Archive for 2000

Monday, September 18th, 2000


In recent Greatest Album polls, it’s become increasingly hip to cite Revolver as the finest Beatles album, and therefore, the greatest and most important rock album ever made. Revolver, so the new wisdom goes, is the album on which The Beatles begin to emancipate themselves from their Epstein-controlled moptop image and graduate to the second, more experimental half of their careers, from monochrome to colour, dragging Western popular culture behind them.

Revolver does contain a miniature masterpiece – “Eleanor Rigby”. That apart, however, it’s a hotpotch – conservative, derivative, saccharine, mean-spirited, whimsical and just plain tedious by turns, with the odd, tinny flurry of backward guitar hardly bolstering the argument for its monumentalism.

Let’s examine this 35 minute “masterpiece”. George Harrison’s “Taxman” kicks it off. Over a petulant, jerky riff later ripped off by the similarly petulant, jerky Paul Weller on “Start”, George Harrison delivers a tirade against the Inland Revenue which would embarrass even the most dyspeptic Daily Telegraph correspondent. “If five per cent should seem to small/Be thankful I don’t take it all,” whines Harrison with all the harrowing self-pity of one so hard done by he’s down to his last three Bentleys. The supposed even-handedness of the overlaid harmony line, “taxman, Mr Wilson/Taxman Mr Heath” only exacerbates the small-mindedly disgruntled Poujadism of the song; “why, they’re just as bad as each other, to my mind, these politicians.”

This proto-Thatcherite drivel would be hard enough to swallow – but then who’s this, three tracks later, waggling his sitar and filling the studio with Hindustani musicians? Why, it’s George again, transformed from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells into pseudo-Eastern spiritualist, warning us of the futility of materialism; “A lifetime is so short/ A new one can’t be bought.” So stop moaning about your tax bills then, you late, lamented wanker!

Far from exhibiting the Beatles’ hidden depths, Revolver inadvertently reveals their hidden shallownesses. Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” is a shambling, sub-Kinks paean to his own idleness which would later see him holed away for years in his Dakota apartment, smacked up to his fatuous eyeballs. McCartney’s “For No One” is his astonishingly cold farewell to former lover Jane Asher, a formal back-step from true emotional responsibility worthy of Larry Sanders. Notably, he’s comfier with the chocolate box blandishments of “Here, There And Everywhere”, perhaps the soppiest song The Beatles ever recorded. But then, that’s McCartney for you – hard and soft in all the wrong places.

Revolver is supposed to herald The Beatles’ psychedelic futurism. If so, no one told McCartney. He also contributes the laboured, retro, Motown pastiche of “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “Good Day Sunshine”, which sounds like a jingle for a Kelloggs Cornflakes ad, and “Yellow Submarine”, lambasting which is  like lambasting the Teletubbies. Lennon, meanwhile, gives us the supercilious “And Your Bird Can Sing”, noteworthy only for inspiring the “And Your Bird Can’t Sing” joke when Yoko Ono took up her screeching career. The small-chorded, cynical “Dr Robert” and “She Said” are the last, grumpy ‘old Lennon’ stabs at the bullshit spawned by the burgeoning drugs culture – only for Lennon himself to weigh in for the finale with the biggest load of drug-inspired bullshit of the lot. “Tomorrow Never Knows” heralds his asinine decision to start taking LSD. Revolver apologists regard this gormlessly naive, sub-Learyesque call to universal brainrot as the album’s defining moment. Yet even here, Lennon hasn’t the courage of his convictions, undermining the track with a lot of silly Red Indian noises and Goon Show-style tuneless piano, signifying that banal and very English fear and loathing of pretentiousness that passed for his “wickedly surreal sense of humour”.

As Lennon later proved on “Revolution”, he was far too indecisive and pusillanimous a soul ever to lead “us” anywhere. The only reason Revolver is feted by critics is as a hipper-than-thou debunking of the conventional wisdom that Sergeant Pepper was The Beatles’ finest album. “Oh yes, everybody talks about Pepper but of course, Revolver is vastly superior. Came out a year earlier, you know.” This, however, has become as conventional and under-examined a truism as the notion that Sergeant Pepper’s very English, boiled sweet psychedelia is the apex of all rock achievement. The Beatles’ brightest work was behind them in 1966, their truly darkest work ahead. Revolver was their greyest.

