Liner Notes for a Lockdown: 17 Useful Albums To Have On Hand.
There are two possible soundtracks to a lockdown. There’s the music one you would compile in the event of a lockdown; and then there’s the music you actually feel like listening to once lockdown has happened. Had you asked me to assemble the former, say, back in the pre-social distancing salad days of 2019, I might have approached the job like someone scoring a film and put together a “suitable soundtrack” to troubling times. I now realise the error of that logic. To try and reflect in notes and chords the atmosphere engendered by a global pandemic is a bit like checking into the Bates motel and relaxing by listening to Bernard Herrman’s original score for Psycho. By the same rationale, if you found yourself in the Turkish prison made famous by Midnight Express and you were allowed to have music in your cell, would you choose ‘Motown Chartbusters Vol.7’ or or ‘Midnight Express — The Original Soundtrack’?
And while — of course — none of us are having to spend this lockdown period in the Bates Motel or Istanbul’s notorious Sagmalcilar Prison, this is nonetheless an apprehensive time. And, in real life, apprehensive times demand very specific musical accompaniment. I’ve found myself gravitating away from certain usually favoured titles and towards certain other ones. Radiohead might be one of my favourite bands but, curiously, the small hours that once paid host to intimate get-togethers between me and the febrile, cocooned anxieties of, say, Kid A or A Moon Shaped Pool have seen me look elsewhere for sonic succour. These days, it’s more likely to be Smokey R over Sunn O))); Teenage Fanclub over Tricky; ABBA over Aphex.
And so, here’s a selection that is anything but hypothetical. In the past six weeks, these records have sauntered back into my life with a “You called?” The sound of the needle dropping onto the run-in grooves of this lot is a metaphorical knock on the door and a “Here you go mate!” from the Parcelforce Special Delivery driver of my dreams. Some are canonical safe bets. Others less so. All, however, serve as a reminder that companionship takes on many forms. And that the intimacy generated by the right record at the right time will never ever be subject to the rules of social distancing.
CHARLES & EDDIE: CHOCOLATE MILK
How many times have you heard Charles & Eddie’s imperishably comforting 1993 chart-topper Would I Lie To You? and thought “I wish there were more where that came from!”? Perhaps you even considered embarking on an investigation into this very matter before deciding that Would I Lie To You? had to be some sort of inspired fluke. Well, I’m delighted to tell you that it wasn’t. ‘Chocolate Milk’ is the sublime 1995 successor to the NYC pair’s debut album ‘Duophonic’. Both albums are great, but there’s an elegant languor in the execution of ‘Chocolate Milk’. It’s not trying to impress you. It’s all about the shared exultation of great pop — in this case, delivered with a garnish of soulful longing. In a more just world, this is a record that would have yielded a handful of monster hits: the thermal harmonic uplift Keep On Smilin’; the life-affirming address to the titular demons detailed in Jealousy and the smouldering deep soul lilt of Wounded Bird. And, of course, being Charles & Eddie, it’s all delivered with the hint of impish joie de vivre which gave us that playful “Oh yeah” after the line “Would I lie to you?” Hence the back-handed pledge of devotion imparted ‘Chocolate Milk’’s lead single 24–7–365: “I love you more than you love yourself.” You guys.
LES NEGRESSES VERTES: FAMILLE NOMBREUSE
As with Dexys Midnight Runners and The Pogues, perhaps the most alluring thing about Paris’s Les Negresses Vertes was their outsider camaraderie — they looked like a bunch of musicians whose collective existence was predicated on the likelihood that no other band would have any of them in their ranks. And, indeed, it’s a point they seem to acknowledge on Famille Heureuse, the opening song on the second and final album released by the group before the premature passing of their singer Helno. It’s a perfect sonic establishing shot for what follows: the parlour-room rattle of a piano and everyone-welcome choruses on which one or two astringent harmonisers are soaked up by the constant, comforting accordion of founding member Canavese. None of which would matter too much were it not for synergy of mood and melody that, on every song, delivers you from whatever the hell you were just doing and into a dozen different stories and settings: Face a la Mer, a pensive meditation on the birthplace roulette and the privileges or privations resulting therein; the hot Latin syncopations of Soul le Soleil de Bodega; and, perhaps best of all, the majestic melanphoria of Hou! Mamma Mia. When this came out in 1992, no other band looked like they were having as much fun as Les Negresses Vertes. ‘Famille Nombreuse’ is effectively an open invitation. Press play and you’re part of the family too.
