Country & Western (part 2)

Where did those cowboys come from? In part one, we looked at Country music’s humble roots in the Appalachians and wider southeastern United States. The people who performed this kind of music tended to play up (or just make up) their hillbilly heritage by performing in threadbare dungarees, plucking a mean banjo and swigging from a bottle of moonshine. Cowboys, on the other hand, were portrayed as brave, clean-shaven gentlemen, dressed in Gabardine shirts and wide brimmed hats. And geographically, they were associated with the States to the west, the new territories conquered and settled by pioneers in the 19th Century. So how did these two very different cultures come to influence each other?

Western music, the music of those Americans who made their home in the prairies and deserts of the frontier States, grew out of the same Scottish, English and Irish folk songs that influenced the original Country music of the South. But that’s about as far as the similarities go.  Western musicians looked across the border to Mexico for inspiration, borrowing its lilting Hispanic melodies and lively brass accompaniments. They even made use of the accordion, an instrument that had first been brought over to Mexico by German and Ukranian immigrants. Western music was a real fusing together of old and new world sounds!

For some great examples of how Western was really different from the Appalachian music, look no further than these gems:

If you can get past the rhinestone studded catsuit (no, really), you’ll find Marty Robbins’  Mexican-flavoured ‘El Paso’ is a wonderful love-gone-wrong ballad set in the Southwest; Gene Autry, meanwhile, does a fantastic bar-stompin’ version of ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’; and Tex Williams’ ‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette’, is a witty put-down against smokers who think the world revolves around them.

It wasn’t just the sound that differentiated Western music from Country music though; the two genres were also lyrically diverse. If the former has a pre-occupation with love, heartache and Southern sentimentality, then the latter is transfixed by the image of the cowboy, the lone prairie and the beauty of the West.

Then in the 1930s, Western music collided with Hollywood and American history, and out rose the figure of ‘the singing cowboy’: a smiling, horse-riding hero who, between committing brutal acts of violence against First Nations and rewriting American history, found the time to sing these Western ballads.

The two most famous ‘singing cowboys’ were undoubtedly Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Here’s a fantastic recording of Rogers singing that quintessentially American song, Home On The Range, including the verse that tends to get papered over these days: ‘The red man was pressed from this part of the West/ ‘Tis unlikely he’ll ever return’.

The romanticism of Home On The Range, that yearning for space, and appreciation on the region’s natural beauty comes up again and again in the genre. In his recording of ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, Rogers sings: ‘I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences/ And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses’. Here’s a clip of him at his best, kissing a horse before bursting into song:

The figure of the ‘singing cowboy’ began to evolve, and soon the world came to know his close relative, the ‘yodelling cowboy’. Listen to Wilf Carter belting out the aptly-named ‘Yodelin’ Song’ to hear what happened when Western met rock n roll…

But while Western music was, in its own right, a separate genre, the folks at the Billboard Chart had other ideas. They decided to lump Country music in the same chart as Western music, and in doing so, created the Country & Western genre. Aesthetically and idealistically, the image of the cowboy, was more appealing to the public than the (equally-hokey) image of the hillbilly that had been used to push country music beforehand. He was aspirational, good-looking, bound by a strict moral code and a powerful symbol of individualism. The look stuck and for much of the 20th Century, the borders between Country and Western blurred. Soon ten gallon hats, Western shirts and cowboy boots became the defining image of Country, regardless of whether you came from Texas or Tennessee.

Country & Western (part 1)

Country music. Ask your average Brit what they know about it, and chances are, their answer will involve one or more of the following: rhinestone shirts, cowboy boots, a ten gallon hat, songs about boozin’, songs about heartache, a lot of God Bless America and plenty of Dolly Parton.

Yes, Country tends to get dismissed as a quintessentially American music form best consigned to the scrapheap of failed cultural exports, alongside the NFL and Mormonism. But I’m here to prove these nay-sayers wrong. Forget Achy-Breaky Heart and geriatrics clad in fringed jackets learning to line dance; ignore the jingoistic rallying cry of ‘Have You Forgotten’. Saddle up your horse! We’re taking a trip back to where it all began!

Country music has its roots in the folk music of the Scots, English and Irish who immigrated to America in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Many of these people settled in the Appalachian mountains and soon their traditional songs began to evolve. Nowadays, Country is, rightly or wrongly, often associated with racism, Confederacy and the South. So it may surprise you to learn that the banjo, with its authentic Country twang, was originally an African-American instrument. Similarly, the genre borrowed structural elements from jazz, such as instrumental breakdowns. This fusion was the result of blacks and whites playing and working together in rural communities. Here are some early pioneers of the genre: Uncle Dave Macon’s wonderfully titled ‘Bake That Chicken Pie' (they don't name 'em like they used to) and Bill Monroe's classic, 'Blue Moon of Kentucky’.

Add to this mountain music blend the honky tonk piano, the spiritual elements of Gospel, the swing music of the West and, of course, the electric guitar, and soon a popular Country & Western sound began to emerge. The radio, as well as TV shows such as Grand Ole Opry worked to disseminate the music, and Hollywood Westerns helped to solidify the romanticized depiction of the figure of the cowboy, whose aesthetic still shapes Country today.

Here’s a clip of Roy Acuff and Brother Oswald playing one of their biggest hits, a cover of Wabash Cannonball, a song about a mythical train, at the Grand Ole Opry. The instruments are used to mimic the noise of the train creating that memorable boom-chk sound that came to define Johnny Cash’s music.

