Friday, February 29, 2008

Blame it on plate tectonics.

I don't get it either.

I don't know about leap years.

The thought of an extra or bonus day excites some people and they spend it doing something they might normally avoid or trying to take some advantage of the added time, but it's the kind of thing that gets me all bothered, because if I don't do something, then I'm made to feel like I inherently wasted this glorious extra opportunity that we only get every four years because some dude screwed up when putting together a calendar all that time ago.


A bonus day? What better way to spend it than by enjoying that one thing that CDs are always good for... bonus tracks.

The Kinks - Mountain Woman
As if any more reason was needed to get the Kinks amazingly fabulous 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies on compact disc, the boys tacked on a pair of tracks recorded during the sessions that, for whatever reason, never made it far enough to be properly completed or included on the album, but still fit perfectly in the mold of its peers that had. "Kentucky Moon" was a wobbly, piano and slide guitar-led meditation, while "Mountain Woman" told the story of two simpletons that didn't need the mess and holler of city life or big money, no matter how badly the government wanted their water rights. Typically wonderful Ray Davies story telling, and you gotta love a chorus that exclaims "We're uneducated, but we're happy." Did I pay all that tuition money for this misery?

Old 97's - Singular Girl
Some buyers of the Old 97's 2001 opus Satellite Rides got to get their hands on a free bonus disc of five live tracks and this cut, which was recorded during the Satellite sessions but not included on the album proper. Rhett Miller took it for himself on his 2006 album The Believer, but inexplicably chopped out the best bit, where in he says of the girl in question, "You got the teeth of the hydra upon you." Whether or not Marc Bolan's lawyers didn't like the observation or whether or not Rhett thought it was just a little too rock and roll cliche himself (and I wouldn't put that past him), who knows, but simply because that line is included here, this still makes it the best version of the song. Why Cingular Wireless never picked it up for an advertising campaign is beyond me, but now that Cingular is the new AT&T, it will likely never be. For better or worse.

The Traveling Wilburys - Maxine
Recorded during the band's post-Roy Orbison years as a good natured strum around, this song could've easily fit on to Volume 3 or at least served as a viable option for a B-side, but for years this song only cropped up on George Harrison or Wilbury-related bootlegs. Why it was never completed proper is beyond me, given the almost unreasonable lack of Harrison-led songs on Volume 3, but the wrong was finally righted (er... yeah) last year with the release of the long overdue Collection which compiled all the Wilburys' recordings for a public that had wondered too long why the original albums had been out of print for half of forever.

Have a good weekend all.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

No, it's not like any other love. This one is different, because it's us.

I suppose it's somewhat appropriate that we close out a month that saw a fantastic celebration of Johnny Marr's life after 1987, with a look at the seven-incher that introduced everyone to why he was such an important musical force in the first place.

Yes, for February's installment of "The Fantastic 45's," we look at the little piece of vinyl that introduced England and the rest of the world to the most important band of the 1980's, the Smiths.

As far as debuts go, expecting anything less from the Smiths than a sleeve that featured a man's bare arse, an opening couplet of "Hand in glove // the sun shines out of our behinds" and a B-side seemingly dealing with the molestation of young boys would seem... to ask too little.

Of course, that's given the benefit of hindsight -- the knowledge of understanding full too well how the Smiths' career would blossom from angry youth with an almost teenage like need to shock and dismay to delicate-cum-hysterical self introspection, all the while with music that could turn from pastoral to immediate on a dime and cause as much spite as it did affection.

If it's fair to put the Smiths in that canon of the all time great British bands like the Beatles and the Kinks, then it makes their debut all the more shocking when stacked up against the likes of "Love Me Do" or "You Really Got Me," much less, their own subsequent output.

It lacks the eloquence of a "The Boy With the Thorn In His Side," or the angular refinement of a "Bigmouth Strikes Again" -- it comes through with as much immediacy as "You Really Got Me" had, but with hardly the innate tools to make you automatically want to jump around.

There's something frightening and disconcerting about this single. First off, it fades in -- ballsy move for a single -- and it settles around you like a bad fog. It demands your attention, yes, but it's going to make no strides to make you feel comfortable in listening to it.

As Morrissey put it, it was about the urgency of youth -- anyone that ever experienced a teenage crush should be able to identify with the songs lyrics ("And if the people stare, then the people stare -- Oh, I really don't know and I really don't care"? Absolutely.) -- and while the song didn't revolutionize England in 1983 like its authors hoped it might have, the die was undoubtedly cast. The revolution would come with their very next single, "This Charming Man."

The Fantastic 45's

The Smiths
"Hand in Glove" b/w "Handsome Devil"
Rough Trade, 1983

The Smiths - Hand in Glove
Morrissey claimed it took him more than two hours of repeatedly listening to Johnny Marr's instrumental demo of the song to string just the right words together for the song. Most bands will put such care into their opening stateements, but when the record didn't storm up the charts as he might've hoped, it pissed Mozzer off rather profoundly. "The only tragedy for The Smiths has been that 'Hand In Glove' didn't gain the attention it deserved," he told Jamming magazine in 1984. "I won't rest until that song is in the heart of everything. It's been given another lifespan because it's been re-recorded for the L.P. But it should have been a massive hit. It was so URGENT - to me, it was a complete cry in every direction. It really was a landmark. There is every grain of emotion that has to be injected into all the songs and it worked perfectly with 'Hand In Glove'. It was as if these four people had to play that song -- it was so essential. Those words had to be sung."

The Smiths - Handsome Devil
A recording made from the Smiths' third ever gig in 1983, at the Hacienda in Manchester. Employing a live recording on the B-side saved on the upstart band's lack of money for studio time, but it also made for a rather tinny, harshly produced B-side that might've found more favor with a few calculated attempts in a recording studio. Then again, the urgency and immediacy fitting of couplets like "Let me get my hands on your mammary glands" and "And when we're in your scholarly room, who will swallow whom?" is probably best left before an impassioned audience... Putting this kind of lyric on your first B-side though undoubtedly led to el Mozzer being asked those same questions that don't ever seem to go away to this day.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's right to feel the way I do.

Not to take away from the wonderful news that in 12 days' time, the Dave Clark Five are going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but may I just say four words?



Look, ever since I first heard "Glad All Over" on oldies radio' in my mother's old Chevrolet Eurosport as a kid, I've enjoyed it -- I still do. Strong, driving rhythm, saxophone made to sound cool, the rhythm guitar is understated and even the harmonies are pretty friggin' cool.

They've got a host of good songs -- "Because" is lovely, "Catch Us If You Can" is fun, "Bits and Pieces" is a decent stomper.

But these guys are Hall worthy? Really? Can you name anyone in the Dave Clark Five besides Dave Clark without checking Wikipedia? Can you tell me what role Clark played in the group? If you say singer, you're wrong...

I don't find much reason to align myself with anyone having to do with Rolling Stone these days, but I will give Jann Wenner credit for sidelining the DC5's induction last year to make way for Grandmaster Flash -- courting the way for controversy in that a "rap" act could make it into the "Rock and Roll" Hall of Fame, but therein lies what I think should be at the heart of the argument as to who makes it in to the Hall.

I'm not a Madonna fan -- she's got a few halfway decent tracks, but I can respect the lasting impact she's had on music and inspiration she's provided to legions of young female artists that I'm also not fans of -- but I can understand it and appreciate the fact that she leads this year's crop in. Fine.

I think induction into this hall should have a lot to do with inspiration and lasting influence on other acts. And it's very hard for me (even though I admittedly know very little about them) to see the Dave Clark Five as anything but a cookie cutter British Invasion group that wrote some fine songs, but were happy riding the wave that their peers had stirred for them. Maybe it's unfair to pigeonhole them as Beatles copyists -- after all, pretty much anything having to do with the British Invasion had its Beatle-laid roots, but at least the Kinks found a way to sow the seeds for heavy metal before reinventing themselves as the sharpest social commentators of the era. At least the Rolling Stones and the Animals provided a way for suburban white kids to find out about the blues. At least the Who brought theatrics to rock and roll.

What did the Dave Clark Five do?