Saturday, September 9th, 2000

Dark Side Of The Moon

Having weathered its own prolonged dark side of unfashionability, it’s back! A recent poll of critics/fans/musicians etc voted Dark Side Of The Moon ninth greatest album ever made. It is, once more, Important Listening.

Its been rehabilitiated in the slipstream of Radiohead, whose own game struggles to keep up a straight-faced posture of grandiose disgust, marginalisation, despair, isolation and anti-materialism in the face of an unremitting shower of admiration, thronging adulation, corporate accomodation and truckloads of money have so impressed us all. (“Look – just shoo. Go away. We’re trying to look anguished”). Their debt in this respect to Floyd is acknowledged. The Dark Side . . . remains, however, what it always was – an immaculately honed, strenuously produced, consistently textured, fastidiously polished turd.

In their earliest years, Pink Floyd were fine exponents of cracked English psychedelia, with Roger Waters, Rick Wright and Nick Mason lending colour to the fragile LSD meanderings of Syd Barrett. When Barrett went under, they continued in a spaced-out and musically exploratory vein best showcased on Ummagumma. However, with 1973’s Dark Side Of The Moon, conceptualist Roger Waters decided it was time for the Floyd sound to come into ” focus”. Careful with that axe, Gilmour – keep that organ down to an insipid drone, Rick. Muffle those drums, Nick. Roger is about to make a Major Musical Statement.

“Breathe” sets the musical tone. Bland, wan, grandiloquent washes of guitar ebb and flow like windscreen fluid from one speaker to the other, the height of Seventies stereo sophistication. From his lofty eyrie of superior existential awareness, Waters surveys the scrabbling rat race of humanity pityingly. “Run, rabbit run/Dig that hole, forget the sun/And when at last the work is done/Don’t sit down it’s time to start another one.” Yes, pathetic, aren’t we? Listen, you overprivileged, horsefaced oaf, some of us need to scratch around in proper day jobs for a living, much as we’d love to muse idly in some luxury studio on the silly futility of it all. “Time” considers a vexed question that has preoccupied the sort of elderly, housebound ladies who, when TV newscasters bid them a good night, reply “goodnight” to the screen – to wit, “eee, where does the time go?” Ingeniously prefaced by a cacophony of chiming clocks (to denote time, you see. It’s symbolism), Waters observes, to those to whom it had never occurred, that each passing day sees us getting “older/Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” as some backing vocalist shrieks cod-gospel amens of assent in the background, before Gilmour unleashes a lengthy, stupendously uninspired guitar solo in order to aid our mental digestion of Roger’s thoughts on time.

Ironically, time doesn’t seem to pass half so quickly as you’d wish to on Rick Wright’s “The Great Gig In The Sky”, a stupefyingly dull instrumental featuring Clare Torry screaming incoherently in the background as if her sequin dress has caught fire.

Next comes “Money”. Another ingenious intro – the sound of cash tills ringing (money, you see).

The same idea was used for the theme of Are You Being Served, an indication that brilliant artistic minds think alike. Here, Waters waxes caustic on the acquisitive mentality. “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash,” he jeers. Money is not important to rock heroes like Waters, you understand. This may, however, because the is wallowing in such an obscene abundance of it. This song is less a call to redistribute wealth – Floyd certainly never redistributed theirs – more a sneer at those pitiful vulgarians who are obsessed with the stuff. Half-impoverished bods like us, for instance. Arsehole.

Waters continues his downer on “Us And Them”, an instructive reminder of the folly that led to World War 1, a more showily ruminative take on Boy George’s “War is stupid and people are stupid” line. “Brain Damage” ponderously ponders the question of who is really insane, the “lunatics” or Society? (Answer: The lunatics, Roger. That’s why, unlike Society, they talk excitedly to pigeons) before “Eclipse” ends an a note of the airiest lyrical waffle since George Harrison’s heyday.

