BRIT of a Do… When Push Came to Siobhan

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Last Chance to Dance: Siobhan Fahey’s swansong as a member of Bananarama, the 1988 BRIT Awards

 

BRIT of a Do…

When Push Came to Siobhan

By Keeley Moss

 

Strange but true – Siobhan Fahey’s last appearance with Bananarama for almost 30 years took place in, of all places, the regal realm of the Royal Albert Hall. For a group Pete Waterman termed “The wildest girls in the world”, who French and Saunders still speak about in awe for the amount of vodka they witnessed them consuming in a single sitting (better off sitting than standing, probably) and who personified the term “excess-all-areas”  – out-drinking, out-smoking, out-partying and out-whatever-else virtually every one of their pop star contemporaries for much of the hedonistic epoch that was London in the 1980s – there could hardly have been a more inappropriate venue to host their dramatic death rattle.

On February 22nd 1988 at the BRIT Awards, the annual music-biz feast of glitzy histrionics and back-slapping bonhomie – in reality a glorified piss-up and snort-up that has long doubled as a clever marketing ploy devised to “shift more units” under the cynical guise of an “awards ceremony” beamed into millions of unsuspecting homes from Land’s End to John O’Groats – the stage was set for a surprising swansong.

Within weeks, in March 1988, Siobhan Fahey would announce her departure from the gilded girl-group, a split later attributed to both musical and personal differences. It’s fair to say that things would never be the same again. Having been a vital component of the group’s creative chemistry and one-time camaraderie she was effectively irreplaceable.

One of the most notable and poignant features of the performance, especially with the benefit of (now literally) 2020 vision, is curiously how joyous and carefree Keren, Sara and Siobhan appear, the latter most of all. With body language being the primary indicator of a human being’s emotional, behavioural and psychological state it is a particularly difficult thing to fake it if you don’t feel it. However, from the footage captured that night, examining Siobhan’s body language towards Sara and Keren and equally their body language towards her, one would never suspect there’s trouble at mill. Let alone enough to indicate that resentment within the ranks had arisen to such an extent that one of its founders is about to leave, not to return for almost 30 years. For this reason alone the 1988 BRIT Awards footage of Bananarama’s performance of the brilliant Love in the First Degree makes for riveting viewing. In it you see the old adage “The show must go on” ring ever more true, with the seasoned super troupers rousing their sonic sisterhood for one last hurrah.

It is the aspect of a band, and indeed of life, that fascinates me more than any other; the sense of an ending, the moment where matters climax and collapse, the point at which the sweet turns sour and events conspire to explode (or more often than not, implode) a shooting star. Think the Sex Pistols at Winterland Arena in 1978 or The Smiths on The Tube in 1987, think Nirvana at Terminal Einz in 1994 or Suede’s last stand with Bernard Butler live in Edinburgh that same year. It is always intriguing to scan any available live and/or audio footage for clues in retrospect, to see if the fissures that subsequently revealed themselves as the death knells they would prove to be were in any way evident at the time. In some cases, such last stands are fascinating precisely because you can see the fraying edges and witness the wheels falling off the wagon. But equally there have been a great many instances in popular music history where to onlookers and concert-goers there is no visible sign of any discord or dissent from those onstage, let alone a hint of decline or dissolution, and such an apparent lack of clues can make for just as fascinating viewing as you try to unravel the reasons for the rift (that is if you’re anywhere near as much of an incurable music culture drama-devourer as I am, which considering you’re reading this, I’m guessing you probably are).

And so it was in the lofty stalls of the Royal Albert Hall on that chilly February evening in 1988 when the classic incarnation of Bananarama made their last splash, unbeknownst to the watching hordes all present and correct in the stately dome and the many millions who had tuned in on their television sets in homes the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland. More often than not after such a split, when the news filters out or is announced it is tempting to pose the question, “Who knew?” Was it an open secret among industry insiders and those supposedly in the know within the group’s inner sanctum? Or did events overtake all concerned to leave the ashes scattered about them before they had time to sufficiently take stock (or rather, take Stock, Aitken and Waterman)?

I have been in both of those situations in bands myself, where on the one hand I had no idea during a gig that I was performing onstage in a particular band for what would turn out to be the last time, and on the other hand I have also experienced a couple of situations in bands where events immediately prior to taking the stage had left me in no doubt that it was going to be the last time I would share a stage with my bandmates. So I can say from experience what a profoundly strange and unsettling episode it is to go through an entire performance onstage with that very thing in mind. Without wishing to sound melodramatic, it was a feeling akin to being, however briefly, inside a rotting carcass. Performing as part of something you know is dying, and what is more dying in front of your eyes, is one of the oddest and coldest experiences I have had. It is even stranger when you look around you onstage and realise that not everyone if anyone alongside you is intuitive enough to be aware that it is, as the classic credits roll would have it, The End.

With delicious irony, the very first line of the song Bananarama performed at the 1988 BRIT Awards is, “Last night I was dreaming I was locked in a prison cell”. Given the pulverising pile-up of pressures associated with the exhausting schedule and the incessant demands pop stars face to feed the insatiable music-biz machine, much to the general public’s obliviousness it has to be said (whose perception of ‘pop life’ is seemingly that of some sort of uber-glamorous adventure playground) it was an environment I could very much believe that by 1988, “Shuv” as she’s affectionately known to friends and fans alike, had reached the end of her tether over, and that’s without factoring into the equation the rift that had bubbled to the surface between her and her bandmates by that point. She was also newly-married, and to a rockstar, never an easy gig (no pun intended) in addition to having become a first-time mother during 1987. Under the corporate cosh of the merciless music-biz machine, she had had to keep working right up to the end of her pregnancy (as evident from the video to I Heard a Rumour and all of the promotional TV appearances for that single, in which she is very clearly heavily-pregnant). All in all it was clear that something had to give. On February 22nd 1988, it gave. Onstage in the Royal Albert Hall that night Siobhan wasn’t just dreaming she was locked in a prison cell – she was.

With that in mind, you’re about to see a real-life jailbreak in action…

 

 

Post-Script

The pop juggernaut keeps on rolling however and Siobhan’s departure ironically would coincide with one of the groups’s most successful singles, I Want You Back, a day-glo dreamboat of a track with a supremely catchy (if frivolous) chorus that overshadowed it’s sweetly-sad bridge and even more deceptively-poignant middle-eight. Although marketed upon its single release as a new beginning for the group, I Want You Back had actually been written and recorded with Siobhan while she was still in the ranks and had featured on 1987’s Wow! album. Although the fracture that had formed between Siobhan and the group’s permanent rock-solid axis of Sara and Keren may have made all three of them relieved when Siobhan jumped ship, it was an ironically-titled choice of single for a group in the throes of attempting to carry on as if nothing had happened. I Want You Back, indeed.

Siobhan’s replacement in March 1988 was, coincidentally or not, another female singer of Irish descent, Jacquie O’ Sullivan. Between I Want You Back being hastily re-recorded and released as a single in late-March 1988, and it entering the UK Top 5 in April 1988, the tragic and notorious murder of Inga-Maria Hauser would occur. Anyone reading this who doesn’t know who Inga-Maria Hauser was – or why her unsolved case remains more important than ever – I suggest paying a visit to the other blog I write, The Keeley Chronicles, which is all about Inga’s unique story and my obsession with trying to keep her memory alive in any way possible.

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements

Love in the First Degree written by Fahey/Woodward/Dallin/Stock/Aitken/Waterman. Published by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., BMG Rights Management, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing ©1987

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

Bomb the Bass Drum

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A Cut Above the Rest: The all-conquering princesses of pop on the set of US music TV show Hold Tight in 1987

 

Bomb the Bass Drum

By Keeley Moss

 

I Can’t Help It, Bananarama’s 18th single, released on December 27th 1987, has never been cited as one of their best, and over the years it has been continually overlooked by even the group themselves. Until the 2017 tour dates with Siobhán they hadn’t performed it live even a single time since a gig at Aston Villa Leisure Centre in 1989, and while in early 1988 I Can’t Help It reached #20 in the UK charts (and #47 in the US) it has never been regarded as one of their signature hits. I’ve never heard or read anyone mention it even. But it is brilliant.

