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Sandy Denny – Sandy – Classic Music Review

I’ve always thought of Sandy Denny as an autumn singer. Some of her best songs are reflections on the passage of time, a phenomenon most acutely experienced during that time of transition between summer and winter, when longer nights and dying leaves remind us of our own mortality. Her brief life embodied the autumnal paradox of beauty and decay, the melancholy tones of her music expressing both the hopeless defiance of time’s passing and the grim acceptance of life’s brevity.

Sandy herself was not entirely comfortable with her natural lean towards melancholy songs, as expressed in an interview with Melody Maker less than a year before she died:

Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know. I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own. It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?

Her most desperate attempt to break out of the mold was Rendezvous, her fourth and final solo effort, retrospectively described by Brett Hartenbach of Allmusic as “a flawed attempt at gaining a wider audience, by an artist who deserved better and was capable of the best.” Rolling Stone noted that “casting her as a pop singer didn’t quite work on Rendezvous,” an unusually polite and rare example of understatement from that publication. The most revealing song on the album is the closer, “No More Sad Refrains,” a song that confirms the feelings expressed in the interview and would later be used by Clifton Heylin as the title of his Sandy Denny biography.

Sandy’s excuse that she couldn’t play fast enough to write anything but dirges falls into the category of utter nonsense. The sad songs came out because she was disappointed with life and unreasonably disappointed in herself. Heylin’s biography describes a woman who gradually fell apart because she avoided dealing with the causes of what would probably be diagnosed as some form of depression. Too much drink and too much drama combined with an intense desire for mass-market recognition were symptoms of a deeper emptiness, one that would tragically lead to her too-early demise.

It’s hard to get my head around her sense of failure, of disappointment, of not being good enough. Sandy Denny was the central figure in what is considered one of the greatest folk albums ever made: Fairpoint Convention’s Liege and Lief. Readers voted her in as Best Female Singer in two annual Melody Maker polls. Her songwriting skills were first-rate; “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by such disparate talents as Judy Collins and Nina Simone. And in Sandy, she created a work of surprising sonic diversity supported by outstanding musicianship. But instead of taking justifiable pride in the artistic quality of the album, she was disappointed that Sandy failed to bring her superstardom.

I can’t accept that disappointment, that judgment. “You can try the best you can, try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” Thom Yorke wrote, quoting his life partner’s advice for escaping the black hole of self-doubt. I have neither the skills nor desire to psychoanalyze Sandy Denny; all I want to do right now is to recognize a genuine musical achievement.

Appropriately, Sandy begins with a song about time and mortality. Without naming it, she uses the metaphor of the river of time, describing it as “the cruel flow” that eventually clutches all of us in the grip of death. Why me? Why now? Though the answer is unknowable, the human mind has to come up with a reason, a cause, an explanation of some kind of orderly process:

Oh, it’s like a storm at sea
And everything is lost,
And the fretful sailors calling out their woes,
As to the waves they’re tossed.

Oh, they are all gentlemen,
And never will they know
If there is a reason each of them must go,
To join the cruel flow.

And it’ll take a long, long time . . .

Though the song is cast in a tempo usually more suited to closing numbers, the music generates sufficient power to grab and hold the listener’s attention. Sandy approaches the vocal deliberately, easing up on the first two lines of the verses before raising her voice to the level of power that she displayed so memorably on songs like “Matty Groves” and “The Deserter.” She enhances her lead vocal with her own background vocals, her voice veiled in deep echo as if she is playing the part of the angel of death. Graciously, she donates most of the recording space to the work of two outstanding guitarists: Richard Thompson on both acoustic and electric and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. The dual guitar solo in the middle section where Kleinow riffs to the verses while Thompson takes the chorus is one of the most beautiful guitar passages I’ve ever heard, a masterpiece of collaboration between true craftsmen. Both gentlemen appear on several tracks, but its Kleinow who heralds the expansion of Sandy’s playing field with his American country music stylings.

Sandy’s depth in British folk allowed her to write credible traditional songs that reflect the form and language of tunes in the Child Ballads anthology. “Sweet Rosemary” is a simple, straightforward song about a girl gathering flowers as she imagines finding her true love and eventual wedding day. The remastered version of the album includes the demo version featuring Sandy accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and though I appreciate the more demanding vocal variations, the contributions of ex-bandmate Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and the surprising autoharp sweeps of the full studio take, there’s something terribly charming about the less-complicated version with the pretty melody front and center. At the core, a folk song should always sound perfectly fine with a single voice and a single instrument, and “Sweet Rosemary” certainly fits the bill.

