Sex Pistols in early ’78. Quite accurately for Gang of Four, they are considered post punk. The Buzzcocks, however, were still pretty distinctly a punk band, albeit an extremely popular (in the U.K, at least!) one.
Both bands were in my ears semi-regularly, but neither made a huge impression for a while. We will leave Gang of Four for later, and come to what brought the Buzzcocks to me–or me to them, I suppose. While I was unwittingly hearing nothing but singles, it was “Promises” that most appealed to my ears, as well as, somewhat oddly, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” As I began to listen to the tracks around the two–this was after I’d learned this tended to be a good idea–I found I was doing things quite correctly in doing so. I ended up being the first of us to own one of their actual albums, once I found out Singles Going Steady was indeed a compilation. I actually ended up selling my copies of both–three wonderful reissues of their three full-lengths were released a few years back, including all of the non-album singles, b-sides, demos, BBC session tracks, and basically more demos. The other CDs were redundant.
Much like with Kate Bush, I picked this album up during one of my visits to Hunky Dory, paying about the price of a cheaper-end new release (at this point, a bit of a deal for this record!). I’d long since learned that, while the record is indeed a compilation, it is one that appeals to the more ordered side of my nature: The A-Side of the record is actually all of their first 8 A-Sides in chronological order. The B-Side is all the accompanying B-Sides, also in chronological order. While I.R.S.’s “lineage” (such as a founder named Miles Copeland III, brother of the Police’s Stewart Copeland) meant they did have major label distribution, they weren’t an imprint or vanity label, so a bit less intense “marketing” was involved and gave us this more sane approach. Cleverly, the inner sleeve has a column of sleeve art for the singles, with the first side’s tracks and recording information to the left, and the second side’s version of the same on the right–in essence, marrying A-Side and B-Side back to each other. Release dates, studios, and engineers are included for each track, appealing, as well, to my more pedantic side (previously alluded to when discussing Burning Airlines’ Identikit).
“Orgasm Addict” is actually one of the most famous Buzzcocks singles–or, at least, I have the impression it is. It’s about exactly what it sounds like: “You’re a kid Casanova, you’re a no-Joseph/It’s a labour of love fucking yourself to death”. People question songs like “Turning Japanese” and “She Bop” (at least some do), but not a soul, beyond the intensely pretentious, could mistake the meaning and topic here. Pete Shelley’s voice is on the higher end of things, doesn’t really carry any sneer or swagger, just a “shockingly” straightforward admission of something normally left coded, if mentioned at all. And let’s not forget the mock orgasm he himself let’s out, midway through the song. John Maher’s drumming keeps a beat that means Pete wasn’t the only one emulating the topic. It’s one of the only remnants of Howard Devoto’s time in the band (the studio portion of which ended with Spiral Scratch much earlier in the same year).
Used in a few commercials in interceding years, “What Do I Get?” was proof that the Buzzcocks (particularly Pete, who wrote it) were not interested in conforming to standards, traditions, or expectations of even the semi-nascent punk scene. The subject matter is not far from the dramatic, world-ending kind of teenaged response to rejection and failed attempts at finding love: “I only get sleepless nights/Alone here in my half-empty bed/For you things seem to turn out right/I wish they’d only happen to me instead”. Like a lot of the Shelley-penned singles, it’s an energetic, buzzing sort of sound: he and Steve Diggle man guitars and riff rapidly, while Steve Garvey (replacing alcoholic Garth after the “Orgasm Addict” single) mans a steady bass and John Maher plays somewhat unusually varied drum beats with lots of great little fills and touches that are severely under-appreciated in a band known more for its catchy melodies and lyrics.
Maher gets another nice moment as he introduces “I Don’t Mind”, which is self-deprecating, self-loathing, and self-doubt married to submission to a stronger personality in another of the many love-oriented tracks the Buzzcocks recorded (many of which appear on Love Bites, which does help to characterize the largely Shelley-written attitude toward it). The pleasant melody of the guitars and the backing vocals (courtesy Diggle and Maher) that “ooh” and “woah-oh” in rather un-punk fashion stands out a good bit more on this one, though it’s also fun the way Pete’s voice seems to chase that melody down until his semi-bored call out “I don’t mi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yind”, gives him top billing in the moment.