The bass drum alone is worth the price of admission – listen to it on headphones and you won’t just hear the bass drum, you’ll feel it. THUD-THUD-THUD-THUD-THUD-THUD it goes, underpinning the track with the fattest platform possible, the central secret ingredient in this barnstorming (and bar-storming) pop pot-pourri.

It’s what the ‘Nanas did best – soundtracking the growing (and groaning) pains of love and all the ugly bits at the end (and in the middle). Though overlooked or looked-down-upon by the critical cognoscenti of the day (and still to this day) as being nowhere near as important as yer Smiths, yer Echo and the Bunnymens and yer New Orders, in their own way Bananarama were and are every bit as vital to the pantheon of pop as their more critically-garlanded brethren.

Speaking of The Smiths, Siobhán Fahey, ever the switched-on musical magpie, would have her ears pricked by that band’s under-the-radar rockabilly stomper Shakespeare’s Sister enough to adopt it’s title for the name of her post-Bananarama solo project, the deliberately-misspelled Shakespear’s Sister, founded by Siobhán in 1988 and which would soon expand to a duo following the addition of Marcella Detroit in 1989.

But that’s another story. Sorry to digress.

But I can’t help it.

 

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements

I Can’t Help It written by Fahey/Woodward/Dallin/Stock/Aitken/Waterman. Published by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., BMG Rights Management, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing ©1987

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

‘Rumour’ Has It

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The original sheet music for Bananarama’s I Heard a Rumour

 

‘Rumour’ Has It

By Keeley Moss

 

‘I Heard a Rumour’ was the first Bananarama song I remember hearing on the radio as a child, listening in via the lifeline of my closest childhood friend, the humble Sony Walkman. I heard the song again for the first time in years during the past year and suddenly it dawned on me that it wasn’t just a good song. Nor is it simply a great song. It is one of the greatest pop singles ever. By anyone. And as subjective as these things invariably tend to be, I actually think I can prove it.

The opening verses are as follows:

Who needs friends who never show?
I’ll tell you what you wanna know
I could have saved a broken heart
If I’d found out long ago
I’m just thinking about those lonely nights
When I waited for your call
‘Til I found out all my friends were right, oh, oh!
I didn’t know you at all

That’s not just a pop lyric. It’s an entire education. Practically everything there is to learn about love can be gleaned from the lyrics of this song.

And then there’s the chorus:

I heard a rumour
Ooh, ooh, I heard a rumour
They say you got a broken heart
I heard, I heard a rumour
Yes I did boy
Ooh, ooh I heard a rumour
Oooh!

In its bare printed form it may not look like Shakespeare (or even Shakespear’s Sister) but listen to the same words in the context of the song and I would wager you’ll hear the true cost of the price of love. You’ll believe. I do, anyway. And I’m not alone. To paraphrase the one-time RCA marketing department: 5,000,000 Bananarama fans can’t be wrong.

 

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Wow Factor: The author with a copy of Bananarama’s 1987 album Wow! in Tower Records, Dublin. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

I Heard a Rumour is everything pop is, or ought to be, about. Magnificently melodramatic, it’s giddy rush of romantic allure touches me in a place no living person has ever reached. As a child I remember vividly how it spoke to the girl I wanted to be. And hearing it now, all these years later in adulthood, incredibly it does the same thing it did to me all those years ago. For the 3 minutes and 25 seconds it lasts, I believe in all the things I’m usually too cynical to believe in… True love, a guy falling hopelessly in love with me and me with him, without all the complications of life getting in the way. Then the song ends and I return to reality. But during those three minutes, I’m in another dimension. And THAT’S why pop music, in it’s finest form, matters. And why, even if it can’t change the world, it has the power to change your world. Albeit for only three minutes at a time. But what a three minutes.

 

 

I’ve gone with the Top of the Pops clip as I’m not mad about the official video which is all a bit Carry On, a bit too slapstick panto for such a brilliant song. It’s important to note that Siobhan performed here (and in the official video) while heavily-pregnant. What a trooper.

As keen-eyed observers will have noted at the start of the clip, I Heard a Rumour entered the UK Top 40 that week at #28, a ridiculously-low entry for one of the greatest pop singles of the decade, and what’s more by a group with five years of hits under their belts by that point. However even that curious fact pales in comparison next to the shocking truth of where I Heard a Rumour would eventually peak in the charts…

#14.

Fourteen. Four-f**king-teen. I’d always assumed it was a #1. Surely anyone in their right mind would bet it was a nailed-on Top 5 smash at least? Or at the absolute bare minimum, a stonewall Top 10?

But no.

The “Great” British public saw fit to send the record to… #14.

Even now, 33 years on, this travesty of jukebox justice ought to be subject to a belated public inquiry.

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements

I Heard a Rumour written by Fahey/Woodward/Dallin/Stock/Aitken/Waterman. Published by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., BMG Rights Management, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing ©1987

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

Between the Devil and the Deep Sea Skiving

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Banana Co. – Sara, Siobhan and Keren on the eve of the release of True Confessions, London, 1986

 

Between the Devil and the Deep Sea Skiving

By Keeley Moss

 

Despite having three singers, Bananarama unusually didn’t incorporate many harmony parts into their music – rather all three of them sang in unison more often than not. It shouldn’t have worked – but it did, and is a prime example of a pop group taking a potential negative and alchemising it into a positive instead. The sound of Keren, Sara and Siobhan singing the same parts in the same key but each with their individual similar-but-subtly-different voices melding together is a big part of what makes their sound so distinctive.

Many will be familiar with Bananarama’s biggest hits but they released a lot of singles that charted lower if at all that are every bit as good as the airplay smashes that carried on up the the charts throughout the 1980s. Singles such as A Trick of the Night, from their 1986 coming-of-age album True Confessions, a record that signalled a new maturity within the group. The last single to be released from the album, in February 1987, it is a beautiful song, boasting the same killer melodies, but with a grittier edge and more than a hint of darkness.

And what darkness – the cautionary message in the lyrics are directed towards a friend who had gone to seek his fortune in the big city and ended up a rent boy. Agadoo this was not – with A Trick of the Night, Bananarama would thrillingly expose and explore the seedy underbelly of 1980s London. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last the general public didn’t agree, and it stalled at #32 before boomeranging back out of the charts the next week (in my native Republic of Ireland meanwhile, it reached the dizzy heights of #24).

If you haven’t heard A Trick of the Night, you really have got to get it into your life (to quote the Fabs. Speaking of which, Bananarama would cover The Beatles’ Help! for a 1989 Comic Relief single, a fun but flimsy give-and-go in collaboration with French & Saunders, with all proceeds going to charidee). But whereas the Nanas’ phoned-in cover of Help! would crash-land in the top 3, the far-superior A Trick of the Night only made the briefest of excursions into the lower reaches of the Top 40.

There’s really no justice in the world.

 

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements

A Trick of the Night written by Jolley/Swain. Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC ©1986

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

We Need to Talk About Keren

We Need to Talk About Keren

By Keeley Moss

 

Part 1 of Power, Corruption and B-Sides probed the outer reaches of 1970s pop behemoths ABBA. Part 2 changed tack to focus on an album by 1960s art-rock renegades The Velvet Underground. Part 3 saw another 360 degree turn to investigate a 1990s album by electronic duo Boards of Canada. So what more appropriately-inappropriate a place to go this time than to a trio who will forever be associated with the 1980s and who would end that decade in The Guinness Book of Records for achieving the world’s highest number of chart entries by an all-female group. Stand aside The Supremes and move over Spice Girls for the real queens of pop.

Bananarama.

We Need to Talk About Keren. And in a broader sense, about why Bananarama matter.