And more importantly, what f*cking bands cite the Dave Clark Five as a primary reason they picked up their own respective instruments? (And by the way, if you're a member of such a band, please leave a comment, 'cos I would honestly love to hear from you).

No one's gonna say they didn't have some good songs, but if we're just trying to fill space on the ballot now, we could do a lot better, my dear selection committee.

The Small Faces are still sitting around completely unrecognized, you know...

The Dave Clark Five - Glad All Over

The Dave Clark Five - Because

Both fantastic tracks (and they are fantastic tracks -- I don't argue that, I just argue the general fantasticity of the band) can now be found on any number of compilations, including The History of the Dave Clark Five.


Monday, February 25, 2008

When the cold wind comes...

Random paranoia to begin the week:

What are the Canadians up to? Employing legions of backing vocalists/percussionists clad in white? I don't know what it means, I don't know if I should be alarmed... and I don't know why I dig it so much:

Speaking of Canada, I took a trip with my good friend Steve to Toronto in October of 2004 and had such a splendid time that ever since I've been seriously considering relocating there. Good bands (The Waking Eyes, the Stills), easier access to the UK music scene (thank you colonialism), the best senses of humor in the world and, if nothing else, Steam Whistle Beer.

This winter in Madison has made me think long and real f*cking hard about that.

I woke up early Friday morning after having a nightmare that I can't for the life of me remember now, but one that seemed to have me waking up every 15 minutes and falling back into until I took it upon myself to break the cycle. At 5 a.m. all CNN was talking about was this winter storm that had hit the northeast like it was armageddon.

"Three inches of snow already on the ground in Boston!"

Three inches?!

Do you know how many times this winter Madisonians would've LOVED to hear a newscaster say three inches at any point this winter? I think the smallest we've heard was four, and that's in the context of "Tonight you can expect four to eight inches" with an inevitable seven falling upon us. Pretty much every fourth day. Seriously.

We just got through a nice weekend, and by nice I mean, 30 degrees but consistently sunny. A big clump of ice just fell off the roof of the building I stare at every day, and I smiled to myself before remember tonight's forecast for a good five to eight inches of snow. No points for guessing how much we get.

It's one thing to bitch about the weather, I know -- it was me after all that decided to live in Madison and not pursue jobs in Arizona, but even people that have been here their entire lives are wondering what exactly they did to piss off Mother Nature in 2007? Considering the near biblical rains we got in August, you have to figure it was something drastic, because she's taken about every opportunity to kick our teeth in this winter as she's seen fit and that means the all time winter snowfall record for the city, set at something like 77 inches, was smashed a long time ago, and we're within one or two more good storms of approaching 100. Think about that. Do you know how relentless it has to be to accumulate that much snow?

Every major winter front that has moved through the Midwest since December 1 has pretty much hit Madison dead on. We haven't caught a break. My car's been carrying an extra 20-30 pounds of snow and ice in its wheel wells and bumpers for the last two months, I've gone through two sets of windshield wipers already this winter and the one get away I made to Dallas f*cking Texas this winter, guess what happened.

It snowed.

So with the Onion rather pointedly pointing out Canada's chief environmental concern as being "It's f*cking freezing out there," I'm thinking that in spite of the music, access, comedy and beer, I might be better off casting my eyes to the south. Then again, I could probably laugh about it easier up there.

I will say that I am one of the last of my friends up here to buckle and start openly complaining about the weather. For the last two months, I've been saying "Cold is just a state of mind, you know" so much that I think someone might falsely believe it should go on my gravestone as an epitaph. Actually, that's not a bad epitaph. But let's see if I can convince myself...

Donald Fagen - Florida Room
From Fagen's 2nd solo album, 1993's Walter Becker-produced Kamakiriad, which I think is the weakest of his three solo albums. But this cut is the runaway highlight, where Donald finds a natural groove and rides it out instead of trying to feel his way through chord changes and making blind swipes at rhythms and grooves (which is what much of the rest of the album feels like to me). Sure, it's more a summer mix track than a winter mix, but by God, I need the state of mind right now.


Friday, February 22, 2008

I wanna be her friend, and there's no harm in hoping.

ABC Family (I know, I know, but it's there and I stumble upon it sometimes, shoot me) recently reran one of my all time favorite movies, A League of Their Own.

Now, it's not the same on ABC Family, of course, because Tom Hanks' amazing performance as Jimmy Dugan is highly edited (meaning the film's best bit -- when he's introduced to the crowd for the first time, tips his hat and drunkenly mutters "This is bullsh*t, you can all kiss my ass, yes you can!" through a phony smile), but the other thing about that movie was that it made me fall in love with an actress for the first time when I saw it. Seriously. Geena Davis blew me away when I was 11. Strange thing is I've seen her in a lot of other films, but she never looked as great as she did in that movie...

Anyway, I digress, as I got older, my celebrity muses changed. Sandra Bullock was my #1 for a long time, but her recent marriage to motorcycle nutter Jesse James kind of broke my heart... even though I'm well past the point of teenage crushes. More recently still I've fallen for Parker Posey, and even wrote a song about her a couple years ago that was played on Madison radio. I won't post it, because I'm not THAT self-absorbed (or am I?), but if you would like to hear a high quality stream, please by all means go here.

Anyway, everybody's got their celebrity crushes, and a lot of musicians make no bones about documenting their love in the studio. Appropriately (even though we're now past Valentine's Day), I thought February's Friday Five should be five great songs about celebrity crushes... Here are the first few that came to mind, but I know there's plenty I missed. Feel free to chime in with celebrity crush songs you particularly like or your own celebrity crushes...

The Friday Five
Celebrity Crushes

Billy Bragg & Wilco - Ingrid Bergman
Billy sets music to Woody Guthrie's lovesick paean to one of the silver screen's most iconic actresses. It's a tender, sweet song: "If you walk across my camera, I will flash the world your story. I will pay you more than money, Ingrid Bergman. Not by pennies, dimes nor quarters, but with happy sons and daughters. And they'll sing around Stromboli..." Still, Bragg is quick to point out that while the song has it's sweet overtones, it's probably not without it's own hints of perversity, either. Draw your own conclusions from "You'd make fire fly from the crater" or "...for your hand to touch it's hard rock," but don't miss out on Bragg's favorite line, the folky spin of "Ingrid Bergman, you're so perty." "Could be that old way of saying 'pretty'," Bragg mused in 2006, "or it could mean 'perty,' as in, you know, breasts." From 1998's Mermaid Avenue.

Cornershop - Brimful of Asha
When this song blew up on both sides of the Atlantic in 1997, kids everywhere got hooked right into the song's sunny teeth (and the mantra that "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow"), but not many of them knew this song was a loving tribute by lead singer Tjinder Singh, to wildly popular Bollywood vocalist, Asha Bhonsle, and the magic that her voice and films provided to his childhood. This page takes a very in depth look at the song that can make you make a lot of sense out of the words you've sung along to for the last 10 years, thinking they were entirely nonsensical. Not so, at all. From When I Was Born for the 7th Time.

The Hollies - Carrie Anne
A few different stories abound about this song's origins, but that bad ass series the History of Rock and Roll that I'm sure is on DVD now, but was once on PBS confirmed that this song was about England's most famous fur rug wearing songstress, Marianne Faithfull. Of course, Marianne was already deeply entwined with Mick Jagger and the Stones, "older boys and prefects", if you will, but the song's delightful calls for a return to child-like innocence has kept it just as charming a listen for 40+ years now as its pangs of steel drumming has. From Evolution.

Robbie Fulks - That Bangle Girl
Robbie certainly wasn't the only one to keep a close eye on Susanna Hoffs' wandering eyes in the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" video, but he was the only one to write a near-saccharine ode to what it meant to him. Like most everything Fulks does, however, the song's charms outweigh anything that would make you roll your eyes, and if "I'd show her books I've read, I'd play her my records, I'd listen to the things she said, I'd so respect her" doesn't sum up every celebrity crush you lads have ever had, then you're truly fooling yourselves. From The Very Best of Robbie Fulks.