Dark Side . . . is intended as a reproach to materialist society – ironically, it would become a key acquisition among the new Seventies shagpile bourgeoisie. In its “revolutionary” sound, a melange as translucent, textured, rich and tasteless as pork pie jelly, they perceived a product of Quality and Distinction, a chance to show off their hi-fis, while Waters’ mediocre and impotent hand-wringing only enhanced the recording, indicating that this was music for the thinking man, not mere irreflective pop dross. Decades on, it should be lampooned alongside loon pants, David Cassidy and Cadbury’s Smash, not revered. Yorke, you chicken-faced misery, this is all your fault.

Saturday, July 8th, 2000

Stevie Wonder

“There’s never been a time when Stevie Wonder hasn’t been relevant,” said an associate of Wonder’s on Channel 4’s recent Top 10 Seventies Soul. True enough, Though he’s only 50, he’s been a feature of mainstream pop and soul since 1963’s “Fingertips”, as long as Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones. Between 1972 and 1976 he was arguably the world’s greatest recording artist, a judgment echoed commercially, critically and by his peers. At the 1975 Grammy Awards, winner Paul Simon sheepishly thanked Wonder for not releasing a record that year. Yet by 1979, the release of disastrous The Secret Life Of The Plants had rendered him a laughing stock.

He was the first popular artist, black or white, to make extensive use of the synthesizers on his records, weaving them so naturally into his songs that his revolutionary role in the electrification of modern music is often overlooked. Kraftwerk’s synthpop is more remarked upon because it was central to their modernist manifesto. With Wonder, synths were just a means to give added colour, inflection and realisation to his inner emotional world. Yet by 1981, the onset of disco left the Wondersound feeling as technically obsolete as a Sinclair computer.

1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life was said to have been edited down from an eligible pile of over 200 songs. It’s often regarded as Wonder’s finest achievement, though in hindsight, it shows the first signs of his decline. Only slavishly uncritical Wonderfans would argue that he ever made a great album again. Yet he was just 26. Since then he’s mainly dished out saccharine ballads for Sharons and Darrens. What went wrong? How could an artist make such a sheer descent from the ridiculously sublime to the stupendously bland?

Before we consider that, let’s look at the far more important, gratifying question of what went right. Born Stevland Judkins Morriss in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan, little Stevie went blind at birth due to a mishap in the level of oxygen in his incubator. He could have felt aggrieved but as he later explained, he felt blessed – a little girl in a neighbouring incubator had died as a result of the same hospital error. Stevie Wonder’s blindness, however, was always a help rather than a hindrance to his musical career. Despite his life’s mediocre prospects, he was essentially a joyous, fun-loving soul who created his own world of sound. He would nestle under the bedcovers illicitly listening to the r&b channels by nighttime and by daytime drive his family to distraction, tapping out rhythms on pots, pans and whatever utensils came to hand before someone had the sense to buy him a harmonica and drumkit.

Like many black artists, he made a name for himself at his local church. Unlike most, however, he’d landed a record contract by the age of 12, with the fledging Motown label, discovered, according to legend, by Ronnie White of the Miracles. Stevie was dubbed a “wonder” by Berry Gordy – the moniker stuck. His debut single was as clumsily unprepossessing as the title suggests; “I Call It Pretty Music, But The Old People Call It The Blues” and a couple of follow ups would bomb before Motown experimented with capturing Stevie’s exuberance on disc, recording “Fingertips Parts 1 & 2” live. It worked spectacularly, with Little Stevie backed by the brassy high kicking sounds of an in-house band, working a teenybopper audience into the sort of frenzy James Brown had recently achieved on the Live At The Apollo album. With his call-and-response style and harmonica pyrotechnics, “Fingertips” sounds as giddily energetic today as it did then.

