Saturday, 26 March 2011

The sound of conflict

''The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.''
John Stuart Mill, 19th century English economist and philosopher.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
Mahatma Gandhi

War has been a hot topic in the news with events in Libya bringing arguments for and against military action centre stage. I'm certainly not going to dwell on these arguments on a music blog - for fear of losing what's left of my readership after 21 days of inaction which is tantamount to blogger suicide (in my defence I was busy sorting the aftermath of being burgled!). To return to the point, war has been a subject addressed by many artists over the years and the whole gamut of views have been covered. Edwyn Starr's 'War! (what is it good for?)' stands apart as one of the greatest protest songs in history yet there have also been many gems supporting war. I strongly recommend this site  which has proved invaluable to me as a history teacher. Josh White's 'Berlin Blues' from 1943 is a superb example of the quality of writing engaged in the propaganda of war. In this blog I will choose five songs linked to the theme of war and offer my views on each.

'Masters of War' by Bob Dylan

It would be remiss of me not to include a slice of Zimmerman on here and although this might be a bit obvious I make no apologies. This song appeared on the wonderful 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' and contrary to popular misconceptions is an attack on the military-industrial complex rather than a condemnation of the act of war itself. The song was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and reflected the sentiments of Eisenhower's closing White House address when he warned of the growing influence of the arms industry. Dylan is at his most blunt, eschewing the abstract word play of his later work to offer a extremely simple address to those in power which is all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

Like the majority of great protest songs the message was far from heeded and within a couple of years of its release the United States were embroiled in a war where the only winners were the manufacturers of Napalm and Agent Orange.

Here are three versions I find particularly interesting as it shows how the message endures through a variety of interpretations:

'Just War (feat. Gruff Rhys)' by Dangermouse & Sparklehorse

Dark Night of the Soul is an absolutely stunning album bringing together the unique talents of Sparklehorse and Dangermouse with a sprinkling of perfectly chosen guest vocalists (including David Lynch!). It is so consistently excellent that choosing a favourite is all but impossible. On this track the vocals are provided by Gruff Rhys from Neon Neon and the Super Furry Animals. The appeal of the track is how the bleak subject matter is contrasting with the lilting, almost jolly backing. Whether this was an intentional comment on the ease with which we accept the need for military intervention or purely coincidental is secondary to the primary enjoyment of a successful combination of seemingly hostile elements. I've chosen a video which uses a brilliant animation from 1982 which compliments the song perfectly.


'Ballad of the Green Berets' by Sgt Barry Sadler

I suspect my affection for this songs comes more from its value to me as a history teacher rather than an admiration of its composition. The melody is basic but the lyrics are a fascinating depiction of war as glory and the fact this song topped the US chart in the mid-60s shows how public opinion was once in favour of the Vietnam Conflict. It is easy to dismiss it as disposable propaganda yet when considered as a tribute to fallen friends as the writer intended it is actually tremendously moving and far more affecting than the plethora of sanctimonious anti-war songs latching on to a public mood to revive their own flagging career (cough* Greenday*cough)

'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

I used to hate the eighties. Perhaps it was reaching my teens in the following decade which made me loathe the prior decade. It seemed so bombastic, cliched and full of atrocious music usually sung by men wearing make up. It was only when I bid farewell to my teen years that I began to discover that lurking beneath the surface of excreta was some of the most brilliant, socially aware music ever committed to record. In the case of Frankie Goes to Hollywood they managed to combine a wit and eye for parody with challenging messages. Two Tribes is a sublime comment on the Cold War which manages to avoid polemics and instead offers a withering rebuke to both parties.

'Landlocked Blues' by Bright Eyes

One of the highlights from one of my favourite albums ever made. I won't linger on analysing the song as it stands for itself but one angle that I'm not sure others share is how this song reminds me of this scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I remember the first time I heard the lyric about 'kids playing guns in the street' it cast my mind back immediately to this scene. It seems like a cruel twist of fate that the facet which drives human kind to achieve great things - namely competition and desire to be the best - is also the catalyst for so much pain and suffering.

That's it from me, I'll try not to leave it so long between blogs in future. A word of warning; I managed to get Ryan Adams tickets for June so expect even more Ryan worship than usual as my excitement builds.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

So what's my motivation here?

Tonight's blog is about concept albums. It always tends to make my heart sink when I hear the news that a band I have grown fond of  announce their latest record is a concept album. It might be considered blasphemy but I consider Dark Side of the Moon downright pompous and it seems for many to be the benchmark for concept albums. However despite this doom laden intro there have actually been some pretty damn fine concept albums. Here are five, with a brief description of the concept and a song to get your teeth into. The format seems to be increasing in popularity with major releases in the last year from Arcade Fire and Janelle Montae offering their own interpretations of the concept album formula. I'd love to know your opinions so it'd be just the ticket if you posted your comments below.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
Rightly revered as an Indie classic this is loosely based around the unusual concept of the life of Anne Frank. The beauty of the approach is you could happily enjoy the album without knowing this yet once you do it makes the album far richer and poignant. In fact if I'm honest I could take it or leave it before the idea was explained to me and ever since I have grown to love it.

Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age
Like many the involvement of Dave Grohl drew me to this band originally. What I never expected was such an exciting, thrusting, sonic experience based around the simple concept of a drive from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert. The genius is how each song is supposedly from a different local radio station and there is genuine wit to some of the radio announcements; "We play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else" being my personal favourite.

A Grand don't come for Free by The Streets
I suspect some of you will be reasonably disgusted by this choice as Mike Skinner appears to have divided opinion. This story constructed around the disappearance of a thousand pounds and the consequences is the most linear of the concept albums I'm featuring here. I actually think when you look past the admittedly grating single 'Fit but you know it' you find some gems. It is an ambitious idea and unlike with the albums that followed Skinner succeeds admirably.

The Fitzgerald by Richmond Fontaine
Grizzled, downbeat alt country songwriter holes up in Reno hotel; that isn't the concept it's how the album was written! The result is a stark but deeply moving document of events where the protagonist is trying to avoid being sucked into the dark. In contrast to the bleak sound scape the message of the album is undoubtedly optimistic as it recognises the daily triumphs of good over temptation.

Yoshimi battles the Pink Robots by Flaming Lips
As barking mad as the title suggests this is a special album to me as it became part of the soundtrack to my first year at University. A fantastic flatmate of mine was studying Japanese and we used to spend many an enjoyable afternoon playing Pro Evo whilst listening to the tale of a young woman battling evil pink robots. The undercurrent is actually an intuitive analysis of the fragility of global confidence post 9/11 but I prefer not to dwell on that and immerse myself in the wonder of the glorious world. Coyne himself denies that it is a concept album - pointing out that the 'concept' only really holds for four songs but they are utterly glorious and deserve recognition on here. In an act of moving bromance I gave my copy to my flatmate as he set off on his Japanese adventure and just a few years later he was raking it in as a James Bond lookalike. Dreams really do come true.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Bare with me kids!

Apologies for the lack of recent blog posts, basically busy as a hyper-active bee so I have not had the time to indulge the pleasure of writing about the wonder music. Unfortunately that situation remains unless I can steal some spare time later this weekend. For now may I offer five sublime tracks by way of apology:

Richard Hawley - Don't get hung up in your soul

Rolling Stones - Please Please Me (acoustic Beatles cover)

Boston - More than a Feeling (Live from Giant Stadium, 1979)

Thin Lizzy - Are you ready? (Live)

Daft Punk surprise appearance at Phoenix gig (jerky camera I know but the crowd reaction is immense!)
Watch from 1m 55secs