Friday, 27 November 2009

A Song For Me

It has long been a courtship ritual that all couples find themselves at a social gathering at least once in those formative years where they manage to make fools of themselves during the three minutes that it takes to play a pop song and forever after that song becomes ‘their tune’. Subsequent plays of their tune brings forth a rush of either cringing embarrassment or fond memory dependant upon what went on during the period.

If couples can have a song all to themselves, then why not individuals? Of course everybody has favourite songs but I’m thinking here more of a sort of signature tune that represents the person rather than just a once liked melody. If truth be told mine would probably be Garbage’s ‘Only Happy When it Rains’. It just seems so right in all sorts of ways.

First, it has a quirky song structure which is quite basic yet a bit mystifying. It only has two musical sections in it which alternate backward and forwards in a ABAB pattern which under normal circumstances would be labelled ‘verse’ and ‘chorus’ yet it is not really clear which is which. I love the ambiguity of it and the fact that it cannot be easily pigeon-holed. It feeds my appetite for the strange and off-kilter in art.

I’m only happy when it rains
I’m only happy when it’s complicated
And though I know you can’t appreciate it
I’m only happy when it rains

Second, the lyric is gloriously melancholic, born of singer Shirley Manson’s own well-documented depression, yet has an intrinsic uplifting quality and that is its utter open-wound honesty. As a true Piscean melancholic dreamer myself, I embrace the sentiments entirely and love the pragmatic anti-optimistic message. In fact its wry observations make me smile with recognition and for that alone it is worth its weight in medication as a pick-me-up. I recommend it unreservedly as despite it all, I always feel better for hearing it.

You know I love it when the news is bad
Why it feels so good to feel so sad
I’m only happy when it rains

And lastly, it is true: I’m only happy when it rains. Well, not exactly, but I really don’t like the sun in that sort of blisteringly hot all day every day holiday type thing. It makes me sweat and turns me lobster colour. I like the British climate and could never live anywhere where it is sunny all day.

I only smile in the dark
My only comfort is the night gone black
I didn’t accidentally tell you that
I’m only happy when it rains

Naturally, it helps that it has a great melody and has an edgy arrangement based around swirling guitars and thumping drums. The sledgehammer treatment surrounding Manson’s beautifully judged vocals lift it out from the usual pop mush of the charts and put it in a place where I am happy to seek it out. In fact Manson is one of the best live singers I know. She has great pitch control and bags of style. Sing it girl!

I’m only happy when it rains
You want to hear about my new obsession
I’m riding high upon a deep depression
I’m only happy when it rains

Yes, it’ll do for me.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

No Music Day

You know, the life of a blogger can be hard sometimes. Thinking up a new subject every few days and then writing about it in a witty and informative style can be a bit trying when the rest of your life is in a bit of a tizz, and you don’t get paid for it! So I am indebted to one of my faithful readers, Alan, who has alerted me to the following website, which claims to be supporting a 5 year plan to have 21st November named ‘No Music Day’, 2009 being the final year of the plan.

The fact that I’ve never heard of it during the period 2005 to 2008 doesn’t say much for the success of the campaign but nevertheless, it is worth a thought. The site lists a whole load of rules that apply on No Music Day but essentially no one is allowed to play, listen to, make, distribute or generally deal in music for 24 hours.

For me, the thought of not listening to music is a bit of a killer and may require chocolate biscuits but the concept of not playing or making any seems a bit draconian and indeed nebulous to me – for example, does that include not drumming your fingers on the desk or humming tunelessly without realising it? I think the policing of these proposals could be a tad tricky. How do you stop people ‘thinking’ music?

Nevertheless, on reflection, there are one or two benefits that occur. One is to stop all music playing in public places. So no music in shopping malls, hotel toilets, lifts or restaurants and definitely no music blaring at you when you are forced to hold on the telephone for hours on end. This I can identify with as there is nothing more demeaning to a great piece of music than to have it forced on uninterested listeners in inappropriate places whilst they are doing something else (press 7 if you never want to listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ ever again…). I have long bridled against this sort of music-as-wallpaper idea. It’s just not respectful of art.

The second benefit would be to stop builders, postman and tradespersons generally whistling tunes as a) it is a hideous noise and b) they never get the melody quite right or keep swapping keys which is even more galling. You feel like grabbing them by the throat and saying, ‘NO, NO, NO, it goes like THIS!!’

So, as usual, I am sitting on the fence here and going for a partial solution whereby 21st November becomes ‘No Music in Public Day’. This means I can carry on as usual without all that public broadcasting nonsense. Sorted.

PS Don't forget that my book, 'Memoirs of a Muisc Obsessive' is still available through Amazon to solve the problem of all those difficult-to-buy-Christmas-presents-for friends and relations!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Dear God

There are some subjects that are decidedly dodgy when it comes to writing a song. Anything to do with Yellow Ribbons and dogs named Boo immediately spring to mind, but there are others. Death was a bit taboo until The Beatles gave us the sublime ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and once upon a time sex would’ve been in the same bag – but you wouldn’t know that today. In fact, these days just about anything goes, as the song says, …except perhaps religion which still has the power to start wars.

