What he said

MeatIsMurder

MEAT IS MURDER (WEA)
Released: February 11, 1985

Tracklisting:
The Headmaster Ritual
Rusholme Ruffians
I Want The One I Can’t Have
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
Nowhere Fast
Well I Wonder
Barbarism Begins At Home
Meat Is Murder

Recorded: November-December, 1984, Amazon Studios, Liverpool and Ridge Farm, Surrey; mixed at Island Studios, London
Personnel: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce
Producers: The Smiths (except How Soon Is Now? – John Porter); engineered by Stephen Street

UK chart: 1
US chart: –

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.

That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

When they released their second studio album Meat Is Murder a few days shy of Valentine’s Day in 1985, The Smiths were aged 25, 21, 20 and 21, from Morrissey to Joyce respectively. Though Morrissey, having left school in 1976 to sign on, was getting on a bit, the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It is surely no slight to call the Smiths a student band (nor, obviously, does such a label preclude the sensitive soul in gainful employment or, like Moz, on the dole). For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s study bedrooms, draughty, Soviet-style halls and rented rooms in Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of top-up fees, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. Another Eden, protected from the outside world by subsidy, rebate and time, where you formed your political beliefs away from parental influence, coagulated as a human being, experienced the self-loathing of casual sex, and saw bands on the cheap in the union bar. Historians will need to go back to 1973 and wipe the resinous smudges off a used copy of Dark Side Of The Moon to find a record as beloved of the student class as Meat Is Murder.

The Smiths’ formative gigs were in low-ceilinged clubs and rooms above pubs, but in late 1983 they moved on to the college circuit: Warwick, Durham, Bangor, Kingston, Leicester, Portsmouth, North Staffs. As Morrissey noted of the band’s growing audience, “They don’t spit or gob, they bring flowers.” That’s because they could afford to – they were on grants.

Two years, a dose of mainstream success and a bit of trouble with the tabloids later, and The Smiths still held every safe student seat in Britain. Even though the Meat Is Murder tour would take them into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens, the students followed. And brought flowers. Support act James found themselves garlanded in prematurely-chucked gladioli, “Don’t waste them on us,” Tim Booth would humbly implore.

Is it any wonder that Meat Is Murder scored such a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency? For a start, it’s Morrissey’s vegetarian manifesto album. The seeds of his flesh boycott were sown in 1973, when McDonald’s opened its first UK restaurant in Manchester (“It was like the outbreak of war,” he said), but on the powerful title track – saved till the end – he throws down a political gauntlet to his followers (“it’s not natural, normal or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry”). It made veggies of thousands on the spot.

In tune with this militant tendency, Morrissey’s republicanism rears its lyrical head too: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen … the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.” How well this chimed with the sloganeering, NME-reading socialism of the student demo. (Moz attended an anti-Abortion Act march himself in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration.” This man could have got himself elected rector of any university in Britain by 1985.)

The album’s masterful opener The Headmaster Ritual – a much punchier affair than the first album’s Reel Around The Fountain, suggesting a new sense of drama and masterplan – was even set at a seat of learning (the unnamed St Mary’s Secondary School), another bullseye with those just putting the gym and playing fields behind them. It even tapped into trendy Vietnam-movie fetishism with an unusually doctored sleeve still from documentary In Year Of The Pig.

The abiding irony of the Smiths is that their deepest appeal tended toward middle-class kids, when Morrissey’s milieu is stoutly working class. Rusholme Ruffians, Johnny Marr’s nod to Elvis’s His Latest Flame, describes “the last night of the fair” in terms not of someone who’s been dropped off by his dad. The “tough kid raised on Prisoner’s Aid” in I Want The One I Can’t Have and the “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” in What She Said seemed like fictional characters to most Smiths graduates, but first-hand authenticity hangs heavy like a dulling wine. It was as exotic as the beat poetry of hip-hop to some pale studes.

Though it’s ultimately Morrissey’s triumph – what Smiths album isn’t? – Meat Is Murder is also a notably musical album. Marr’s on scintillating form, confidently moving between skiffle, heavy metal and whatever you’d call the freight train/wailing riff of How Soon Is Now? Only on the awkward funk of Barbarism Begins At Home do our boys come slightly unstuck, although hats off to an “indie” band countenancing a 15-second bass solo.

