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Friday, May 25, 2012

Eurovision for Dummies

This Saturday will see the 57th annual Eurovision Song Contest held in Baku, Azerbaijan. For anyone reading this outside Europe, and for many Europeans, Eurovision can be difficult to comprehend. This is my first contest as a British Ex-Pat, so it has been strange living in a news vacuum during the build up to the big night. Thankfully through the magic of Internet TV I can still watch, at a much more civilized hour as well. I'm writing this while watching the second semi-final, with a woman in Native American headdress strumming a white guitar amongst flaming beacons, with what looks like Dexy's Midnight Runners accompanying at the side of the stage. Apparently this is what the Dutch thinks Europe needs right now.

So for the rest of the world, or any bemused Europeans, please allow me to explain all you need to know to fully participate in one of the world's greatest cultural events.

Hang on a minute, what's this got to do with divas?

You're kidding me? Eurovision has been the home to some of the great moments in diva history. Winning Eurovision can be the road to riches, just ask ABBA and CĂ©line Dion, whose careers took off after securing the Grand Prix. Or it can be an ephemeral blip on the fame register; well have you heard Niamh Kavanagh and Eimear Quinn lately...

Everyone from Sandie Shaw to Samantha Janus have stepped up to sing for national pride, some more successfully than others. Eurovision gave us Dana, both original and International flavours, and even divas from the colonies have joined in, with Olivia Newton-John, Gina G and Katrina (and her Waves) representing the UK over the years.

Eurovision is a diva-watcher's paradise, sure they let men enter too, but it's the wonderful women of Eurovision that tend to capture the imagination most of all... unless the boys take their tops off; then it's anybody's game.

How does it work?

Over what feels like several months, but is actually only three hours, artists representing qualifying nations perform their attempt at a song that can unite Europe in aural harmony. The song can be no more than three minutes long and must be sung live, although the backing tracks are now all recorded. After all the countries have performed, there is an interval act designed to showcase the culture of the host nation, which usually means ethnic instruments, dancers in national dress and some of the world's weirdest choreography. Then there is the voting, but more on that later...

[Live semi-final update: a Ukrainian bride is inviting Europe to her wedding apparently; she seems to be getting married in a disco. Apparently the writer only completed half the lyrics in time. Nice flowers though.]

Who can take part?

Every nation in the continent of Europe, which apparently includes Israel, but not Palestine, and parts of Africa and Asia, is eligible to enter. All you need to do is sign up to the European Broadcasting Union, pay them a significant amount of money and you're in. It used to be a closed club for Western Europe and for many happy decades the contest allowed national empathies and rivalries to be settled without the need for war. So powerful was the healing power of Eurovision that it inevitably led to the collapse of communism and the subsequent extension of "Europe" to include the nations of the former Soviet Union. However, these newbies don't seem to realise that democracy allows them to vote for anybody they like, not just their neighbours in an effort to stave off potential invasion or to keep the gas flowing. The dissolution of Yugoslavia also led to a Balkan block, who similarly seem to be enjoying their own private contest. I propose that the UK also abandons political union on the basis that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can then all give each other douze points. It is the most powerful argument for devolution and, given the power of Eurovision, surely an inevitability.

The clamour to take part is such that the contest now takes place over three nights, with two semi-finals deciding which countries get to join the big five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) in the grand final. The reason that these five countries have automatic entry is because they pay the most money to the EBU, so it's not unfair at all. Also if Belgium chooses not to watch as they didn't make the final, it will not impact viewing figures as much as if the UK did so. Of course the voting blocs ensure it's pretty certain Belgium won't make the final, or Luxembourg, or Netherlands, or... you get the idea.

[Live semi-final update: apparently Lucy Lawless is representing Croatia this year, kilts are back and waving a piece of white cloth passes for choreography... should have been a white flag.]

How do you win?

The United Kingdom has a proud record in the contest, with five wins and no less than fifteen runners-up. However lately the UK has struggled, torn between being too cool to take it seriously or overthinking the whole thing and trying to manufacture the perfect entry. It has been a while since our last win, fifteen long years, and I don't think this will be the year our drought is ended. I was brought up to respect my elders, so I won't say anything unkind about Uncle Engelbert, but his slow-burning ballad is unlikely to get the gays to the phones in sufficient numbers, particularly when there is a living Russian Matroyshka of grannies and Jedward in the running.