Long before the Spice Girls cynically floated (or magnificently-manipulated depending on your point of view) the notion of “Girl Power”, Bananarama embodied the concept properly. Being, in Keren Woodward’s words “old punks”, and what’s more ones who were friends of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and collaborators with ex-Specials frontman Terry Hall in his post-Specials outfit Fun Boy Three, it was clear that if anyone was going to get bossed around in a record company meeting, it was not going to be Keren, Sara or Siobhan. They would be the ones calling the shots – the suits would be the ones picking up the tab.

“The wildest girls in the world” as Pete Waterman would call them. Whose career was pockmarked with a series of bold creative decisions – from insisting on writing their own songs (1982’s ‘Cheers Then’ was their first self-composed song, and their first ballad) to writing on increasingly-edgy topics as their career progressed (Rough Justice is a song about the disappearance of children, Robert de Niro’s Waiting meanwhile is, according to Siobhan Fahey, about date rape). How many groups have taken a song about date rape to #3 in the hit parade?

And that is precisely where Bananarama’s true genius lay. In the fact that they took a subject matter that was anathema to the slick, clean airwaves of 1980s mainstream radio and TV, and married it to a melody and chord sequence that practically defied listeners not to fall madly in love with it. And so it sold, in it’s millions, while a nation blissfully ignorant of what the song was really about, sang along with every line. Never mind true confessions, that is true subversion. On a level arguably beyond even the baddest of them all, the Sex Pistols, Bananarama’s kindred spirits in agit-p(r)op agitation, who for all their epochal infamy were ultimately too threatening for the mums and dads of middle England to do anything other than run screaming or kicking the TV set over when they popped up on the cosy tea-time Today show where in 1976 they left a fuming Bill Grundy flabbergasted and an enraged nation not far behind. No, these girls were smarter – spoon feeding the record-buying public with sugared pills of lyrical cyanide. All while looking cool-as-f**k and living it up in every sense of the words. Pete Waterman didn’t call them “The wildest girls in the world” for nothing. And heaven knows he’s witnessed some wildness in his time.

That wildness and the eye-twinkling sense of mischief that went hand-in-glove with it would make it’s merry way into the music. Bananarama’s recorded body of work is pulsing with urgency, it’s a veritable soundtrack to the risky business of being alive.

And with 21 hit singles spanning the period of 1981-1989, three charismatic personalities with a unique vocal and personal chemistry, fabulous dance choreography (choreographed by none other than Bruno ‘Strictly Come Dancing‘ Tonioli), the might of a major (Polygram Records) behind them during a time when the music biz was awash with oodles of moolah, and from 1986 onwards bolstered by the most powerfully-pulsatant Hi-NRG production team of the 80s – the controversial commercial juggernaut that was Stock, Aitken and Waterman – how could they fail?

Pre-SAW, Robert de Niro’s Waiting, released on February 20th 1984 (but recorded in December 1983) was an early indication that this was a group with a singular pop vision. Commencing with a day-glo cascade of gloriously sugary synths, it is a true pop pearl. It’s fizzy intro gives way to a riveting verse but before you know it you’ve tumbled into a beautifully biting bridge and then no sooner have you come to terms with that, an exultant chorus practically leaps from the speakers, it’s widescreen production sheen displaying enough pop smarts to storm any charts. And storm them Robert de Niro’s Waiting did, with it’s eventual peak of #3 the joint-highest chart position the group would ever reach.

Listen, and hear it glisten.

 

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2020. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements

Robert de Niro’s Waiting written by Fahey/Dallin/Woodward/Jolley/Swain.

Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management, A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing ©1984

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

‘Children’ of the Revolution

‘Children’ of the Revolution

By Keeley Moss

 

Now that the show is over
And we have jointly exercised our constitutional rights
We would like to leave you with one very important thought
Sometime in the future
You may have the opportunity to serve as a juror
In a so-called obscenity case
It would be wise to remember that the same people
Who would stop you from listening to Boards of Canada
May be back next year to complain about a book or even a TV programme
If you can be told what you can see or read
Then it follows that you can be told what to say or think

Defend your constitutionally protected rights
No one else will do it for you
Thank you

Boards of Canada – ‘One Very Important Thought’

 

“Rock/Indie” says the description on the rack in the photo above. But this album, and Boards of Canada, the duo responsible for it, are about as far from rock or indie (in the bog-standard guitar-band sense of those terms) as it is possible to get. Music Has the Right to Children was, most unusually for a debut album, a sprawling 70-minute colossus that even more unusually was released simultaneously by two different record labels in the UK (Warp Records and Manchester’s Skam Records) and in the United States by a third label (Matador Records). A major influence on Radiohead’s twin millennial masterpieces Kid A and Amnesiac as well as on countless other electronic and post-rock artists in the two decades since its release, with Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada would boldly go where no man or woman had gone before.

 

 

The spoken sample which appears on penultimate track ‘One Very Important Thought’, a public information broadcast warning of the dangers of authoritarianism and censorship, is the only thing even approaching a lyric on the record, and even then it is spoken rather than sung. There are only a handful of other words scattered throughout the 70 minutes of the record’s duration. “Orange” and “Yeah, that’s right!” are others, recurring with hypnotic frequency alongside a looped child’s giggle in ‘Aquarius’. “I…love…youuuuuuuu!” is one other sampled snippet (from the 1970’s American children’s TV show Sesame Street) that appears in a freeform section of the eerie ‘The Color of the Fire’ (American spelling and all – although neither of the members of Boards of Canada hail from the USA, or Canada for that matter).

But that is pretty much it as far as the spoken word is concerned. Conventional lyrics have no place on Music Has the Right to Children and what words there are are utilised in a purely impressionistic way, as one of a number of different colours on the canvas, and no more significant than any of the instrumentation on the record, in a striking volte face from one of the tediously typical trends in music, namely the tendency to whack the listener over the head with vocals so boringly audible and lyrics so transparently clear that it requires no mental work whatsoever to decipher whatever is being sung or spoken, let alone what it means if anything. It is presumably for this reason that Boards of Canada singled out My Bloody Valentine as a key influence on their approach to making music, something that may be difficult to recognise when playing the molten guitar terrorism of Loveless back-to-back with the ambient electronica of Music Has the Right to Children, but that would be to overlook a clear common thread in how the Scottish duo apply Kevin Shields’ modus operandi of deploying words (and in MBV’s case, singing) as a purely textural element, with whatever meaning those words might have carrying considerably less importance, if any.

Another sample taken from an episode of Sesame Street, the duo distorted and time-stretched the sample so that whatever innocence it once had was turned inside out to become something sinister, all the more so with it juxtaposed alongside as dark and unsettling a piece of music as ‘The Color of the Fire’. But might it be simultaneously innocent and sinister? Polar opposites vying for eminence are at the heart of a creative conundrum Boards of Canada seemingly do not want to solve, something their music is all the more interesting for.

 

 

Those few isolated words aside, Music Has the Right to Children is an instrumental record. There’s no singing on it whatsoever. No guitars on it either. What’s more, in a further departure from standard music biz protocol, there were precisely zero gigs let alone any tours undertaken to promote it upon release (or ever since for that matter – Boards of Canada have never toured, nor do they do one-off concerts and aside from a couple of live appearances early in the 2000s, they haven’t played live). There was only one single taken from the record, ‘Aquarius’, which in typically contrary/creative BoC fashion was a different recording to the version on the LP, so it’s a moot point as to whether the only single on the record is even on the record! Best of all, the album version of ‘Aquarius’ runs to 5 minutes 58 seconds long – almost any other band planning to release it as a single would edit this down for bitesize radio consumption. Boards of Canada? They made the single version even longer, with the re-recording running to 6.15. Six minutes fifteen seconds of languid liquid loveliness to swim in and swoon to.