The Who - Pictures of Lily
Now, which Lily Pete (or Roger) was looking at remains in question. A 2006 book by Rikky Rooksby, Lyrics has Pete Townsend claiming it's about an old vaudeville star named Lily Bayliss. But the lyric about Lily having died in 1929 would more accurately apply to music hall star Lillie Langtry. Whatever the case, this was the A-side of a seven-incher released in April 1967, rather poignantly just ahead of the Summer of Love, and you gotta give it to the Who here. Songs about self... er... gratification usually don't sound quite as sweet as this. Just ask the Divinyls. Can now be found on any number of Who collections, why not try My Generation: The Very Best of the Who.

Have a great weekend, all.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

I hope that you can hear, hear me singin' through these tears.

Bob Dylan UnderCover
Case 4, Travis

Travis - You're a Big Girl Now

The general rule of thumb for this come-and-go-as-it-pleases series has already been established: Bob Dylan is without question one of the finest songwriters ever, yet at the same time, when artists cover his material, they seem to take it to a whole new level themselves.

Travis, however, seemed to step a little backwards, and this surprises me. Mainly because the song they chose, "You're a Big Girl Now" from Dylan's landmark Blood on the Tracks album is actually one of the very few songs where he sounds in SPECTACULAR voice. Dylan could be a tender romantic, even vocally, when he so chose (check out "She Belongs to Me" if you don't believe it), and on this song he sang with one of the sweetest voices he ever could muster.

Put into Fran Healy's capable hands, you'd think this would go to the next level as the guy's made his whole career out of singing in a doe-eyed, sweet-as-you-like low falsetto that essentially set the stage for Coldplay to come in, take over America, and wed its movie stars.

But when the Scots covered this song for a B-side to their 2001 megahit, "Side," we actually found a band doing a more than capable musical take on the song, but Healy singing in the prototypical Dylan impersonation voice that everyone who's ever picked up an acoustic guitar at some point has sung in. It's not horrible, of course -- and god knows there are worse (or, far more accurate) Dylan impersonations out there, but when you get Travis covering a song like this, you just hope for a little more, don't you? I mean, hell, they managed to make "Gimme Some Truth" sound halfway sweet through all the bile John Lennon wrote into it...

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I ain't the world's best writer, ain't the world's best speller, but when I believe in something, I'm the loudest yeller.

So I've made a concerted effort for this blog not to be a dumping ground for my own personal political or religious beliefs, cheifly because when it comes to politics and religion, people's feelings about them are such that it doesn't matter what I have to say, short of starting a holy war, opinions aren't going to be swayed.

I'd much rather sway your opinion about Johnny Marr, you know? And I'd much rather get into fights over the Doors as opposed to fights about... I don't know, the pragmatism of universal healthcare or something.

But today's a big day for the Democratic presidential candidates in Wisconsin and everyone's on a bit of a buzz, so I'm suspending my self imposed "non political" rules for a few seconds. The payoff? A really badass song.

Here's the thing that really pisses me off about Hillary lately. She knows she's not as good an orator as Barack is, and so her whole platform has been switched to this "I can't talk good, but I can lead good!" thing, which is kind of missing the point after the last eight years of United States leadership.

What's the worst thing about having George W. Bush in charge? It's that he's the face of America, and the representation of all of us. It's a guy, who one month ago said, "I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be -- hold hands."

Other than that, what of it? Economy, the war, yeah... all pratfalls and very negative ones at that, but let's look at your life personally over the last eight years. Here's the thing people forget in election years -- whoever gets elected in November isn't going to be in your house telling you how to live, what to do, and where to go on a daily basis.

I don't like W. anymore than any contributor to the Huffington Post does, but in the last eight years, I've had some of the best moments of my life. They're all non-W. related of course -- meeting Johnny Marr, hanging out with Lyle Lovett, graduating college, winning awards, writing one of the most kickass (and underappreciated) blogs out there, but it just goes to show you that whoever is ultimately in charge isn't going to make or break your life on a day to day basis.

What you have to hope for then, is that the person you choose to lead can stand up there and be a class act representation of all of us. Barack isn't going to fulfill all of his promises. Hillary isn't either. And McCain won't. Why? Because as the Bonzos famously sang, "No matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in." So when my coworker tells me he voted for Hillary simply because he likes the thought of having Bill back in the White House, I can understand, but I also cringe. Bill's face for America was literally one with its pants caught down. It's alright -- because he still seemed like a guy you could go have a beer and a laugh with (operative word: seemed), but it still was kind of a duffer for us.

And George? Well...

(I really love #4 by the way)

Anyway, I think it's about time we put a guy who sounds inspirational and visionary up front, even if it is just a matter of sounding so. Sure Hillary can call him out on him being full of BS, but I want all her supporters to concede the point should she win and not fulfill all of HER promises that she's just as full of it right now too. "Talking good" is important dammit. The most damaging thing about Bush's presidency is we've forgotten that. And as an English major, that's devastating.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - Stetson Kennedy
Woody Guthrie's ode to the Florida civil rights activist got a musical making over by Ol' Big Nose and Chicago's favorite sons for the second volume of their Mermaid Avenue recordings. Great little tune about how inspiration can still be found in the political realm when its seemingly in short supply at higher levels. I'd draw comparisons to Mr. Obama with that, but I'm not here to preach... too much...

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Monday, February 18, 2008

And come ever what may, my expert tells me it's okay.

I was listening to George Harrison's fabulous 1976 album Thirty-Three and 1/3 again recently and hearing arguably the album's sharpest moment, "This Song" got me thinking...

Not enough people in rock and roll get pissed off about being called out for swiping bits of music.

Music -- well, rock and roll in particular -- is much like a record itself, just going round and round, people always pinching a bit of influence consciously or subconscioulsy for their own art. It seems ludicrous to me that Chuck Berry got that pissed off about John Lennon swiping "You Can't Catch Me" for "Come Together" especially when many of Berry's earliest hits (e.g. "School Days" and "No Particular Place to Go") were the same damn song anyway with new lyrics. Then again, maybe it's better to steal from yourself. Lennon's response? To cover "You Can't Catch Me" on his 1975 album, Rock and Roll and make it sound even more "Come Together"-esque.

Coca-Cola went after Oasis for their sophomore single "Shakermaker," saying it sounded just a little too close to "I'd Like To Teach the World to Sing" for their lawyers' liking. Noel's initial rebuff when performing the song live was to substitute the final "Ah, shake along with me" line for "Now we all drink Pepsi." Enjoyable. But he's not come back as strong after Bowie went after him for putting an "All the Young Dudes" refrain in early versions of "Whatever," and ended up quickly backing the hell down when Stevie Wonder demanded Morning Glory royalties if the "Uptight"-aping "Step Out" was to remain on the band's 1995 juggernaut.

Dave Davies said he and big brother Ray simply laughed it off when they first heard the Doors' "Hello, I Love You" and realized how grotesquely similar it was to their own "All Day and All of the Night."

Steve Marriott did something kinda cool after writing (read: pinching) the music for the Small Faces' debut single "What'cha Gonna Do About It?" from Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" -- he rattled off his own influences -- all of which consisted of American soul artists -- but was quick to quip that he "wasn't too keen on Solomon Burke, though."

The list goes on, of course, but no one's ever come back like the quiet Beatle after a week in New York that saw lawyers overanalyze every line of his 1970 single "My Sweet Lord" to chart the similarities between it and the Chiffons' 1963 hit "He's So Fine." He lost and briefly got so paranoid about stepping on somebody else's note that he was physically afraid to try writing a song.

Fortunately when you have friends like Billy Preston and Willie Weeks, and pals with good senses of humor like Eric Idle, you find a way to fight through it, and "This Song" not only is the highlight of a great, great album -- it's one of the most spritely "f*ck you"s ever laid down on acetate.

George Harrison - This Song

The video is also fun... although George doesn't look like he's having too much of it at some points... but keep an eye out for Jim Keltner as the judge, George's wife Olivia as Lady Justice, and Ronnie Wood looking damn good in a dress.


Friday, February 15, 2008

If you feel this way then clap your hands.