Their first and only, it went to number one here, supplanting Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA like an agitated Dad’s Army-style Union Jack triangle. Morrissey’s ubiquity in the press meant that like ’em or loathe ’em, you could no longer ignore The Smiths.

Crunchily produced, inspiringly ordered, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums), it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

(First published in a Q magazine Smiths Special Edition, 2004)

Advertisements

Music 2013: Where are we now?

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVArcade-Fire-ReflektorArctic-Monkeys-AMKOD-12JimBobWhatIThinkAboutChrisTTTheBearbilly-bragg-tooth-nailJon-Hopkins-Immunitymusic-david-bowie-the-next-day-album-cover

Ah, music. A whole calendar year without once stepping in front of the mic at 6 Music has seriously affected the equilibrium of my musical clearing house. Though I seem to have been jettisoned by the network, my DJ’s pigeonhole was not sealed up, so some new music still got through, thanks to an assortment of kindly pluggers and expectant artists and managers, all of whom were sending me records in good faith that I might play them on the radio. This was not to be. (My only success in this regard was composing a piece celebrating 80s indie for Front Row on Radio 4, which allowed me to play short bursts of classics like Candy Skin by the Fire Engines and Don’t Come Back by the Marine Girls on national radio, not to mention plug Cherry Red’s historic Scared To Get Happy compilation.) Still, it means I have heard some new music in 2013, although not much. As I have discovered to music’s cost, there’s nothing like having a radio show to focus, organise and refresh your musical tastes. (I still miss the good influence of Josie Long and it’s been two years now!)

My exile from 6 Music has nonetheless pushed me back into the real world, where albums must be purchased. This really concentrates the mind. It makes your purchases more conservative. You buy records by artists you already like – Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, a resurgent David Bowie – although I’d lately lost my faith in Arctic Monkeys and hadn’t even sought out their new album AM for old times’ sake, but then I saw them storm it on Later and I put my money on the counter. So that’s how it works. I won’t order my Top 10 albums, as in earning a place here, they are all winners. I am on friendly terms with three of these artists. Luckily, they have all made records I like this year.

My Bloody Valentine m b v (m b v)
David Bowie The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)
Arcade Fire Reflektor (Sonovox)
Jon Hopkins Immunity (Domino)
Various Artists Scared To Get Happy (Cherry Red)
Kitchens Of Distinction Folly (3Loop)
Billy Bragg Tooth & Nail (Bragg Central)
Jim Bob What I Think About When I Think About You (The Ten Forty Sound)
Chris T-T and The Hoodrats The Bear (Xtra Mile)
Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)

RSJ-SEVENinch-Alouise_sleeveWonderStuffGetUp

I accept that the modern music scene is based on tracks, but I shall continue to call them songs, as I pretty much hate the modern world. A few songs have filtered through and found purchase and these are them.

Rob St John and the Coven Choir Charcoal Black and the Bonny Grey/Shallow Brown (Song By Toad)
Steve Mason Fight Them Back (Double Six)*
Cud Louise
Daft Punk Get Lucky (Daft Life/Columbia)
Cloud Boat Wanderlust (Apollo)
This Many Boyfriends Tina Weymouth (Angular)
Low Plastic Cup (Sub Pop)*
The Wonder Stuff Get Up! (IRL)**

*These singles both came out at the very end of 2012, but I didn’t hear either until 2013, and I think they were on albums released in 2013, so fuck off.
**I think this one did, as well.

Kazoogazing

MBVcover

Better late than never. And I actually mean that. It has been 22 years since My Bloody Valentine released their second album, Loveless, and I dispatched myself to interview Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, Bilinda Butcher and Colm Ó Cíosóig at the Mitcham home of their manager, for the attendant NME cover story. It wasn’t an easy interview, but then, they weren’t an easy band, and they didn’t make easy records. They stood alone, despite being roped into a fabricated “scene”, cheekily christened Shoegazing. (It was the effects-driven, languidly-paced, pale-faced guitar bands who bloomed in MBV’s wake who really deserved the tag. Oh, and we gave one of them a cover, too – Chapterhouse – a notoriously poor-selling issue, as I recall, despite a decent story written on the road in the States and a fantastic coverline: “Here’s Looking At Shoe, Kid.”)

