Monday, March 15, 2004

Desert Island Discs Revisited
I'm submitting this to my work newsletter as a follow-up to my previous Desert Island Discs. But I think it might be a bit long...

When I had my first go at picking my Desert Island Discs, I got quite a few comments along the lines of “you have rather…eclectic tastes”, some of them accompanied by slightly sceptical expressions which suggested I might perhaps be a bit of an obscurantist tosser. I hastened to admit that yes, I’d probably played up the eclecticism a bit, and that nos. 4-20 on my list would be dominated by white guys playing guitars. So, to set the record straight and because, dammit, other people have had two goes, here are my “alternative” DIDs.

Honourable mentions (and these are all white male guitar bands, too): The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses, REM – Life’s Rich Pageant/Green, The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy, Counting Crows – August and Everything After, Suede – Dog Man Star, Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted, Radiohead – The Bends, U2 – The Unforgettable Fire/The Joshua Tree

Big Country – The Crossing

The greatest band many people have never heard of. Formed in 1983 by Scottish singer/songwriter Stuart Adamson, Big Country were often grouped with contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds as part of a new wave of Celtic rock, but their sound and style were truly unique. Driving, layered drums were mixed with soaring Celtic melodies from the twin lead guitars of Adamson and Bruce Watson; the songs vignettes from Scottish history, yearning romantic ballads or lyrical elegies about industrial decay in Scotland and northern England. Their debut album The Crossing was huge in both the UK and USA, and follow-ups Steeltown and The Seer also produced a number of hit singles. In all they made eight studio albums up until 1999, but never recovered the extraordinary creativity of the 1983-86 period.

Big Country fans the world over remain convinced that the band produced some of the most original, passionate and moving rock music ever made and that if other people would only listen, not only would they become converts, but the world would be a better place. No other music has ever provoked such a visceral and instant response in me.

The best known Big Country lyric, from their signature song, “In a Big Country”, says:
“In a big country, dreams stay with you/like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside – stay alive”.
Tragically, Stuart Adamson didn’t take his own advice. After battling drinking problems for many years, he was found to have committed suicide in a Hawaii hotel room in 2002.

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

There are a lot of misperceptions about Bruce Spingsteen. Many of these are based on an awareness dominated by 1984’s Born in the USA (he’s been releasing albums since 1972) and a view that that album is somehow a piece of flag-waving jingoism (it’s not). But while Born in the USA and subsequent albums have plenty of merit, it’s in Springsteen’s 70s catalogue that the real genius is to be found. Before the smoothed-over, commercial production of Born in the USA, Springsteen and his E-Street Band created a warm, joyous wall of sound in which horns, piano and organ wrestled for space with the drums and guitars (think Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”). Lyrically, Springsteen had a snappiness and verbosity which would embarrass many a hip-hop artist. How’s this from “For You”:

“Princess cards she sends me/with her regards/Her bar room eyes shine vacancy/to see her you gotta look hard”

The pinnacle of this period was 1975’s Born to Run, which achieved the near-impossible task of living up to the hype (Springsteen had been described as “the future of rock and roll” and appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek). It opens with “Thunder Road”, which is one of my favourite and most-played songs ever. It also happens to be one of Nick Hornby’s favourite songs, and he dedicates several pages in 31 Songs to an articulate defense of it and Springsteen himself. He has considerably more space and talent at his disposal than I, so I highly recommend checking that out for further elaboration on the topic.

The Pixies – Trompe le Monde

Goodness me – I’m quite surprised that this has got in here. On another day, one of the other discs from the “honourable mentions” would have supplanted it. It’s not even the Pixies album rated most highly by informed opinion – their debut Surfer Rosa or perhaps Doolittle are normally considered their finest moments. But because I’m writing this today, and because I’m not constrained by informed opinion, Trompe le Monde sneaks in there for several reasons. Reason one is the supercharged version of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” – a nasty and sexy surf guitar anthem which sounds like it has petrol fumes blowing out the back of it. Reason two: “Planet of Sound” – a lesson in how to make a song that’s evil and horrible yet totally groovy and poppy at the same time – with lyrics like “I got to somewhere renowned/for its canals and colour of red”. Reason three – and this is the clincher – is “The Sad Punk”, and the lyric which I consider is the coolest, like, evah. After a couple of mad, million miles an hour verses, the song completely changes and there’s a long, lilting guitar lead out in which Black Francis sings:

“And evolving from the sea/would not be too much time for me/to walk beside you in the sun…”

Why do I like this so much? Who knows. But I think it has something to do with expressing something sentimental , corny even, without ever losing the fa├žade of sunglassed cool – which somehow makes it seem more sincere. Or because it produces a genuinely surprising image, and fulfills the function of hyperbole at its best – to provide insight into the literally inexpressible.
There you go – now I’ve ruined it.

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