One of the biggest stars of Country music was Hank Williams, who recorded between 1937-1953, and was famously described by Acuff as having ‘a million dollar voice…but a ten cent brain’. In his short career, Williams penned many classics, including ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, ‘Moanin’ The Blues’ and, my personal favourite, ‘I’m A Long Gone Daddy’. Much of the raw emotion in his music came from the turbulent relationship he had with his wife, but as their marriage disintegrated, he developed severe alcoholism as well as an addiction to painkillers prescribed for his chronic back pain. He died aged 29 in the back of a car, drunk and doped on morphine.

Of course, Country hasn’t always just been about the guys. June Carter, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline are some of the genre’s biggest names. But one of the most interesting (and criminally overlooked) is Kitty Wells. She became infamous in 1952 when she released ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. The song was a response to Country musician Hank Thompson’s self-pitying smash hit, ‘The Wild Side of Life’, in which he laments his wife’s departure after uncovering his dalliances with some euphemistic ‘honky tonk angels’.

Wells’ rebuttal of Thompson’s attempt to spread the blame for cheating spouses was seen as highly contentious at the time, particularly within the conservative Country scene. She was refused a slot on the Grand Ole Opry, while NBC radio banned her song because of its ‘suggestive’ content (which, in itself, was ironic given the attitudes expressed in much Country music of the day). Nevertheless, the song went to number one in the Billboard Charts, and stayed there for a solid six weeks, and, in doing so, Wells became the first female artist to score a solo number one.

I’m going to leave you with another of my favourite songs, ‘Crazy’, by Patsy Cline, but stay tuned, because in Part 2, we’ll be looking at the ‘Western’ in ‘Country and Western’, from yodeling cowboys to Tex-Mex!

Arrests at The Sun

In a desperate attempt to shore up some much needed credibility, The Sun has asked Trevor Kavanagh, one of its few remaining senior members who hasn’t (yet?) been  arrested on bribery and corruption charges, to write an editorial defending the beleaguered paper. The resulting article, which can be read here, is either a work of satirical genius, or a piece so hilariously oblivious to the political and legal realities which the newspaper must now face that there is a very real danger of the Universe collapsing in on itself under the immense pressures of such unintentional irony.

The Sun’s journalists, complains Kavanagh, are being treated ‘like members of an organised crime gang’, having been ‘dragged from their beds in dawn raids, arrested and held in police cells while their homes are ransacked’. It’s worth at this point pausing to reflect upon the gravity of the crimes that these 5 senior journalists (including the paper’s deputy editor) were arrested for. They are accused of having committed offenses relating to bribery and corruption, largely for giving cash payments to bent police officers and an MoD official! The police had every right to arrest these journalists and search their homes for evidence that may help in their conviction. It’s likely police were keen to avoid a repeat of the News of the World arrests, during which computers, emails and documents were allegedly destroyed by the paper.

Regarding the arrests, Kavanagh stresses that ‘it is important that we do not jump to conclusions’. The Sun, of course, is famed for its even-handed and measured coverage of stories. Who could forget the paper’s scrupulous treatment of  Christopher Jeffries after he was (wrongly) arrested on suspicion of the murder of his tenant Jo Yeates in winter 2010?

Right wing newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail are always complaining about our justice system being a soft touch and that criminals hide behind human rights. But when the boot is on the other foot, there is a shameless change in rhetoric.

After a quick U-turn, Kavanagh informs us that the UK is, in reality, a highly oppressive country, one which lags behind ex-Soviet states in terms of freedom of press. In a fittingly ironic twist, and unusually for an article in The Sun, it is notable that there is no ‘readers’ comments’ feature at the bottom of the article…

And then in a final act of desperation, he takes a populist swipe at the authorities for doing ‘nothing on this scale…for the banking industry which has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy’. While I am not condoning the irresponsible actions of many in the banking sector, this is a completely separate issue to the potentially criminal actions of some of News International’s most senior journalists.

'The Sun', writes Kavanagh, 'is not a “swamp” that needs draining'. I would beg to differ.

The Strange Death of Landfill Indie

The other day, I was forwarded a link to vote in the 2012 NME Awards. Now, I must confess, I haven’t read the NME for about 5 years, but what really struck me was that the shortlists for each category read as if they could have been published any time in the past decade. Muse, who haven’t released an album since 2009) are up for Best British Band; The Strokes (who’s 2011 album ‘Angles’ was abysmal) find themselves listed for Best International Band; while Noel Gallagher gets a dubious nod for Best Solo Artist.

Now, while NME Awards is hardly an inerrant barometer for measuring the state of alternative/indie music, when a magazine that is supposed to champion new, innovative music draws up an awards shortlist so insipid it could challenge that of the Brit Awards, you know something’s not right.

A further look at the charts seems to confirm that indie’s star is waning. For the best part of the past decade, the genre seemed to be surfing a never ending wave of popularity, dominating Radio 1 playlists and blasting out from speakers in nightclubs and Topshop alike. Yet in the past year or two, there has been a definite shift; the RnB-tinged dance sounds of Rihanna, David Guetta and glut of other acts now dominate the top 40.

So where did it all go so wrong for indie?

The main problem was that the market became over-saturated. The success of bands such as The Strokes and The White Stripes were indicative of the resurgence of garage, post-punk and blues inspired rock during the early part of the last decade. But it wasn’t until the seemingly unstoppable success of The Arctic Monkeys in 2005-6 that the labels really stood up and took notice.

The public was hungry for more of this sound, the AnR men saw a quick way to make an easy buck, and a seemingly endless stream of ‘The …’ bands were unleashed on the public: The Pigeon Detectives, The Automatic, The Kooks, The Twang, The Enemy, The Hoosiers, The Wombats…you get the idea.

Cover your ears! It’s The Twang!

But while the Arctic Monkeys’ songs featured clever and insightful lyrics, as well as first-class song writing, the majority of the bands that followed in their wake (brilliantly defined by Peter Robinson as ‘Landfill Indie’), quite simply, didn’t.