Music Has the Right to Children crept out into an unsuspecting world on April 20th 1998, and said world clearly wasn’t ready for it – it charted no higher than #193 on the album charts in the UK and failed to trouble any other chart elsewhere on the planet. However, just as with the subject of the previous instalment of Power, Corruption and B-Sides (The Velvet Underground’s Loaded), the lack of commercial success and critical appreciation afforded to the album on release would in time be overhauled. It has since gone on to become widely acknowledged as one of the best albums of the 1990s, as well as one of the greatest electronic albums of all-time. As is so often the case with a landmark work, the flames of acclaim would initially only flicker before slowly spreading outwards towards the petrol of the people, after which its rising fire would go on to emit a lasting glow.

Recorded over a three-year period, the album took its own sweet time to develop, with the pair of Scottish brothers named Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin Sandison (who had begun creating music together as far back as 1981) setting the controls for the heart of their sound not in studios located in such cosmopolitan hotspots as London, New York or Los Angeles so favoured by the music biz cognoscenti, but rather in the Pentland Hills. The where?! I hear you say.

The Pentland Hills are a bunch of hills to the south-west of Edinburgh that run south west towards Biggar (a town in South Lanarkshire) and upper Clydesdale (by a river that flows into the Firth of Clyde) in Scotland. In other words, the middle of nowhere. But it is precisely that sense of nowhere that gives the album its wide-eyed wonder, its glorious otherness, its dreamy density, its unsettling edginess, it’s beautiful indifference to (and much-needed escape route from) the fast-paced rat race that severs the nerves and fries the minds of city dwellers in their droves.

Boards of Canada
Chairmen of the Boards: Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison pictured in the sunlit splendour of their natural rural habitat

 

“Space is the place”, Sun Ra said. And there is perhaps no more spacey a place than the listening landscape Music Has the Right to Children inhabits, but never inhibits – rather, this beautiful behemoth of a record provides a glistening vista to a fresher frontier. An aural journey in every sense, it has been variously categorised as ambient, electronica, psychedelia, downtempo and trip-hop and while it would be fair to say it dips its toes in all five of those genres, it is also clearly the work of two guys who couldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for standard music biz categorisations. Music… is music that doesn’t dwell in the ghetto of any one genre.

A dizzying sensory overload of vintage synthesisers, degraded analogue production, samples and field recordings, you’ll hear everything from seagulls to birdsong on there, audible evidence of the abundant nature alive and thriving in the duo’s studio surroundings. Its nocturnal ambience renders it a record best listened to late at night. It is among the best after-hours chill-out albums ever, although thankfully it was always too warped (ha!) and too steeped in sonic oddness to be damned by being deemed a dreaded “coffee-table record”. One listen to ‘The Color of the Fire’ or ‘Turquoise Hexagon Sun’ will blow any such notions to high heaven. For as blissed-out as sections of Music Has the Right to Children is, at no point is it ever a comfortable listen. On the contrary, it’s embedded with a sense that something’s not quite right. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark – and lurking in the gripping grooves of this album is the knowledge of what that something is.

 

 

Beautifully in tune with the flavour of night-time in the 90s it is a record of its time (released in 1998 but recorded between 1995 and 1997), however, so authentically ancient are its 1970s-era spoken samples, and so futuristic is its artistic architecture, it is essentially timeless, reaching backwards as it motors forwards, but never standing still.

Never mind the rigid ruts and mundane parameters signposted ‘rock’ and ‘indie’, this was a record that voyaged past ambient music, past psychedelia, past electronica and trip-hop, leaving definitions for dust to instead enter an advanced galaxy, a sound-world beyond the boundaries concocted by corporate suits whose moolah pursuits see them package aural wallpaper for the consumption of those immune to the truths of the tracks on the margins and the fringes of the record racks.

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The Kids Are Alright: The author pictured with a vinyl copy of Music Has the Right to Children at The Secret Book and Record Store, one of the last remaining record stores in Dublin that stocks vinyl. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

For someone as obsessed as I am with the concept of the perfect album (I once spent nine years tinkering with the sleeve notes of an album I was making – the album took eight years to record and mix, the fucking sleeve notes took a year longer) the importance of having visuals that reflect the contents of a record cannot be overstated. And this is where these cats really showed their claws. The cover image of Music Has the Right to Children is perfect. The album title is perfect. Hell, even the goddamn font they used for the lettering is perfect. The result is an album you will long to fondle, have framed and placed upon your wall, hell, even go to sleep with it so that its front cover will be the first thing you set your eyes on upon waking.

Music Has the Right to Children front cover
That front cover

 

Best of all, in a music industry notable for how frequently creative responsibility is out-sourced to art directors and all manner of other ‘consultants’ by ‘artists’ who often can’t be arsed enough let alone artsy enough to preside over all aspects of what ought to be their own complete self-expression, as it says on the inlay of Music Has the Right to Children, “all photography, design and artwork by michael sandison & marcus eoin” (BoC as always printing every word in a small-case with a soft font – the same attention-to-detail they apply to the music being very much replicated with their approach to their artwork and typography). Thus, we can attribute the quality of this most well-dressed sleeve not to some graphic designer churning out album covers from some ivory tower in London but rather to the duo themselves.

The album cover is a modified version of a family photo taken at Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada some time during the 1970s. Boards of Canada have only ever given a handful of interviews but in one of their most insightful disclosures, Michael Sandison would say, “If there’s sadness in the way we use memory, it’s because the time you’re focusing on has gone forever… It’s a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of your life are just Polaroids now.”

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Rear cover of the 2013 vinyl reissue

 

I still haven’t even mentioned what are arguably the two best tracks on the album – ‘Roygbiv’ and ‘Olson’. What does ‘Roygbib’ mean? I have no idea, and I hope I never find out. It’s sound has enough meaning in itself, something beyond the mundane chains of explanation.

 

 

And then there’s ‘Olson’. A scant slip of a song, with a running time of just 1.30. Again, it has no words and needs no words. It is beautiful, and truthful, in a way that lyrics would only get in the way of.

 

 

Much of the unique atmosphere of Music Has the Right to Children stems from the aforementioned Sesame Street samples that were woven into the record so that these vignettes would form a sort of running commentary informing the listening experience. And what an experience it is – for all the coldness traditionally associated with electronic music, Music Has the Right to Children is for the most part a warm and inviting record. For all the sinister snippets and glitchy, skittering rhythms on there, there’s a playful, artful and thrillingly experimental quality to it. This is the source of much of the record’s sense of uncertainty and mystery – nothing is ever stated overtly, rather you’re left to construct a narrative out of a load of shattered shards, sort of like stumbling upon the remnants of a wreckage, and you’re confronted with any number of possible permutations from which you could attempt to rebuild whatever it is that you’ve found the fractured fragments of.

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Rear cover of the original 1998 CD edition

 

Mystery is a quality missing from much of the god-awful garbage clogging the arteries of the charts. What does it mean? What does that matter? I can only elicit what it means to me, which might be something else entirely from what its creators intended. But in that space between is a wealth of wonder and a mountain of multiple interpretations. So what if we can’t make out every intention? Perhaps that was the intention. Maybe none of it means anything. Or perhaps all of it means everything. That in itself has got to be something.

Even if you’re left with more questions than answers afterwards, you can fall back in the flood, and wallow in the wash of the sweet and pure shower of sound, flowing from, and floating along, every inch of the river that is this riveting record.

Happy cycling everyone.