I’ve been playing XTC’s ‘Dear God’ of late and wondering quite why it didn’t cause a heap more fuss than it did back in 1987 when it was first released as a single following the ‘Skylarking’ album. After all, see what happened to John Lennon after his ‘More famous than Jesus’ comments. Certainly there were music shops in the UK that refused to stock it as they feared a religious backlash and there was the usual contempt from some hard-line Christians but in the final analysis it became so popular with American DJs that ‘Skylarking’ was re-released in the US to include the song (to the detriment of ‘Mermaid Smiled’ which was dropped – only so much space on a vinyl disc!)

So what was all the fuss about? Andy Partridge, the writer, has said that it didn’t go far enough to express his anger but it still does a pretty good job of examining the age old question that dogs religion, if there is a God why does He allow wars, famine, disease and suffering in general? Partridge rants convincingly about his doubts of the existence of and benevolence of God in the middle of the song but the beginning and end are sung with a child’s innocence by the then 8 year old daughter of a friend of producer Todd Rundgren, a device which underlines the poignancy of the questions being asked of the deity.

Despite being such a hot potato, the song has been covered several times by a wide range of artists from Sarah McLaughlan to Tricky and was once referred to on Australian TV by native comedian, John Safran. Its popularity has traversed the globe and even today it pops up on ‘best’ lists and in blogs.

What it all comes down to is that it is a good song. It has a strong melody and a passionate lyric and that is what great music tends to have irrespective of subject matter. This song has proved that art can surmount its content and be counted as an achievement.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Human - The Killers

It seems to me that when a harassed journalist interviews anyone from the ‘great and good’ list and has already asked about their book/film/CD they immediately run out of interesting questions and then have to rely on plan B. Top of this list is generally, ‘What music would you liked played at your funeral?’ A bit of a strange question I always think as the requestor is in no position to appreciate their choice and the attendees probably hate it anyway.

And speaking of those that hate it, there have been cases recently of Church Officials complaining about the choice of music accompanying both marriages and funerals these days as the traditional is being scorned in favour of popular tunes. It is all part of our society’s urge to turn their back on tradition and embrace the here and now even if it turns out to be a one hit wonder. I have a certain amount of sympathy with the clergy on this point but that doesn’t mean that modern music is any worse than older compositions. Tradition has to start somewhere.

A recently quizzed celebrity answered the vexed funeral question with The Killers’ ‘Human’ and my immediate reaction was one of amused interest. First, the idea of anything at all being played at a funeral by a band calling themselves The Killers must be bordering on dubious taste unless it’s an Italian gangland affair and second, the song itself is not in the mournful dirge category that most would expect. So your intrepid reporter delved further to see what the attraction is. Having spent 59p to download it from Amazon, I listened to it several times whilst doing something else and gradually, it began to seep into my consciousness. There is an almost relentless optimism about the melody that infiltrates your soul. The earnest vocal is beautifully judged giving credence to the message that if we are human, we can make decisions about our own future rather than relying on fate. The combination of tune and lyric leaves you feeling strangely uplifted and ready to face the world.

‘Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?’

In this respect I can begin to understand why it was chosen to be played at a funeral. It is not so much for the departed, who will be oblivious anyway, but more for the benefit of those left behind and in this respect it is a wise choice and tradition should move aside for it.  YouTube won't let me embed the video here so you'll need to go here to hear it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Five Obsessions

Oh dear! Just when you thought it was safe, a fellow blogger nominates you to write about your 5 Obsessions – step forward, A Novice Novelist. I guess it’s a bit like one of those celebrity magazine quizzes where they are asked to name their favourite food, favourite colour underwear etc only worse as this digs into your very soul. So, here goes – starting with the obvious:

1. Music – This is truly an obsession. It is the one subject that I have had most arguments about so it must be. The thing is, I can’t help listening to it whether it be in airport lounges, hotel washrooms, friends’ houses or the background/incidental music to TV programmes. My mind is always asking, ‘Now, what’s that?’ like some out-of-control inquisitor (nobody expects...). Sometimes I miss entire TV shows trying to listen to what’s behind them.

2. My ipod – In the days before ipods, I would suffer terribly like some addict in rehab. I’d be at school or work or anywhere really and just get this dreadful craving to listen to track 2, side 1 of Talking Heads’ ‘Fear of Music’…or something and couldn’t wait to get home to play it. These days I can carry the majority of my collection around with me in a very small box thus relieving the craving at the earliest opportunity. The worst that can happen is that the battery runs out, which is a bit like having your life support system switched off, but without the dying bit.

3. Clutter – I hate it. I like my life to be orderly and my house the same. The trouble is; having two young children condemns you to clutter as a lifestyle. My wife tells me I am obsessive about tidiness but I disagree – I’d just like to order a skip and empty the entire house contents into it when no one’s looking, that’s all.

4. KitKats – This is a habit that I really should break, but then again, you only live once. This has been going on for nigh-on 10 years and the scenario is as follows: when I am at work and the clock veers toward 10.30 am, I have this strange need to go and buy a KitKat to eat with a cup of coffee. Weirdly, I have no compulsion to do this at home at weekends or on holidays but given an office environment and coffee and the impulse kicks in. That means I’ve probably eaten over 2,500 KitKats in the last ten years. Blimey!

5. Crime fiction – I love it. I’ve read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell, Minette Walters, PD James, Colin Dexter and a whole list more and I’m coming close to polishing off M C Beaton. When this happens, I don’t know what I’ll do.

Well that’s it. Do I feel any better for this confessional? Erm…sort of.