However, a parallel pop history could have had Stevie going the way of so many other child prodigies – one big, gimmicky single followed by a run of failure and the eventual, traumatic drop back into oblivion. The Lena Zavaroni of his day, maybe. For months, years, it looked that way as singles like “Hey Harmonica Man”, intended to replicate the success and style of “Fingertips”, failed to do so. Fortunately, Motown stuck with him and were rewarded in 1965 when “Uptight” reached no. 3. Relentlessly uptempo, it’s a feelgood tale of love across the railroad tracks. It established Wonder as a major Motown player.

A rush of hits ensued – “I Was Made To Love Her”, “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” and “You Met Your Match”. All were quality, if generic Motown fare, characterised by Wonder’s urgently impassioned vocals in which he seemed constantly to be gasping for air on the mic. By the late Sixties, however, he was emerging as one of Motown’s principal writers as well as performers, with songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland having quit the label. As well as co-penning his own hits like “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once In My Life”, he was writing for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Martha and The Vandellas. It was now Motown who were becoming dependent on the no-longer little Stevie.

Come the Seventies, Wonder began to baulk. He’d turned 21 and was piqued to discover that he was entitled to only $1 million of his $30 million earnings. He wanted more control over his business affairs. Moreover, like many other black artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Motown stablemate Marvin Gaye, he felt he’d been forced to “sit out” the Sixties’ civil rights movement, constrained by the pragmatic dictates of a pop/showbiz career from speaking out more explicitly on black issues. He’d had hits with a cover of Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind” and Ron Miller’s “Heaven Help Us All” and Motown Supremo Berry Gordy had allowed Wonder to attend a couple of civil rights benefits when he felt it was expedient for Motown’s PR purposes but generally Gordy was a conservative businessman, who didn’t want sales compromised by any agitpop from his artists.

Wonder re-negotiated his contract, demanding complete artistic freedom. That bit Gordy didn’t mind – by 1971 he realised the days of the Motown hitmaking machine were numbered and there were dollars to be made out of more progressive attitudes. What Gordy objected to rather more was Wonder’s setting up his own publishing company, Taurus Productions, to lease his songs back to Motown.

Still, he gave in and in 1972, Wonder produced Music Of My Mind, the first of five deathlessly magnificent albums. Thematically, Music Of My Mind doesn’t see Wonder yet articulating his political views – he had other matters to preoccupy him. The album is one of bittersweet love songs, reflecting the highs and lows of his brief marriage to, and bust-up with, Syreeta Wright. The real revolutionary stuff occurs on the musical side. Wonder had first been attracted to the work of engineers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil when he heard their all-synthesizer album project Tonto’s Expanding Headband. They’d taken to working at night at New York’s Media Sound studios, when the studio hours were affordable and they were left to their own devices. These working hours suited Wonder, in whose mind there was no distinction between day and night in any case. What’s more, whereas most musicians found the new-fangled, cumbersome and tricky-to-programme prototype synths too much like hard work to master, Wonder, with his hyper-developed affinity to the world of sound was happy to persist with them.

The trio struck up a working relationship that involved Margouleff and Cecil enabling Stevie to work in his new medium of clavichords, arps and moogs. The resultant sound veers between the supersonic euphoria of “Love Having You Around”, with its bubblebath of vocoders and squelchy keyboards and the darker strains of “Seems So Long” and “Superwoman”. The synthesizer arrangements on these songs, far from rendering them plastic, cold or gimmicky, only intensified their limpid beauty. On “Superwoman”, whose guarded optimism is followed by a sequel of romantic disappointment, every electronic keyboard note falls like a teardrop into a limpid pool of melancholy, while the arp synth peals like a sad siren. The album ends with “Evil”, whose funeral parlour tones, (“Why have you engulfed so many hearts . . .destroyed many minds?”) reflect Wonder’s fundamental pessimism about the world. A deeply religious man he believed, in the Seventies at any rate, that mankind was in its final days.