 

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2019. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements for Part 3

All music written and produced by Marcus Eoin Sandison & Michael Sandison. Published by Warp Music Ltd. ©1998

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory

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I Found a Reason: The author pictured with a vinyl copy of Loaded at The Secret Book and Record Store, one of the last remaining record stores in Dublin that stocks vinyl. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory

By Keeley Moss

 

“Can I have your autograph?”
He said to the fat blonde actress
“You know, I’ve seen every movie you’ve been in
From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory”

The Velvet Underground – ‘New Age’

 

The timeline…

1966. ‘The Exploding Plastic Inevitable’. The Velvet Underground break loose, touring the States as part of Andy Warhol’s travelling extravaganza of decadent delinquents, at the vanguard of a new form of artistic expression comprising multi-media happenings, a startlingly innovative approach to stage lighting and risqué S&M theatrics wedded to an entirely new form of music – effectively the birth of alternative rock. Combining spiky street aesthete Lou Reed’s cinema verite beat poetry with John Cale’s radical avant-garde edge in the form of the electric viola, an instrument that had never been utilised by a rock or pop group before, and certainly not in the savage, slashing way Cale attacked its strings. With a female drummer – a totally alien concept then – whose short hair and androgynous appearance led many to mistake her for a boy, playing in an equally-alien manner, standing upright and pounding the tom-toms. No snare drum, no hi-hats, no floor rack, none of the bog-standard percussive accoutrements virtually every other drummer since the dawn of time has assumed they must use. As if all that wasn’t groundbreaking enough, centre-stage, jostling for position alongside Lou, are the striking visuals and unique vocals of Nico, the tall blonde “German Queen” with the death-stare and the eerie, monotone funeral-march intonation, who Leonard Cohen would call “The most beautiful woman in the world”. And there’s a man who would know.

1967. The Velvet Underground & Nico. The much-delayed debut album that tumbled out with little fanfare a full twelve months after it had been recorded in an astonishing three days. The landmark album that in Brian Eno’s classic (and much-misquoted) quote only “sold 30,000 copies in the first five years…(but) I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band”. Rightly showered with garlands (eventually) as one of the greatest and most original rock records ever made.

1968. White Light/White Heat. What do you do when you’ve just pushed every avant-garde envelope there is to push? You go further. Deeper. Darker. Higher. And wilder. Wilder than any band had ever been. White Light/White Heat would be most extreme album of 1968, or any other year to come. The apex of the Velvets’ subversive sonic savagery, upon the release of the title track as its first single, it was hit by an immediate radio ban. The sound of a band intent on going to war with everything and anything around them, that same title track was – and remains – arguably the most electrifying 2 minutes 47 seconds in rock history. As a result of the airtime ban, it got no airplay. It sold no copies. It didn’t chart. And it didn’t matter.

1969. The Velvet Underground. What do you do after you’ve made the loudest, wildest record imaginable? You blow minds in reverse order with the quietest, most tender and meditative collection of sad-eyed lovelorn ballads possible. With some sonic savagery still there in the form of ‘What Goes On’ and ‘The Murder Mystery’ lest anyone get too comfortable. Along with buoyant beauties like ‘Beginning to See the Light’ that pointed the way towards an unlikely pop career.

 

VU 1970
The beginning of a new age: The Velvet Underground, 1970

 

1970. Now what? With miniscule sales of the three preceding LPs, the band’s star has never been lower. Their label MGM drops them one album in to a new two-album deal. Nico is long gone (forced out by Reed), Warhol is long gone (forced out by Reed), Cale is long gone (forced out by Reed. Anyone sensing a theme here?) As a result they’re down to the bare bones. But those bones aren’t so much bare as not even there. VU perennials Sterling Morrison and Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker are also largely out of the picture by this point (Sterling distracted and generally absent studying for a PhD in medieval literature at City College of New York and Moe having to abdicate from being the tom-tom queen on account of her pregnancy). This leaves Lou – who by all accounts is in a very fragmented state by the time it comes for the band (or what is left of it) to record their fourth album – and Cale’s replacement Doug Yule, a talented multi-instrumentalist with a beautiful singing voice who has generally suffered the rawest of raw deals in VU folklore over the years on account of the apparent crime of Not Being John Cale. But more on the perennially-overlooked Yule later.

 

Sterl and Lou Loaded sessions cropped
Something’s got a hold on me: A triptych of shots of Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed in the Atlantic recording studio at the start of the Loaded sessions. Photos: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

So then, 1970. The dawn of a new decade. A new year was one thing, but a new decade? After all that? It must have been a supreme shock to the system for a world that would take half a lifetime to finish processing the warp-speed changes the 1960s had wrought upon it, let alone be able for what the 1970s was about to throw at it. 1970 then, was many things. A new beginning for some. A head-on crash collision for a great many others. Gradually a new world order would adapt and evolve, in which only the strongest would survive never mind thrive. That would leave a lot of casualties to drift into the next decade, that is if they were to drift anywhere at all. Considering the way the Velvets had spent the entirety of their career up to this point utterly out-of-sync with the wider world, it is a great irony that by 1970, the state of confusion and dissolution within the ranks of the band would provide the ultimate mirror – ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, indeed – for society’s scattering and scavenging.

And still this belated benediction as beholders of the zeitgeist spirit wouldn’t be enough for them to sell any records. No wonder Lou Reed couldn’t stop scowling.

Despite that, 1970, Lou’s last year in the VU, would culminate in the recording of an album that would become the most immediate-sounding thing they would ever record, as the dying of the light summoned one last emission of electric energy. It would be brief and bittersweet, but so very bright. Forged out of spare parts, cobbled together on the hoof, hewn out of hand-me-downs and the relics of Reed’s doo-wop youth. This time, for the first and last time, they would not just be loud.

They would be loaded.

 

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What you lookin’ at? The author copping a sneaky glance from a fellow disc-discoverer at The Secret Book and Record Store in Dublin. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

Loaded is my favourite Velvets record. There, I’ve said it (awaits brickbats. And actual bricks. And real bats. The baseball ones, and the ones that “swoop, swoop…”)

Granted, it is far from their most extreme artistic statement (that is undoubtedly White Light/White Heat). And it’s not their most beautiful album (that honour goes to 1969’s eponymous LP). And truth be told, it’s not even their most memorable, it just doesn’t come anywhere near The Velvet Underground & Nico in terms of the purity of purpose that spawned the debut’s creation. No, Loaded is something else entirely, something singular and difficult to define. But even so, if push comes to shove, it’s my favourite. And that’s from someone who worships the first three albums. I know in VU fandom circles an admission like that could see a girl tarred and feathered. Well, I say that with my Head Held High. Here’s why…

 

Lou Loaded sessions
And me, I’m in a rock n’ roll band: Lou Reed at his iconic best during the Loaded sessions. Photo: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

“From Paths of Pain to Jewels of Glory” is a line in the first verse of ‘New Age’, the song that closes side 1 of Loaded. Ostensibly a movie reference, the line can be co-opted and perceived as a very fitting commentary on the process the band went through to make any of their albums let alone the masterly monument to eclecticism that is Loaded. Those paths of pain involved the loss of original drummer Angus MacLise (who quit the night before their first gig because they were going to get paid to play for a set amount of time), the loss of the perfect chanteuse Nico (ousted by the jealous Reed, who had never wanted her in the band in the first place, only bowing to Warhol’s wishes to include her after much lobbying from both he and Factory acolyte Paul Morrissey who were convinced the band would otherwise lack an essential element of glamour).

Yet more paths of pain the band would endure would be the loss of Warhol himself, ousted by Reed in favour of shady supremo Steve Sesnick, the loss of John Cale (the perfect avant-garde foil for Lou, and another of the elements that made the Velvets so unique but ultimately a casualty of Lou’s dislike of having to share the spotlight), the loss of Moe Tucker from the Loaded sessions (the most original drummer in rock and roll history and Lou’s main ally throughout the turbulent history of the band), and the partial absence of Sterling Morrison, whose quiet stability had long provided the band with an essential balance. And, as mentioned, by the start of 70s they had been dropped by their record label Verve, a subsidiary of MGM. Because in addition to falling victim to a purge of artists who the label believed were glamorising hard drugs (the Velvets and hard drugs?! Never!) the Velvets had sold almost no records in the four years since they had inked their deal.

But what they did have was a batch of magnificent songs, and two guys – Lou Reed and Doug Yule – whose singular gifts would intertwine on the same level one last time to take flight with one of the first – and one of the best – records of the early 1970s.

And then they got a new record deal with Cotillion, a subsidiary of the legendary Atlantic Records. Things were looking up. But as we all know by now, down for Lou is up*.

(I love Lou, I really do but y’know).