Next up is the even more elaborate “For Nobody to Hear,” a story in itself. I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off in the primitive pre-Internet era, but former Fairport and Fotheringay mate, future husband and producer Trevor Lucas figured out a way to integrate Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the master recording safely locked away in Chelsea. I sincerely hope it involved airmail. Today a producer can upload the base arrangement to a secure site, then the musician can download it, add his bits and then producer the can upload the allegedly new-and-improved master. BO-ring! I love stories of people overcoming impossible odds to get things done, and the ’60s and ’70s are full of them. Did you ever see the Apollo 11 moon lander at The Smithsonian? Shit, man, it’s just some low-end Barcaloungers and a teeny weeny computer with 1/1000000 of the power of an iPhone wrapped in aluminum foil! And it went all the way to the fucking moon! I’m becoming more and convinced that digitalization and the now-now-now ethic have destroyed human ingenuity by making things too easy for us. Fuck Amazon! Bring back parcel post! Fuck the iPhone! Bring back phone booths! Do you really need everything RIGHT NOW?

However Lucas pulled it off, his efforts went for naught. The mix on this song is dreadful, with horns, drums and guitar drowning out the singer. I don’t know if they were intimate at the time, but if they were, I’ll bet Sandy gave him an earful when he got home. The lyrics also drift into self-pity (“But it made me for to write no songs/For nobody to hear”), and even a stripped-down version wouldn’t qualify as one of Sandy’s better efforts.

Fortunately, “For Nobody to Hear” is the only turkey on the album. Sandy bounces back pretty quickly with her version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a song that had already been covered by Elvis, Judy Collins and Rod Stewart. Sandy makes the song her own with her nuanced vocal alternating between tones of reflection and heartfelt passion, riding the comfy tempo with confidence. Sneaky Pete returns with sweet and lovely work on the pedal steel guitar, coaxing the challenging instrument to produce clear, rising tones that seem to drift on air. Sandy’s selection of Linda Thompson to take the role of harmonic support was definitely an inspired choice, as their voices blend especially well, most notably in the rising crescendo on the closing lines.

Sandy takes it to another level entirely with Richard Farina’s adaptation of the traditional song “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The first two verses describe a natural world in perfect harmony (gentle tides, colours blending beautifully in the sand, the thunder of mare and stallion, the blended flower), while the last verse alludes to the destructive tendencies of man and how they wreak havoc on natural harmony:

But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.

This is the poetic version of the evolutionary history described in Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where man’s evolution is linked to the blind destruction of thousands of species, flora and fauna alike (the book has many flaws in addition to being positively depressing, but the self-destructive tendencies of our species has been well-documented). What makes Sandy’s interpretation of the story more credible and aesthetically pleasing is the power of her voice, a capella. Singing a capella is always a risky proposition, but when it’s done well, there are few musical forms that command one’s attention so thoroughly. The opening verse is captivating enough, but when Sandy adds three-part harmony (in her own voice) in the second verse, the effect is absolutely stunning—and in the last verse, when she adds a fourth part at the top of her range, the chills run up and down my spine. That fourth voice is not a decorative element, but a voice that expresses infinite sadness, a voice dying in the wilderness. The song could have ended there, but Sandy brought in Dave Swarbrick for the finishing touch: a sensitive violin elegy that expresses mourning more powerfully than words possibly could. This part always makes me tear up, as Swarbrick brings out the feeling of loss through a perfectly executed solo focused on the lower strings of the violin. The backstory is Sandy and Swarbrick didn’t get along all that well, but here they put their differences aside to create a great moment in music.

“Listen, Listen” has become one of Sandy’s signature songs, the title of a solid introductory compilation released at the dawn of the millennium. The strength of the song is its stirring melody, further powered by Sandy’s confident, free-spirited approach. She also handles the foundational 12-string guitar and receives more than enough support from Richard Thompson on mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on the drums. I could have done without the string section, an unnecessary appendage to a song with strong bones. The lyrics are on the awkward side and the storyline (such as it is) eludes my ability to make sense of it all, but the melody and strength of the performances carry the day. There is a French version available on the remastered release (“Écoute, Écoute”) that works if you’re not too bothered by less-than-stellar articulation.

“The Lady” catches the listener’s attention from the get-go with a dissonant E flat augmented chord, inverted to place the G note at the base to make the transition to the main melody less jarring on the ears. Again, I would have dispensed with Harry Robertson’s strings (or turned them down to half-volume), as I think the song would have had much more impact with just piano and Sandy’s exceptionally strong, passionate vocal. Given the heartfelt intensity she displayed, we can assume that the lady in question is Sandy herself, and the picture formed by the lyrics describes a woman who struggles with the feeling of not being good enough (“The lady she had a silver tongue/For to sing she said/And maybe that’s all”), yearns for a moment when the audience is struck dumb by the sound of her voice (“Wait for the dawn and we will have that song/When it ends it will seem/That we hear silence fall”), loves well but probably not too wisely (“The lady she had a golden heart/For to love, she said/And she did not lie”) but still clings to the dream of breaking through cold indifference to transform the world with her music:

We heard that song while watching the skies,
Oh the sound it rang
So clear through the cold.
Then silence fell and the sun did arise
On a beautiful morning of silver and gold.