Regular visitors to the site will know that I like to take closer looks at EPs every now and again -- wonderful little things that hardly ever find their way into American music markets as often as they do European ones.

The draw of course is always the B-sides... songs you usually can't get anywhere else and for rabid fans of bands releasing such exclusive nuggets, it's a continual wonderful search for holy grails.

For fans of Belle & Sebastian, their EPs from pretty much 1997 through 2001 were religious, 'cos the Scots TRULY kicked it old school and would release EPs of completely new material (non-album A-sides?!) on regular intervals just like the best bands of the 1960s and 1970s used to do.

But a sea change came along for the band in 2003 following Isobel Campbell's departure from the group, a signing with Rough Trade Records, hiring Trevor Horn to produce their Dear Catastrophe Waitress album, and -- shock of shocks -- deciding to put out a (I can't even say it...) SINGLE FROM THE ALBUM?!?!?!

The bold sweep of the indie darlings into the mainstream music business alarmed enough fans into casting judgement before ever hearing a note of the new album or single, but as I've said before on this space, this was the moment when I finally started to pay attention to the Belles.

It's not that I'm a ravenous consumer of all things mainstream -- I should hope that in the year and a half I've been doing this blog, I've posted enough to prove otherwise -- but the thing that came with Belle & Sebastian's sweep into expanded markets was an expanded sound. They finally sounded like they had as many people in the band that they always claimed to (inspite of filling most songs with precious little acoustic guitar, a viola bit or two, and some light percussion). And what's more, it sounded like all those members really wanted to show they were good musicians too.

"Step Into My Office, Baby" was released on November 17, 2003 and carried more balls and bravado than any B&S single before it had (which, granted, isn't saying MUCH). It sounded glorious.

Fans that shelled out for Dear Catastrophe Waitress (I'll cite my former roommate Tom here, because if he gets upset about it, he might actually contact me...) were a bit touchy about only getting TWO new songs on the EP.

But look at it this way. They were both good. And neither one was a live track or remix...

Belle & Sebastian - Love on the March
Bit of Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin-led Latino lounge pop? Suits you splendid, Scots. Okay, it's not the finest thing they've ever put out and you almost want to check the lyrics to make sure they don't in fact say "This is just a B-side" somewhere, but again, musically this is a nice leap from the solitary acoustic dalliances that led Jack Black to call the Belles "old sad bastard music" in High Fidelity. Granted... this ain't no "Walkin' on Sunshine." But it's a step in that direction, isn't it?

Belle & Sebastian - Desperation Made a Fool of Me
Stuart Murdoch's gift is writing lyrics for the shy guys that always wonder about the injustice of a world where the prettiest girl they've ever seen can actually align herself with a complete, humorless scuzbucket like this kid Derek I knew in 4th grade. Not that I hang on to that kind of bitterness... Anyway, this is another one of those gems that comes off rather sleepy and seemingly also composed for B-side status only, but try to tell me your not a little bit moved (at least musically) when it gets to the "Now that I've got my motives straight and I am thinking clearly, I'll sneak up to your window with my senses open wide" bit. Just try.

And honestly, let's face it: The A-side's video is not only Belle & Sebastian's greatest video, it just might be one of the five best music videos of all time. I'll do you even better. One of the THREE best music videos of all time.

Have a good weekend, kids.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

While we're on the subject, could we change the subject now?

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 9: 2005-2007

"The six things I guarantee I'll never do are...
1.) Allow my music to be involved with advertising McDonald's or any meat product.
2.) Wear winklepicker shoes.
3.) Wear a tie onstage.
4.) Have a fringe that faces north instead of south.
5.) Lend a drummer my money.
6.) Reform the Smiths."
--Johnny Marr, NME, 2007

By now, it just stands to reason that after Johnny realized his solo designs in 2003, he headed back to stage right with the option of returning to the spotlight if and when he pleased. In the time since, he's reunited with old friends to help them out with their own musical causes and to this very day, continues to make people go, "Wait, Johnny Marr's playing with WHO?!"

Personally inspired by his first go of it, Johnny set forth to create another Healers record, but a few spanners were thrown in the work. First, Oasis thanked Johnny for his years of unselfish help to the band (including, but not limited to: getting Oasis a manager, getting Noel Gallagher some good guitars, helping Liam Gallagher hone his songwriting abilities, contributing to Oasis albums and live performances and inspiring them to start a band in the first place) by taking the Healers' drummer Zak Starkey for themselves.

Then (much to this author's rampant delight), Crispian Mills decided it was time to give Kula Shaker another go, so Alonza Bevan returned to his origins (although close readers will notice that Marr is thanked in Kula's recently released Strangefolk's liner notes). So Marr started working with new musicians of less prominant stature and readied new songs and gigs.

The major debut for the "new" Healers was in January 2006, when Marr took the band to the stage for the Manchester Vs. Cancer benefit organized by longtime friend and Smiths bassist Andy Rourke. Marr opened his set with "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" and was soon joined by his old compatriot for a take on "How Soon is Now?"

Talk of a new Healers album percolated, but wouldn't you know it, other artists (as they always do) came calling on Johnny to help them out instead.

One of the first was Lisa Germano, who again employed Johnny for a couple of tracks on her 2006 album, In the Maybe World, which saw more atmospheric songs get ethereal touches by Johnny.

Lisa Germano - Into Oblivion

Next up, British actress-turned-songstress (and Franz Ferdinand muse) Jame Birkin came calling to have Johnny contribute some guitar parts to her 2006 album Fictions. The pairing was quite glorious.

Jane Birkin - Home

Since Lisa was still getting work off Johnny thanks to their 2001 summit in New Zealand with Neil Finn, Finn himself thought he shouldn't be excluded from employing the guitarist for a bit of his own work. In 2005, he started working on his 3rd solo album proper and began working a bit with Johnny. As it went, original Crowded House drummer Paul Hester committed suicide in March of that year, and Neil's thoughts returned to the band he'd disbanded a decade prior. The 3rd solo album soon morphed into a Crowded House reunion album, and in 2007, Time on Earth appeared, with Johnny in tow for guitar on a couple of tracks and a co-writing credit on "Even a Child," which features Johnny's daughter Sonny (I love that, by the way) on backing vocals as well.

Crowded House - Even a Child

But surely the news that took everyone by surprise in 2006 was that Johnny Marr had signed on to become a full time member of American indie rock heroes Modest Mouse. Noel Gallagher labeled it "just the oddly perverse thing Johnny Marr likes to do," but when We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank hit in March 2007, it got something no other artist Marr had worked with -- Smiths or otherwise -- had ever managed. An American #1 album. About f*cking time, eh? He may have looked a tad out of place in the band photos, but he looked alright performing with them:

Modest Mouse - Missed the Boat

Modest Mouse - We've Got Everything

"The writing was like little firestarting all over the room -- this inspired atmosphere. There's six of us, one of the drummers might want to do something Prince Buster or the Minutemen, the bass player will want to do something like old Celtic music, the other drummer wants it to sound techno. And I'm on whatever trip I'm on and so is Isaac. And that's about as much as I want to work out with this band as far as the writing goes. By the third or fourth day working, I remember standing in the middle of the room playing very loud and wondering to myself what this music actually is. And not being able to work it out -- which was perfect."
--Johnny Marr, Uncut, 2008

And Johnny also looked cool as hell playing along to Modest Mouse's earlier hits:

In November of 2007, perhaps the most important collaboration of Marr's post-Smiths career took place when he took five minutes out of his day to talk to this blog's author. No music was recorded (real shame), but it was still a thrill and a half:

And now? Besides winning a Q Lifetime Acheivement Award, being named an Honorary Patron of Trinity College Dublin University Philosophical Society AND a visiting professor at Salford University, Johnny Marr is working with the Cribs.