STEVIE WONDER: UP TIGHT
Are there are cooler Stevie albums than this one? Probably. Is there more influential bunch of songs than the twelve he released in May 1966, still a week off his 16th birthday? Almost certainly. But I’m not sure if any of them are quite as exciting to these ears as ‘Up Tight’ — a set of songs which captures our hero literally in the process of finding his voice, moving away from a teenage timbre in audible thrall to Ray Charles, straining instead for the signature sound we instantly recognise over 50 years later. For the full measure of that stellar leap, look no further than the title track, on which Motown house band The Funk Brothers hold it down with an elemental four-to-the-floor whack while issuing that once-heard, never-forgotten trumpet clarion call, leaving Stevie sing out the glory of new love across the rooftops of the motor city. On hand to ease him into his adult voice are Clarence Paul and The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs. The former helps Wonder alchemise Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind into a plaintive rock-a-bye gospel soul turn while the latter helps turn Teach Me Tonight into an unutterably charming rite of passage duet. Here and, in fact, right across the album, much of the joy comes from sensing that everyone involved was having such a hoot in the studio that releasing the end result was little more than an afterthought. You’ve effectively alighted a Tardis in Detroit 1966 and wandered into the private party of your dreams.
MISTY IN ROOTS: LIVE AT THE COUNTER EUROVISION
Heading out to a show is the one music experience unavailable to us right now, so there needs to be a live album in this list — a live album that captures a band at the peak of its powers, generating an energy that far exceeds its constituent parts. And to get straight to the point, I can’t think of a better record for that than the live set which opened Misty In Roots’ account as an albums band. At the time of ‘Live At The Counter Eurovision’’s release, Misty’s profile owed much to the symbiotic relationship that British reggae enjoyed with the punk scene. But if the thrill of punk came from the prioritisation of gusto over virtuosity, the thrill of Misty’s performance here is all about the virtuosity of what singer Walford Tyson (these days known as Poko) called their “progressive protest music”: about the fact that a bunch of relative unknowns from Southall accepted an invitation in 1979 to perform at a Socialist festival at the Cirque Royal in Brussels and harnessed four years of playing live together to turn in the performance of their lives. You can hear every one of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in the instinctive way organ player Vernon Hunt locates pockets of space in highlights like Ghetto Of the City and See Them Ah Come and fills them with a beatific, blissful sense of well-being; it’s no less present in the percolating syncopations of a rhythm section that teases out movement in the listener with all the impassive, imperious elan of a seasoned snake charmer. To listen to Tyson’s opening address is to clock that something extraordinary is about to happen — and perhaps the most loveable thing about ‘Live At The Counter Eurovision’ is the occasional moment where the band let slip their delight at how incredible they sound, most notably Tyson’s “Roots controller!” exclamations at the conclusion of each song.
JESS SAH BI & PETER ONE: OUR GARDEN NEEDS ITS FLOWERS
Where your all-time favourite records are concerned, it’s rarely instant. The albums that often go on to define you frequently work by stealth, dispersing their occult power into key moments in your life so that when you look back upon those moments, it’s impossible to do so without certain songs playing in your head. ‘Our Garden Needs Its Flowers’ is not one of those records. I don’t exactly know what its active ingredients are, but I can tell you that they get to work on you faster than anything in Pete Doherty’s medicine cabinet. The first time I heard the strummed opening chords of its first track Clipo Clipo, the desire to curl up into a ball and start sucking my thumb was stronger than it should ever be in 48 year-old father of two teenagers. Within three minutes, I was already wondering where I could find more records that might cocoon me in such an overwhelming sense of comfort. Two years later, I’m no closer to an answer. The sole joint release by Ivory Coast singer-songwriters Jess Sah Bi and Peter One is a divine quirk of serendipity. It exists because one day in 1979, Peter was passing the time playing guitar in his garden when his neighbour overheard him and told him that the quaint if unfashionable noise he was making sounded a lot like the stuff his nephew Jess liked to play. Perhaps the two might want to meet up and see what else they had in common? It turned out that the two did indeed share a lot of