 

Lou and Doug 1970
Shakin’ to that fine, fine music: Lou Reed and Doug Yule in the studio during the sessions for Loaded. Photo: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

Still, that spirit of renewal was enough to carry the embattled group through the start of the sessions, which began in earnest in April of that year. So what if they didn’t have Cale, Morrison or Nico? Doug could play bass, piano, organ and guitar. Lou could play guitar and sing, except when he couldn’t, and then Doug would take over vocal duties. This was a patched-up ensemble if ever there was one. One that was unrecognisable from the solid squadron of three years previous.

They were about to become a whole lot more patched-up upon delivery of the news that Moe would herself be going into delivery, having fallen pregnant on the eve of recording.

They would need a replacement, and fast. “You know anyone?”, enquired Lou. “Sure”, replied Doug. “My brother Billy”. And so it was that Billy Yule, 17 years old and fresh out of high school, was hired to play drums, and paid the ludicrous fee of $6 per day. On the days when Billy couldn’t make it to the studio, his brother Doug, engineer Adrian Barber, co-producer Geoffrey Haslam (who otherwise was at the helm of the recording console throughout alongside co-producer Shel Kagan) and “a kid from Long Island” named Tommy Castanaro all took turns to play drums on the record. And that’s how they carried on, switching between five different drummers.

This was not the way records were supposed to be made, not even in those days. But since when had the Velvets ever done what they were supposed to do? Andy Warhol, producer of The Velvet Underground & Nico, was a visual artist with no discernible music background, making a grand total of zero production decisions during the making of that record, his role solely amounting to informing the engineer that he wasn’t allowed to change anything the band did. Which, as Lou would later concede, was the most helpful and supportive thing Andy could’ve done, ensuring the band established complete creative control. And then there was the band’s choice of the title track as the first single from the follow-up White Light/White Heat, a song featuring such lines as “Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak!” and “Sputter, mutter, everybody gonna go kill their mother”. That was the single. It was banned outright, generating precisely zero radio play. This was truly a band who could have trademarked the concept of Not Giving a Fuck.

By the time they entered the Atlantic studio to record Loaded, they were starting to give a fuck, but only a tiny bit. Remarkably, of the five people who played drums on the album, Moe, the band’s actual drummer, wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile Sterling would drop by the studio to lay his parts down, but even by his own later admission his mind increasingly wasn’t there. Having returned to college that fall, and growing ever more disillusioned with Lou’s Napoleonic tendencies and what Doug would later call “Sesnick’s bullshit”, Sterling’s spirit – not to mention his tolerance for the politics swirling around the band with the machinations of the manipulative Sesnick central to the fast-fracturing dynamic between Lou and Doug – was waning. And he hadn’t forgiven Lou for, well, pretty much everything over the previous three years. Sidelining Nico. Firing Andy. Ousting John. And that was in addition to Lou entering the studio without anyone’s knowledge in order to remix ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ so that his guitar parts drowned everything and everyone else out (even though the end result did sound incredible, making what was already the most explosive and subversive record in music history yet more explosive and subversive). But Sterling, an intelligent and studious character with an abiding sense of loyalty at his quiet core, wasn’t to forget Lou’s mounting Machiavellian manoeuvres quickly. When Lou was on his game, the guy was so damn talented he made all the bad stuff almost worth it. But almost isn’t enough when you’ve been broke for five years playing every flea-pit and frat party in whichever hick town will have you, while bands with a fraction of the Velvets’ brilliance were selling stadium-loads of records to leave the hip cats of yore looking increasingly like yesterday’s men.

Still, the songs were coming.

And what songs they were.

’Who Loves the Sun’ – Pure pop founded on melodic smarts a world away from the deranged darkness of White Light/White Heat. Boasting harmonies from heaven and topped off by a Doug Yule vocal that’s the epitome of sweet summer serenity, Lou reportedly having “not felt up to singing that day”.

‘Sweet Jane’ – Driven by a riff so classic it had to have been written by someone else already. Except it hadn’t. Lou, as usual, had gotten there first. Nowadays regarded as such an obvious classic that it may surprise you to know the chart position it reached upon it’s belated release as a double A-sided single in the UK (coupled with ‘Who Loves the Sun’) in 1971. It didn’t chart. Never mind a #1 single, it wasn’t a top 10 single either, nor a top 20 single for that matter. It would similarly miss out on the top 30, the top 40, the top 50, the top 100, and any other chart you could care to mention. As for the US, it wasn’t even released there. “And the ladies, they rolled their eyes” indeed.

‘Rock & Roll’ – A fast-driving anthem that encapsulated the whole point of the bloody beast that is rock n’ roll better than anyone had ever nailed it. Even after having been belatedly crowned the unwitting originators of indie-rock and spawning a million pallid imitators, a track such as ‘Rock & Roll’ remains a testament to the fact that the Velvets still sound like no other band in the world.

‘Cool It Down’ – The funkiest thing the VU ever committed to tape. With two Reed lead vocals panned left and right, and an amazing piano break in the middle-eight, the sheer street sass of this tune is hard to top.

‘New Age’ – Possibly the greatest song the Velvets recorded (aside from ‘Sister Ray’ which is my shout for the greatest song anyone has ever recorded). The magic of this gossamer-light grower lies in the beauty of Lou’s writing, the fragility of Doug’s voice and a ghostly piano drenched in reverb that shadows every soft, sad, sublime second of the song until around about 3.35 it bursts into a glorious redemptive hymn of a coda, powered by Doug Yule’s organ. That’s him on the drum kit as well. And again, that magical, ghostly, reverb-drenched ivory-tinkling. Sadness never sounded more seductive.

 

 

And that’s just Side1. On Side 2 the Velvets properly turn it up to 11.

‘Head Held High’ – With Doug and Lou duelling on guitars, and Lou belting out the rawest and wildest vocal he would ever record (to the extent that he literally screams the line “And just like I figured, they’re always disfigured!”) this bad-ass bruiser was power-pop before anyone had even coined the term. With some deep-fried country-rock swagger in there for good measure. Suffice to say, it works. More than that, it ROCKS.

 

 

‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ – Featuring another Doug Yule lead vocal, this was the Velvets’ first full immersion in country-rock, a genre that had originated only a couple of years prior with The International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo bringing it all back home, two visionary long-players that showcased the Cosmic Americana of Gram Parsons, that looked backwards and forwards simultaneously, and that like many great albums mystified listeners and sold sod-all at the time of release but which would go on to be belatedly recognised as immensely-influential, seminal works. With its jaunty twang, ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ gallops along with a brisk breeziness, riding the same rodeo as The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin (Parsons again… Is there a musical landmark that doesn’t have his genius somewhere in the mix?) But lest it be pegged as flippant froth, just get on those guitars… Like the rest of what is a quintessentially American record, this track could only have been recorded in the good ol’ U S of A.

‘I Found a Reason’ – The most diverse album the VU would make enters another stylistic gear-shift, with Lou’s teenage love for doo-wop finding an unlikely outlet. The romantic side of Lou’s writing had always been there, even in the S&M-referencing days of ‘Venus In Furs’ and The Exploding Plastic Inevitable revue that saw Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov act out all manner of sadomasochistic acts onstage with the Velvets providing the soundtrack. Sharing space on the same album as ‘Venus In Furs’ were songs of twisted tenderness such as ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. This romantic side of Lou’s writing would rapidly come to the fore following Cale’s 1968 departure, after which the avant-garde edginess brandished by the band up to that point would take a backseat to a softer sort of songcraft. ‘I Found a Reason’ would be, after ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, the most vulnerable the street-tough Lou would ever allow himself to sound on record.

‘Train ‘Round the Bend’ – The most eccentric track on the album, this fuzzy stomper almost defies categorisation. Vocally Lou sounds almost as unhinged as he had on ‘Head Held High’, howling more than singing, and adding another element to the melting pot of what is a truly shape-shifting album. Fading in on wild waves of screeching feedback and propelled by a weird, insistently chugging riff that continually pans from left to right and back again, further adding to the sonic disorientation, ‘Train ‘Round the Bend’ is the wonderfully-ugly, urgent, grimy outlier on an album that otherwise showcases the little-seen sunnier side of the band’s oeuvre. Fittingly it fades out just as it had faded in: with more brash blasts of furious feedback in a nicely-knowing nod to the restless inventiveness that was the band’s stock-in-trade.