Their music was stagnant and derivative; their lyrics were uninspired; their live sets were built upon an almost non-existent repertoire (many bands were signed on the strength of a handful of songs); and their fanbase was comprised of lowest-common denominator lads and the kind of people who go to T4 On The Beach festival.

Such music can only have a limited shelf-life, of course, and this was compounded by the attitude of the labels who, once their artist’s hit(s) dried up, dropped the act in question faster than you can say ‘second album syndrome’.

There is an easy and obvious comparison that can be drawn between Landfill Indie and its older brother, Britpop. During the mid-90s, for every talented and creative band such as Blur or Pulp, there were a dozen bands, such as Menswear and Cast, riding on their coattails (incidentally, the NME has a great ‘where are they now’ feature on these acts

Cover your eyes! It’s Cast!

As the market became flooded, the public grew hungry for something new and different, and bizarrely gravitated towards Starsailor, Train, Embrace and Travis (all of whom must share collective responsibility for the later awfulness of Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol). A pretty similar thing happened at the end of the 2000s, and now the charts are much more influenced by the sounds of euro-dance, RnB and commercial dubstep.

Music, like fashion, is always hungry for the next big thing, and so it’s unsurprising that today we’re seeing a reaction against the stars of last decade. But it’s not really an issue that indie music is no longer as commercially viable as it once was. When these genres are marginalised and pushed underground, the result is usually innovation, a thriving alternative scene, and, unsurprisingly, good music!

Dylan’s Christian Trilogy

Since the conversion of Paul the Apostle to Christ in the first century AD, the story of the religious rebirth of the Jew who adopts Christianity has played a dominant role in our cultural narrative. Conversions happen for a number of reasons: from genuine belief, to political expediency; from a need to assimilate and escape persecution, to a desire to marry.

Dylan’s embracing of Christianity seems to have come at a time of personal struggle. His eleven and a half year marriage with wife, Sara, had ended badly; and his career was regarded as being on a downward trajectory with his albums and live shows receiving largely negative press coverage.

While these pressures may have made Dylan susceptible to the Bible’s message, he also seems to have had a genuine passion for Christ during this period. Increasingly, his music would take on a strongly religious theme, while his live shows began to feature sermons, where Bob would preach to the audience and try to evangelise them.

The actual moment of Dylan’s conversion to Christianity remains a hotly contested point among the artist’s obsessive fan base. The romantic version tells us that in 1979 Dylan had a religious epiphany – he saw and ‘felt’ a vision of Jesus - in a hotel room in San Diego, shortly after picking up a silver cross that an audience member had thrown on stage.

The truthfulness of this version of events remains open to interpretation. Dylan has always enjoyed telling tall tales to wind the press up, and create a sense of mystery and intrigue about his character (a particular favourite is his claim that he from the age of 13-19 he used to work in a travelling circus). 

To those who attended Dylan’s live shows, there also were subtle signs of Dylan’s flirtation with Christianity in late 1978: he changed a line in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ to quote from the book of Matthew; he started wearing a the aforementioned silver cross on stage; and became increasingly involved with the evangelizing Vineyard Fellowship, of which one of his backing singers was a member.

Of course Dylan had always drawn on society’s Judeo-Christian cultural heritage as a source of lyrical inspiration.  In his 1965 surrealist ballad ‘Tombstone Blues’, he painted John the Baptist as a compliant torturer; while 1964’s ‘With God On Our Side’ exposed the gap between the religious rhetoric and murderous reality of the West’s foreign policy.

Furthermore, by 1979, Dylan had been experimenting with the sound of gospel music. Street Legal featured female backing vocalists for the first time, and, most notably, songs such as ‘Changing of the Guard’, strongly captured the essence and energy of a gospel choir through its ‘call and response’ melody.

 All of which brings us to 1979’s Slow Train Coming, Dylan’s first overtly Christian album. The title and cover-art draws on that enduring symbol of American folk-lore: the railroad. In the output of Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash (and countless others), it has been both a symbol of freedom and escapism. For artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Temptations, the train is used in a religious sense – as a vessel carrying the righteous and holy to God.

The album captures the feel of a 1970s gospel rock band fairly well through the use of an electric organ (which actually evokes faint memories of Al Kooper’s organ work during the mid-60s), and the arrangements often make clever use of gospel backing vocals to drive the songs along. Slow Train Coming has some pretty catchy tracks: the opener ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ sees Bob deliver a wonderfully cynic vocal; ‘God Names To All The Animals’ is has a funky off-beat feel; and ‘When He Returns’ is a tuneful ballad, sung against a lone piano, in which Dylan examines himself and his weaknesses: ‘How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?’ he asks.

Lyrically, the album alternates between Dylan singing of his new-found faith, and encouraging others to accept Christ into their lives: ‘My so called friends have fallen under a spell / They look me squarely in the eye and they say “All is well” / Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high?’.

Preaching aside, the album also features some of Dylan’s worst lyrics since Self Portrait. The comically bad ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’ could well have been written by one of his children:  ‘He saw an animal leaving a muddy trail / Real dirty face and a curly tail / He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big / “Ah, think I’ll call it a pig”’.

The album has had its fair share of criticism over the years, perhaps most famously, from John Lennon who said: ‘the backing was mediocre…the singing was really pathetic, and the words were just embarrassing’. While a number of artists during this period produced spiritual works (including Patti Smith and Van Morrison), Lennon remained critical, eventually writing ‘Serve Yourself’ as a parody.

I’m no fan of Dylan’s evangelising, but I can appreciate aspects of Slow Train Coming, and the inspiration it draws from popular music’s gospel roots. However, its follow-up, 1980’s Saved, is an album I find much harder to deal with.