Though ‘Music . .’ has its sassy moments, it’s a seductively sombre sound – even its more sanguine love songs, like “I Love Everything About You”, somehow sound sad and conditional. While the album didn’t sell massively, it did attract him to the prog-rock community. Whistle Test’s “Whispering” Bob Harris later included Music . . . in a Ten Best Ever list, The Rolling Stones invited Wonder to tour with them and he struck up a working relationship with guitarist Jeff Beck. Though Beck would work with Wonder on his next album, 1972’s Talking Book, the pair would fall out acrimoniously when Wonder released “Superstition” as a single in his own right, having promised it to the guitarist.

Whatever breach of promise took place here was surely worth it – it’s hard to imagine Beck having done anything like justice to the track. For Wonder, it was his first great Seventies smash, with its bustling, rapid-fire synth riff, illegally funky brass and Wonder in fine admonishing form. “If you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer/Superstition ain’t the way.” This was, literally, the electrification of soul music.

Talking Book, featuring Wonder on the sleeve in braids and the full African garb that would later become his permanent sartorial trademark, sees Wonder embracing the prog notion of The Album. “A single is like a page in a book,” he said, “The album is like the whole book.” It provided a second hit in the form of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, a song which typifies Wonder for many as a purveyor of superior Radio Two MOR blandishments. No one, however, is more aware than Wonder of how the song has been well-meaningly abused over the years by second-rate ocean liner cabaret crooners and no one does a more hilariously wicked parody of these people than Wonder himself. Listen again to the original and you’ll hear it for what it is, a musical equivalent of the first breath of Spring. Elsewhere, the album charts a richly evocative valley between sadness and redemption, with Wonder still evidently not yet over the split with Syreeta Wright.

Though they continued to work together, Wonder was deeply affected by the break-up, his music taking on the darker hues of his emotional bruises. From an artistic viewpoint, it was an incredibly fortuitous divorce, enabling him to give sincere vent to his full, dramatic range. “You And I”, a seemingly inoffensively pious ballad with an Arp buzzing about like Cupid in the background is elevated by Wonder’s deeply felt treatment, in his thunderous piano chords and the high, mighty and sustained vibrato on which he climaxes the song. “Looking For Another Pure Love” has an Audenesque poignancy about it, while “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” is drenched with a sense of its own salvation, in the font of true love.

Another standout track is “Big Brother”, Wonder’s first broadsides against incumbent President Nixon, who always brought out his bitterest lyrical bile. Tracked by a harmonica line caught somewhere between laughter and tears, Wonder sings, “You’ve killed all our leaders/I don’t even have to do nothing to you/You’ll cause your own country to fall.”

This mood of almost apocalyptic disdain for the political establishment was given fuller vent on 1973’s superb “Innervisions”, one of the very greatest albums ever made and far superior to Marvin Gaye’s hand-wringing one-trick pony of an album What’s Going On. “Living For The City” has the righteous, quality of a quickstep Freedom March, erect with dignity, disgust and determination to make it in hardtime urban America. “Her clothes are old/But never are they dirty.” You can forgive lines like “To find a job/Is like the haystack needle/’Cos where he lives/They don’t use coloured people”, given Wonder’s rivetingly impassioned delivery. Even the mini-play in the middle of the song works, caught up in the mood of urgent rage. Innervisions was Stevie Wonder’s most explicitly socially conscious album. “Too High”, couched in an ironically uptempo, bebop tones takes a pitying look at victims of drugs culture, “Jesus Children Of America” is an ambivalent elegy to the hippy generation, “Visions” is a Martin Luther King-style mirage of what might be, perceived through a halcyon haze of strings while “He’s Misstra Know It All” is another attack on Nixon, shuffling simply but irresistibly along with a chaingang gospel chorus humming reproachfully in the background, with Wonder rapping and raging against the lengthy fadeout.

