Music today took me to CAN because too much of them is never enough. I randomly picked Ege Bamyasi from 1972 (great cover art) and immediately wondered about groove versus song and on the opening 9.28, Pinch – the groove is the song. The ‘vocal’ is spoken or slurred by Damo Suzuki. You can hear where Mark E. Smith and The Fall got their ideas, in fact it seems a little too obvious for a band that was held in such high regard as scary and original. The more melodic and moody Sing Swan Song shows that Damo can do it when he needs too, although doing it in CAN means doing what is needed not what is expected. That groove is back on One More Night and this time I hear Radiohead. How do these bands have so much credibility when it’s all here already, cooked and laid out for all to see.
Side 2 opens with Vitamin C and that beat from the inimitable Jaki Liebezeit, can you fall in love with a bass drum? Irmin Schmidt slides in on keys and gives a sense of something European and Holger Czukay’s bass is a constant groove. Not sure where Michael Karoli is on this as we blend into ten minutes of soup but there are no demands, each player gives what is appropriate whether it be the highlight or the background. Here we delve deep into electronic noise, it’s something like Revolution No. 9 or the middle of Vanilla Queen on Moontan by Golden Earring or Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict on Ummagumma by the Floyd. I’m So Green arrives with Jaki holding down another groove (they called him “The Human Metronome”). The album ends with Spoon, it was CAN’s most successful song to date as it was the theme to a German TV series, Das Messer (the knife). So that tells you it’s just promotion and luck, image and right place at the right time with a touch of hipness and one irresistible song.
It’s quite odd to bring up Coldplay when you are on Planet CAN but like Radiohead without Creep, where would they be without Yellow? Let’s check.
I had the first Dire Straits album before Sultans Of Swing was a hit and I had Coldplay’s Parachutes before Yellow was a hit. First track is a lovely song, Don’t Panic, followed by their first single of the album, Shiver. It broke the top 40, landing at No. 35 in the UK chart, No. 57 in Australia and No. 100 in the Netherlands and that might have been it. There was actually also a non-album single, Brothers And Sisters, released the year before. Next track on the album was Spies. People love the singer’s voice, but the guitar player has some great parts too, one without the other might not have worked. You know the singer’s name but do you know the guitarist’s name? The essential rhythm section, those two who made this band stable, without them there would be no band, you know whassis name on drums and thingy on bass. Track five was Sparks (phew?). This record is so warm and cuddly that it would melt the sabre of a pirate, the club of a cave man, it sounds like boys you could bring home to meet Granny. It’s rather lovely, it’s an afternoon in a vegan cafe, a punt on the Thames in the sunlight, a whisper in the ear of a queen.
Lurking at track No. 5 on Side 1 was this one little song. It was called Look At The Stars or something, starting with acoustic guitar and then some noisy electric, who knew what would happen. It penetrated the public, made bus drivers fall in love with Chris Martin’s voice, shop assistants swooned, hipsters tipped their hats, even the cynics saw what was good about it. It’s actually surprising with the rough guitar riff but the voice, the melody, the lyrics carried it. It sat at some perfect swaying tempo, almost turgid, almost dodgy tuning, but the stars aligned and they were all Yellow. A beautiful ending with different chords, it went to No. 4 in the UK chart.
From then on they never looked back. They opened side 2 with Trouble, another mellow hit that reached No. 10. Q magazine readers were falling over themselves. They have to wait another 5 years before they got something like this (Keane and Everybody’s Changing). Somehow the last single, the lovely opening track on the album, did nothing, reaching No. 130 in the UK, how’s that possible?
Parachutes, the title track, is an interlude. High Speed has young people with proper jobs and wine in the cupboard settling down after a tough day at the office and mellowing out on the couch and having a good smooch with the partner or the cat (the Persian cat). Coldplay were clean and talented, moody and inoffensive, intelligent and friendly. It was only a matter of time before Chris Martin had a Hollywood wife and a daughter called Apple, sad it didn’t work out but I Goop saw to that.
We Never Change was the song of the perfect husband and best mate and despite the massive success of the band I’m sure he hasn’t changed. The last track with that piano that gives them another angle, makes their appeal even greater. Guy Berryman comes up with a cool bass line and Jon Buckland makes you realize when you can tell it’s him playing guitar. Will Champion, reliable rhythm like a good mate. (There’s a secret track too, even on the vinyl.)
One hopes they are as nice as their music and as humble in mega stardom as they might have been when they were making this album. I’ve seen them live twice, both times because I had mates in the support act. First time in Sydney with Mercury Rev, second time in Sydney with The Pierces (my New York flat mate Jonny was their drummer). After hearing Parachutes I might just fall asleep on the butler’s shoulder.
