Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Listen To This

I’ve just started reading Alex Ross’ Listen To This (2010), a collection of essays on music both popular and classical, that follows his widely-read The Rest Is Noise which was a survey of C20th art music. The Rest Is Noise is a good general survey which should make more people curious about a lot of terrific music. The essays in the second book wander very widely indeed, with chapters on Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and John Cage rubbing shoulders with chapters on Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain, along with general essays on topics such as ‘How Recordings Changed Music’ . I particularly recommend the opening one, ‘Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop’.

Almost by accident I’ve found myself unexpectedly enjoying a trio of ‘late period’ albums which I’ve just got on CD having once owned as vinyl (I gave up on vinyl some time ago for want of space for a decent turntable, but not out of any dislike of the sound, and I still have a few vinyl albums).

The Jam’s Sound Affects (late 1980) was their 5th studio album (there was one more to come) and shows the trio trying to broaden their guitar-based power-pop with changes to production and arrangement with mixed results. The most well-known tracks on it are ‘That’s Entertainment’ and ‘Start!’ (sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes ‘Taxman’) but my favourite is ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ with its lyric of urban mundane life and political idealism, and poignant swings between the keys of D major and B major.

The second of the trio is The Who’s last studio album with drummer Keith Moon, Who Are You (Aug 1978) which saw the band struggling to find a way to develop their post-Quadrophenia music further. If you can banish from your mind the archetypal power-chording, windmilling, stage-pounding, drum-thrashing, microphone-swinging Who, Who Are You is more engaging than I remember, with some effectively quirky arrangements that make good use of synths. The title track is the most famous song on it, memorable for the change from the bludgeoning main riff into the gently oscillating middle section with a piano octave melody over the top. I have a soft spot for ‘Love Comes Down’, an expressive ballad built on an Ebmaj7-F change and some other unusual key / chord changes, in which Roger Daltrey delivers a vocal which is more sung and doesn’t rely on his usual bark. In retrospect it is full of sunset colours, bringing the Who’s career to a kind of ending. Keith Moon died only a few weeks later.

Which brings me to Peepshow by Siouxsie and the Banshees from 1988, the 9th of the 11 studio albums they would make. The first three Banshees punk albums never registered for me. I climbed aboard the good ship Banshee in 1981 when Ju-Ju was released. Here was supernatural gothic rock with John McGeoch’s splintered guitar riffs inhabiting some distant guitar galaxy where pentatonic blues-rock never ventured, and Sioux’s wailing vocals sounding like the offspring of Grace Slick and H.P.Lovecraft. Live the songs were even stronger. With the next album A Kiss In The Dreamhouse the band swathed themselves in the sensuous eroticism of Klimt’s 3-D gold. Around this time critic Paul Morley was hailing the live version of ‘Nightshift’ as the closest you could get to the stomping epic of Led Zep’s ‘Kashmir’. Hyena was a slight dip in the magic, but they were back with a vengeance for Tinderbox mostly thanks to the brilliant guitar-work of John Valentine-Carruthers. And then came Peepshow

Peepshow saw a change of personnel and a very considerable change in arrangements. Valentine-Carruthers left and the guitar played a smaller role. In came dance rhythms, keyboards, synths, accordions and studio trickery. At the time I thought it was okay and I went to see them at the Royal Albert Hall but it felt like the end of an era. Listening to the album now it seems to me full of delights, with very inventive presentations, and in ‘Rapture’ a song where certain aspects of the Banshees tendency to dwell on the darker side of things actually meets a subject that merits it – namely oppression in the U.S.S.R. (I vaguely recall reading somewhere that this song was inspired by elements of the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich). Where before they could seem morbid, obsessive, cruel, or merely theatrical, in this song there rises a sense of grandeur and righteous indignation.

But before you explore these late period albums try these recommendations: All Mod Cons (The Jam), Who’s Next, Quadrophenia (The Who), Ju-Ju, Tinderbox (Siouxsie and the Banshees).

Chord for guitarists: 3×0202 which is Gmaj9. Try moving it up to the 8th fret.

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