Those are pretty heavy expectations to carry in a world where people are always looking for the shiny new thing.

Mainly Norfolk, the invaluable source of all things English folk, accurately describes Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Bushes and Briars” as an “obligato,” a musical term used to describe “an instrumental part, typically distinctive in effect, which is integral to a piece of music and should not be omitted in performance.” Imagine “Aqualung” without Martin Barre’s guitar or “Comfortably Numb” without Gilmour’s fabulous solo, and you’ll get an idea of the indispensability of Richard Thompson’s contribution here. While he’s probably not the first name that pops into your head when you think of country gee-tar pickers, Richard channeled enough Sneaky Pete to master the essence of the style while adding his own distinctive mark to the piece. His slides, bends, vibrato, arpeggios are as clean as a crystal stream. Meanwhile, Sandy holds up her end of the bargain with an exceptional performance that spans the mood spectrum from wistfulness to righteousness as she strolls through a bleak winter landscape to arrive at a church, empty save for the “clergy’s chosen man” and the graves of past parishioners:

I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.

It should be noted that “Bushes and Briars” is not the song classified as Roud 1027, but a Sandy Denny original.

As is “It Suits Me Well,” a tale about the perpetual wanderer—the gypsy, the sailor, the circus trouper. The attraction is in the freedom, to be able to say “There are no chains about me, I am me own man,” to “stand upon the salty deck and feel the wind blow.” Sandy wrote the song in the old vernacular, a proper choice for a lifestyle that seems to be dying, replaced by a new class of itinerants who have no choice in the matter—the refugees, the homeless forced to live in cars or makeshift shelters. The characters in the song “never had a proper home . . . never had a garden or a place with windows,” finding those trappings to be unbearable attachments that interfere with personal liberty. “The living it is hard, but oh, it suits me well,” they sing, prioritizing validation of the spirit above creature comforts. Though none of the lifestyles described in the song would suit me, I understand the yearning for a life without compromise. Sandy gives us another strong vocal performance, channeling the moods and motivations of the characters to perfection, conservatively limiting her use of portamento to give the vocal gymnastics more prominence. The band of Thompson, Donaldson, Donald, Lucas (on acoustic guitar), John Kirkpatrick (concertina) and an uncredited harmonica stylist fashion a comparatively understated background that highlights Sandy’s vocal (as it should) and echoes the ambivalence of freedom won at such a steep price. One of the strongest compositions on the album, “It Suits Me Well” evokes latent feelings of resistance to conformity that might help listeners survive another day of wage slavery and activate their inner gypsies.

The original album closes with the achingly beautiful “The Music Weaver.” The third time turns out to be the charm for Harry Robertson, whose string arrangement is both rich and thoughtfully restrained, allowing plenty of room for Sandy’s flawless vocal and simple piano patterns. In tone and lyric, this is the most honest song on the album, where Sandy drops her tendency to communicate in passive-aggressive hints in exchange for honest, mask-off communication. In the first verse, she calls herself out for communicating in half-truths:

I’m a long way from you,
I’m a long way from home.
And who cares for the feeling
Of being alone?
The notes and the words
They will always unfold
And I’m left with a manuscript
That will grow old
And the secrets all told anyway.

After a lovely instrumental passage, Sandy shares her closing thoughts with her faraway partner, thoughts that reflect the desire for symbiosis but close with an escape route. Though life for a musician on the road is far more comfortable than the experience of a hobo riding the rails, Sandy feels a bond with those roamers, suggesting that the music they weave embodies the same melancholy displayed in her work.

The remastered version also features two tracks from a single released in support of an obscure, short film called Pass of Arms about two knights pointlessly battling to the death in a forest. While that description may bring up memories of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, these Don Fraser compositions are both powerful anti-war songs that Sandy delivers to perfection. “Here In Silence” is the stronger of the two, with an arrangement that integrates oboe, piccolo and bugle in the style of Joshua Rifkin’s ear-catching arrangements on Judy Collins’ In My Life album. The most powerful verse in terms of lyrical content and Sandy’s delivery highlights the inexplicable justification for waging war in the name of the Prince of Peace:

Take my children, golden children
Grow them, train them, cut them, kill them
For the justice of your Jesus
For the service of your leaders
Can you feel me, can you touch me
Can you leave me here in silence?

“Man of Iron” features another strong arrangement but the dominant imagery of knights in armor brings up too many images of John Cleese’s armored body shrinking limb-by-limb for me to embrace the song, though I do admire Sandy’s performance.