So while this brings this series to its end, it doesn't bring Johnny's "Beyond the Smiths" years to one. Perhaps Part 10 will come later, but for now... that's all he wrote. Hope you've changed your minds (for the better) about his post-Smiths work.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Well I'll tell you something -- I know what's going on.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 8: 2002-2003

"And you’re about to go out in front of an audience who don’t know the material, don’t know who I am and about five minutes before showtime a ripple of a rumor would go around these 5,000 or 13,000 people that it’s Johnny Marr’s new band. Of which probably 200 of them said 'Really?' and the rest of them said, 'Who?' Half of the rest of them said, 'Yeah, the guy’s in a band with one of Kula Shaker.' 'Oh, right!'"
--Johnny Marr, Magnet Magazine, 2003

In addition to showing up on Neil Finn and Oasis records in 2002, and contributing material to the new Beth Orton record, Johnny also found time to produce Haven's debut album and touch on a few other artists records before year's end.

One of which was long time friends Pet Shop Boys, who he'd dabbled with on a semi-frequent basis since first becoming friendly with Neil and Chris in Electronic's formative days in the late 1980s. While maintaining a 10+ year friendship, maybe it says something that in one of Marr's busiest years, he actually ended up playing on the biggest stack of tracks on the Boys' 2002 release, er... Release. The guy just couldn't seem to sit still for a minute that year.

My favorite pull off the album is "E-Mail." I think the idea of writing songs about e-mail is still a bit silly and I'll never forget killing time in a Sam Goody in 1999, mocking the titles of tracks on Britney Spears' first album with my friend John, one of which was "E-mail My Heart." John actually had the gall to try listening to it for a few seconds, immediately bursting into laughter and going, "It sounds all serious!" I don't know why, because I think E-mail and electronic communication will only grow in strength and be around for eons, but I think writing songs about it dates you terribly. Nevertheless, the Pet Shop Boys wrote a really great song about it, and I just love the chord progression and Johnny's touches to the song. Can't believe I just admitted I love a Pet Shop Boys song...

Pet Shop Boys - E-Mail

Another live album to feature Johnny was also put out in 2002 - The Charlatans' Live it Like You Love It, a document of a December 2001 performance that saw Johnny join the boys on stage to add guitar to a couple of tunes. Only one of which, "Weirdo" made the album.

The Charlatans - Weirdo (live)

Then along came 2003, which, after years in the making, finally saw the release of Johnny Marr's debut solo album (albeit *with* the Healers), Boomslang.

I was a sophomore in college when Boomslang was released and in the American market, at least, college students were going to be the prime movers for the album. Sure, there were going to be Smiths fans who'd pretty much ignored the breadth of work Marr had done since 1987, save for maybe passing judgement on an Electronic or The The track or two. Because Marr wasn't releasing mediocre solo albums every two years like Morrissey, people weren't able to pin him down and make broad judgments, but the problem was that in waiting 16 years between leaving the Smiths and putting out a "Johnny Marr" album proper, people's expectations are going to be really high.

Johnny (as this series should have already proved) doesn't like retreading the same ground -- even the work he did with Electronic changed from album to album. So he didn't want Boomslang to sound like anything he'd done previously (even though some of it did kind of sound like Twisted Tenderness).

Problem was, a lot of people heard the first single, "The Last Ride" and thought "Sounds a bit Oasis, doesn't it?" Now therein's a huge problem... now Johnny's sound is being inspired by bands HE inspired? Backwards, isn't it? But it seems to me that a lot of people wrote off the album because it was heavy on electric guitar overdrive, and not his lush jingle jangle style. Could he write lyrics as good as Morrissey's? No. Who said he could? Could he sing as well as Morrissey. No. Who said he could?

But he proved here after an entire career spent stage right, that he could handle the spotlight himself fine. Whether or not you like it is up to you, of course, but to judge Johnny's post-Smiths career on this album alone was a grievous mistake. And to say Morrissey's still had a better run on his own is hogwash too. Boomslang is just as good (if not consistently better) than anything Morrissey's done since Vauxhall and I.

I'm biased, of course, but Boomslang is a phenomenol album. It's not anything amazingly stellar -- it just rocks. You'd do well to reassess it.

Johnny Marr + the Healers - InBetweens

Johnny Marr + the Healers - Long Gone

"I had a dream about a talking snake, which said, 'I am Boomslang, I am Boomslang. I wanna go up, I wanna go up.' It seemed to go on all night, and I woke up thinking, 'Well, that was pretty weird, even for me.' So I went on the Internet and lo and behold, there was a snake called Boomslang... The chemistry with these guys is amazing. In a perfect world, we'd all be Healers and my name wouldn't be in front of it, but everyone around me convinced me that it would be silly not to put my name on it. It would be like Patti Smith calling her group the Shoes."
--Johnny Marr, interview, 2003

Plus it all got Marr on US TV, which was fantastic.

Following his working with Lisa Germano on Neil Finn's shows, Marr also took a bit of time to help Germano out with her 2003 album, Lullaby for Liquid Pig, adding atmospheric touches to some very... well, atmospheric songs.

Lisa Germano - Into the Night

With a solo album and tour under his belt, Johnny throttled down a little, but it wasn't long before he started yet another round of journeyman work...

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It's no surprise to me that you're clever, classless and free.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 7: 2000-2002

"But what I realized pretty quickly was that people were asking me about other stuff rather than singing, so I took that as being a really good thing. People were listening to the record and talking about the sound of it, or the words or how it related to the old stuff I’ve done. No one was making a big deal of the singing, and that’s a good thing. It’s a real tricky one, because when you’re known for something else—especially singing, and me being a known guitar player—it’s a bit of a leap for people. It’s a bigger deal to everyone else than it is to me."
--Johnny Marr, Magnet Magazine, 2003

After spending the duration of his career off to the side chiming away on his guitar and chipping in a few backing vocals here and there, Johnny finally decided to step out and find his own voice around the turn of the millennium. Encouragement came from friends like Matt Johnson and Chrissie Hynde, but the first opportunity came in 1999 when a tribute to Linda McCartney was held in London, and Hynde forced Marr to sing the Smiths' old pro-vegetarian dirge, "Meat is Murder":

He didn't quite pull it off like Morrissey once did (although not even Morrissey pulls it off like Morrissey once did anymore), but to see Johnny out front taking lead vocals was something new and exciting from a man who always seemed to have a new ace up his sleeve every few years.

And actually, the "tribute" forum allowed Johnny to find his comfort zone before singing his own lyrics... He contributed a version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" to an Uncut Magazine Dylan tribute compilation, and his first recording with his new band, the Healers was a contribution to the 2000 compilation, People on the Highway: A Bert Jansch Encomium.

Johnny Marr + the Healers - A Woman Like You

As it turned out, Marr and new friend (ex-Suede guitarist and Marr obsessive) Bernard Butler teamed up to help Bert with his 2000 album, Crimson Moon, where Johnny laid down a bit of guitar, a bit of harmonica, and even a bit of backing vocals on a few scattered tracks.

Bert Jansch - The River Bank
"[Jansch's music] really sounded like a challenge to me. It was a yardstick for me by which to raise my game as a player... Bert’s stuff was the only music by a specific guitar player that I would try and work out. And like a lot of things when you’re influenced by people, you find your own way of doing it and it’s normally wrong but it helps you along your own road. And I ended up being lucky enough to play with Bert a few times and last year he and I were playing in my kitchen and when he’s two feet away from you, playing guitar, it’s more confusing when you’re looking at his fingers than listening to the records. Having played with him, I’m more confused than I ever was."
--Johnny Marr, Harp Magazine, 2002

Marr's own band the Healers, at the time a 6-piece featuring the likes of ex-Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan and sticksman of sticksmen (and son of Ringo), Zak Starkey, also released their first single in 2000, a heavy electric guitar drone called "The Last Ride" that didn't sound too far detached from the last stuff Marr had done with Electronic. The Healers supported Oasis on some of their European dates, putting Marr out front in live setting on a consistent basis for the first time in his career, but he was still finding himself to be a little too hot of a commodity to focus on his own work.

Oasis' Liam Gallagher was bitten with songwriting bug after finally making his own songwriting debut on his band's 2000 album, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and called up Johnny in 2000 to help him sort out about 10 songs he was working on.