It might seem obvious, but to win you do need to have a good song. A catchy melody is a must and it needs to have that instant ear worm quality that means you remember it amongst the morass of "music" that assails you. A universal theme helps, favourites are "winning", "unity", "love" and "music".  You also need a strong performer, usually young and hot is a must, though a superlative singer can overcome a lack of shagability. Most important, since the introduction of public voting, is your routine. You have three minutes to capture the attention and the votes of Europe, so you better be memorable. Backing dancers are a must, the less dressed the better, and choreography should be simple enough to imitate in your living room. Props are acceptable, particularly wind machines or flames. Part of the joy of Eurovision is seeing what desperate attention-seeking novelties have been dreamt up this year.

So what about that voting?

Every country that enters gets to vote on the competition, though obviously not for their own act - consequently there is a lot of border hopping on Eurovision night. To continue the myth that the contest is actually about music, the untrustworthy public are only given half the votes, with a jury of national experts deciding the rest. Clearly in such an important matter you wouldn't just leave it to democracy to decide the outcome?

Each nation has a range of points to distribute to their top ten countries, with the top act receiving 12 points, the second 10 points, then the rest 8 points to 1 point. After all four hundred and twenty countries have voted, the act with the most points wins. It's that simple; the difficulty is staying awake through the ordeal that makes a General Election seem fast-paced. That, and not throwing your remote through the TV when Cyprus and Greece exchange 12 points for the millionth year running.

[Live semi-final update: I've lost vision! I can still hear the show, but frankly what is the point without being able to judge the routines... it's not like this is a song contest.]

I still don't understand...

What is there to understand really? Eurovision is a fact of life, much like tax returns and birthdays. It happens once a year, sometimes the results are good, sometimes they're bad, but you can't avoid it. Why not embrace the adventure and the modern miracle that is Eurovision. Surely it's better than another World War?

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. For more information on Eurovision or to watch the Grand Final, visit: - the live final is on Saturday 26 March at 21:00 Central European Time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Remembering Donna Summer...

Donna Summer changed pop music. In an industry where stardom is ephemeral and great singers can struggle to be heard, Donna ensured she would always be remembered by breaking new boundaries and creating iconic songs that still influence music four decades after they were first released. There are no shortage of powerhouse soul divas, so what made Donna stand out from the crowd? Her career had its ups and downs, but she was always seemed able to create another cool pop moment and reclaim the spotlight. When I heard the sad news about her death, like many people I reached for my Donna records and needed to hear my favourite song. It was then I realised the quiet impact she had made on me over the years. I couldn't choose just one, there were just too many brilliant songs that I love. So here is my personal top ten countdown celebrating the gifts of music given to us by the truly legendary Donna Summer.

10 - Love To Love You Baby (1975)

The song that started it all for Donna, she was a struggling newly-signed artist when she approached producer Giorgio Moroder with an idea for this song, which she planned to sell to another artist. He recorded her demo version, where she channelled Marilyn Monroe to create the sultry, sexy vibe she wanted. Moroder was so bowled over with her version he urged her to release it. Donna was signed to the ultra-cool Casablanca label and the 17-minute version of the single became one of the first big hit 12" singles, while the single edit soared up the charts, despite many radio bans owing to its racy moans and groans. For me this marks the dawn of the disco era, Donna had brought sex into the pop charts, onto the dancefloor and into your home. She would never repeat the vocal style she utilised on this track, which ensures it remains a unique moment in pop. Iconic.

9 - Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger) (1982)

Donna recorded a whole double album in 1981, called I'm A Rainbow, which was shelved by her new record company, Geffen, who could not see any hits on it. They arranged for Donna to work with super-hot producer Quincy Jones, who was coming off the huge success of Michael Jackson's Off The Wall album. This was the first single off the album they made, called simply Donna Summer, and it succeeded in returning Donna to the charts in a big way. It has all the Quincy hallmarks and Donna puts in a strong vocal, even if it now conjures up images of legwarmers and wet-gel perms. Who cares, it's poptastic! Funky.

8 - This Time I Know It's For Real (1989)

Donna's career took a dive in the mid-eighties when it was claimed she said that AIDS was God's punishment for the immoral lifestyle of homosexuals. She later vehemently denied that she ever said this, though her many gay fans were angered that it took her a few years to set the record straight. Mass burnings of Donna Summer records were a frequent sight in gay neighbourhoods for a while, but us gays are nothing if not forgiving. Donna's next comeback would be a tough one in these circumstances and she opted to work with Britain's latest hit factory, Stock Aitken Waterman. They were at the peak of their success when Donna signed on and they created a whole album for her from their one backing track. There was a true gem on the album, the first single which returned Donna to the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. Again her vocal shines and this was definitely one of the finest SAW compositions. Man it sounds dated now, but I still love it, a sing-a-long classic. A second album was planned before Donna fell out with the SAW boys, if you want to know what we missed, check out Lonnie Gordon's SAW songs, I would have loved to hear Donna do Happenin' All Over Again, oh well. Effortless.