It quite literally begins on a bad note, with a woeful cover of the gospel standard ‘A Satisfied Mind’ in which Bob warbles along, attempting to inject the melody with the kind of soulful vocal gymnastics we’re more used to seeing on an X Factor audition. It’s a brave move for a man who has drawn his fair share of criticism for being unable to hold a tune, but it’s one even he can’t pull off.

Here’s Johnny Cash’s much better version.

The lyrical content develops on the themes first introduced in Slow Train Coming, but this time is even more evangelical. The majority of songs draw on the long-standing Christian themes of personal sacrifice, submission to God’s will, and a preoccupation with the second-coming of Christ. In 1962’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, Dylan once reveled in unbridled freedom, singing: ‘Where I’m bound, I can’t tell / But goodbye’s too good a word, gal / so I’ll just say fare thee well’. In Saved’s ‘Are You Ready’, he has no time for such frivolities and seems consumed with images of the coming apocalypse: ‘When destruction cometh swiftly / And there’s no time to say a fare-thee-well / Have you decided whether you want to be / In heaven or in hell?’.

The album’s high point has to be the eponymous ‘Saved’, an up-tempo track given a cattle-prod jolt from a fantastic piano accompaniment that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sister Rosetta Tharpe number. ‘What Can I Do For You’ also deserves a special mention, with its soulful melody, well-harmonised vocals, and a trademark Dylan harmonica solo (a rare occurrence during the born again years).

By and large though, the album is pretty stale and uninteresting, with too many forgettable songs featuring interchangeable lyrics saturated in references to the Bible.  Moreover, its relevance in an era of post-punk and electronic music remained unclear.

As time wore on, Dylan’s live shows became increasingly religious, and he would deliver long sermons to an increasingly alienated audience. Dylan, the professional contrarian who had so successfully angered large swathes of his fan-base in his decision to ‘go electric’ a few decades earlier had struck again. His shows continued to decline in popularity, and many younger artists found it hard to relate to his born-again zeal, and consequently distanced themselves from him.

In 1981, Dylan released Saved’s successor, A Shot of Love – an album which, it should be noted, comes with the dubious distinction of being Bono’s favourite Bob Dylan album.

Musically, the album, on the whole, retains a gospel rock feel, reusing the tried and tested combination of an electric organ and gospel singers, though it does lean more towards rock n roll than its predecessors. Lyrically, meanwhile, the album is positioned midway between his earlier secular works, and Dylan’s Christian works. Many of the religious references are toned down, or are at least less accusatory than those of the dogmatic Saved.

The track-listing is a mixed bag. Opener ‘Shot of Love’ has a fairly clichéd chorus, while the contemporary blues of ‘Trouble’ plods along fairly innocuously with rather uninspired lyrics: ‘Trouble / trouble, trouble trouble / Nothing but trouble / Trouble in the water, trouble in the air / Go all the way to the other side of the world, you’ll find trouble there’.

The album isn’t a total write-off though, and it is arguably the strongest of his Christian trilogy.

For example, Dead Man, Dead Man’ has an off-beat lilt to it and in many ways sounds quite similar to Slow Train Coming’s ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’. Largely, the song explores the now familiar theme of Dylan’s persecutors, those ‘with cowebs in your mind / Dust upon your eyes’. And in a surely self-referential lyric, he distances himself from his sinful past, singing ‘Satan got you by the heel, there’s a bird’s nest in your hair / Do you have any faith at all?’.

‘In The Summertime’ is an often overlooked classic in Dylan’s back catalogue. It drifts along pleasantly and slowly, exuding a sense of laid-back confidence as he sings of a place ‘Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low / By that soft and shining sea’.

Undoubtedly though, the album’s high point is its closer, ‘Every Grain of Sand’, a beautifully crafted ode to Christianity and his born again experience. The melody has the slightest hint of ‘The Chimes of Freedom’ to it, and is complimented by a soft harmonica solo that recalls the Dylan of yesteryear. The lyrics, while religious in content, show a sense of humility and understanding. They reveal Dylan to be at peace with himself, and provide an appropriate conclusion to his trilogy of Christian works: ‘ I am hanging in the balance / Of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling / Like every grain of sand’.

From the artist who as good as wrote the blueprint for reinventing yourself, in retrospect, it was unsurprising to see Dylan throw a curve ball in middle age.  As unpopular a move as it was at the time, he did release a series of very interesting albums, as well as some great songs. Perhaps, somewhere within those three albums, there’s a good ‘born again’ mixtape lurking…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The sound that came to be known as rock n roll in the 1950s was really the melting of a host of sounds - blues, early soul, hillbilly country and, of course, gospel. The sounds of Elvis, Carl Perkin, Jerry Lee Lewis and the rest of the Sun Records roster drew as much inspiration from God’s music as it did from the Devil’s. And the music of the Lord was represented best of all by Sister Rosetta Tharpe - a evangelising diminutive woman, dressed to the nines with an electric guitar slung over her shoulder.

Take a listen to the pounding barrel house piano of ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’, and then listen to Jerry Lee Lewis’ ivory rattling accompaniment on his rock n roll standard ‘Great Balls of Fire’. It’s not hard to see why Jerry Lee Lewis described her as one of his biggest influences.

Of course, Tharpe’s live shows were also a sight to be hold. She cut her teeth as a youngster touring the revival circuit and playing a church meetings from 1915 onward. By the 1930s and 1940s, her popularity peaked, and an astounding 25 000 people paid to come to her wedding in the early 1950s.

After fading into obscurity, she was ‘rediscovered’ in the late 50s and 60s during the so-called ‘blues revival’, in which artists such as Muddy Waters enjoyed a renewed public interest. Why not check out a few of her videos (including her legendary live performances) to see what the fuss was all about?

Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy

Can you believe it? David Bowie, probably pop’s greatest innovator, turned 65 this week! I thought I’d commemorate Bowie’s old age and celebrate his longevity  by looking back at three of his most acclaimed albums, 1977’s Low and “Heroes”, and 1979’s Lodger, known to many as his ‘Berlin Trilogy’.

This triumvirate was written during a period in which Bowie, once again, reinvented his sound and image: he experimented with the soulless industrial rhythms of Krautrock; overcoming his addiction to hard drugs, he documented his pain through raw self-exploratory lyrics; he teamed up with Brian Eno to create sweeping ambient tracks, conjuring up images of conflict, isolation and fragmentation – on a personal and international plane; and, of course, he did all this during the moment of punk rock – music which had its very roots in the garage and glam rock sounds of Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and, ironically, David Bowie himself. Arguably, Bowie was at his most prescient at this time, looking beyond the present, creating and defining the sounds that would come to be known as post-punk in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Of course, it wasn’t all straightforward for Bowie. As with so many albums now held in high esteem, when Low was first released, it divided the critics. While most agreed the album’s first half, comprised of short, disjointed pessimistic pop tunes was a success, Low’s highly experimental second half, featuring unusually structured electronic songs and abstract lyrics left many cold.

To get a better grasp of what Bowie was trying to do and say in Low, it’s useful to get a bit of context by listening to its predecessor, Station to Station. The album been described as a ‘transitional’ album in which Bowie’s sound began to mutate and evolve. You can hear Bowie outgrowing the glittery rock of the early-70s, and exploring an array of genres: from funk to soul and on to the precise, repetitive ‘motorik’ beats of Krautrock bands. You have to look no further than the album’s eponymous opener,  ‘Station to Station’ to hear the noise of a train pounding along the tracks – a thematic device Kraftwerk would explore more comprehensively some two years later in their Trans-Europe Express album.

In Station to Station then, Bowie laid the musical and thematic foundations on which Low would be built. While the former was written in a cocaine-fuelled blur (so much so that Bowie claims to remember ‘nothing’ of the recording sessions), the latter saw Bowie flee Los Angeles and return to Europe in a bid to ditch hard drugs. Lyrically, the album explores the painful withdrawal symptoms Bowie experienced during this period.  In ‘What In The World’, he sings of ‘talking through the gloom’ and agonises that he wants ‘to be real me, to the real me’. This remarkably candid admission of vulnerability and nakedness from the usually ostentatious Bowie echoes across the album. In ‘Sound and Vision’, for example, he tackles his perceived inadequacies as an artist: ‘Pale blinds drawn all day/ Nothing to do, nothing to say’.  Similarly, in the introspective ‘Be My Wife’ he regrets that ‘I’ve live all over the world/ I’ve left every place’.

This despondent tone is reflected in the album’s structure. Side A consists of 7 ‘fragments’, truncated songs, the longest of which is clipped at just 3 ½ minutes.  These sketches, the result of Bowie’s writer’s block, provide fleeting moments of self-analysis, and play with a variety of musical styles including funky grooves and synthesiser melodies whose origins lie deep in Bowie’s earlier works.

By contrast, and in a masterpiece of juxtaposition, side B discards the conventions of the popular song and explores sweeping musical landscapes, thick with electronic melodical flourishes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Walter Carlos soundtrack, and sinister ambient effects strongly influenced by Brian Eno’s Discreet Music.

Side opener ‘Warszawa’ is a heavily textured piece of music, blending 110  voices (all performed by Bowie) over a randomly generated sequence of chords.  In true post-modern style, ‘Weeping Wall’ chews up the melody of the traditional folk song ‘Scarborough Fair’ and re-interprets from a minimalist perspective. ‘Subterraneans’, meanwhile, uses modulating Saxophones to portray the misery of East Berliners, clinging to memories of their now separated families.

The whole of the album’s second side should be understood as a musical representation Bowie’s impressions of Berlin. At the time, it was a city literally divided by the Weeping (or Berlin) Wall. The city was a fragmented, disjointed urban environment, carved up by the victors of World War II and, consequently, became the colliding point of two conflicting global ideologies: capitalism and communism. Through these avant-garde pieces, Bowie depicts Berlin as a fallen city, lamenting it as ‘"cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution”’. To him, it is being suffocated and stifled, sliced and severed from the inside out. 

If Low was an album thematically focused on Berlin, its follow-up, “Heroes” went one step further. Unlike its predecessor (which was actually recorded in France), “Heroes” was cut in a studio next to the Berlin Wall and is littered with references to the city and the influential sound of its Krautrock musicians. For Bowie, if there was any hope of redemption for Berlin, clearly it lay in the work of Cluster, Krafterk, Neu and the host of other groups whose robotic rhythms seemed to fuse the experimental sounds of earlier work by artists such as Can, with that of pioneers of electronic music  such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. The result was a futuristic sound whose pounding beats seemed to echo the march of technology and industrialisation. It was an eerily de-humanised sound which was, paradoxically, capable of displaying great humanity (check out the links to ‘Hallogallo’ and ‘Lieber Honig’ by Neu to see what I mean)

Krautrock’s influence is laid bare on “Heroes”. The track ‘V-2 Schneider’ is an homage to Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, while the album’s title is a subtle reference to Neu’s ‘Hero’. The track ‘“Heroes”’ itself, a heavy, heady work thick with wailing guitars and oscillating synthesizers, was, for a long time, imagined as a purely instrumental piece. Bowie only later added the famous vocals, which tell of a couple embracing by the Berlin Wall.