The guitars of “Love You More”, galloping their way into a sudden harmonic are some of my favourites. While the lyrics of most Buzzocks are brought to mind readily from a song title alone, “Love You More” is not one of Pete’s best vocal constructions–but it’s a great riff, rattling cheerfully up at the higher end of its range. Maher’s practically out of control if you stop and listen to him–or, well, not control, but just as if he got bored and decided to make things way more interesting for himself. Unbelievable variety in there! The final line, though, is a great one, especially as recorded to be a very abrupt end to the song.
So far as I can tell, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” was the biggest single for the Buzzcocks in terms of lasting appeal. It was the song chosen to represent BBC DJ John Peel in eulogy, appeared in his infamous box of at-hand 45rpm 7″ records, and was later re-recorded by a variety of artists, including a rather interesting one (released as a single) from the Fine Young Cannibals. It’s deserving, as the earliest of their singles to feel most fully-realized. While the previous four are catchy and fun and witty, “Ever Fallen in Love” has a sort of gravitas to its sound, a musical progression, a good riff, a catchy chorus, and a perfect example of the attitude Pete puts into his vocal performances. The song blasts in first, driving forward unrelentingly, but eases up and let’s a semi-casual guitar lick cross in front of it, bouncing from note to note, heading ever upward. Pete’s describing a doomed romance, a relationship that shouldn’t’ve been, but sings about it in an unusual way: “You disturb my natural emotions/You make me feel I’m dirt/And that hurts/And if I start a commotion/I’ll only end up losing you/And that’s worse”. The most affecting line of each triplet is the one he adds the most flavouring to, moving upward in a stylized way, then adding the “And that…” qualification as if it’s an aside, with a tone that’s sort of condescending, or somewhat precious. It’s really infectious, and deserves the accolades and attention it does continue to receive.
My original favourite Buzzcocks song (and it remains so now), “Promises” starts with guitars running up four rimes as quickly as possible before counterbalancing by peaking twice and coming back down at about half that speed. Pete begins to sing about the joyous beginnings of a relationship but, “Oh”, he sings, and John Maher answers with an absolutely awesome trip around his drumset at lightspeed. “How could you ever let me down?” he continues after Maher’s run around, “Down!” Diggle adds as echo (sometimes I amuse myself thinking this is the sole reason he gets co-writing credit, but it actually does have tinges of his approach throughout). After the chorus comes around a second time, there’s a short bridge, with riffs that slowly move upward a step at a time every few strums. “Oh what a shaaaame…” Pete’s voice goes up and sort of cracks and fades off, to take us back to the song proper. While I have had experience in percussion and guitar, neither amounted to anything (and I mean that in a realistic sense, not a self-deprecating, false modesty sense), there are handfuls of things that get me every time in music if done properly. A good tom-based fill (anyone who reads this blog consistently will notice that quickly) is one of those things, and the way that it’s sandwiched between the lines of a good chorus, and is opened with such a simple but catchy riff means this song remains worth all I’ve always felt.
The growing variation in songwriting makes itself most apparent in “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, their first single from 1979. Alternating beats are marked with the slow descent of notes from guitar, letting Garvey and Maher really control the song’s opening and verses. Garvey handles the melody for the verses, while Maher keeps the feeling of the song both uptempo and kind of upbeat. Shelley brings his falsetto in for the chorus, a sudden rush of guitar and a flattening and speeding of Garvey’s bassline, drawn upward by Shelley’s voice as it rises up the range of his falsetto, dropping for the final syllable of “nowadays”. There’s a certain optimism to the song, in a strange way, as he goes from calling life an illusion and love a dream, to denying that they are either, from not knowing what it is, to knowing “just what it is”.
The only A-Side that lacks a credit from Shelley is the last one included here (they did record further singles, but they would have no prayer of fitting on a record that is already relatively close to capacity on particularly the second side). “Harmony in My Head” is a Diggle track, and is also the only one (even amongst the B-Sides Steve also wrote) that features him as lead vocalist. The guitars of Diggle and Shelley trade styles back and forth through a few simple riffs and licks, as Diggle sings a throatier, yell of a vocal. The chorus is actually one of the second handful to catch my ear. Diggle’s gruffness disappears, for a low pitched, almost Joe Strummer-esque recitation of the song’s title. After its second appearance, the guitars turn to palm-muting and let only Pete sing the quiet backing harmony (ahem) of the chorus. While rapid paces are not foreign to the band, and Maher certainly doesn’t take any opportunity to slow here, the overall feel of the song is lower and slower, contrasting nicely and establishing the variance in approach Steve takes to songwriting, as compared to Pete.