7 - She Works Hard For The Money (1983)

Donna famously got the idea for this song when she met a bathroom attendant and had the thought, "boy, she works hard for the money". She and her producer then immediately wrote out the idea for the song on toilet paper and the rest is pop history. Donna's ability as a songwriter is often overlooked, but this track proved she had a good ear for a pop tune and was more than just a pretty voice. This was the first Donna single I owned, I'd previously had her On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volume I & II out on permanent loan from Great Yarmouth Public Library, but I now had my own cash. I worked hard for that money. That's why I liked this song! It is one of Donna's more rock moments, she could turn on the rock growl with the best of them, just check out Hot Stuff if you doubt me. It was a huge US hit for Donna and is another iconic moment. Heartfelt.

6 - I Feel Love (1977)

This was the song that changed everything. It was the first hit song to feature an entirely synthesised backing track, created by the electro-maestro Moroder. No less a visionary than Brian Eno heard it and proclaimed "I have heard the sound of the future". However, for me it is not just the innovative backing track that makes this song a game changer. Donna provided the template for creating profound human connections, despite the machine-made music. Her vocal is amazing, it takes the hypnotic groove of the track and lifts it to a state of euphoria. Every singer that followed her owes her a debt for her performance on this song. Donna created the idea of a pop diva on this track and in my mind nobody has ever taken that crown. Definitive.

5 - No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) (1979)

I've already paid homage to this track in my Barbra blog, but for comedic reasons I didn't give sufficient credit to Donna's contribution to this phenomenal song. Hers is a very different voice to Barbra's, yet they meld together beautifully on this track. Many songs get labelled as anthems, but this is the real deal. There's nothing so awe inspiring as two killer vocalists trying to outsing each other and while Barbra undoubtedly steals some of the key moments, Donna is more than a match for her and delivers some less-showy, but equally spine-tingly sensations. The best pop duet ever. Anthemic.

4 - Dinner With Gershwin (1987)

Donna's time at Geffen records was bumpy to say the least, with neither artist or label happy with the working relationship. In such an atmosphere it's understandable that Donna's career was a bit hit-and-miss throughout that period, which is a crying shame. Her final Geffen album, after they foolishly decided to pass on the SAW collaboration, would end up being 1987's All Systems Go. The album was a hotchpotch of styles and songs recorded over the previous few years. An undoubted highlight though was this Brenda Russell penned track, where Donna lists a number of impossible things she would like to do, including getting next to you. It is a one of Russell's best songs and quirky in all the right ways. Donna sings it with just the right amount of humour and sexiness and the backing still sounds fresh. I played this record to death and it shows what Donna could have achieved given the right support. Superb.

3 - On The Radio (1979)

This is vintage Donna Summer, it has everything you could ever ask for: a great lyric, fantastic backing track, perfect pop hook and that miraculous voice. I love a good story song and this is one of the best, it takes the great idea of a lost letter being read on the radio and weaves it into a break-up and make-up. It also has one of the most addictive choruses, you can't help but join in on the "whoa-oh-oh"s. It is a real showcase for Donna's vocal gifts, the transcendent mix of clarity, strength, tone and vibrato that she makes seem so effortless. Glorious.

2 - State Of Independence (1982)

It was a close call for the top spot in this countdown, as this is as close to pop perfection as can be. It shouldn't work; it is a New Age track from Jon & Vangelis, produced by Quincy Jones and sung by the Queen of Disco. That it does is primarily due to Donna's simply beautiful vocal, where she wrings true passion and meaning out of the super-odd lyrics. Quincy does a great job on the backing track, which though very early eighties still sounds somehow timeless. The wonderful choir lifts the song to the point of making this an almost religious experience. You might have heard of some of the backing singers, Michael, Stevie, Dionne and Lionel, for example. Classic.