similarities. Both liked to write songs — and, furthermore, the songs they liked to write combined the traditional and ceremonial African songs favoured by their mothers with key Western influences they read about in the American and African music papers they both voraciously read. Jess tended more towards country, in particular Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers — while Peter idolised Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby Stills & Nash. And indeed, the harmonic synergy of the latter two names is abundant on the eight songs that comprise Peter and Jess’s 1985 album. Kraftwerk once coined the term Minimum-Maximum to describe their creative method: achieving the maximum effect using the minimum of sounds. To listen to Minmanle? on ‘Our Garden Needs Its Flowers’ is to realise that approach works just as well without a nearby electricity source: just a sparse guitar accompaniment, a plaintive two-part harmony and your emotional defences gently torn in two by the quietly devastating harmonica work of one Corneil Coodth. As a call to end the ongoing regime in South Africa, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Apartheid to sound a note of anger, but none is detectable here, just a back-porch lullaby which maps out its sorrow to a plaintive canter. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter too much that you don’t know what they’re singing about. If you invented a special sort of microscope designed to place people’s motives under the lens, you’d struggle to find a single molecule of malign intent on the freewheeling folk-pop of Katin or the sweet yearning sea breezes of the title track. It’s odd to think that such a down-home collection of songs would briefly propel its creators to stadium-packing superstardom not just in their native Ivory Coast, but also Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo. But, for all of Jess and Peter’s live success, it would take another 33 years for ‘Our Garden Needs Its Flowers’ to receive an officially licensed release. By the time the Awesome Tapes From Africa label released the first ever high-fidelity version of the record, Jess and Peter had moved to America too. Following 30 years working as a political cartoonist, Jess moved to New York and now teaches African music to children. Peter is very happy in Nashville supplementing his work as a nurse by playing locally. It’s fitting that both make a living out of helping people, because that’s the continuing effect that their sole joint album also continues to have. It’s the one surefire neutraliser of anxiety in my collection, and that’s why it has to be included on this list.
THE SMITHEREENS: ESPECIALLY FOR YOU
Pat DiNizio was a 30 year-old New Jersey garbage disposal man when his band The Smithereens secured a record deal — and when they did so, it was partly as a result of DiNizio deciding not to enclose a photo with the demo in case that deterred any interested labels. Listening to the debut album by The Smithereens, however, you realise the advancing years DiNizio saw as a handicap to getting signed were, in fact, his greatest asset. The imperial era of the Brill Building and the British invasion soundtracked his formative years. And it’s all over the totally irresistible debut album his band released the following year. You can hear it not just in lyrical zingers like “She stood just like Bill Wyman/Now I am her biggest fan” in Behind The Wall Of Sleep but also in the sonorous jangle adapted from years spent listening to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’-era Fabs and American imitators like The Monkees and The Byrds. The Smithereens played with the toughness of a rock band, but at their heart they were pop through and through. There isn’t a weak song on ‘Especially For You’. Groovy Tuesday is one of those from-title-down humdingers about a theoretically bad day in which, actually, nothing can get to you, not even the indifference of the person you love: “And I can’t help it if I’m not the one you need/It doesn’t matter if I’m still the lost ball in the weeds.” Both here and on Cigarette, you feel as though you’ve been parachuted into a scene from an unmade musical, where the action stops and we’re invited to reflect on the quandary of its protagonists. “Just like this cigarette, our time is running down,” reflects DiNizio, on the latter waltz-time lament, “Only one hour till you’re leaving this town.” But it was a plugged-into-the-mains Smithereens that really made your heart race. Those opening bass thumps on Hand Of Glory, that give way to a jackhammer snare rattle and then straight into the soaring harmonic abandon of the chorus — it wasn’t complicated, but the celebratory brio in the execution told you that The Smithereens had formed exactly the sort of band that they wanted to see at the end of a working week, secure in the knowledge that if they felt that way, then you would too.