Then in 2001, a call came through from New Zealand's favorite son, Neil Finn, about a couple of gigs the ex-Split Enz and Crowded House man was planning with a bona fide supergroup to feature big brother Tim, Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien from Radiohead, Lisa Germano, Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg and Eddie Vedder just for starters. Would Marr be interested? Of course...

Testament to Johnny's own budding singer/songwriting skills, Finn implored Marr to play a new song he'd written called "Down on the Corner." The band played it during rehearsals, and everyone took to it so strongly that despite the fact it hadn't yet been recorded for release in any format, it was quickly inserted into the setlist alongside the likes of "Don't Dream it's Over" and "Four Seasons in One Day" (which gave Marr the chance to bust out his harmonica again).

Marr's immediate kinship with Finn also broke down a huge wall that few others had managed to topple and got him playing Smiths songs again. All of this was documented on the fabulous 7 Worlds Collide album.

Neil Finn & Friends - There is a Light That Never Goes Out (video)
"To be honest, I didn't realize how great Neil was until I started playing with him... When you get inside those songs you realize what a talent he's got. I went over to Auckland with Phil and Ed O'Brien to play with new musicians and learn some new songs and then 30 songs later (literally in a week) I realize what a great talent he is. There is this assumption about Neil in that he's very pop or a light person. And he's not -- he's as heavy as anyone I've met. He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever met and he's got this talent that's either god given or crafted and the truth is its both... It takes someone like Neil Finn to get me playing 'How Soon is Now?' - he did a good job of singing it as well."
--Johnny Marr, Designer Magazine, 2001

Marr also started a collaboration in the first part of the new decade with indie songstress Beth Orton, writing a few songs with her and making a few live appearances as well, although when it came time for Orton to record her album Daybreaker, Marr was too tied up with other commitments to make it to the studio. One of the songs they wrote together did make the album though, and when Johnny Marr couldn't sit in, Orton had Ryan Adams fill in on guitar and vox instead.

Beth Orton - Concrete Sky

And going back to the work he'd started in 2000, Oasis released Heathen Chemistry in 2002 -- the first album to feature the new lineup that included ex-Heavy Stereo man Gem Archer and ex-Ride/Hurricane #1 man Andy Bell. Marr played guitar on a couple of tracks, including one he'd worked on with Liam two years prior.

Oasis - Born on a Different Cloud
"Lyrically, it's as good as anything I'd want to hear."
--Johnny Marr, 2000

There were still a few journeyman projects left to round out 2002, but after the heavy load of collaborating, Marr hunkered down to finish off his first solo album proper... before starting yet another round of collaborations....

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Bangkok athletes in the biosphere, Arkansas wet dreams, we all disappear.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 6: 1997-1999

"Whenever I’m asked whether I give bands advice, I always feel uneasy about it. It seems like a very patronizing, pompous, self-elevating position to take. However, if you’re around your friends, you just pop ‘em straight: 'The live sound sucks because the guitar player’s got a bad amp.' You just give them the amp... I’ve given a lot of people a lot of equipment because I don’t like waste. Not because I’m particularly an angel, but because I got helped out by a few nice people along the way. Maybe it’s karma or whatever, or just being polite... if it just takes a phone call to give someone a little bit of encouragement, it’s not a difficult thing to do."
--Johnny Marr, Magnet Magazine, 2003

Following a busy 1996 that saw the second Electronic album and another lease on journeyman life begin, Johnny kept on the journeyman gauntlet for another two years, before bringing the three years full circle with the third (and final, to date) Electronic album.

One of the first stops on Johnny's "journey around the music biz... again" tour was another collaboration with Billy Bragg, writing the music for Bragg's 1997 single "The Boy Done Good" (later tacked on the Bloke on Bloke compilation). Because I'm American, I don't really understand the need by every halfway popular British artist to do a "football song" every summer or every other summer -- I know it has to do with Eurocups and World Cups and that, but even though we have artists doing the halftime show here (and British and Irish ones in the last few years to boot), we don't have people WRITING SONGS every year about the Super Bowl. The Chicago Bears put the only necessary stamp on that market in 1985, you know...

Anyway, Bragg's football-meets-love song single certainly wasn't the finest thing he ever wrote, but it wasn't the worst either. It just sounded too much like... a football song meeting a love song. And whereas you'd think Billy would have a better shot of pulling it off than almost anyone else, it just never... quite... matched "The Saturday Boy" or "St. Swithin's Day." Y'know? But it was great to see Billy and Johnny working together again.

Billy Bragg - The Boy Done Good
"Well I still believe Johnny Marr is the greatest guitar player of our generation, of our time... I think he’s still burnin’. It still burns in him in a very profound way, and I’m glad that he’s following his own muse. He’s not out there, doing Smiths-lite like Morrissey, you know? So I respect that."
--Billy Bragg, Vital Source Magazine/, 2006

Next up was a rather strange stop for Johnny as he worked with British house/neo-soulsters M People on a couple of tracks off their 1997 album, Fresco. It's a stop in Johnny's post-Smiths career that doesn't get a lot of attention, which is a shame, because it actually sounds to me like one of the coolest things he put his fretwork on that nobody knows about...

M People - Rhythm and Blues

During some time in Los Angeles, Marr got a message from Beck's people saying their man was working on his new album and would like Johnny's help if the time could be spared. Johnny went down tot he studio and played on a couple of tracks, only one of which ended up making Beck's 1999 album, Midnite Vultures (but what a track it was):

Beck - Milk & Honey
"Beck reminded me of David Byrne in the best possible way. He can get on pretty much anyone’s sense of humor and sense of the absurd. A good listener, that’s what I find from Beck. A very perceptive person, and one of those guys who likes to hear people talk... I think he’s the real thing because he’s not afraid to go down some necessary sideroads rather than just take the main highway. When all’s said and done, I think he’ll be able to be discussed in the same way as Neil Young."
--Johnny Marr, Magnet Magazine, 2003

Next up came a simultaneously logical and illogical pairing -- Johnny rejoined the Pretenders to do a cover of his idol Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life"... with Tom Jones. Marr laid down guitar and harmonica on the track for Jones' 1999 "let's work with every popular artist out there to convince the kids I'm still cool and their moms I'm still sexy" effort, Reload. It's somewhere between ridiculous and wonderful. But I can't quite pin down where exactly.

Tom Jones & the Pretenders - Lust For Life

The big thing in 1999 for Marr, though, was the final Electronic album, Twisted Tenderness. Whereas Johnny and Bernard had taken years to write and record Raise the Pressure, they went into the studio for Twisted with the songs already written, a band behind them, and (would you believe it?!) guitars plugged in! After 12 years of a "solo" career that basically saw him still as a sideman, Marr was starting to have designs on putting his own band together, and the parallels between Twisted Tenderness and what would emerge four years later on Johnny's first solo album proper, Boomslang are right there for the listener to hear. Unfortunately, it still wasn't drawing a lot of attention from the masses, due in part to the underwhelmed hangover from the duo's previous albums and the fact that Electronic never made a concerted effort to go live.

They did get a badass video this time out though:

The shame of it is that this is the kind of stuff the people were probably hoping for when they first heard Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner were working together 10 years prior.

Electronic - Vivid

Electronic - When She's Gone

"We both felt really inspired during the recording. I was getting up at six in the morning because I was so keen to get into the studio. When I played guitar, it was like I was 16 again. I trusted my instincts. If it rocked, it was OK. We definitely overcooked the last album, laboring over each song for months. Bernard and I are in an odd position in that we have unlimited time. That was our downfall."
--Johnny Marr, London Times, 1999

So a proper solo career loomed for the man that had not released anything as "Johnny Marr" alone, ever. And even though he was getting less nervous about singing, it would still take a few years to be able to put out that "Johnny Marr" record...

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Friday, February 08, 2008

We're caught in a trap set for a man.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 5: 1996

"The pursuit of the beautiful track is what was going on 95 percent of the time without either of us discussing it. Probably the other five percent of the time is what we remember most, which was us trying to be innovative and new, not trying to be New Order or the Smiths, just trying to do something that had the spirit of our influences."