1 - MacArthur Park (1978)

Well, it seems like I have decided on my favourite Donna Summer song after all, though it's been a tough choice. And all the ones that I had to leave out, Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, Could It Be Magic, The Last Dance, I could go on. So why MacArthur Park you ask me? Have you heard it? It's crazy! Cakes melting in the rain, green icing, what is it all about? Who cares, it's bloody brilliant! Written by one of my very favourite songwriters, Jimmy Webb, it is the weirdness of the lyric that makes it magical. It's a break-up song of course, and whose head is really on straight in a real break-up? It captures the pain of lost love perfectly as far as I'm concerned. Donna delivers one of the all-time brilliant vocal performances on this track, it truly is sublime. It is totally over-the-top in the best way possible, forget the cakes, the kitchen sink and everything else has been thrown into this mix. The 17 minute MacArthur Park suite is a must-hear moment for anybody who loves disco and if you don't, why are you reading my blog? Epic.

Although Donna rightly deserves to be acknowledged as the Queen of Disco, her legacy goes far wider and much deeper than that. Like all great singers, Donna could sing anything in any genre at any time. Donna Summer is part of the fabric of our lives, the music she created is interweaved in our memories and our hearts. Sleep well Miss Summer, you will never be forgotten.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Remembering Donna Summer

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Craft Of Love: the songs of Kate Bush, part one

A rare celestial event took place on the first of May: Kate Bush appeared in public! She attended the South Bank Show Awards to receive the Pop Award for her latest album, 50 Words For Snow. Kate rarely makes public appearances; she has little interest in attending events for the sole purpose of being seen. When she does emerge it is usually to accept yet another accolade from the music industry, which has rightly elevated her to the status of legend. Kate this week battles Adele and P J Harvey to claim Best Album at the Ivor Novello Awards, which recognise excellence in songwriting. It is the first time that the category has had an all-female shortlist, though that perhaps says more about the traditional misogyny in the music industry than any emerging trend. Doubtless this is the correct line-up for this award and I cannot pick a winner. If the award is truly about songwriting, and not commercial success, then I do believe Kate should win, as with 50 Words For Snow she has created something unique and extraordinary. It is the culmination of over forty years of experiments in songwriting and, in my view, marks a turning point in the history of popular music. I want to explore how Kate's songwriting has developed over these four decades and what has led her to create such an engrossing album. I cannot justifiably do that in one blog, so here is the first of three installments of my exploration of Kate's songs.

The process of songwriting can be mysterious to those of us who do not possess the ability to create melodies out of thin air. I understand the mechanics and can compose a workable tune to pass a music theory exam, but I do not have the spark of genius it takes to create real music. Kate has been writing songs since she was a child of eight. She taught herself piano after her father showed her the scale of C major on the keyboard and almost immediately began to compose her own melodies. She also wrote poems, including some that were published in her school magazine, and before long she started to combine words and music and create her first songs. She has told of how her father would patiently listen to her new compositions and encourage her, even though she admits her early efforts were not great works of art. This early support ensured Kate continued to develop her craft and soon she had a significant repertoire of strong songs.

Her early works are wholly structured around the piano and her voice. When she began searching for a record contract at the age of 14, she had a single reel tape of over twenty home recorded songs that she sent as her calling card. Despite the poor feedback Kate received, many of these songs show that even at this early stage there was magic brewing. Recordings of these early demos emerged on bootlegs in the early nineties and although Kate was upset that these juvenile works had been distributed, it was too great a temptation for guilty fans not to listen. The demos included early takes on songs that would later appear on Kate's first albums, such as Hammer Horror and Oh To Be In Love, but it was the lost songs that were really startling. The lyrical content was amazingly mature for a young teenager, with sophisticated reflections on love affairs, sexual longing and social mores that reveal a level of emotional awareness and empathy that is simply astonishing in one so young.

My favourite of these early demos is known as The Craft Of Love, and you can hear it by clicking on the video link below. The song looks at the art of seduction and contains knowing references to aphrodisiacs and sexual techniques. May I remind you she was not yet sixteen when she wrote this! We can safely assume that Kate wrote the song from reference rather than personal experience, particularly as the character of the song seems to be a much older woman. The melody is stunning and the song is the equal of many that made it on to her early albums.

Kate's earliest compositions all featured interesting melodies with inventive and often dramatic embellishments. Her lyrics were fully formed and could stand apart from the music in their own right. It seems clear that at this stage Kate saw words and music as two separate things to create and then combine. In the years ahead she would go on to break down the barriers between words and music until the compositional seams were all but invisible.