TANITA TIKARAM: TO DRINK THE RAINBOW
Full disclosure. Before this record existed in real life, it existed in my head and as a Spotify playlist I put together. Then, when I started my own label (Needle Mythology), I asked Tanita Tikaram if she would allow me to release it as an actual record. To my surprise and delight, she agreed. And the reason I went to all that trouble was because these songs have constituted something of a safe space for me when the distractions of the outside world sometimes creep in through the back door. Of course, if your memory of Tanita pretty much begins and ends with the furrow-browed teenager who gravely intoned Twist In My Sobriety on Top Of The Pops over three decades ago, this might come as a surprise. Because she was kind enough to let me put her record out, I’ve got to know her a little bit. The Tanita of Twist In My Sobriety must surely lurk beneath the surface of the older, wiser, gigglier version that recently celebrated her 50th birthday. What happened to her in the interim is what happens to so many literate, arty young people who wake up every morning wondering who they’re going to turn into. The twelve songs on ‘To Drink The Rainbow’ are beautifully sketched postcards sent from an artist who eschewed pop stardom in favour of a scenic route to a destination that was unclear even to her. You can hear it on this collection: the plangent ache of the post-fame Tanita on Only The Ones We Love and on the title track, a prayer for unguarded joy to gatecrash the overheated inner monologue of a modern mind. Interspersed among these early dispatches are the songs which hint at the transition into a simpler, more instinctive approach: the soul-searching languor of Love Is Just A Word; and the gorgeous Can’t Go Back, a song which sees Tanita making peace with her younger self. And then, of course, Cool Waters and The Way You Move, songs which rejoice in their own physicality, and in doing so, see Tanita giving her musicians carte blanche to really let go. She has, on the quiet, built up a canon which — along with that sweet, smokey timbre — ought to have conferred national treasure status upon her. Indeed, most of the songs on here sound like standards in a parallel universe. One day, they’ll be standards in this one too.
Various Artists: The Time For Peace Is Now
The Brothers & Sisters: Dylan’s Gospel
Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth For Christ Choir: Like A Ship… (Without A Sail)
As Robert F. Darden’s illuminating liner notes for The Time Is Peace is now explain, the turn of the 70s was a pivotal time in the history of gospel music. A genre largely unchanged between World War II and the assassination of Martin Luther King had resisted any changes that might hasten its assimilation into soul or funk music. The Staple Singers’ run of hit singles changed the rules slightly, and although established gospel imprints attempted to resisted this “slide” into impure music, several singers moved with the times, finding tiny regional labels to release their music or, in some cases, self-releasing it. One case in point was Bakersfield’s Lovie D imprint, which put out Willie Dale’s sublime Let Your Light Shine, a smouldering slice funky rapture that prompted one fan to stump up $10,000 for it on eBay. Thanks to the heroic sonic archaeology of gospel collector Greg Belson, you can now get it for a lot less – and thrown in with that are thirteen other songs which will release even the most stubborn rationalist souls from their earthly containers. In fact, to call ‘The Time For Peace Is Now’ a gospel album is to simplify the emotional range of its contents. Like any other genre, gospel is a vast area in which all sorts of conversations can take place. James Bynum’s We Are In Need is a pared-back masterpiece of spiritual disclosure, a snapshot of someone seeking to put some distance between their past shortcomings and their future self and promising to be better. Time For Peace by The Little Shadows is a glorious opener, rough, ready and optimistic – heavily reminiscent of ‘Try and Love’, the similarly glorious 1973 fuzz-soul gem by Nigerian teenagers Ofege. Rev Harvey Gates is the only artist represented by more than one song on this collection and it only takes a few seconds in the company of each song to figure out why. I’ve never quite heard a voice like it – a mesmerising tangle of torment and transcendence. When Gates sings “the price of love… heartaches and pain” (Price of Love), he sounds like he’s reporting back from a revelation that has left him slightly traumatised. Even better is It’s Hard To Live In This Old World. Yes it’s gospel, but on this muted lullaby of pure longing, you remember that faith is your last line of defence when belief is taking a battering. And when you’ve played ‘The Time For Peace Is Now’ all you can play, you might well want to maintain the mood with a couple more worthy companions. In which case, let me first direct you to ‘Dylan’s Gospel’, a covers project masterminded by Lou Adler in 1969, which saw a stellar array of 27 singers – among them Edna Wright from Honey Cone, Patrice Holloway and Merry Clayton – take Dylan’s back pages to the pulpit and harnessed the unearthly power of their choir to propel them to hitherto unscaled heights. And when you’re done with ‘Dylan’s Gospel’, you can hasten to the Pastor T.L. Barrett and The Youth For Christ Choir’s 1971 album 'Like A Ship’. Regular listeners of BBC 6 Music will probably recognise the title track, which has become something of a playlist staple over the past couple years – but the sublime interplay of funky drums, flowing piano and elemental choral uplift is abundant throughout. These are the strangest of times, but to choose the right record at the right time is like finding a petrol station when your needle has been languishing in the red – which is why all three of these albums are worth keeping close by.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: REGGAE GIRL
In 1968, “reggae” was a term mostly unheard of beyond Jamaican shores. The Tennors’ single ‘Reggae Girl’ changed that, in no small part thanks to the fact that it also lent its title to this maiden release on Trojan’s newly-formed Big Shot subsidiary. Original copies of this collection change hands for silly money and it isn’t hard to see why. The group names change from song to song, but the personnel — featuring mainstays George “Clive” Murphy and Norman Davis remains largely the same; as does the songwriting calibre. Ride Your Donkey and Oh My Baby are sky-high masterpieces of this newly-christened genre. The tunes sizzle on top of a rock-steady rhythm in a manner that calls to mind Tom Waits’ line in In The Neighbourhood about the eggs chasing the bacon around the frying pan.