Musically, the album twists and contorts. It opens with the menacing cries of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, moves onto the euphoric, defiant, almost grandiose ‘”Heroes”’, before working towards the dark ‘V-2 Schneider’, built on a relentless, repetitive but oddly musical rhythm which descends into gales of feedback and noise.

This sets the stage for the album’s 3 instrumental pieces recorded with Brian Eno. Listened to in sequence, the pieces move fluidly, covering a range of sounds and emotions: from the haunting ‘Sense of Doubt’; to the delicate, serene tones of ‘Moss Garden’ (which recalls a peaceful Japanese garden); and onward to the jarring, abstract, at times absurd ‘Neuköln’ which features Bowie’s saxophone ‘booming out across a harbour of solitude, as if lost in fog’.

Sadly, these would be the last of Bowie’s sweeping instrumental, as he turned his back on them in his next album Lodger.  Structually, however, the album retained a duality similar to that which had underpinned his previous two efforts:  Lodger’s first five tracks explore the idea of travel; while the second half is critical of the West’s impact upon the wider world. In ‘Move On’, as he did in the Low’s ‘Be My Wife’, Bowie sings about having itchy feet: ‘Somewhere there’s a morning sky/ Bluer than her eyes’. In ‘Fantastic Voyage’ he returns to the theme of the Cold War, this time singing with dismay about nuclear weapons that will ‘wipe out an entire race’

Musically, it would seem that there are very few parallels between Lodger and its two elder siblings in the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Lodger has an eclectic range of songs which move stylistically from the ‘mock-exotic’ ‘African Night Flight’ to the Village People-aping ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. Perhaps the only obvious similarity is to be heard in the excellent ‘Red Sails’ which makes fantastic use of, yep, that distinctive motorik beat.

So does the incongruous Lodger actually belong in the ‘Berlin Trilogy’? Or was the whole thing simply a retrospective marketing exercise by Bowie, a crude attempt to unite three disparate albums?

It is certainly possible to exaggerate Bowie’s genius and claim that he had some grand over-arching narrative vision of how the triptych would piece together. However, if you dig a little deeper, you will find the common thread that unites the triumvirate: Brian Eno.

Lodger was the album that they actually wrote, together, from scratch. And traces of Eno are all over it. You can hear him in the album’s use of unorthodox song writing methods. Listen to ‘Move On’ and you’ll hear the unmistakable echo of ‘All The Young Dudes’ (which Bowie wrote for Mott the Hoople in 1972). Put on ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and then immediately afterwards, give ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ a spin. Notice any similarities? The two use exactly the same chord patterns! Initially, Eno and Bowie had even discussed the possibility of recording an entire album using the same sequence in each song!

The album also sees Bowie engage in the politics of gender. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is a tongue-in-cheek take on machoism and homoeroticism, a song in which Bowie later claimed he was ‘”playing on the idea of the colonization of gender”’. Of course, throughout his career, Bowie explored and subverted ideas of gender through his extravagant stage costumes and songs such as ‘Rebel Rebel’, a celebration of cross-dressing. ‘Repetition’, is an altogether darker affair, examining domestic violence from the perspective of the victim: ‘I guess the bruises won’t show if she wears long sleeves’ he sings. Evidently then, as several critics have pointed out, Lodger represents the Bowie’s long-delayed political awakening.

So there you have it. Three albums that are at once distinct and similar. A trilogy that draws on a variety of influences from all over the globe and yet remains, at the same time, startling self-referential. The albums were incredibly bold and daring, melting together different genres while employing complex theoretical ideas (thanks to Eno). And lastly, they demonstrate Bowie’s growth and maturation as an artist. From Lodger, he would go on to create Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) – seen by many as one of his greatest albums. The Berlin Trilogy therefore rounded off an incredibly productive and creative decade for Bowie and, in many ways, set the template for things to come.


Apologies for the severe lack of posts over the past couple of months. I’ve been incredibly busy, with moving to Manchester and working over the Xmas period. However, things have started to quieten down now and I’ve got some free time to actually do some writing again.

I intend on honouring my pledge to review Dylan’s Christian Trilogy and David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. I’m going to do the piece on Bowie first because it coincides nicely with his 65th birthday, which was on Sunday. I’m also going to post links for song recommendations more frequently, in a few weeks, I’m going to look at some compilations, and, looking more long term, I’ve got a few more ideas up my sleeve.

Keep your eyes peeled!

Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy

The success of Neil Young’s 1972 album, Harvest, seemed to catch most of those in the music industry off guard. Upon its release, it received a lukewarm reception from the press. Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn, accused the album of being regressive and uninspired, commenting: ‘It’s as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to [Young’s 1970 album] After the Gold Rush’. Canadian publication The Montreal Gazette, meanwhile, went as far as to describe Harvest as ‘embarrassing’.

Young himself was something of a stranger to commercial fame. Although his previous album had peaked at number 8 on the billboard charts, its singles, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, and ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, had languished at 33 and 93 respectively. Perhaps understandably then, he was as surprised as anyone else when Harvest, with its blend of country, rock and catchy melodic hooks, became the best selling album of the year, and produced him his first, and, to date, only number 1 single, ‘Heart of Gold’.

The album, he would later comment, ‘put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch’. Over the next 3 years, Young’s musical output would become increasingly dark, despondent, introspective, troubled and menacing. The albums, 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On the Beach, and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, explored the themes of death and destruction in an array of musical styles. These works, which became known as Young’s ‘Ditch Trilogy’, were strongly influenced by his personal troubles at the time: the uneasiness he felt towards the success of Harvest, and the passing of his roadie and friend, Bruce Berry, and of Danny Whitten, guitarist in Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse.