Kate's approach to songwriting did not evolve much over the course of her first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart, which were both released in 1978. Kate was focusing on honing her skills as a performer and learning as much as she could about the recording process. She would quickly become frustrated at her lack of control over the finished songs on these albums, with Andrew Powell doing a competent but sometimes unimaginative job on production. Kate called on her stockpile of songs for the albums, but she showed developing maturity in the way she began to edit her words and melodies, creating tighter, more polished final versions.

Perhaps Kate's most famous song, certainly in the UK, is her debut single and number one hit Wuthering Heights. It is certainly an arresting song and I remember being hypnotically drawn to Kate when I first heard it as an impressionable seven-year-old boy. It was like nothing I had ever heard and the strange, ghostly voice combined with Kate's unique brand of interpretative dance left me captivated. It is easy to see how it became such a major hit, though it is far from being my favourite Kate song now. It is brilliantly written and totally captures that moment in the story when Cathy's ghost haunts Heathcliff. The lyrics are beautifully evocative, with the "wiley, windy moors" all that is needed to set the scene. The melody is bewitching, with the "wuthering, wuthering" loop leading in to the chorus a marvellous hook. It started the cult of Kate Bush as a somewhat mystic, bizarre, reclusive sorceress: a description that could not be further from reality. The fact that the song was written based on an image Kate glimpsed in a filmed version rather than a detailed literary study is an interesting insight into the way she absorbs influences and lets them inspire her songwriting. Kate has often used literature and films as jumping off points for her songs, but they inevitably end up being her own creations based on the source material rather than a faithful reproduction, with the honourable exception of her Molly Bloom homage, Flower Of The Mountain.

My favourite Kate composition, and therefore my favourite song of all time, has to be Kate's second single, The Man With The Child In His Eyes. It stands as a perfect example of Kate's early songwriting, featuring lyrics that were originally a poem she wrote as a thirteen-year-old, set to a delicate and reserved melody that supports, but does not overwhelm the lyric. There is something timeless about the love that Kate evokes in this song and the depiction of her almost mythical lover, it is not surprising that there are many cover versions out there. However, there is something authentically heartfelt in hearing Kate sing this, that no interpreter can touch.

The Kick Inside was a huge hit and Kate was an overnight sensation. Her ubiquity in popular culture at the time seems hard to imagine now when a public appearance can cause a sensation because of its scarcity. The songwriting on the album is a major factor of its success, with all thirteen songs sounding unique, unusual and unheard. It was clear that Kate was an immense talent, but also that there was untapped potential. It was also evident that Kate was not going to conform to the expected mould for female artists. The title track of the album is based on The Ballad Of Lucy Wan and deals with brother/sister incest. It is the first example that Kate was not afraid of tackling taboo topics in her songs and she would have little time for other people's unease at her boldness. The song is not meant to shock, it is simply a beautiful retelling of a traditional folk tale. Kate plays Lucy and the song is a letter written to her brother. It is heart wrenching and dramatic, without being overwrought. It is among the more simple arrangements on the album, with just the piano and a subdued orchestral backing and Kate's voice has rarely sounded more beautiful.

Kate's early works are often thought of as theatric, which I think has more to do with the high register that she was singing in at that time. Kate had immense vocal range, but was often singing near the top end of this, most notably as the ghost of Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Her second album Lionheart certainly has a number of dramatic songs, with one literally theatric, telling the story of an ageing actor and a young starlet at opposing ends of their stage careers. Wow is another favourite of mine, it is perhaps the first Kate song that wholly captured me. It is almost a period piece now, with its references to the 70's cop show The Sweeney and once-favoured lubricants. However, that only adds to its charms for me. The lyrics are a masterclass in character study, with whole life stories told in just a few bars. The sweeping chorus of the repeated "wow"s takes the song to the edge of the cliff in terms of campness, but Kate pulls it back at just the right moment, creating true pathos as the song concludes.

Another highlight from Lionheart for me is In Search Of Peter Pan, which is the first of Kate's recorded songs to really experiment in structure. The song starts with Kate's usual piano style, before breaking in to a rhythmic bridge that leads into a brief chorus-like visit to the second star on the right. The song repeats this structure before dissolving into a ominous coda of When You Wish Upon A Star. The song leaps about like a child's imagination, there is no adult constraint of expectation. It is an early sign of the way Kate would go on to play with the traditional pop song structure of "verse, bridge, chorus, rinse, repeat". It is also interesting that here Kate plays the role of a young boy, showing that her songs are rarely autobiography, but the stories of characters that Kate has chosen to channel.