Yet Innervisions is also a supreme reminder of Wonder’s astonishing versatility and range. He’s no longer so immersed in synths but master of a wide palate of acoustic and electric colours, an alchemist at the height of his powers. There’s “All In Love Is Fair”, a ballad which finally puts a full stop behind his break-up with Syreeta, the glittering, glorious, underrated “Golden Lady”, the unbridled Latino optimism of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and, of course, “Higher Ground”, a vivacious riot of clavier synth. The latter song was strangely prophetic, with its relief at being somehow given a second chance (“‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin.”) For barely weeks after the release of Innervisions, Wonder suffered a near-fatal road crash which left him in a coma for several days and permanently robbed him of his sense of smell.

Hereafter, there’s a sea-change in his writing, as if his previous forebodings of doom had been worked through in his own, private catastrophe. On 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”, it’s discernible on more affirmative songs like “Smile Please” and the positive note chimed in the Arcadian synth-soaked “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away”. FFF does die away over the last few tracks but much of it is top drawer – the racey “Boogie On, Reggae Woman”, all roving keyboard fingers and probing moog, “Creepin'”, a song which vividly evokes the shadows of fear and loneliness in which love dwells and one last broadside at the hapless Nixon, “You Haven’t Done Nothing”, with its snowplough bass riff and brass section literally scoffing the disgraced President off the stage. The Jackson 5 provided backing vocals here, the nearest Michael ever come to outright political protest.

A two year delay followed before Songs In The Key Of Life, with Wonder no longer working with Margouleff and Cecil. Speculation and expectation were feverish, with Wonder rumoured to be sitting on a pile of songs, waiting to see which way the musical trend barometer was pointing before deciding on which to release. The resultant album retailed at a massive £7.99, with aghast punters contemplating applying for mortgages to purchase it. It was worth it. Though “Pastime Paradise” is a slow-moving piece of old-style evangelism and the stately “Village Ghetto Land” mournfully depicts the privations of inner city life, “Songs . . .” is at its best when it’s at its most uproariously upbeat. On “Sir Duke”, for instance, a delicious pop encapsulation of the late Ellington’s genius, or “I Wish”, a heartbursting, joyous reminiscence on life as a little kid, or the endless, rolling Salsa rhythms of “Another Star”, or “As”‘s chorus upon chorus of love declarations.

Songs . . however, also shows the first signs of curdling in Wonder’s career. The album seems padded with semi-memorable and overlong ballads. He strikes a clunkingly pious note on “Have A Talk With God”, struggling to honey over trite lyrics with his characteristic vocal mannerisms. “Black Man”‘s synth programming is excitingly state-of-the-art but its lyrical celebration of black achievement sits more awkwardly, while the call-and-response sequence involving schoolchildren simply makes the listener want to smother themselves with a pillow. Then there’s the pleasant but ominous “Isn’t She Lovely”, a paean to his baby daughter, whereon Wonder seems stricken with that ickiness common among first-time parents.

The less said about 1979’s The Secret Life Of The Plants, a concept album concerning our herbaceous friends, the better. 1980’s Hotter Than July was a partial recovery, featuring “Masterblaster”, a tribute to his friend Bob Marley, whose infectious optimism (“Third World’s right one the one”) would ring unfortunately hollow given Marley’s death in 1981 and the grim decade facing Africa. Since then, there’s been a plethora of grisly ballads (“Lately”, “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, “Ebony And Ivory”), the odd, bland soundtrack appearance and a procession of mushy AOR.

Wonder nowadays is a still-charismatic figure, still well worth catching live but musically peripheral. He’s been active in a variety of social causes, many of which have manifested themselves with embarrassing didacticism in his songwriting (“Don’t Drive Drunk” and “Apartheid (It’s Wrong)”). Part of Wonder’s decline can be ascribed to musical context. For starters, in spite of the electronic nature of his music, there was never much going on in Wonder’s beatbox. On the Seventies albums he’d play the drums himself, keeping time rather than establishing a big-ass rhythm. When disco and the bpm-driven Eighties came along, Wonder never bothered to keep techno pace with the times.