Both songs were recorded around the time of Sandy, serving as potent evidence that this was the period when Sandy Denny peaked as a solo artist. Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz gave us Sandy’s first attempt to expand her listening audience by introducing jazz and pop influence (an attempt that failed to chart); the aforementioned Rendezvous left her fan base puzzled as to why she refused to play to her strengths. While she expanded her stylistic range on Sandy, the connections between British and American folk are well-established; jumping from British folk to jazz is another thing entirely. Given the evidence of an increasingly fragile psyche, Sandy Denny was not only asking too much of the listening audience but too much of herself.

I wish she were still alive today, for even had she given up music for another calling, a mature version of Sandy Denny would look back and chalk up the mistakes to experience and take justifiable pride in the beauty she created.

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady – Classic Music Review

I am a committed, happy socialist whose career has primarily involved business marketing strategy and analytics.

Newsflash: Modern economies are not set up to cater to an individual’s talents or interests.

For those of you unfamiliar with the field, “a marketing strategy refers to a business’ overall game plan for reaching prospective consumers and turning them into customers of the products or services the business provides,” while “marketing analytics is the practice of measuring, managing and analyzing marketing performance to maximize its effectiveness and optimize return on investment (ROI).”

Those are the standard definitions, but I have my own. Marketing strategy is the overall game plan for how best to capitalize on human greed, egotism, fear and stupidity. Marketing analytics is designed to measure how many of the suckers born every minute you can transform into addicts for your particular product or service.

It’s an interesting if somewhat distorted lens through which to view life, but I do believe knowing a little bit about marketing can help every average Joe and Jane understand how they allow themselves to be manipulated into believing they need something that they rarely need or even want. Whether it’s a big company or a political party or a nonprofit agency helping the homeless, their messages are all marketing messages designed to get you to buy, vote for or donate. Marketers are particularly interested in enhancing your self-image because we are all the heroes of our own stories and we like to feel like we’re winners or at least on the winning team. Your ego is your most vulnerable appendage, and all good marketing strategy targets that weak spot.

Yes, I’m getting to Buzzcocks. Keep your pants on.

The first step in marketing whatever shit you’re trying to peddle to the public is to determine the current state of the market. This is a crucial step: in marketing, timing is everything. The Beatles provide a good example of that fundamental truth. Six months prior to their arrival in America, there was no way in hell a band of Brits could have conquered America because Americans were happy living on the New Frontier and didn’t need what they had to offer. JFK’s assassination changed everything by making everyone (except right-wing racist nuts) very, very sad. After two months of mourning, all those teenage Baby Boomers grew deathly tired of sad and wanted to have some fun—particularly all those pre-pill horny teenage girls who needed something to substitute for the sex they craved . . . something that wouldn’t get them knocked up and disgraced. With an uncanny sense of timing, Brian Epstein and Ed Sullivan provided the goods that met the new need: a product guaranteed to provide the safe and wholesome release of pent-up hormonal energy by allowing girls to scream at the top of their lungs in the secure confines of auditoriums and stadiums. Epstein was brilliant at the art of the marketing rollout, selling Sullivan on three back-to-back performances and urging Capitol Records to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at just the right moment to amp up the buzz. The Beatles did the rest by seducing the press and the listening public with their Liverpudlian wit, good cheer, catchy music and cute haircuts.

This was such a perfect marketing launch that I have to wonder if . . . wait a minute . . . let me check the historical record . . . Wow! Epstein met alone with Sullivan to cut the deal at the Delmonico Hotel on Monday, November 11—just eleven days before the tragedy in Dallas. And then Brian Epstein died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later . . . Wow! Ed Sullivan was CIA! Then Brian Epstein must have been MI6! I get it now! The CIA wanted to get rid of Kennedy for blowing the Bay of Pigs thing and the British were desperate to boost their economy through the only products they had to offer—James Bond and rock ‘n’ roll! When Epstein became too unstable a few years later, the CIA offed him! Why haven’t the major conspiracy theorists followed up on this incredibly promising angle regarding the crime of the century?

Stop whining. I’ll get to the goddamned Buzzcocks when I’m good and ready. Sheesh! You’re an impatient lot! Alright already!

After achieving UK chart success with some great singles, EP’s and a couple of albums, management decided it was time to launch Buzzcocks in the American market. Management felt that rather than releasing either of their first two studio albums, it would arrange eight of the singles in a neat little package of sixteen songs with the A-sides on side one and the B-sides on side two. It gave the album the clever retro title Singles Going Steady. A US tour was arranged to coincide with the release of the album. Management poured itself a brandy, lit its cigars and patted itself on the back for developing what was clearly a can’t-miss marketing strategy.

Oops. It missed. It missed big time. Singles Going Steady failed to chart.