DION: KICKIN’ CHILD — THE LOST ALBUM 1965
Dion didn’t write his biggest hit The Wanderer, but he was happy to play up to the archetype portrayed in that song — the itinerant male outsider who doesn’t adhere to society’s conventions. By the mid-60s, thanks in part to the growing influence of Beat Generation authors such as Jack Kerouac and Herbert Huncke, that archetype fed into the countercultural conversation. So, when Dion moved with the times and sidelined his doo-wop and rock’n’roll roots in order to form a band with actual musicians, it made sense for him to call them The Wanderers. The group’s sound reflected the speed with which their leader spotted the convergence of folk and pop. Dion might have recently got married, but the persona of these songs is very much in line with the times. The woman described on the title track is every inch a free-spirited match for the man singing her praises; the yearning harmonies that adorn the jingle-jangle mourning of I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound prefigure the ascent of The Byrds, who had yet to release a record when these songs were being recorded; and, yes, that’s the fomenting “wild mercury” keyboard sound of Bob Dylan sideman Al Kooper you can hear on the magnificent Now. But Kickin’ Child isn’t an album whose appeal can merely be explained with reference to the quality of the songs on it. What you’re getting when you remove the record from its sleeve is the sense of new territory being designated and a bunch of hungry young musicians moving quickly to stake a place in it. Incredibly though, Dion would have to wait 52 years to finally see Kickin’ Child get the reception it deserved. Having already signed Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and The Byrds, Columbia passed up on the opportunity to put out Kickin’ Child. Only when tiny New York-based reissue label Norton finally put the record out in 2017, did Dion reap the acclaim justly due to his great lost record. To play Kickin’ Child nice and loud on a sunny morning is to Zelig yourself into a brownstone, blue-sky boho daydream far faster than you’ll ever want to leave it.
SAINT ETIENNE: SO TOUGH
“Lose himself in London!” declaims the sampled voice of Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar at the beginning of You’re In A Bad Way, the breakout hit of Saint Etienne’s second album. In fact, ‘So Tough’ is the sound of a group truly finding itself in London — not the city as such, but the psychogeographical epicentre of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ shared interior world, as assembled throughout a friendship that began when the pair were at infant school together. ‘So Tough’ was part popzine, part sonic gallery space. On Calico, they came on like a Massive Attack pieced together in the canteen of summer-long morning TV staple Why Don’t You; in Avenue and Hobart Paving, Stanley and Wiggs seemed to alight on a new subgenre, a sort of municipal English chanson for which the timbre of recently joined singer Sarah Cracknell was heaven sent. It was great, but was it influential? You bet it was. On a dubby dislocated interior monologue called No Rainbows For Me, Cracknell sounds like a ghost in a similar machine to the one that Birmingham group Broadcast would create for the equally mesmerising voice of their singer-songwriter Trish Keenan. By sampling mostly British voices, either from films or those of mates in pubs, Saint Etienne were edging towards a blueprint for a sort of Britpop that was anything but insular: a message in a bottle tossed into the Channel, asking Europe if it wanted to come and play. A Britpop far closer in tone and message to Jeremy Deller, Pulp and The KLF than the one we ended up with. And, in current circumstances, it’s the song which name-checks The KLF that chimes with extra pathos. In Mario’s Café, Saint Etienne take a carefree full English on a hungover Saturday — a pop Polaroid of life between childhood and parenthood — and imbue it with an almost mystical beauty. To listen is to want to head for your nearest caff and soak up those sights, smells and sounds one more time. Right now, that’s not an option. But if you’ve got ‘So Tough’ in your collection, you’ve got the next best thing.