--Johnny Marr, interview, 2006

During his temporary break from the spotlight to concentrate on fatherhood, Johnny didn't solely restrict himself to changing diapers and microwaving bottles. The second Electronic album was a long time in the making, and as they had employed the Pet Shop Boys the first time around, Bernard had another guy in mind to help with writing the second: Kraftwerk's Karl Bartos.

"The collaborative aspect was more driven by Bernard. Particularly as a Kraftwerk fan, he organized the collaboration with Karl Bartos, which went on for quite a long time. Karl ended up living in my house. Typical Bernard -- he organizes it and then I have to be the landlord!"
--Johnny Marr, interview, 2006

But whereas working with Bartos should have pushed the duo into even deeper "electronic" (for lack of a better term) territory, Karl saw the collaboration as a great excuse to exorcise his earliest influences like the Kinks and Small Faces.

As it turned out, Raise the Pressure, contained more guitars, live drums and songs that ran alongside the best of what was available during 1996 at the apex of Britpop. The problem was people weren't that interested. Fans that likely would've gravitated to Electronic prior to hearing their Euro-disco debut weren't interested anymore and fans that were enthralled by the debut couldn't figure why they'd reverted back to guitars and such...

Not that the album was all "rock and roll" -- it was music you could still easily dance to and actually contained some of the best songs of Electronic's career. It's just that people were too busy talking about Oasis at Knebworth...

Electronic - Forbidden City (video)
"Over the years, if I've been in a shop or club, and I've heard, say, 'Get the Message' or 'Forbidden City,' it's always sounded good and almost undervalued."
--Johnny Marr, interview, 2006

Electronic - Second Nature
"It's a pity, 'cos I like that song."
--Johnny Marr, on there not being a video for "Second Nature" on a questionnaire, 2000

They did perform "Second Nature" on Jools Holland, though...

1996 also saw Marr get involved with another Britpop juggernaut, the flash-in-the-pan (albeit a very strong one) Black Grape -- ex-Happy Mondays (a band Marr cited in 1989 as being the best in Manchester, by the way) man Shaun Ryder's second lease on pop stardom. Ryder ditched the hallucinogenic-based vibes and rants of his Mondays days for a stronger drug induced rock/dance/rap concoction with a rapper named Kermit and Bez still hanging around to dance along. Their 1995 debut, It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah was easily one of the best albums of the decade, but they couldn't keep the energy level up. They released the standalone single "Fat Neck" in 1996 with Johnny chugging out some funk guitar on it, but compared to the album released just a year prior, the energy (and muse) seems to be disappearing quickly. Maybe Shaun needed a better dealer.

Black Grape - Fat Neck

And although the Pet Shop Boys weren't a part of the second Electronic party, Marr maintained contact with the duo and showed up to play a bit of guitar on their 1996 release, Bilingual.

Pet Shop Boys - Up Against It

The crazy schedule Marr lived by in 1996 kept him on a treadmill over the next three years bouncing from one group and project to another with some old friends and new acquaintances thrown into the mix...

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

So don't ask me about war, religion or God, love, sex or death.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 4: 1992-1995

Dusk ... is one of the few records I've made that I can detach from and just enjoy as a listener. I don't listen to anything after I've made it. As soon as it goes out I'm almost pathologically working on the next one in my mind, wherever it's going to come from. But Dusk I continued to listen to for quite a long time afterwards."

--Johnny Marr, Uncut, 2008

Following a busy 1991, Johnny reconvened with Matt Johnson to work on The The's follow up to 1989's Mind Bomb. Both gratified by the success of the album and it's "Vs. the World" tour, Johnny came into the project with a lot of confidence, while Matt came into it in an entirely different frame of mind, having lost his brother (and longtime artistic partner in The The) and writing a set of songs that are arguably the most emotionally stirring he's ever done.

Not that it was a completely somber affair; songs like "Love is Stronger Than Death" and "Lonely Planet," while both on the surface carried themselves with an air of regal resignation, also proved to contain a lot of hope. Elsewhere on the album, songs like "Dogs of Lust" (the best sex and rock 'n' roll song in ages) and "Sodium Light Baby" worked a lot of sexiness into the mix.

Dusk is easily one of the most criminally underrated and underappreciated albums in the history of rock and roll. In the context of all the work Johnny's ever done, it ranks up there with the best of stuff he did with the Smiths, and he'd be the first to tell you that, too.

"People still don't understand that from the moment I joined The The to three and a half years later I was in the band, 24 hours a day -- I wasn't just getting out of my limo at Matt Johnson's place, playing a few guitar parts then disappearing! I think Dusk is one of the best records I've been involved in."
--Johnny Marr, The Guitar Magazine, 1997

Along with his guitar work, Johnson sent Johnny to the studio mic brandishing a harmonica as often as he could, and some of Marr's harmonica work on the album his just as pronounced as his guitar work.

The The - Dogs of Lust
"'Dogs Of Lust' was one of the best rock records I'd heard for ages, and a lot of that is to do with Matt's vocal delivery. Great song. It's one of the best guitar tracks I've done, as well. He really put me through it when we were recording that."
--Johnny Marr, The Guitar Magazine, 1997

The The - Slow Emotion Replay
"Something like 'Slow Emotion Replay' is very recognisable as me 'cos it has that (withering look) jingle f*ckin' jangle..."
--Johnny Marr, The Guitar Magazine, 1997
"'Slow Emotion Replay' was really the best hit that never was. There's a real intimate feeling. It's a very London record, but in some ways almost New Orleansy. A little like that movie 'Angel Heart'... and therefore, pretty sexy."
--Johnny Marr, Uncut, 2008

The video for "Dogs of Lust" featured the band in an airplane hangar with huge space heaters blasting on them to create an authentic sweaty look. It became problematic when the heat actually caused James Eller's bass to start melting, causing his fingers to stick to the body, and all members were extremely dehydrated at filming's end, but the result is pretty cool:

The video for "Slow Emotion Replay," meanwhile, served as a compilation of moments from the "Dusk 'til Dawn" documentary made to accompany the album. The documentary sees Johnson and Marr taking New York City by surprise, getting New Yorkers to talk about their own opinions of what's wrong with the world, and also Johnson in New Orleans doing more of the same. The entire documentary can be seen (for those of you with Quicktime) at The The's site. It's also pretty cool.

At the end of recording, Marr began working with Echo and the Bunnymen main man Ian McCulloch on new songs. The pair wrote a few together, but soon Johnny was blessed with his first son, Nile, and bowed out of the music business for a couple years to focus on being a dad. He missed out on the resulting "Dusk" world tour and also was not included on the record when some of the songs he'd written with McCulloch turned up on the 1995 Electrafixion record, Burned, although he still got songwriting credit.

Electrafixion - Lowdown

And taking the time off to be a good dad proved well, as now Nile Marr is following in his father's footsteps.

But after a few years off, Marr was ready to return and 1996 would prove to be just as busy a year as 1991 had been...

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Take my independent point of view.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 3: 1991

"I looked over and in the corner Bez was talking to someone, and I got the pitch wheel of the tape machine and slowed one of the tracks ... down until he started to dance. When it attracted his attention to start grooving, I knew then that I had the right tempo. I used him as a human metronome. At the time he was probably the best indication of when something was in the right swing."
--Johnny Marr, Uncut Magazine, 2008

Throughout Marr's solo career, there have always been years where he's just turned up next to everywhere. 1989 was one like that, 1991 was like that, and more throughout the rest of the decades would follow.

The biggest Marr-related thing that 1991 brought, of course, was the debut Electronic album, two years after Johnny and Bernard Sumner had made their single debut. While "Getting Away With It" may have blown less minds than one would've thought, the band's self-titled album was altogether more impressive.

It's timing helped, too -- the Madchester movement was still thriving, people were calling for a new New Order album, and the Electronic album served as a satisfying substitute. There weren't many jangly Johnny guitars to be heard (mostly by his own volition), so some of his army of followers were alienated, but the overall results still sound impressive in 2008 -- impressive considering they were messing about with such "styles du jour" at the time.