While Young was experiencing such personal tragedy, he was writing songs for Time Fades Away, the follow-up to Harvest which would prove to be an evolutionary step in Young’s artistic output. The album was recorded entirely live, giving it a rough, unproduced feel. While audiences at the time were no strangers to recordings of live performances, it was practically unheard of for an artist to release an entire LP of unreleased work in this way. It was, at once, a bold, experimental move, and a deliberate attempt to alienate his new-found fans. Looking back retrospectively, the gamble worked. Although many of Young’s audience, including critics, were initially hostile to Time Fades Away, it has come to be regarded as one of his finest albums (even if Young has since distanced himself from it). 

Musically, it is perhaps On the Beach (recorded after Tonight’s the Night but released before it) which represents the most radical departure in sound from Young’s earlier work. During the recording process, Young alienated his sound engineers by selecting under-produced, scratchy, often decidedly lo-fi mixes of his songs. Tracks such as ‘See The Sky About to Rain’, make use of a Wurlitzer electric piano with an eery, pulsating treble tone, as a fuzzy bass guitar plods along underneath and a crackling, unsteady steel guitar self-consciously sings overhead. Meanwhile, both the faint patter of the drums in the background of ‘Motion Pictures’ and the cheesewire fiddle on the harrowing epic, ‘Ambulance Blues’ recall the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ more than the folk-rock sound of Harvest.

Tonight’s the Night is similarly crude in its production, retaining an almost live feel. On ‘Mellow My Mind’, Young’s trademark falsetto vocals are strained to the point that he physically cannot reach the highest notes. Several of the songs feel unstructured, while lyrically, the verse of ‘Tired Eyes’, sounds like an improvised spoken-word performance. This rough finish gives the album a harsh edge that was at odds with the high-production values on much of the popular music of the time. Explaining why he opted for this approach, Young commented:

‘I’ve made records where you analyze everything you do 3,000 times and it’s perfect. I’m sick of it. I want to make a record that’s totally stark naked. Raw. I don’t wanna fix any of it. I don’t care if it’s totally out of tune, man, let’s play. Fuck it…. I like the idea of capturing something. Record something that happened. I’m a musician. I don’t wanna sit there and build a record. I built a couple of records. Big deal. Tonight’s the Night doesn’t care. And that makes you feel good about it. There’s no pretense.’

While the three albums represent a conscious decision to move away from the radio-friendly, popular sound of Harvest, they also have their roots buried firmly in the album.  Side B’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ directly addressed his friend and colleague Whitten’s drug use. Today, as Young’s vocals hovers above his lone acoustic guitar, the line ‘But every junkie’s/like a settin’ sun.’ seems uncannily prescient. Within a year, Whitten had died of an overdose.

It was Tonight’s the Night that dealt with the pain of Berry and Whitten’s deaths most directly. The first and last tracks, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘Tonight’s the Night, Pt. II’, explicitly reference how Berry ‘died out on the mainline’.  By bookending the album with acoustic and electric versions of the same song (a technique he also used in 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps and 1989’s Freedom) Young ensures that Berry’s presence haunts the album: he watches over, and looks back upon, the entire work.

Similarly, around half-way through the album sits a live performance of ‘Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown’. The central positioning of the song and the way in which Young’s vocals intertwine with Whitten’s reflect the importance of the Crazy Horse guitarist in Young’s life during the period. The two had enjoyed a long-lasting musical partnership, having first appeared together on ‘Cinnamon Girl’ from Young’s 1970 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. However, by the time Harvest had been released, Whitten’s heroin addiction had grown out of control, and his creative input during the recording process had suffered. A dissatisfied Young fired him from the band, handing him $50 to buy a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That night, Whitten died of an overdose, having spent the severance money on drugs.  ‘That night the coroner called me and told me he’d ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible’, Young later commented.

Young’s output from this period also highlights a wider, deeper dissatisfaction with society. In ‘Walk On’ (from On the Beach), Young touches on two themes that he explores on all three albums: his opinions about his critics, and his position as an outsider. ‘I hear some people/ Been talkin’ me down’ he sings. ‘Ooh baby,/ That’s hard to change./ I can’t tell them/ How to feel’.

‘Revolution Blues’ (also from On the Beach) continues this theme. Singing in the first-person about a group of misfits living on the edge of society (who, it has been suggested rather disturbingly, were the Manson family), Young positions himself on the periphery, and isolates himself from famous celebrities. ‘I hate them worse/ Than lepers/ And I’ll kill them/ In their cars’ he sings menacingly. On the album’s eponymous track ‘On the Beach’, a downbeat and contemplative Young tells of feeling trapped and claustrophobic, noting the bitter irony of his situation: ‘I need a crowd of people,/ but I can’t face them day to day’. This concept is extended in Tonight’s the Night. In the track ‘Albuquerque’ Young fantasises about driving through the New Mexico desert and getting away from the people who surround him: ‘I’ve been starvin’ to be alone/ And independent from the scene’.

Much like Pulp’s This is Hardcore, which, released some two decades later, captured the inevitable come-down after the hedonistic Brit-rock years, Tonight’s the Night documents, with some nostalgia and sadness, the demise of the hippy-era. It is the barn-stomping, ivory-bashing, country-fringed ‘Roll Another Number (For The Road)’ that perhaps best encapsulates Young’s sense of disillusionment. On it, he sings: ‘I’m not goin’ back/ to Woodstock for a while,/ Though I long to hear/ That lonesome hippy smile./ I’m a million miles away/ From that helicopter day./ No, I don’t believe/ I’ll be goin’ back that way’.

On ‘Ambulance Blues’, he sings wistfully that ‘Back in the old folky days/ The air was magic when we played/The Riverboat was rockin’/In the rain’. The Riverboat was a café in Toronto’s Yorkville area which had played an important role in the city’s counter-culture scene of the 1960s. However, when Young wrote the song, the area was becoming increasingly gentrified and its radical past was little more than a distant memory. It is a process that continues even today – the area is now home to some of the most exclusive, upmarket shops and restaurants in Toronto.