THE ZOMBIES: ODESSEY & ORACLE
Time is the one thing needed to turn grape juice into wine, or leaves and fossils into oil. And similarly, time all it takes to turn innocence in music, over a period of decades, into poignancy. For a perfect case in point, look no further than The Zombies’ baroque pop masterpiece ‘Odessey & Oracle’. I stall at adding “psychedelic” to the list of adjectives purely because the St Albans ex-grammar school friends who made it refrained from dabbling in the recreational stimulants being ingested by The Beatles who were working on Sgt Pepper in Abbey Road at the same time as them. But while The Beatles were steadily working towards the completion of a record that would be immediately hailed as a masterpiece, The Zombies’ creative fearlessness was that of a band with little left to lose. With their last top ten single, all but a dot in time’s rear view mirror, The Zombies felt free to let their imaginations fly and make the record of their lives. As with ‘So Tough’, ‘Odessey & Oracle’ is an album with many accidental resonances for anyone who might be stuck at home or missing the simple pleasure of conversation with friends. And, as Mario’s Café is to that album, so is Friends Of Mine to this one — a song by bassist Chris White which cheerfully name-checks some of the happy couples in the band’s social circle: “They are friends of mine/They are friends of mine/And they’ve got something you don’t often find.” It’s a sentiment also abundant in the unquenchable optimism of This Will Be Our Year and I Want Her She Wants Me. More serendipitous resonances abound in Care Of Cell 44, which sees singer Colin Blunstone (singing Argent’s words) addressing a lover as she awaits release from her custodial sentence. And then, of course, there’s Time Of The Season, the song which would give The Zombies one final belated hit smash in America, albeit one which was too late to revivify their wilting collective fortunes. By the time of its release, they had gone their separate ways. Over five decades later though, The Zombies are once again open for business but — irony of ironies — very little else is.
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS: FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
In my childhood memoir ‘Broken Greek’ (details below), I’m nothing if not candid about the extent of my pre-adolescent obsession with British comedy musicians The Barron Knights, whose most popular trick was to take recent hits and write funny new lyrics for them. Across the Atlantic at roughly the same time, American singer “Weird” Al Jankovic was peddling a similar schtick. He took Michael Jackson’s Beat It and turned it onto a song about food called Eat It. The Barron Knights took Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon and made it about going to see a dentist in Birmingham. What can I say? These were simpler times. There wasn’t much joke juice to be squeezed out of this low-hanging fruit, but that didn’t stop me trying. Happily, things have moved on. With their self-titled debut album, Flight Of The Conchords perfected the art of a comedy song that somehow stays just as funny with every play that follows the first one. Indeed, the record which accompanied the sit-com about its eponymous Kiwi duo is so inspired that, in some instances, you don’t even need to be familiar with the thing they’re pastiching in order to laugh. My kids loved Inner City Pressure long before they heard Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls, the song on which it’s so clearly modelled. In fact, Flight Of The Conchords’ approach is much closer to that of Neil Innes’s work with The Rutles than the likes of “Weird” Al and The Barron Knights. For a start, their melodies are their own. Their songs that seek to zone in on the essence of the artists they’re pastiching. And, as with The Rutles’ approach to The Beatles’ canon, there’s no malice in Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clements’ Bowie and Pet Shop Boys tributes. However, the true genius turns on ‘Flight Of The Conchords’ invariably occur when they remould their love of black American music genres — conscious soul, modern R&B, hip-hop — into the pure whimsy of Think About It, Business Time and Hiphopapotamus Vs Rhymenocerous. Their relationship to this music is like that of stalker to idol. They love it and yet they know that can never be accepted by it as equals. So they’re left with no option but to sabotage it with arrant silliness. And I don’t think that will never not be funny.