It’s a pretty hard album to follow unless I go for Iron Maiden or Nurse With Wound but I thought, stay mellow dude. So I reminded myself of that other record that I had before the hit was a hit, Dire Straits’ debut. I lived in London at the time and this record somehow stood out as different to the New Wave Pop that was happening. It was hard to resist Knopfler’s guitar playing, the tone, the technique, the originality, the playing with no pick. Brother David on rhythm, it was a bit like the Shadows with words. Pick Withers on drums, John Illsey on bass. And the vocal style, it wasn’t really singing, it wasn’t really English despite the North Eastern England roots. It was more like JJ Cale or Ry Cooder. Down To The Waterline didn’t seem like it was about The Tyne, it was a river in the Americas. Water Of Love sounded like (is that a dobro?) it must be and it was closer to early Doobie Brothers at Little River Band’s house near a swamp with Bonnie Raitt jamming on the slide.
It was produced by Muff Winwood, Stevie Winwood’s older brother and engineered by Rhett Davies who you might know from Roxy Music’s second wave. Winwood and Winwood were both in the Spencer Davis Group and Muff produced Sparks’ classic Kimono My House. As an A&R man he signed Prefab Sprout, The Psychedelic Furs and Sade. See the whole picture here.
Setting Me Up isn’t so good, is it? That chicken picking, I guess this is the reason why he made a record with Chet Atkins (Neck and Neck, 1990). Knopfler must have really studied the American country pickers. Six Blade Knife again isn’t really a song, it’s a nice feel with a lot of mumbling. It seems like the overall sound of the band was so particular, so odd in the UK at this time that it just stuck out and the guitar restraint was seductive. He was a new English guitar hero, I always wondered why Richard Thompson wasn’t as successful because he certainly had better songs and an equally compelling guitar style. Like Yellow, it was the mega hit that made the difference. But before we get there Side 1 ends with Southbound Again…and he doesn’t mean to Surrey. It’s all about the guitar style, the rhythm, the lead guitar sound, it made yuppies bop, it made punks yawn.
And then there it was, the timeless classic. Sultans Of Swing opens Side 2. What a great song, great story and wonderful guitar playing. A poignant lyric, “Check out guitar George, he knows all the chords but it’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”. Knopfler’s delivery was perfect, his guitar playing one of a kind, this song like Yellow would lead them to be one of the biggest bands in the world. We toured with them around the Makin’ Movies album, actually the dodgy Twistin’ By The Pool EP. We played 13 shows up and down the East Coast of Australia, they were huge. We saw Knopfler once, first day he poked his head into the dressing room (I know I’ve told this before), All right for drinks lads? There was nothing in the drinks bucket. We never saw him again.
There’s actually some better songs on Side 2 but even In The Gallery is something of a struggle as a song. It’s kind of like Dylan without the genius. It wouldn’t be long before Knopfler was playing on and producing Dylan albums. Check out Slow Train Coming (1979) and Infidels (1983). Wild West End is a nice track, again it works when he gets the story right because the guitar and feel of it all works by itself, his vocal thing works sometimes on this album but the bits that work are so in charge that his mumbling along is sufficient to sell the whole thing. Even the name Dire Straits seemed to amuse people and the low key cover art. It’s hard to know what’s going to grab the public but these lads certainly did it.
The album ends with Lions, another track with the same recipe, and one wonders what they thought was going to happen when they were done. Like Coldplay they appealed across the board, could they have predicted such worldwide stardom? There’s one undeniable fact through it all, Knopfler’s guitar playing was fantastic. It was a long way from New Wave but then so is Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. How did that album pass as New Wave? Let’s check.
My Aim Is True (1977) was sold as a New Wave act, the image speaks volumes, part Buddy Holly, part ironic nerd. The backing band was American country band Clover (who went on to be Huey Lewis and The News). Costello was still working a day job when the first two singles were released. He went on to be one of the most prolific of singer-songwriters. You can hear the love of American music throughout the record. It was produced by Nick Lowe and took just £2000 to record. My original copy of the album doesn’t have Watching The Detectives, that was added to the US release. As a stand alone single it reached No. 15 in the UK chart in 1977. Costello went from day job to the cover of the NME. He referred to himself an overnight success after 7 years. This is another seventies act that has inspired hip young things (The Strokes anybody?).
It’s a mainly upbeat uptempo album with an American tinge and some lovely slower songs like Alison and the poptastic The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes. It’s before Costello went mad with the vibrato singing more like Graham Parker who somehow didn’t seem to make it as big as Costello – there’s also something very Van Morrison about it and its New Wave image certainly isn’t the thread that runs through the album, still, it’s great.
The cover is by an uncredited Barney Bubbles (who tragically committed suicide age 41). He was responsible for many covers you love, like Hawkwind’s In Search Of Space, see the long list here.
The musical musings in this post are an excerpt from my daily blog, TO WHERE I AM NOW, featured on my main website. See more pictures and read the full post here.