What’s more, when synths became part of digitalised studio orthodoxy, Wonder’s music lacked the eerily evocative experimentalism he achieved through Margouleff and Cecil’s prototype analogue engineering. Compare, say, Talking Book’s “You’ve Got It Bad, Girl” with a later effort like “If Ever” and you’ll see what I mean. Wonder’s classic sequence of albums found him at the forefront of a musical innovation in soul music, but they also caught him at a time when his own soul was in spiritual torment, with his sadness at his divorce and his long pent-up anger at social injustice further colouring and nourishing the already abundant creativity of this uniquely sensitive individual.

Today he’s no less alive to social issues but he’s found a level of satisfaction in his life, if nothing else the satisfaction in all that he’s said and done. Maybe Wonder has a musical miracle left in him, probably not. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t owe us a thing. If you don’t own every album he made between 1972 and 1976 there’s a vast hole in your record collection, folks. He’s a deservedly revered figure, held in an awe and affection equivalent to Muhammad Ali in sports. Like Ali, he need feel no guilt about basking in previous glories. Happy birthday, Wonderman.

Thursday, June 29th, 2000

Pet Sounds

When Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds in 1966 it was in response to what he saw as the gauntlet thrown down by the Beatles with Rubber Soul. Avid Beach Boys fans, however, were perplexed by the album. Wilson, the wisdom goes, was too far ahead of the game – as his own song sighed, “I just wasn’t made for these times”. The critics agreed, retrospectively elevating Pet Sounds to its proper and permanent place in the rock pantheon.

Yet far from being a flawless landmark en route to the rock’n’roll future, Pet Sounds is a deeply reactionary record, a baroque lament for a pre-Beatles age of gormless innocence made by a chubby, mentally unstable, Daddy-dominated dysfunctional nerd. Pet Sounds is a record that reverberates with terror at the untamed world of adulthood that Sixties rock was on the point of ushering in, as symbolised in the horror of “Caroline No”. Small wonder that after this album, Wilson took to his bed, a non-participant in the gloriously wild remainder of the decade. Strange things happened to The Beach Boys and they did strange things but they were not wild – they were as cowed and tame in spirit as the farm animals featured on the somewhat trite cover to Pet Sounds. This is not a record that dreams rock’n’roll dreams of exciting new worlds but craves perpetually for a regressive, thumb-sucking bliss. “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” is Wilson wishing he’d been born in an earlier, not a later generation. “You Still Believe In Me” contains the longest whine in pop history – “I wanna cryyyyyyyyyyayyyyyyyyayayayyyyyyy . . .”. It’s the enfeebled tantrum of a man who knows the T-Bird of inane surf music has been towed away. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” yearns for a halcyon, endless, sexless, bobbysox state of romance – “I wish this kiss would last forever” and is couched in the ramalalama, doo-wop tones of an obsolete Fifties era. “Let’s Go Away For A While” is still more banal. Critics have read fathoms of infinite, aching longing into this instrumental but what again, it’s a song about retreat – about the impulsive urge to take a holiday when life gets too much, as it frequently did for the pitiful Wilson. The Reaper is fair-minded – “God Only Knows” is the album’s one great song, in spite of its banal, coconut-shell rhythms. Yet even here, the silent partner to whom it’s addressed must pause for thought at what kind of clingy, invertebrate character she’s saddled herself with. Wilson’s studio perfectionism has attracted a welter of anal/academic interest. But the vocal harmonies, the arrangements, the control freakery are the down to his desire to create a toy, harmonised world of his own to live in, a distraction from the chaos of the actual world. No wonder he hated playing live and eventually refused to do so – the spontaneity, the exciting and unexpected were all anathema to his timid soul. Hence his solace in orchestration. Critics are so rapt about Wilson’s painstaking efforts here that they lost sight of the end result. “I’m Waiting For The Day” sounds like a school band, recorders and all, invited onto Blue Peter to perform a selection of sea shanty arrangements, while the instrumental title track is pure Test Card music. Pet Sounds chimes thus throughout, with resonances of an attic full of nostalgic, childish things. It’s much-vaunted “melancholia” is merely a craving for a retarded state of halcyon bliss. It is in short, a weak album made by a weak man that appeals to the all of our weakest yearnings, to hide under a warm duvet and wish the world would go away. Wake up, folks. Pet Sounds is pathetic.