“Whatever Happened To…?” has one of the most openly featured basslines, somewhat odd as it is the only other track (besides “Orgasm Addict”, its A-Side) recorded with the removed Garth and not the stalwart and longer-playing Steve Garvey. Garth opens the track alone, with short strikes of guitar announcing the entrance of the whole band. Pete lists a variety of things, questioning what happened to each of them, before coming to his real question: “Whatever happened to you and I?” It comes closest to Gang of Four territory lyrically, yet skewed by the romantic angle. Vengeful and dismissive, Pete notes that the object of the song (defiantly refusing to establish gender to buck trends, Pete later making his bisexuality more apparent and open in his solo work) has love most resembling a product–“Your love is a cashed in check” he sings as if this were a loving lyric. It’s a good companion to “What Do I Get?” balancing the self-pity against anger.
“Oh Shit!” furthers the B-Side trend of dismissive anger, a rather dispassionate interjection (which you can probably guess) followed with explanations for the “surprise” defines much of the verse. This is the shortest song in all of the album, and indeed in all of their career (barring the outro bit of fluff “Radio Nine” from A Different Kind of Tension, which is just the sound of a radio tuned through static-y plays of various Buzzcocks songs). One of the most normal solos appears in the middle of it, The exclamation is later pushed into another usage, implying an original intent and a set up: “Face it/You’re shit”. The mock surprise attached to the blunt declaration of the worthlessness of the song’s object works perfectly, as an affected guitar echoes out into the ether.
The other Diggle-penned track, “Autonomy”, was another of my second “wave” of appreciated tracks (until the list became “all of them”). Maher starts off with a galloping beat that a careless ear might actually mistake for the galloping drumming of Clive Burr in “Run to the Hills”, followed by the crunchy sound of riffing guitars that keep the same pace (as does Garvey’s bass), before each line of the verse evens things out for a moment. A quick guitar descent turns to the slow build of the chorus: “I…/I want you-oo-oo/Autonomy”. The guitars and bass slow their pace considerably for this, despite Maher’s continued rapid beat. Despite Diggle writing the song, Shelley sings it largely alone, harmonized with (probably) Diggle for the chorus alone. Despite Pete’s higher voice, this track shares the lower-end orientation of Diggle’s other track, as well as the slower feeling–despite the galloping instruments.
A bit of a swinging beat turns to a gnarly lead that falls downward to muted riffing that turns to a lead that predicts Shelley’s vocal melody, and then accompanies it directly. Each line ends with a variation on, “Have you ever heard your mother say/’Noise annoys’?” and everyone stops immediately at the end of the second word, until Pete instead asks if she has been heard to scream it, nearly doing so himself, guitars let ring this time as the song briefly runs into instrumental territory, and the best guitar solos on the record, traded between the two players for a good few bars each. For a song called “Noise Annoys”, this is a catchy little number, which I doubt many would mistake for “noise”. Though what some consider noise does surprise me on occasion.
Co-written with their manager (using a pseudonym), “Just Lust” is in the vein of the first few A-Sides at first, all catchy riffs and to-the-point rhythms. There’s a brief slowing for four lines–“You shattered all my dreams and/My head’s about to bust/Is it all real-that’s how it seems/But it all comes down to dust”–that gives that moment an illusory quality, the guitars seeming to slide around each other just a bit, and an effect overlaid on Pete’s voice to make it seem as though it is not quite real itself, an effect that becomes more prominent as the song comes to a close, the instruments eventually also dissolving and separating from each other.