Kate fans usually agree that the purest Kate experience is when it is just her and her piano. One of the most sublime examples of this is In The Warm Room. Kate recounts a tale of seduction which is strange, somewhat disturbing and utterly erotic. There is something extraordinary about hearing Kate stripped back like this, you really get to hear the building blocks of her genius; the strength of her melodies, the poetry of her lyrics and that incredible voice.

For her third album, Never For Ever, Kate demanded more control over the production. She worked with engineer Jon Kelly to create the specific sounds and arrangements that she heard clearly in her head. The other significant change in creating the album was Kate's introduction to one of the early synthesisers, the Fairlight CMI, which could sample sounds and then play them musically. Kate discovered this amazing tool when she worked on Peter Gabriel's third solo album; she also was stunned to see that he composed music using the Fairlight and a drum machine. This way of working seemed incredibly alien to Kate, but she was suitably intrigued. She and Jon experimented with the Fairlight on Never For Ever, adding smashing plate sounds to the end of her big hit single Babooshka to signify the apparent violent end to the errant husband in the song. Babooshka was another early encounter for me and Kate, I was not yet of an age to buy my own records, but I knew that the more I heard of this odd, slightly scary woman, the more I liked it. The story is a Kate original, but you would not be surprised if it was based on another folk tale, as it is so full of archetypal imagery. It is also damn catchy, not something every Kate song can be accused of, but no doubt why it was such a big international hit.

Babooshka is the starting point of Kate's journey into experiments with sound and marked a major leap forward in the development of her work. Kate shared her writing process of the song on a Capital radio show in 1982, where she played a number of the early demos of the song. It clearly showed how Kate would tweak and polish every note and word until the song was as close to perfect as she could make it. This search for perfection would lead to long sessions in the recording studio, which would eventually require a change in Kate's working arrangements.

Kate was still composing her songs on the piano, but she did begin to craft songs on the Fairlight, building up rich soundscapes that are a leap ahead of the traditional rock band backing of her first albums. Kate's early experimentation can be found throughout Never For Ever, with the addition of almost hidden backing vocals, ambient sounds and other embellishments that sometimes only emerge after years of faithful listening. A good example of this is the track Blow Away (For Bill), which is a traditional piano composition, but the multi-layered vocals and backing create a suitably spooky track. The song is a homage to great artists who have died and left their legacy of music to the world. It is a sweet song and again has a non-traditional pop structure, with no sing-along chorus, but rather an evocation of the dead followed by a plea from Kate to be allowed to stay with the music.

The final single from the album was Army Dreamers, which is one of two "political" songs on Never For Ever, the other being the anti-nuclear Breathing. Kate was not a natural activist and has confessed she has little time for politics, but this does not mean that she doesn't have opinions to express. The message of Army Dreamers is pretty simple; too many young people die in wars. The character in the song is the mother of a teenage soldier who waits at an airbase for his body to be returned to her. The song is not preachy though, instead it cleverly uses a waltz rhythm to create a touching elegy for the lost son. It is not edgy and hard-hitting, but by lulling the listener it gets under the skin and really makes you think about the subject, when more in-your-face political songs can tend to turn off listeners. The sound of a rifle being cocked in the background becomes quite chilling as the song progresses and demonstrates that Kate's experiments with sound samples weren't whimsy, but she was clearly looking for the right sounds to add texture and meaning to the tracks.

I believe Never For Ever marks the end of that first period of songwriting for Kate, as she would go on to explore new methods of composition away from the piano. Kate rarely gets mentioned as an electronic music pioneer, with most people thinking of Gabriel and the likes of Ultravox, Duran Duran and other New Age artists. However, Kate's approach was groundbreaking in its combination of traditional songwriting, electronic sampling and live musicians. She would go on to explore the boundaries of soundscapes possible through sampling to a degree that very few artists dared, while arguably creating the artistic pinnacle of the first age of electronic music. But more on that in the next episode...

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: The Craft Of Love

Monday, May 7, 2012

Still Life: Remembering Kirsty MacColl

Everybody kind of knows Kirsty MacColl. You might remember her 80's hits, There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis and New England. If not you know her as the woman singing on The Pogues' Christmas classic, Fairytale Of New York or her hit cover of The Kinks' Days. You might also recall that she met a tragic and premature end. If that's the limit of your knowledge of Kirsty, then you clearly need me to educate you on why you should, like me, revere her as one of the greatest musical talents England has ever produced.