Likewise, on ‘Borrowed Tune’, he highlights the gap between the utopian ideals of the 1960s, and the cold reality of the 1970s, a chasm caused by a number of factors, but solidified by the experience of the Vietnam War. Successive Presidents’ foreign policies had dragged the US deeper into a war it could not win, resulting in nearly 60,000 US casualties and a bitterly divided domestic front. Young ironically notes that with his ‘head in the clouds’ he can ‘look out on peaceful lands/ With no war nearby’. 

Also in ‘Ambulance Blues’, Young offers his opinion on the Watergate scandal, which dominated the press during the early 1970s. As the scale of Nixon and his advisers’ misconduct was slowly revealed, it served to cement the already-sceptical public’s cynical attitude towards politicians. Commenting on Nixon’s duplicitous nature, Young sings: ‘I never knew a man/could tell so many lies/He had a different story/for every set of eyes/How can he remember/who he’s talking to?/Cause I know it ain’t me,/and hope it isn’t you.’

Young is therefore interested in how the world changes as time passes, and his pessimistic conclusions lend a further layer of gloominess to an already morbid series of work.

Young also uses his music to examine time on a more personal level: that is, his past. This theme is examined most comprehensively in Time Fades Away. In ‘Journey Through the Past’ Young explores the physical separation from his home in Canada that he experiences on the road, and of the memories that surface when he thinks about this fragmentary relationship. In ‘Don’t be Denied’, he delves deeper into the past, and tells of how he was geographically uprooted when his parents split up, and moved from the Toronto area to Winnipeg, over 2000km away. As the song progresses, Young briskly tells his life story, recalling how he moved to Hollywood with his band, looking to get signed. He ends with a warning about the exploitation of artists by greedy record labels: ‘And I’m a pauper/in a naked disguise/A millionaire/through a business man’s eyes.’

The key to the whole album, however, is its finale, ‘Last Dance’, a heavy track that clocks in at just under 9 minutes. On the album’s eponymous opening track, Young sings ‘Son, don’t wait/till the break of day/’Cause you know/how time fades away’. Now he yells, exasperated: ‘the sun’s comin’ up./Its been up for hours/and hours and hours/And hours and hours and hours/It’s been up for hours/and hours and hours’. Lyrically and thematically, the two tracks bleed together, with the father’s words from the former seeming prophetic in the latter. Life is reduced to a repetitive, monotonous series of actions: wake up on a Monday morning (it’s always Monday in Young’s world); go to work; come home.

As the song progresses, it degenerates into a Black Sabbath-style riff, set to a wall of feedback. Musically, the song wants to resolve itself and reaches towards a perfect cadence, but Young won’t let it: ‘no no no’ he yells in frustration, before hammering out the abortive guitar part. Both musically and lyrically, Young shows time to be a continuous loop. For him, there is only hopelessness.

The ‘Ditch Trilogy’ then, is a series of three albums that are sonically very diverse, but are bound together thematically. They represent a period of immense creativity for Young as an artist and a conscious attempt to distance himself from mainstream success. Moreover, they reflect a very personal attempt to make sense of a world that was rapidly changing: from the deaths of Whitten and Berry, to the demise of the hippy culture of the 1960s.  And that is perhaps why these albums turned out to be so great: Young didn’t make them to please anyone except himself. As his writing, etched on the vinyl copy of Tonight’s the Night said: I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you’.


The future of this blog

This blog has now run its intended course. I wanted to use it to document my year in North America, and I think it was pretty successful in that respect. I’ve spent some time thinking about the future of this place, and what, if anything, I want to use it for. I’ve really enjoyed the process of writing regularly to a deadline, I think it’s helped me to improve my written skills and it’s also allowed me to build up an online folio of work.

For these reasons, I’ve decided that I’m going to keep posting on this blog. However, instead of continuing to produce weekly diary-style entries, I’m going to focus on longer, in-depth pieces, in a similar vein to previous postings such as my guide to vintage clothes, my run-ins with Scientologists, and the UFO conspiracy theorist meeting I attended.

I’ve decided to turn my attention, for the immediate future, to music journalism. The next several postings are going to look at the work of three artists whom I admire. For each artist, I have selected three consecutive albums that I believe are tied together in some thematic sense.

In homage to my year in Canada and the US, the first posting is going to cover Neil Young’s infamous ‘Ditch Trilogy’: 1973’s Time Fades Away; 1974’s On The Beach; and 1975’s Tonight’s the Night. These albums represent a radical departure from the radio-friendly sound of 1972’s smash hit Harvest, and are, loosely, characterised by a darker and, at times, bleaker sound. The lyrical content, meanwhile, became increasingly gloomy and introspective, as Young mused upon the drug-induced deaths of two of his closest friends.

My second post will look at David Bowie’s albums Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and Lodger (1979), known as his ‘Berlin Trilogy’. This series of albums was recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno and drew heavy inspiration from the new experimental electronic sound of Krautrock that had risen out of West Germany during this period.

Lastly, I’m going to write about three Bob Dylan albums: 1979’s Slow Train Coming; 1980’s Saved; and 1981’s Shot of Love. Perhaps it’s not the most obvious trilogy of his work to choose (that title would have to go to his electric trilogy of the mid-Sixties), they are, nonetheless, an interesting series in their own right. They were written following Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, and each album notably details his new-found faith, while challenging the listener to accept Jesus Christ.

Hopefully the Neil Young article will be up before the weekend is over. The other two will be a little longer in the making, because I’m doing a fair bit of background research for each post.

Tags: Plans