 

VU Loaded sessions
Sterling work: Moustachioed maestro Morrison laying down licks at the Loaded sessions. Photo: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ – And so to the closer, with which the Velvets play their trump card. World-weary and gloriously resigned, it’s the perfect sign-off not just for the album but for the spirit-sapped soul of the band and the trail they blazed for six years to widespread public indifference. Sat, legs-splayed, on the dusty turf of country-rock’s saddest path, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ is a masterful last stand. At 7 minutes and 25 seconds it is by some degree the longest track on the album. A magnificent, melancholy epic with a scorching solo that I’m willing to bet good money was recorded in a mere one take, so fabulously off-the-cuff and semi-scuffed does it sound. The song also features Yule’s fourth lead vocal on the album, rubbishing the prosecution’s tiresome assertion that he was merely a lowly hack unworthy of sharing column inches with the Reeds, Cales, Morrisons and Tuckers of the world. Doug’s contributions, on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, organ and drums are the second-most influential factor (after Lou’s songs of course) that elevates Loaded into classic album territory. The guitar solos on ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Cool It Down’, ‘Head Held High’ and ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ were all played by Yule. The lead vocals on ‘Who Loves the Sun’, ‘New Age’, ‘Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ and ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ were all sung by Yule. I emphasise this in an effort to redress a balance that has gone largely un-redressed for far too long. Credit where it’s damn well due – Yule rules.

Hearing Loaded for the first time as a 16 year-old, I flipped. I had gotten it on cassette when my beloved grandmother Gertrude (who sadly passed away in 2015) purchased it for me as a present from Freebird Records in Dublin, a record store that in those days was literally underground. Back then, Freebird had a floppy-haired staff member who possessed an almost boundless contempt for anyone who dared approach him to buy a record. The guy was notorious, years later I read a reference to him in State magazine as “That floppy-haired prick in Freebird who treats all the customers like shit” or words to that effect. It was some consolation to learn of this egalitarianism, that he apparently doled out the same level of mistreatment to everyone equally, god bless him. He was the living personification of Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, except without the humour, which sadly defeated the purpose. Even when someone insists on behaving like an epic arse, if they can sweeten the pill by being hilarious or at least occasionally amusing, you’ll forgive them almost anything. But that guy was about as funny as a ruptured colon (can you rupture a colon? I don’t know, and I sure as hell hope I never find out).

Back to Loaded, hearing it for the first time turned my world upside down. I was going through the worst time of my life, a time when I literally had oh sweet nuthin’ – no friends, no job, no love life, no life at all actually and worst of all: no band. At that time I was a virtual prisoner at one of the most brutal secondary schools in north Dublin, a harrowing place that even at many years remove I would best describe as being like a cross between a concentration camp and a gulag. The only thing I ever learned there was how to endure having a sharp compass being thrown at the back of my head. To this day I have never, ever been anywhere worse – and that’s from someone who’s been to Neilstown. Most days consisted of being physically and verbally attacked only to have to drag myself home to face a fresh barrage of battery there. The four years I spent in the glorified borstal of that so-called school felt like I was perpetually drowning in a sea of shit and as is the teenage tendency, you assume it’s never going to stop – because you’ve never had to go through it before, you can’t actually believe that it’s not going to last forever. Of all the songs on Loaded, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ was the song my invisible, miserable teenage self could relate to most of all. The feeling of aching desolation embedded in its grooves, the sense of being cut adrift from everything and everyone around you but trudging on through the sludge regardless, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ was the sonic personification of ‘lonerism’ a full four decades before Tame Impala thought of going there.

 

 

With Loaded, the Velvets did something that no one who had witnessed The Exploding Plastic Inevitable or heard White Light/White Heat would have believed possible – they proved they could make a commercial record if they wanted to (and this time they really did want to, even Lou, or at least that’s what he claimed in press interviews in the run-up to the album’s release). And what’s more, they proved they could do it without losing what made them great. It has as much Power as it has Pop. And in contrast to the view the critical cognoscenti have of it as the Velvets’ cleanest record, the sheer amount of fluffs on the record that no one bothered to fix in the mix, is all the better for it. Witness one of Lou’s double-tracked lead vocals coming in late (and him slurring the words) at 0.20 on the squalling ‘Train ‘Round the Bend’. Hear the guitar solos thrillingly skidding off the rails at both 6.00 and 6.30 of ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’, with not one but two bum notes. And do these errors diminish the power of these recordings? Do they fuck. On the contrary, they enhance them, proving that as much as the Velvets were in effect a very different band by the time they made Loaded, they were ultimately the same type of very different band as they had been in 1966 while recording The Velvet Underground & Nico (a record that lest it be forgotten the Velvets’ label delayed the release of for an entire year, tantamount to two whole lifetimes in that era of pop music. And people wonder why artists hate record companies…)

 

Loaded sessions
Don’t you know that it ain’t gonna last: Band members and production staff in the control room towards the end of the Loaded sessions which coincided with Reed’s exit from the group in August 1970. Photo: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

Reed and Yule would later reveal that Loaded was so called because the band went in with the intention of making an album “loaded with hits”. Reed would later reflect bitterly on his departure from the group when he claimed, “I left them to their album of hits that I made”. But for an album of ‘hits’, the sad fact was that the album’s single ‘Who Loves the Sun’ c/w ‘Sweet Jane’ (in the UK) and ‘Who Loves the Sun’ c/w ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ (in the US) would fail to chart upon release. And the accompanying album wouldn’t fare much better either. Released on November 15th 1970, Loaded would eventually enter the lowest reaches of the US album charts, crawling to #202 on January 30th 1971 before dropping out for good a mere one week later. To this day the only other country in the world where it has appeared on any chart is France – home to the band’s most fervant fans – and even there it only peaked at #188. One of the few people hip to Loaded upon its original release was a prescient college student in Berkeley, California who would later comment on his doomed attempts to convert any of his co-horts to the Velvets’ fast-flagging cause, “Imagine trying to get anyone from Berkeley in 1970 to listen to Loaded?”

It is one thing not to crack the Top 10, and another thing not to crack the Top 100, but failing to crack the top 200 in your home country? And that was with major label backing. And with what was by far their most commercial record. Those were different times, indeed.

But time would reward the band, in a way that would have been inconceivable back in 1970. Gradually they would rise up the rankings of critical acclaim to become regarded as the founding fathers of both punk and post-punk, as well as the originators of indie-rock and as the second-most influential group of the 1960s (after The Beatles, no less). Despite the fact that to this day the Velvets have still never had a hit single or album, either on release or re-release.

A brief but deserved word for the fantastically-named Stanisław Andrzej Zagórski, one of the finest graphic designers of the 1970s or any other era, whose artwork adorns the front cover of Loaded. Maligned in some quarters for his very literal translation of the band’s name in the form of the underground subway featured on the cover and the various shades of pink and red to denote the ‘velvet’ of the first word of the band’s name, I personally love the artwork, from the colours he utilised to the beautiful (and very 1970) font he chose. For this reason I have an original vinyl copy of Loaded on display in the kitchen of my rented flat (along with White Light/White Heat and Lou’s solo masterpieces Transformer and Berlin).

 

20191110_175515
Kitchenware: An original vinyl copy of Loaded adorning the kitchen wall of my rented bedsit Moss Manor. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

Before I wrap this up it would be remiss of me were I not to “say a word” for not only “Jimmy Brown” but also for one of the finest moments of the Loaded sessions, namely ‘Ocean’. A song that in a moment of madness was left off the album (I blame the “wheat husk diet” Lou was on in the Summer of 1970, that’s a decent enough place to start). ‘Ocean’ would belatedly see release in a vastly inferior and lifeless form on Lou’s eponymous 1972 debut solo LP. Actually, numerous versions of the song abound. Aside from the anaemic cut featured on Lou Reed, an adequate rendition recorded by the Velvets appeared on 1985’s collection of outtakes VU, and another, longer band version appears on the ‘Fully Loaded’ 2-disc edition of Loaded that saw release in 1997 – but all three sound, at best, like demos. The version of the song taped during the Loaded sessions however not only wipes the floor with the others – it stands as one of the greatest things the group ever recorded.

