Photo: The Smiths
Hordes of the disaffected! How I have missed you – fourteen days is too long. As ever, every effort has been made to match up these songs for your listening pleasure and (as far as I can tell), they do all begin with the same chord; listen along as you read and enjoy – there are some classics this week…
1. Reel Around The Fountain – The Smiths
In the beginning was the word – and the word was with Manchester. The first song on their eponymous debut album, Reel Around The Fountain is quintessential Smiths, featuring Shelagh Delaney miserablisms, kitchen-sink honesty and heartbreakingly exquisite musicianship to boot. Johnny Marr’s 12-string Rickenbacker is just gorgeous, bringing glistening arpeggios to the forefront of their sound as Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce’s gentle rhythm section meanders sadly behind. Lyrically, it’s a pledge of undying love, but made in that idiosyncratic, Wildean manner you’ve since come to expect from the unofficially ordained “pope of mope”: “fifteen minutes with you / well I wouldn’t say no”. Elsewhere, Steven’s sweet, dichotomous flutters read with all the real confusion of adolescence, but in an impossibly flowery way: “pin and mount me like a butterfly”; “slap me on the patio”; “people said that you were easily led – and they were half-right”. In its pretty outreach, Morrissey betrays his youth – there’s hopefulness to his melancholic introversion; dreaminess void of the clever, defeatist cynicisms of his equally touching, later work. It’s a lightness underpinned magnificently by elegant, twinkling keys courtesy of Squeeze’s Paul Carrack, drafted in as a session player on the record. Its status as a lesser known, non-single also validates Reel Around The Fountain as a canonically legendary Morrissey/Marr composition. With a fan-base that aggressively fetishes marginalisation, right down to the logistic anti-fact of the B-side, The Smiths’ discography is marked by an unspoken rule: the rarer the gem, the shinier. To that end, you may never have heard this track, but I urgently insist you try it now – it’s really rather brilliant.
2. The River (Live at the Los Angeles Coliseum, CA, USA, 30/09/1985) – Bruce Springsteen
The River is a strange album. At nearly eighty-four minutes, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s first double album and one of his most ambitious ever. As he often explains at concerts before playing songs from the period, both he and the E Street Band had already managed an extreme degree of success, in a very short space of time. By 1980, they were showing no signs of slowing down, but things needed a change of direction. The River was Springsteen’s answer; 20 songs defined by their uncompromising portrait of small-town America. Some of it, despite itself, can be pretty fun: the optimistic adultery of Hungry Heart; the vigorous rebellion of The Ties That Bind. The title track however is a deeply unsettling moment. Written for his newlywed brother, The River is a tragic celebration of the small pleasures that exist in spite of underachievement; the things we call beautiful in order to make life seem bearable. It tells the story of a narrator and his lover, Mary who forego their hopes and dreams in pursuit of prematurely adult life. Musically, it’s about as tight a composition as anything in the now enormous Bruce catalogue. The E Street Band are also, as ever, a technical marvel to behold – their composite parts equally expert; their energy as a unit blinding. This particular live performance of The River is, in my ears, definitive. At almost 12 minutes in length, it features a superb extended outro section and, more famously, a long spoken word prologue. I won’t ruin it for you – it’s a fantastic story – but Springsteen tells a now-familiar tale about growing up with a disagreeable father through the Vietnam War years, and the entire thing is beyond touching. Without a doubt, it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
3. Underwear – Pulp
Tucked away between the massive hit-singles found on Different Class, Underwear is a work of pop genius. From the shiny, glam organs buzzing away in the background to the crunch of distorted Britpop guitars, the instrumentation sounds like an ugly and rejected impersonation of the swinging 60s, but one that has found new life in the liberal acceptance of 90s indie bohemia; a bit postmodern, _dude_… y’know? Lyrically, it’s the same old dirty glitz balderdash you know and love; anti-poetry from the Sheffield bedsits of Cocker’s awkward youth (“how the hell did you get in here / semi-naked in somebody else’s room?”). There’s an unspoken and sad ambivalence in the circumstances described - the imminence of a silently indifferent sexual experience, rescued from any questions of oppressive depravity by this coyly uttered fact: “once it’s underway / there’s no escaping / the fact that you’re a girl and he’s a boy”. When Cocker rounds off the solo section with whistles and mindless doo-doo’s, he manages effortlessly to blend the manic internal pressure of young lovemaking with the casual corn of old pop – depending on how you feel in the moment, it’s either hilariously cynical or miserably trite. There’s also something gloriously anthemic about this track. The chorus is massive and the solo section sounds like something Mick Ronson could’ve dropped on Ziggy Stardust. It sits with utmost strangeness against the endearingly honest of early sexuality to constitute a bizarre celebration of flimsy teenage brassieres and unbound chemical adolescence. It is, in other words, strangely enticing.