It failed to chart because the fucking idiot who came up with the marketing strategy failed to determine the current state of the U.S. market. The yanks had already decided that they had little interest in this punk rock thing. The Ramones never charted higher than #66 on Billboard and Never Mind the Bollocks peaked at #106. CBS refused to release the first Clash album because it was too rough for sensitive disco-ized American ears; when they released Give ‘Em Enough Rope, it “peaked” at #128. The Clash broke through a few months after Singles Going Steady, but London Calling is hardly a punk album. Did anyone on that crack management team even bother to look at the Billboard charts? Guess not. Here’s the list of top 10 singles the week Singles Going Steady was released to no fanfare at all:

1. MY SHARONA –•– The Knack (Capitol)-15 (6 weeks at #1) (1)
2. SAD EYES –•– Robert John (EMI-America)-20 (2)
3. RISE –•– Herb Alpert (A&M)-10 (3)
4. DON’T STOP ‘TIL YOU GET ENOUGH –•– Michael Jackson (Epic)-10 (4)
5. AFTER THE LOVE HAS GONE –•– Earth, Wind and Fire (ARC)-13 (2)
6. LONESOME LOSER –•– Little River Band (Capitol)-11 (6)
7. I’LL NEVER LOVE THIS WAY AGAIN –•– Dionne Warwick (Arista)-15 (7)
8. SAIL ON –•– The Commodores (Motown)-8 (8)
9. THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO GEORGIA –•– The Charlie Daniels Band (Epic)-15 (3)
10. DON’T BRING ME DOWN –•– Electric Light Orchestra (Jet)-9 (4)

The greatest one-hit wonder of them all, a white guy singing faux soul with his balls in a vise, lots of funk and late-era Motown, downhome country rock and ELO in their Commercial Crap phase. Lesson #1: Never launch a punk album when Herb Alpert is in the top ten.

The story highlights another marketing truth: the best product doesn’t always win. Back in the early days of personal computing, everyone who was anyone agreed that the Macintosh operating system was more elegant and user-friendly than the clunky, ugly, bug-prone MS-DOS offspring called Windows, but Bill Gates wound up with 95% of the market anyway. There is no question in my mind when I listen to Singles Going Steady that Buzzcocks had a superior product—the problem was the market had gone in a completely different direction, away from blistering rock to smooth and mellow.

The tale does have a happy ending: Singles Going Steady eventually earned consideration from critics and fans alike as one of the greatest punk albums ever released. The music is surprisingly melodic and quite catchy without crossing the line into insipid commercialization. The lyrics are well thought-out and deeper than they may appear in the first go-round. What knocks me out about Buzzcocks music is that it is immediately obvious that these guys worked their asses off to get it right: the tightness of the band as they work at supersonic speed is breathtaking. The quality of collaboration between the members of the classic line up of Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey and John Maher comes through loud and clear. There’s a brightness in their sound that is somewhat unusual for punk (in part due to their melodic bent), but they still manage to kick rock ‘n’ roll ass. Singles Going Steady deserved a much better fate than the one generated by cold, cruel marketing illogic.

And now, without wasting another second of your precious time, here’s my blow-by-blow account of Singles Going Steady:

“Orgasm Addict”: Their maiden single clearly differentiated Buzzcocks from the archetypal punk band by daring to deal explicitly with the taboo topic of sex. Although I’ve always found punk to be intensely sexual music, the vast majority of British punk bands avoided the subject entirely, focusing on social injustice and the existential ennui inherent in modern society. “Orgasm Addict” might lead you to believe that the band had more in common with the Stooges (particularly “Loose”) than the Sex Pistols, but Pete Shelley also wrote about relationships and the complications inherent in budding love, a topic more common in pop than punk.

The “hero” of our story is a guy who gets himself off any way he can (“Sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/Now your mother wants to know ’bout all those stains on your jeans”) and is not particularly discerning when it comes to choosing a partner (“You’re makin’ out with school kids/Winos and heads of state”). Add religious cult members and butcher’s assistants and you get a clear picture of a guy whose protruding member is completely out of control. Personally, I’m proud to be an orgasm addict, and find masturbation a valuable technique for releasing tension instead of letting it fester and get ugly—but I’m certainly not out to fuck anyone with a pulse and I always fuck with discipline and intent. This meat-beater is totally focused on his own pleasure (“It’s a labor of love fucking yourself to death”) which certifies him as an A-1 loser when it comes to sex.

Needless to say, the song was banned by the BBC. Goddamn I wish people would grow the fuck up and talk honestly and openly about fucking.

Although the band isn’t quite as tight as they would become in their prime (at this stage they’re still missing one important piece to the puzzle), they rock hard to the stutter-step beat and demonstrate their ability to drive it home, particularly during the passage when Pete Shelley successfully reproduces the vocalizations common to orgasm. Shelley’s voice is quite unusual for a punk band, a higher-pitched voice with greater melodic capability. What gives him punk cred is the slight sneer you hear in his voice when he encounters absurd situations and people who seriously need a wake-up call.