The B-side to “Promises” I always remember is just that, but often cannot recall easily (similar to “Love You More” for me in this sense). The way the song starts suddenly, and Pete raises the pitch of his voice at the end of each line in the verse gives it a sense of lost context. Of course, that’s not entirely strange: the song is a relative of “Shot by Both Sides” (and shares the rising riff that is so signatory of that song, though it’s hidden in the background here), the first single Magazine recorded–after Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form that band (that song credited to Shelley and Devoto). The verses are actually the catchier vocal lines, in one of those strange instances that feels as if, perhaps, something was inverted.
Absolutely strange in the context of this collection, “Why Can’t I Touch it?” is twice as long as most of the songs on the album, more than three times as long as some, and a full two minutes longer than the next longest. Garvey finally gets a chance to be the spotlit bass, a catchy groove that Maher just plays in lockstep with, letting it shine and relaxing for just the one track. Two semi-harmonized guitars, one in each stereo channel, announce themselves, playing similar but slightly different riffs that occasionally blend together. Pete begins listing the senses he can use to recognize “it”, but wonders “Why can’t I touch it?” with vowels dragged out over numerous beats, his voice following the gentle downward movements of Garvey’s bassline. At only a third of the way through, echoing, strange guitar sounds manifest themselves, tweeting and whistling in the background. After the second verse (somewhat synesthestic) and chorus, Diggle and Shelley begin trading their riffs from channel to channel, giving the groove-oriented track an extended and more varied atmosphere than it would have if simply repeating all parts. Maher begins to fill more on the drums, Shelley and Diggle continuing to experiment with the space Maher and Garvey have left them, playing with the chords and pieces of their previous riffs. The riffs are kind of bright and cheerful, and weirdly happy, and a single-picked variation on them echoes out to finally close the song–a better choice than a simple fade, I think.
The second longest track is actually the next one: “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” which makes use of a high piano note jabbed over and over and over for all but the chorus, giving a kind of tense insistence to the song itself–like it’s that pinprick of realization that something’s gone wrong, though Pete’s lyrics and delivery of them implies a more “c’est la vie” attitude toward the inevitable failures of life. Slightly phased guitars shift in and out throughout the verse, but turn to a sort of warbling consistency over the chorus, where the piano drops for just a little while, the thudding, sigh and groan of the verses turning upward in tone for just a moment–odd, for the moment where Shelley repeats “Again/And again/And again and again again…” A second chorus turns into a shambling, disjointed, atonal solo of deliberate awkwardness. It’s interesting to think of a deliberately steady, repetitive song doing so to emphasize the monotony of things going wrong. Outside the chorus, the only relief is the pointed bass lick that starts quite high and picks up speed as it heads downward before ending on a note somewhere between its peak and its valley. It’s another complete jump away from the “Orgasm Addict”s and “Love You More”s of the album, hinting further at the curiosities that appear in their albums (like instrumentals as peculiar as “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”).
The Buzzcocks are inexplicably lesser-known as punk bands go, rarely coming in the same breath as the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones, or the Clash, or the Damned (also criminally under-remembered, despite the relative fame and acknowledgment). Perhaps it’s the pop-oriented approach of their (ludicrously catchy) music, or the musicianship and “arty” end of things like their instrumentals–not a surprise Devoto was once in the band, enough to imply some camaraderie with Shelley and Diggle (who was bassist for the group, before Shelley moved up, with guitar, to frontman status, leaving Diggle to take on guitars, too). Now, like many things, this is probably a cultural divide across the ocean, but most of the named early punk bands are British, so there’s really not a great excuse for dropping the Buzzcocks out here.
They have released albums since their initial (1981) breakup, smatterings of them here and there since that time. Some are actually pretty good, though the Shelley/Diggle divide has both balanced into a more even split of writing credits, and into a more “consistent” feeling per each. Perhaps it’s the loss of Maher’s more complicated drumming, or the absence of a brilliantly in-tune rhythm section of Maher and Garvey both–not that their current crop are amateurs, but the feeling inevitably changes. Devoto did actually come back to work with Pete again later, for the “Shelley/Devoto” album Buzzkunst (haw haw).
If you like catchy, pop-oriented music, and especially like it with a side of deadpan and wit, make sure this band has some kind of place in your library. If you aren’t allergic to compilations–or even if you are–this record is a brilliant starting place, as it has all the hooks to put in you.
  • Next Up: Captain Beefheart – Safe As Milk