Kirsty MacColl had a gift, much like Victoria Wood, to observe ordinary British life and create from it a sharply perceived vignette in song. Like Victoria she had great comic instincts and her lyrics are often hilariously funny. Like the best comedy though, the next minute she could tug at your heartstrings and convey everyday heartbreak and sadness in a voice that sounded like your best friend's. I see Kirsty as a type of modern folk singer; her father was folk legend Ewan MacColl, and she clearly took those influences and fused them with a pop sensibility that is unrivalled in British music. In many ways she was out of her time, she would have been completely at home in the songwriting hit factories of the fifties and sixties, when the three-minute story pop song was at its apex.

That her life was ended so abruptly in 2000 is one of the great tragedies of popular culture, as well as a deeply personal one for her family. Kirsty left us a timeless legacy of music and songwriting and I would like to encourage you to explore this rich heritage by sharing a journey through my own magnificent seven favourite Kirsty songs.

They Don't Know (1979)

In many ways Kirsty was not a lucky woman. Her promising career as a pop star hit a number of roadblocks that would have ended the ambitions of lesser beings. Kirsty signed to Stiff Records in 1978 and the following year released her first single, the girly pop song They Don't Know. It was a huge radio hit, but a distributors' strike meant that copies never made it to stores, so it didn't chart. Proof that this was a calamity came when Tracey Ullman took her cover of the song to number 2 in 1983. This song is solid gold pop, with a retro 60's girl group feel shared by many of Kirsty's early recordings. It also has a terrific melody and a perfectly structured lyric.

That it wasn't a massive debut hit for Kirsty set the tone for a rocky first decade in the music business. She left Stiff early after this fiasco and signed to Polydor in 1980. She had a hit with Chip Shop, but her debut album Desperate Character and her other singles failed to ignite. Work was completed on her second album Real when Polydor unceremoniously dropped her and the album was never released, a great heartache for Kirsty. She returned to Stiff and started work on an album of teen ballads, creating a number of great songs. She also recorded a Billy Bragg composition, the clever and characterful A New England, which became her biggest solo hit. Then Stiff Records collapsed in 1985 and Kirsty's contract became an "asset" for the receivers to offload. For three years Kirsty could do nothing but session work, and subsequently she can be heard in the background on many records from the late 80's. Thankfully the legal issues were finally resolved and in 1989 Kirsty signed to Virgin Records and began work on her next album.

Free World (1989)

The first fruit of her new labours was the single Free World, a blistering 2:37 demolition of Thatcher's Britain. It perfectly captures that moment in time when the Thatcher era was beginning to disintegrate, but it isn't leftist whining, it is brilliant social observation. It is also remarkably current, dealing with recession and financial collapse ("with a pocket full of plastic, like a dollar on elastic") and public unrest ("I'll see you baby when the clans rise again, women and men united by the struggle") that it could easily be adopted as an anthem by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

What is most remarkable though is its energy, it storms along and you can almost imagine Kirsty unleashing the frustration of being silenced for so long, as she sings it with real purpose and meaning. I played this song to death on release, but it stalled just outside the top 40, perhaps being a little too political to gain much radio support. It still sounds fresh and relevant and it is one of those songs that you cannot just sit passively and listen to, if you're not moving by the end of the song, then see a doctor and get your vital signs checked.

Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! (1989)

The album Kite was released shortly after and it was full of superb songs. On the back of the hit single Days it did respectable business, but inexplicably the excellent follow-up singles flopped. Innocence is a brilliant dissection of a failed relationship, with some of the sharpest lyrics ever written. For me though the greatest gem on the album was the fourth single, the only truly English country and western song ever written, Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! The title alone should surely raise a smile and demand the song is heard? The backing is authentically country and the lyrics would be warmly welcomed in Nashville, yet they are also peculiarly English.

Cowboy tells the tale of a woman who has kissed her share of frogs and may have found her prince, but can she convince him he's one of the good guys? The lyrics are golden, with perhaps my favourite rhyming couplet of all time, "the boots just go back on, the socks that had stayed on", to describe her previous romantic liaisons. Shakespeare would surely have stolen that. I have to sing along when I play it; it is that infectious. It is also beautifully bittersweet, you sense that Kirsty knows deep down that all men are cowboys at heart.