BILLY JOEL: AN INNOCENT MAN
I’m not sure ‘An Innocent Man’ was conceived as a concept album as such, but even cursory knowledge of the circumstances in which it was created make it impossible not to see it as one. Billy was in love with supermodel Christie Brinkley — seemingly the sort of giddy, caution-to-the-wind infatuation that catapults you to an emotional place you never imagined revisiting in adulthood. Suddenly you’re back in your teens. The last time you were here it was the early 60s. The jukebox was full of The Four Seasons, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Sam Cooke, Little Richard and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. ‘An Innocent Man’ took shape in the blurred area between fantasy and reality — an area where Billy Joel gets to be those artists, soundtracking his good fortune with ten lovingly executed pastiches. In that sense, it’s not so far removed from the Flight Of The Conchords album mentioned above. The difference is that it’s not too much of a stretch for Billy Joel to credibly slip into the skin of his heroes. Billy gets to play it for smiles rather than laughs. And that’s why ‘An Innocent Man’ is perfect for these trying times. His Frankie Valli turn on Uptown Girl is a shot of pure ecstasy. The harmonies hit the bullseye. The verses sound like choruses and the choruses sound like even better choruses. Joel’s disbelief at his good fortune spiders out into the fleet-footed doo-wop of The Longest Time and on Leave A Tender Moment Alone, a song which perfectly evokes the fear of screwing up that comes as standard in the first faltering steps of courtship. On the Motown-inspired Tell Her About It, Joel plays wise wingman to a subject nervous about securing the affections of his paramour. And just like the ostensibly throwaway pop songs being pastiched, everything is supercharged with emotional urgency and uncontainable joy because, of course, that’s what young love feels like.
JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS: ROCKIN’ & ROMANCE
Once you’re done with Billy Joel, this is a natural place to go. As with ‘An Innocent Man’, the second in the classic trilogy of albums Jonathan recorded for Rough Trade in the 80s evokes simpler times, using the turbines of memory and melody to create something that could just as easily have emerged from America in the previous decade. ‘Rockin’ and Romance’ is an album designed to elicit a smile at every turn. At times, it’s an effect achieved by landing an outrageously corny rhyme. Relevant instances here include the “hit a cactus”/“flying upside-down for practice” rhyme on The U.F.O. Man, or My Jeans, on which Richman’s band pleads “Why not Levis?” only to be sadly informed “Because they never seem to fit, no matter what the size.” Richman himself disdains close analysis of his music, but the reason his songs never grate is that, whatever you choose to play first, what you hear is a vital component in a worldview that, in these polarised times, feels more welcome than ever. In Walter Johnson, Richman chooses not to zone in on the sporting excellence of the song’s eponymous baseball star, but instead on Johnson’s uniquely gentlemanly conduct, going so far as to even “ease up a little on the opposition” if his team was comfortably winning the game. In fact, there’s nothing shallow about the happiness in Richman’s music, and once in a while, it’s something he’ll make perfectly clear. In terms a small child can understand, Vincent Van Gogh sees Richman reliving his epiphany in Amsterdam when he visited the Van Gogh Museum: “He loved life so bad that the world had to know/The man loved colour/And he let it show” he sings. If Richman sounds momentarily overwhelmed himself, that might be because he loves colour with comparable intensity. On the song Chewing Gum Wrapper he recalls seeing a discarded wrapper on the street and being compelled to pick it up “just like a bum”, such was the Proustian rush triggered by the colours printed on it. As such that’s an apt microcosm of an album whose driving energy comes from its creator’s constant awareness that our brief time on this revolving rock is, in cosmological terms, the mere blink of an eye. The Jonathan Richman of ‘Rockin’ & Romance’ recalls the Doctor Seuss of ‘Happy Birthday To You!’ or ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ As with those books, this album is a hypervivid reminder of what a miracle it is that you are you. And that you’re endowed with the consciousness with which to know that.
Broken Greek is published in the UK and Australia by Quercus. https://www.waterstones.com/book/broken-greek/pete-paphides/9781529404432
Tanita Tikaram’s To Kiss The Rainbow is available via most good record shops and through https://needlemythology.com/shop/
And a pleasant rummage on www.discogs.com will find you the rest of the records mentioned here. If you’re in a position to support bricks-and-mortar record shops that are continuing to operate online, then please try and do so. These are tough times for those guys.
Pete Paphides’ profile photo by Rachael Bird