Electronic - Reality

Electronic - Get the Message (video)

"I think this album worked really well, there's some great songs on there. Guitar-wise this was where I took my first steps in MIDI guitar playing, so a lot of it sounds quite synthetic. It was also the first album where I played a substantial amount of keyboards. MIDI guitar was very easy for me 'cos I was working with someone who I regard as one of the best synthesiser programmers and players in the country - Bernard can set up great sounds on a bank of keyboards almost with the volume turned down. Oscillation, waveforms, he knows all that stuff."
--Johnny Marr, The Guitar Magazine, 1997

The dance movement in full swing, Johnny also showed up to play guitar on Banderas' lead single "This is Your Life" off their 1991 album, Ripe. I don't know much about Banderas, and I'm hard pressed to find Johnny talking about the collaboration. It sounds a little dated now, but it's not a bad song.

Banderas - This is Your Life

Before Johnny fell entirely into the Hacienda's ecstacy-fuelled groove movement, old friend (and musical Luddite) Billy Bragg came calling again. Marr had last lent his talents to Bragg on his first "band"ish album, 1986's Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, but by now, Billy was interested in expanding his sound further. 1991's Don't Try This At Home featured a more fleshed out band sound and Marr took production duties for one of the first times of his solo career for the album's most breathtaking moment, "Cindy of 1000 Lives" and co-wrote "Sexuality," arguably the album's most enjoyable-in-a-funny-sense moment.

Billy Bragg - Sexuality

Marr didn't show up for the video, though some doppleganger with a proper Johnny-circa-late-1991 haircut did mime his guitar parts. I've really no reason to show the video other than I think it's quite an enjoyable one to watch. Plus it's got Kirsty MacColl...

And speaking of Kirsty, with all the work Johnny did in 1991, none proved to be more successful (at least stateside) then his new collaboration with Ms. MacColl, "Walking Down Madison," the lead single from her 1991 album, Electric Landlady. This song sounds a bit dated now -- it goes on a bit too long, and I'm not entirely sure of the rapping bits anymore, but... it still has it's moments. Good guitaring from Marr and typically good social conscience lyrics from Kirsty. Went to #4 on the US Billboard singles charts - Johnny's biggest US success to that point.

Kirsty MacColl - Walking Down Madison

At the end of all of it, The The's Matt Johnson reinserted himself in Johnny's calendar. He had some new songs and was ready to make an album Marr would forever consider to one of the (if not THE) best albums he ever worked on...

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't act surprised or anything.

Johnny Marr: Beyond the Smiths
Part 2: 1989-1990

"I really like dance music, especially in the classic sense -- the Fatback Band, the Ohio Players, and stuff like that. If it's a good song, I'll play alongside machines any day. I'm looking forward to coming to grips with sticking guitars on electro music. Also, it confuses people about what I'm doing, which I'm quite into. I don't believe in painting myself into a corner anymore, and I'm open to any kind of technique."
--Johnny Marr, Guitar Player Magazine, 1990

While jumping from the Pretenders to Bryan Ferry to the Talking Heads to The The kept Johnny busy, it also did satiate his fans at least somewhat. Sure... "The Right Stuff" might've made people wonder what Morrissey would've done had he decided to put a lyric to that music, and maybe Johnny wasn't strapping on a Rickenbacker and playing "This Charming Man" anymore, but at least he was still PLAYING right?

I mean, it wasn't like Paul Weller splitting the Jam at the apex of their commercial power and then coming back a year later singing in French with accordians...

Well it wasn't yet at least.

Continuing on his track of journeyman guitarwork, Marr joined longtime friend Kirsty MacColl (who'd previously shown up on Smiths' records and had a bit of a romance with (and her first bona fide hit written by) longtime Marr friend Billy Bragg. MacColl's 1989 album Kite not only gave Johnny room to showcase his talents on great covers of the Kinks' "Days" and the Smiths' own "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby" (one of the few times Johnny would go back to songs from *that* band after leaving it), but it also gave him the opportunity to write with MacColl, spawning the beautiful "You and Me Baby" and the wonderful "The End of a Perfect Day," which is really everything you'd expect a MacColl/Marr collaboration to be:

Kirsty MacColl - The End of a Perfect Day
"I'm quite happy to keep on turning things down, because the people I'm involved with -- the The, Kirsty, and Bernard -- are my favorites. I'm very proud of the Kirsty MacColl record. I wrote two of the songs and played on nine tracks. I got a chance to play opposite Robbie McIntosh and Dave Gilmour."
--Johnny Marr, Guitar Player Magazine, 1990

While Smiths fans may have seen some pangs of hope in Marr collaborating with a former Smiths associate and writing upbeat, jangly new music, Marr soon turned a quick corner. Joy Division and New Order man Bernard Sumner was looking to take a break from the increasingly tense and pressured world New Order were inhabiting, and thought his old mate Johnny Marr might be worth taking a new direction with.

Johnny had met Bernard, like Matt Johnson, prior to forming the Smiths and with his own interest in making dance records, saw it as a perfect opportunity to add a new dimension to his music, if not change people's perception of him entirely.

Marr was also rebelling against the fact that the Smiths (and Morrissey in particular) had resigned themselves as a band to completely denouncing the popular synth sounds of the 1980s (even though most of the band's famed string parts -- e.g. "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" -- were handled by synths and/or emulators).

"The Smiths were quite a purist group, and I was a great believer in traditionalism. Just plugging a Gibson ES-335 into my trusty Fender Bassman or Twin Reverb was romantic. But now I understand that when technology is used by someone with taste, you can have tasteful results. Whatever makes for a more interesting end result, I'll use. For example, I've been using the Roland GR-50 guitar synth, and I'm really impressed with that. If technology allows you to come up with an absolute killer part, then it can only be a good thing."
--Johnny Marr, Guitar Player Magazine, 1990

While they would go on to lasting fame (if not critical underappreciation) as a duo, in the formative days of Electronic, Johnny and Bernard also enlisted Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant who dutifully joined Sumner in singing on the band's first single.

Electronic - Getting Away With It
"'Annoyingly, Bernard wouldn't play any guitar - he still says, 'Why bother, when you're around? You can do it!' People assume Bernard turned me into a synth-head on that album; the truth is that I cut out some of my guitar parts when he wasn't looking, 'cos it was sounding too much like Johnny Marr. I didn't want to dilute the music, I wanted it to be pure, and with dance music, once you introduce the human element you lose the essence of what it is - machines and relentless energy."
--Johnny Marr, The Guitar Magazine, 1997

The fact was that "Getting Away With It" wasn't THAT impressive, especially given the parties involved. It sounded like a group trying to find its feet more than anything else. Morrissey took swipes at it in the press ("The title says it all, doesn't it?"), and Sumner's deadpan vocals didn't pair that well with Tennant's higher pitched and more sonically suited ones.

But that wasn't really the point. The point was that it was a new direction for Johnny, one he wanted to pursue and he set out recording an album of similar music with Bernard over the next year that would go miles above what their modest preliminary efforts had produced.

The experiment also sparked a longstanding relationship between Marr and 1980s Euro-disco behemoths the Pet Shop Boys. Throughout the coming years as the Pet Shop Boys continued to make new music and release albums, Marr always seemed to be showing up -- starting with a couple tracks on the Boys' 1990 album, Behaviour.

Pet Shop Boys - This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave
"Fortunately, I don't think that old Jim Morrison ethic holds any weight with under-16s. Under-16s are far too smart to be bothered with that sexist claptrap; I think rock 'n' roll music is exclusively boys' night out music. Just because I'm a guitar player doesn't mean I want to get roped in with all that retro-rocking. It's out-dated and sexist and racist, and all those kinds of things. In fact, I think I've got more in common with Gillian from New Order, or Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys, than I have with Stuart Adamson out of Big Country or The Edge. Far more so."
--Johnny Marr, NME, 1989

Ultimately, the Pet Shop Boys record showed Marr what level he needed to be playing at with Electronic, as the two songs he did with them on their album were (production and songwriting-wise) miles ahead of "Getting Away With It."

Resolute in proving he could do it too (and much to the chagrin of New Order bassist Peter Hook), Marr and Sumner locked themselves away and worked on completing a proper Electronic album...

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