“What Do I Get”: Although the sounds are punk, the feel here is more girl group—The Shirelles on steroids. The song is essentially an ode to the sleepless nights one experiences when there is no one else occupying your bed, and what raises the song above the level of your typical I’m-so-lonely pop song is Shelley’s vocal, sung in the slightly plaintive tone of the innocent facing a cruel injustice . . . a teeny bit on the campy side, but it works. This is the song where you really begin to notice John Maher’s drumming—the man is all over the kit and doesn’t miss a beat or a crash. “What Do I Get” also marked the first appearance of Steve Garvey on bass, a major upgrade that will reap dividends in short order.

“I Don’t Mind”: Maher opens the piece with a four-second high-to-low intro before the band kicks in, every member in perfect sync. Steve Garvey sticks closely to the base rhythm, forming a seamless relationship with Maher that marks the trademark tightness that would carry the band going forward. There are few things in life that thrill me as much as a tight band ripping it at breakneck speed, and “I Don’t Mind” has that . . . and more! Pete Shelley delivers the vocal in an almost apologetic, sorry-to-bother-you tone with a few splashes of latent anger, reflecting the passive-aggressive self-deprecation of the lead character. This is a man with little confidence in himself but certainly enough to believe he deserves better treatment from his intended, who is sort of an updated version of Cathy from the Everlies’ classic “Cathy’s Clown.” The melodic movement is subtle, almost off-hand in nature—pleasing little bursts of notes riding the driving drone underneath. The band departs from the pattern at the end, adding a second bridge with a slightly different melodic line accompanied by near-dissonant slicing guitar from Steve Diggle. The arrangement builds steadily towards a crescendo that is deeply satisfying, leaving the listener absolutely delighted that a band could pack so much variation into two minutes and nineteen seconds and nail every change, beat and cue. “I Don’t Mind” merges beautifully merges pop and punk sensibilities, giving truth to the lie that the early punks kept it simple because they couldn’t handle the complex.

“Love You More”: Pete Shelley spends all but the last split-second of the song trying to convince himself that he’s found true love, this time fo’ sho’, despite a lengthy record of consistent relationship failure. Though the song sounds breezy and happy, there are several hints in the lyrics that Pete has a heart problem—not a blockage or a weakened aorta—but with his emotional centering. “It’s my heart again/That drives me so wild,” he croons, later adding “With every heartbeat I want you madly/It’s in my blood to always love you more.” The song ends with Pete in full manic depression marked by either suicidal ideation or murderous intent:

And it means more to me than life can offer
And if this isn’t true love then I am sure
That after this love there’ll be no other
Until the razor cuts

And then dead fucking silence. We don’t know if he offed himself or his intended; we don’t even know if there was any foul play at all. Baby, I love ambivalence.

“Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)“: This one has an interesting and unexpected origin . . . it was inspired by a musical, of all things:

The song dates back to November 1977. We were on a roll. It was only six months since we’d finished the first album. Up in Manchester this was what we used to dream of… a whirlwind of tours, interviews, TV. We were living the life. One night in Edinburgh we were in a guest house TV lounge watching the musical Guys and Dolls. This line leaped out – ‘Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?’ The next day the van stopped outside a post office and I wrote the lyrics there.–Pete Shelley, interview with The Guardian, February 24, 2006

I recently shared my loathing of musicals with one of my readers, but inspiration does tend to come from some pretty odd places, so I’ll give Pete kudos here for taking a line from such a ridiculous art form and turning it into a great piece of melodic punk. Leading a song with a minor chord always catches the ear, adding a touch of erotic mystery in the context of rock. John Maher is really on fire here, bashing the drums with a sense of unbridled urgency that contrasts beautifully with Pete’s offhand delivery of the melodic line.

Because I suffer from violent allergic reactions to musicals, I’d never seen Guys and Dolls, but me being me, I had to research it . . . and are you kidding me? Marlon Brando was in a fucking musical? I can take him has a rapist who used butter as an anal sex lubricant, but Marlon Brando in a musical? That’s obscene.

“Promises”: This zippy little number is in perfect sync with one of my core life principles because it succinctly summarizes why I never intend to get married. I don’t know how anyone can honestly commit to staying in a relationship forever. People change. Shit happens. Getting stuck in a relationship because of a promise you made when you were either overdosing with emotion, drunk, feeling tired of being alone, or because you were getting too old to be single is as dumb as dumb gets. Shelley accurately captures the inevitable result when one half of the relationship breaks the promise: the injured party screams “YOU PROMISED” and then goes into the you-never-loved-me bullshit driven by misplaced feelings of betrayal. No problem with the music here—strong melodic movement over a solid rhythm section banging away at autobahn speeds is always a winner in my book. I just wish the closing line would have been, “Look, we’re both being stupid about this. It’s been great—take care—see ya!”