Sunday, June 18th, 2000

Raging Bull

When the question, ‘What was Martin Scorsese’s greatest ever movie?’ arises, film buffs tend to sidestep the most plausible candidates (King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Mean Streets) and plump reflexively for two of his worst – Taxi Driver (already slaughtered in this column) and Raging Bull.

This 1980 biopic of Forties middleweight Jake LaMotta is swaddled in hushed reverence, evoked by the spurious religiosity of the opening scene in which Robert De Niro’s LaMotta limbers up in the ring, hooded like some warrior-monk. It is regularly cited as the greatest ever boxing movie, though of course, it is more than a “mere” boxing movie. Well, for starters, as a boxing movie, Raging Bull is no less risible than the Rocky series. The ring action oscillates ludicrously, with one combatant unleashing nine unanswered punches before taking nine in return, with neither fighter apparently capable of the basic defensive strategy of putting up your dukes.

Historically, the film distorts the balance between Sugar Ray Robinson and LaMotta, making them out to be like Ali-Frazier, closely matched rivals. In fact, Robinson handily beat LaMotta five times out of their six encounters, ignoring instructions to “carry” LaMotta in their last bout. LaMotta brags, “You never knocked me down” in the movie – sure, Jake, but he knocked you in every other direction.

War has often been described as moments of appalling violence punctuating long periods of boredom and thus could Raging Bull be described. The fixed-position, relentlessly grey interior shots are mistaken by some for arthouse intensity when they’re actually exercises in mounting tedium. The courtship scenes between LaMotta and Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) are so deliberately dull you feel like going into the garden and watching wood warp instead.

Furthermore, the film suffers from a curious syndrome whereby characters can hear each other perfectly when they mumble dialogue inaudible to the viewer, but become hard of hearing whenever they raise their voices.”You fuck my wife?” “What?” “You fuck my wife? “What?” The film could have been brought in an hour shorter if everyone didn’t have to keep saying everything three times like a couple of deaf men on a train. As for the main players, Joe Pesci’s runty brother might command some sympathy if he didn’t turn out to be as inexplicably fucked in the head as his brother. The Mafiosi LaMotta defies are about as menacing as a bunch of concerned Rotarians taking an avuncular interest in a wayward protege. Cathy Moriarty plays La Motta’s wife Vickie with such bovine, peroxide sloth that, while deploring domestic violence, one hopes in vain that one by-product of her slappings might be that she comes to life a bit. De Niro, meanwhile, face with the complex psychological challenge of playing a man frequently described in the film as having a “head of rock” does his usual schtick of letting his jaw slacken, his head cock and staring blankly.

Finally, where is the arc to De Niro’s LaMotta? Does he go or take us anywhere except on a predictable journey into macho futility? The film gives no indication of any such evolution. The concluding scene in which he rehearses some clearly dire routine, involving the ”Coulda been a contender’ speech from On The Waterfront before pummelling the air implies that he’s a self-pitying washout living in the past. As if to compensate for this bathos, this petering out of a pointlessly dreary and unedifyingly violent movie, Scorsese winds off with a biblical quote of obscure relevance (“I was blind, now I can see”). His notions of Catholicity and redemption often lead Scorsese curiously astray into moral neutrality, here particularly. Finally, the strains of Pietro Mascagni’s cheap and trite operatic score attempt to bellow some solemnity into the proceedings.

The trick works. Critics, concussed into thinking they have undergone a profound cinematic experience, ascribe to Raging Bull a grandiosity it simply doesn’t possess. They discuss it as a metaphor for the “corruption of the American dream” (how?), even talk about its dramatisation of the Freudian precept that the child’s erroneous equation of sex with violence leads to later trauma. Bollocks. It’s about a thick, wife beating pug who won the title, then lost it and gained weight. Still, how often, when De Niro’s Academy Award-winning performance is cited, do they bring up in awestruck tones how he bulked up 40 pounds for the final scenes? An Oscar for getting fat! They should give me one.