Still Life (1989)

If you need further proof that Kirsty was the folk poet of her generation, then listen to this quiet, haunting, yet hopeful depiction of a decaying Britain. Still Life was tucked away as the b-side of Days, yet it has become a fan favourite. Backed by a gentle guitar, Kirsty explores the landscape of a country ravaged by recession and industrial abuse and captures that peculiarly British sense of loss for the past, perhaps as it never really was. More lyrical genius abounds, including the classic line, "where are all the human beings, have they been sent to Milton Keynes?". It is an elegy for the working class.

Walking Down Madison (1991)

Kirsty's second album for Virgin, the punny Electric Landlady, was another strong set of songs. The lead-off single was Walking Down Madison, with Kirsty transplanting her biting social commentary to the streets of New York City. The song deals with the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that can be shocking to a foreigner visiting the US, the world's richest country. It's not a Brit preaching socialism to America though; it cleverly taps into the secret guilt we all feel every time we pass by the outstretched hand and reminds us that the line separating us all is paper thin.

The original acoustic song was given a pop makeover, with synths and electric guitars giving it an urban feel. You can also easily spot the excellent and instantly recognisable riffs of Kirsty's co-writer and friend, Johnny Marr. The song also has a rare example of a guest rap that actually adds to the texture of the track and doesn't rely on profanity or self-love. The single was a UK chart hit and also her first US hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Again the lyrics are central to the song's success: "from an uptown apartment to a knife on the A-Train, it's not that far". The song manages to make you think about its tough subject without feeling preached at; Phil Collins and George Michael should take note.

Titanic Days (1993)

When EMI acquired Virgin in 1992 they considered Kirsty disposable, so another label change beckoned for her next album, with ZTT offering a one shot deal for the ominously titled Titanic Days. The album was a painful one for Kirsty, as it coincided with divorce from her husband and producer, Steve Lillywhite. This experience undoubtedly coloured many of the songs on the album, but Kirsty's sense of humour remained, with the title track borrowing the image of the world's greatest maritime disaster to help describe her sense of loss.

I cannot stress enough how brilliant this song is; lyrics, melody and delivery are all sublime. The verses build the tension until it is unleashed in a gorgeous, wash of a chorus. The Titanic imagery is not overplayed and helps to inform the depth of feeling present. Sadly it was never released as a single in the UK and was ignored on release in the US, despite being one of her more radio-friendly songs. The album struggled in to the top 50 in the UK and Kirsty and her fans were again left scratching their heads as to the reasons behind her bewildering lack of commercial success.

In These Shoes (2000)

Kirsty finally had a big hit album with the compilation Galore released by Virgin in 1995, which includes a pitch-perfect reading of Perfect Day with Evan Dando. However, she still struggled to find a deal in the late 90's. She used the time productively, writing new songs and exploring her love of Latin sounds and rhythms. When she finally was able to record a new album, it would turn out to be her best, but also sadly her last. Tropical Brainstorm was released in 2000 on Richard Branson's post-Virgin label, V2. The album used her Latin influences to great effect, with gorgeous brass breaks and funky rhythms. She incorporates Spanish and Portuguese lyrics, yet the whole still somehow sounds reassuringly English. There are a number of hilarious comedic songs on the album, including the football themed England 2 Columbia 0. Undoubtedly the highlight of the album though is the exquisite In These Shoes?

Apparently Kirsty had quite the shoe fetish and the song was born out of an excruciating night at a party when she chose to wear a divine, yet impractical pair of high heels. The song recounts a woman who is met with adventurous propositions from a number of men, to which her response is, "in these shoes?". If you've never heard it you should rectify that at once; it is total perfection in songwriting, production and performance. Although the great Bette Midler covered it, Kirsty's version is the real deal; this is a song that can only authentically be sung by an English woman, Americans are just not that repressed. Her comic timing is amazing and her aloof delivery is spot on. It's impossible to listen to this song sitting down, you'll be forming a one-person conga line by the second verse.

Tropical Brainstorm garnered the best reviews of Kirsty's career and it is undoubtedly a high point in her creativity. She would be probably stunned to have seen the outpouring of grief that followed her death and the glowing tributes paid her from her fellow musicians. Kirsty had no airs and graces, she learned early on to take the rough with the smooth and it was this realness that allowed her to connect with her listeners in such a personal way. Her music has given me countless hours of pleasure and I regularly find myself returning to her records when I want a reality check combined with a smile. I'm grateful she persevered through all the career ups and downs, but then what else was she going to do: music was her life.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. For more information on Kirsty, visit the fantastic fan-run website, Free World All the tracks mentioned in this blog are available on the anthology, From Croydon To Cuba... or The Best of Kirsty MacColl, both available from EMI Records.