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”: Borrowing a phrase from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the single represented a slight departure from the classic punk formula but not as big a departure as the punk purists would have you believe. The Buzzcocks gradually expanded their sonic reach, but more in the form of slight variants from punk norms rather than giant leaps into the unknown. I can’t imagine a more perfect soundtrack to accompany life in the World State—there’s a pleasant numbing effect from the music that is eerily cheerful. The slicing downward movement of the primary guitar riff stands in opposition to the bustling distortion of rhythm guitar to form a troubling, dystopian soundtrack. Pete’s tone is one of shoulder-shrugging fake complacency, a tone he indirectly explained in an interview with Sounds:

I’ve come to the idea that nothing exists. There is no world. Or it doesn’t really matter if there is. The way I’m affected by things is the way by which I want them to affect me.

I have a hard time getting my little blonde head around such deep thinking, but I will give Pete credit for crafting a song with a mood that so completely complements non-existence.

“Harmony in My Head”: Steve Diggle takes over the vocal chores for one of his own compositions. The timbre of Diggle’s voice is certainly more along the lines of what we expect from British punk—gruff, raspy and with no attempt to disguise the patois. Diggle’s delivery lacks the clear articulation prominent in Shelley’s vocals, and given the American aversion to British accents that fail to qualify as “posh” (a topic covered in my review of Blur’s Parklife), the song certainly wouldn’t have helped the band in its futile attempt to gain American market acceptance. As befits a song written by a lead guitarist, the guitar dominates the arrangement, integrating siren sounds with classic punk roughness over the relentless drive supplied by Garvey and Maher. The casting of the song in a minor key adds to the feeling of a dystopian soundscape, which may seem like an inappropriate background for a stroll down high street during shopping hours, but I think Diggle’s message is that our obsession with money and material goods has already taken us far down the road to dystopia.

We now flip the disc for the B-sides . . . and in the interests of full disclosure, I like the B-sides a bit better because they demonstrate the potential the band pissed away when they decided to part ways after A Different Kind of Tension.

“Whatever Happened To. . . ?”: Having listened to seven tracks featuring Steve Garvey on bass, it’s a genuine disappointment to listen to the second pre-Garvey number. Garth Smith simply couldn’t keep up, and man, is it ever noticeable. Diggle and Maher wind up driving the rhythm while the bass sort of muddles along in another plane of existence. Too bad, because this is a fun song, a tongue-in-cheek look at old reliable standbys (hi-fi’s, the yellow pages, train sets, Chairman Mao (?)), comparing their durable dependability with commercially-driven mating:

Your passion is a product of highlight and detail
That come-hither look, bonus offer retail . .  .

Your emotions are cheap, cut-price cash-and-carry
You wear your heart on your sleeve for any Tom, Dick or Harry
Your love is a cashed-in cheque
Oh, oh, that’s the way of all flesh

All you have to do is hang around the clubs in Vegas today and you’ll see plenty of balloon-sized lips and silicon tits that confirm Shelley’s worst fears.

“Oh Shit”: I find it amazing that this was the first song titled with a phrase that every human being on the planet has used at one time or another. The Pharcyde (cute) did a hip-hop song with the same name but punk has much more oh shit in its veins than hip-hop. It’s one minute and thirty-seconds of the release of pent up early British punk frustration. Enjoy the refreshing honesty of the vernacular, wipe the sweat off your brow and thrill to the burgeoning bruises from the mosh pit. Fucking delightful.

“Autonomy”: Steve Diggle was a pretty conservative guitarist in general, a long way from the virtuoso types like Satriani and Malmsteen. But goddamn that man knew how to get the most out of a few chords and simple riffs, and in a piece with very sparse lyrics like “Autonomy” he gets a chance to take center stage. The high-speed strum on quickly descending chords certainly draws your attention, but I find myself entranced by the power and confidence he displays in the delivery of the dominant riff. His distortion tone is dampened just a teeny bit, resulting in a cleaner tone that isn’t too clean, allowing for that grinding, rough sound to still thrill you right down to your clit.

Well, at least my clit.

“Noise Annoys”: The Buzzcocks could get the most of a song, even when there isn’t much there there. The lyrics consist of extremely modest variations of the line “Pretty girls, pretty boys, have you ever heard your mommy say noise annoys.” The dead stops after “noise annoys” are a positively brilliant validation of female power. Diggle dominates once again with striking riffs, and Maher gets a helluva workout on the kit. A bit manic, but still a gas.