And here it is. “Here come the waves…” indeed.

 

 

With a running time of 5.45 and featuring one of Lou’s best-ever lead vocals, the dark drama of this nocturnal nugget gleams with a gritty grandeur. One of the creepiest and most chilling tracks in the Velvets’ canon, ‘Ocean’ would make the perfect sonic accompaniment for a late-night trawl of New York’s mean streets circa 1970. I maintain no copy of Loaded ought to be considered complete without it. As for where it might have fit, thanks to the wonders of modern-day music-players, on my Zune I have sequenced it to follow ‘New Age’ and close Side 1, balanced out by the fact that the epic-length ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ closes Side 2. Perhaps some of you may feel the album has enough on there without it?

I beg to differ.

After all, the album is called Loaded.

 

Loaded rear cover
Lonesome Cowboy: The rear cover of the original 1970 Cotillion vinyl pressing of Loaded featured Doug Yule alone in the studio, underlining the extent of his contribution to the record. Photo: Henri ter Hall ©1970

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2019. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements for Part 2

‘New Age’, ‘Head Held High’, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ & ‘Ocean’ written by Lou Reed.
Published by Sony ATV Music Publishing LLC ©1970

Photography by Henri ter Hall ©1970 and Keeley Moss ©2019

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

Benny and the Jets

 

Tower ABBA Keeley (more contrast & warmth)
The author pictured with a copy of ABBA’s Waterloo album in Tower Records, Dublin. Photo: Keeley Moss ©2019

 

Benny and the Jets

By Keeley Moss

 

ABBA.

Yeah yeah, you know.

The two girls, the two guys.
The marriages, the divorces.
The kitsch costumes, the kitchen sink.
The endless ‘tribute’ bands, the musical.
The movie of the musical.
The sequel to the movie of the musical.

“The purest pop that has ever been made”, in the words of record producer Alexander Bard. “The greatest songwriters of the twentieth century” according to no less than Andrew Loog Oldham, the canny first manager of The Rolling Stones – and the man responsible for locking Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room in 1963 and not letting them out until they’d written their first song. So there’s a cat who knows a thing or two about melding words and music. And you’d think that by now, 49 years after the four members of ABBA first made music together, 45 years after they had what would turn out to be the first of a string of #1 singles, and 37 years after they embarked on their long-standing hiatus, you would be forgiven for thinking you know all there is to know about them.

But you’d be wrong.

 

ABBA monochrome magic
The Eyes Have It: A monochrome portrait of the Swedish four-piece at the peak of their global chart domination in 1977

 

ABBA are known and renowned primarily for their singles, understandably considering they’re commonly regarded as one of the greatest singles groups in the history of popular music. However, as is often the case, their singles tell only one part of the story. I, like everyone else, became an ABBA fan through those awe-inducing A-sides but because I had never heard anyone talking up ABBA as an albums group, and because you never see any of their eight long-players feature in any of those pointless and wholly-subjective lists (such as ‘The 100 Greatest Albums Of All-Time Until Another Bloody List Comes Along Five Minutes Later In Order To Flog Copies of Another Music Magazine’) I assumed that each of ABBA’s eight studio albums would basically consist of a couple of hits and a Volvo-load of filler.

How wrong I was.

There’s gold in them thar hills. For the studio albums are gleaming with gems. There’s a song on the Waterloo album called Watch Out that rocks as hard as anything the Sex Pistols committed to tape. Seriously. The same Sex Pistols who ironically had a couple of ABBA fans in their ranks – Glen Matlock and his replacement Sid Vicious, as confirmed by John Lydon in his memoir that covers the Pistols period, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Few would lump MOR family favourites ABBA in with the band hysterically dubbed by the English tabloid press in 1977 as the “Enemies of the World”. But listen to Watch Out back-to-back with anything off Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols and you’ll surely see, or rather hear, the common thread. Watch Out is a bad-ass bruiser, the ideal soundtrack to a 1974-era riot scene involving football hooligans. Which is about as far removed from the world of kitsch and Euro-disco froth-pop as could be imagined. Turn this up to 11 with headphones on and I vow that you’ll practically smell the grease in the hair of the brutish bootboys as they pounded fists into flesh outside any number of football league grounds in the dark, dank and delectably-dangerous era of 1970’s England.

 

 

Then there’s Gonna Sing You My Lovesong, the track that directly follows Watch Out on the Waterloo album. A silken slip of a song, and thrillingly the polar (ahem) opposite of that seething stomp-fest. As mellow as Watch Out is muscular, and featuring a swooping, soaring chorus with such a romantic rush that hearing it is almost annoying – how could a song so utterly perfect have been relegated to a lowly supporting role as a mere album track tucked away towards the end of Side 2? If almost any other group had written Gonna Sing You My Lovesong, they would have surely built their entire career around it. ABBA? They neglected to issue it as a single, never performed it live, didn’t include it on any of their compilation albums and practically threw it away by placing it towards the end of the second side of the album.

Prepare to be entranced.

 

 

And then there’s Disillusion, by some distance the best song on the Ring Ring album. You probably know the title track of Ring Ring, a perfunctory glam-pop stomper circa 1973 that ultimately served as a dry run for the following year’s Waterloo 45. Ring Ring rattles along harmlessly and tunefully but its hollow heart lacks Waterloo’s buoyant brilliance. However, chances are you’ve never heard Disillusion. Any time I’m raving about ABBA to someone, I bring that song up and the response is always the same – a puzzled shrug. Incredibly, so few people seem to know it. Which is a travesty because it’s practically dripping with magnificence. A mini-masterpiece recorded very early on in the band’s career, it actually pre-dated their 1974 commercial breakthrough by a whole year. One of the rawest tear-jerkers they would ever commit to tape, it was the first song in the ABBA canon to tackle the subject of sadness, a craft at which they would later become masters. If asked to name the most moving and heart-wrenching ABBA songs, chances are that the likes of The Winner Takes It All or S.O.S. would spring to mind. But brilliant as those songs are, Disillusion is right up there with them as a stunning sonic chronicling of heartache.

For a group with an estimated 400 million record sales, it may seem preposterous that anything they committed to tape could be overlooked. But just as there are different levels of fame and recognition, whereby someone considered a big noise in the underground can be utterly unknown to the wider world and what Mark E. Smith termed the “Middle Mass”, there are similarly very different divisions in place when it comes to the works of any creative artist, no matter how vast their commercial and cultural impact. Even Bjorn and Benny’s most hallowed idols, The Beatles, the biggest pop monster of them all, are far from being immune from this curious plight. There are millions of people out there who profess to be huge Beatles fans who have never even heard of The White Album, let alone heard it. My mum, for one. But this ‘buried treasure’ aspect of an artist’s oeuvre can be very exciting for a rabid fan, as you gradually peel back the layers of the (glass) onion to discover more discs. And with a group such as ABBA, whose quality control was often impeccable (though not always…it’s fair to say they have their share of stinkers like anyone) there are precious gems to be found lurking in the larder.

Get on this.

 

 

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Copyright: Keeley Moss ℗&©2019. All rights reserved.

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Acknowledgments for Part 1

Watch Out & Gonna Sign You My Lovesong written by Andersson/Ulvaeus ©1974

Disillusion written by Fältskog/Ulvaeus ©1973

Published by Union Songs Musikforlag AB, Universal/Union Songs Musikforlag AB, Emi Grove Park Music, Universal – Polygram International Publishing Inc.

Published under Fair Use policy. Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for ‘fair use’ for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.