“Just Lust”: Another attack on superficial sex a la “Orgasm Addict,” this piece feels a bit darker due to the dissonance of the guitar in the bridge and Shelley’s choice to sing in a key at the lower in the range. The lyrics clearly communicate his disgust with sexual mores that emphasize physical performance and stylistic garnish, but even Shelley has to admit that “she looks like the real thing/tastes like the real thing” (with a nod to Thom Yorke and the advertisers at Coca-Cola):

I was slow to catch on
And that just makes it worse
If passion is a fashion
Then emotion is a curse

I’ll say one more thing about Maher, though: if he fucks like he drums, I want him.

“Lipstick”: The boys shake things up a bit, flipping the typical order followed by many a rock songwriter when a minor key is involved. Here the verses are in a major key while the chorus downshifts to the minor. As Shelley decided to use the exact same lines for both verse and chorus, the effect is darkening, as if someone slipped a shade over the music. I’ve rarely heard a rock song amplify the different moods of major and minor so strongly. Adding to the strength of the piece are the seamless transitions in both key and rhythm, moving from major to minor while shifting from bouncy to overdrive. Damn, this was one helluva band!

“Why Can’t I Touch It?”: I love it when albums end well, largely because it’s so damned rare. The last two songs are my two absolute favorite Buzzock numbers, in part because they break one of the fundamental tenets of punk: keep it short. “Why Can’t I Touch It?” is the greater offender, clocking in at over six-and-a-half minutes. While I think the band could have taken more risks given the infinite possibilities for jamming presented by the baseline rhythm, the stereo call-and-response of the guitars works well and actually intensify the listener’s awareness of the rhythmic efforts of Maher and Garvey. The result is a hip-swaying, thigh-grinding experience that gives dancers plenty of room to improvise. The only break in the rhythm comes in the chorus, where the band lowers the volume, drops the pattern and builds to a terribly exciting crescendo featuring Pete Shelley soaring on the line, “So why-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay can’t I touch it.” Shelley’s upper-register, passion-filled vocal is so engaging that the listener feels his frustration at coming so close to grasping whatever “it’ is. Being the tactile type, I always have to touch things to confirm their reality, but I can also see the line applying to the astronauts who flew to the moon and just orbited the fucking place. Close enough just ain’t good enough.

“Something’s Gone Wrong Again”: Let’s face it: modern life is a fucking hassle full of tedious, irritating micro-annoyances that can throw you off and ruin your whole fucking day. When you look back on your reaction to these tiny shitstorms, you wonder, “Why did I have to make such a big deal out of little nothings?” “Because of the accumulation of stress particles,” I scream, adding, “Someone should write a song about this.”

Well, Pete Shelley already wrote that song, and it’s an absolute gas that gives you two possible ways of dealing with these existential mini-crises. First, the next time someone tells you “It’s the little things in life that make it all worthwhile,” you are within your rights to kick that person’s ass. Second: you may be the cause of your own frustration, so look in the mirror for answers.

Oh, this poor bastard . . .

Tried to find my sock
No good, it’s lost
Something’s gone wrong again
Need a shave
Cut myself, need a new blade
Something’s gone wrong again
And again
And again, and again, again and something’s gone wrong again
Something’s gone wrong again

He tries to fry an egg and breaks the yoke, checks his watch to find the hands are broken . . . it’s one thing after another, his blood pressure reading looking like one of those cartoon thermometers that explode over the hapless toon. In a nice little twist, Shelley posits that these things might be going wrong because we expect things to go wrong . . . these pinpricks are a manifestation of our frustration in not having the means to avoid the draining drudgery of daily life:

Nothing ever happens to people like us
‘Cept we miss the bus, something goes wrong again
Need a smoke, use my last fifty P.
But the machine is broke, something’s gone wrong again

I guess the updated PC version of the song will feature the inability to find one’s yoga mat. Afterthought: pulling out a yoga mat instead of lighting a cigarette would have ruined film noir.

The music is intense, featuring thumping bass, strong drums and a combination of distorted and flanged guitar. Diggle’s solo is his best on the album, a ripping, dissonant tour de force, an audio depiction of frustration. Pete Shelley gradually becomes more and more manic as the song proceeds, and by the end it sounds like he’s ready to jump out of his skin . . . and I think, “Is that how I sound WHEN I’VE FUCKING HAD IT WITH THIS STUPID SHIT?” I sure as fuck hope so.

There are times when writing reviews are painful and other times when they feel more like a chore than a choice. Neither of those apply to Singles Going Steady: I had a great time! The music is endlessly engaging, the band is totally committed to everything they’re laying down and the album works on multiple levels: emotional, intellectual (here she goes again), sexual. I wish they hadn’t quit the business when they did and I really wish they’d had better marketing advice to facilitate that American breakthrough—that might have given them the validation any artist needs to move forward.

Hmm. They should have gone guerilla. Oh, you haven’t heard of guerilla marketing? Well, it’s . . . oh, fuck the shop talk.

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