I fell in love with My Bloody Valentine on first listen, which will have been Strawberry Wine on the Lazy label’s EP of the same name in 1987. Not their first release – I can’t claim to have been in at the ground floor, but then, I was never a tastemaker – but my first listen. It was, of course, You Made Me Realise, in August 1988, that took them to a new level of originality and raw power, and if you weren’t smitten then, you were never going to be a convert.

I had arrived at the NME by the summer of ’88, and, as a result, from my vantage point within the citadel, their subsequent releases arrived, for free, in 12-inch record envelopes from Creation, with my name on. (I would have bought them had my life taken a different turning.) I only saw the band live once, which was at the Town & Country Club in December 1991 on the Loveless tour, but it blew my mind, as promised. (Our deputy editor, Danny Kelly, had been to see them at the beginning of the tour to review, and claimed that during the now-legendary ear-bleeding take on You Made Me Realise, his plastic pint glass flew off the edge of the balcony through the sheer sonic force. We believed him.)

I still hold Loveless to be one of the great albums of all time, never mind one of the great albums of its era. Though it has individual tracks – and a single, in the rave-inflected Soon, which Shields neatly calibrated at the end – it’s one of digitally recorded music’s most persuasive arguments for the Long Player. I had MBV’s early releases on vinyl, but Loveless arrived on CD, and it feels tailor-made for the single listen. You can’t shuffle it. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t, you philistine.)

My_Bloody_Valentine_-_MBVSo, to their third album. (Not a sentence I thought I’d write in my lifetime. Certainly not until the band reformed for those Roundhouse shows in 2008 and Shields started dropping tantalising hints about the record they’d started in 1996 being “three-quarters” finished!) Titled, annoyingly but with scorched-earth defiance, m b v, it arrived on February 2 with almost no fanfare, like the David Bowie single. But would it be any good? I only got my hands on it two days ago, but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait – a wait, lest we forget, during which you could have given birth to a child and watched him or her leave home for university.

Due to the arse-over-tit way I uploaded the album from WAV files to iTunes – and because of the unbearably non-intuitive, counterproductive latest version of iTunes, particularly its search facility – the first time I fired it up from the laptop, it would only play randomly, which was a crime against humanity. I’ve fixed this now. Fortunately, my maiden listen was via my iPod, where it plays in order. So when I’ve been listening to it in transit – and it really suits gazing not at shoes but out of train or bus windows – I’ve experienced it as a whole, in full, from one end to the other. It’s a glorious piece that runs to about 46 minutes over nine tracks. (Loveless runs a little longer, but over 11 tracks.)

Along the way, considering the langorous timeframe, during which time dictatorships have been toppled and wars begun and ended, not so much has changed in the My Bloody Valentine universe. The palette of multiple slightly and not-so-slightly distorted guitars, washed over with sounds that appear to have emanated from synths but, unless the Shields manifesto has changed, won’t have done, is recognisable. (Their tricks have been much copied, and adapted, but still nobody sounds like them.) While the dancey nature of Soon bamboozled us in 1991, it’s the jaunty nature of New You that’s the album’s most generous, head-turning surprise. While opening salvos She Found Now and Only Tomorrow remind us of Loveless, New You, brilliantly named, reminds me of Can’s I Want More in feel, and adds a bona fide bounce to proceedings, as Butcher coos somewhere in the middle distance. It’s a cornerstone track. You have to hear it.

Elsewhere, the drone, screech and aerobatic stream are present and correct, and uneasy listening is the captivating result. If someone listened to m b v, or Loveless, and declared it “noise”, you wouldn’t argue with them. It is. But a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond might have had it. And nor would you try to convert them. For many, this music will go in one ear and, eventually, out of the other. Presumably this is why, with all the hype and expectation, Loveless only got to 24 in the charts 22 years ago. You really do need to tune in, and if not, walk out.

The changes are subtle. An optimism seems to come out in the vocal in Who Sees You, although I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. Is This And Yes bears the unmistakable addition of a keyboard pulse, atop which the vocals positively glisten. If I Am cruises along on a ragged snare beat with woozy vocals that almost take it into Stereolab country. The rhythm on In Another Way is furious – albeit tempered by the balm of Butcher’s serenade. Not so on the instrumental Nothing Is, where this same rhythm is almost repeated but to a much grungier end. Most adjustments, though, are closer to imperceptible. But then, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? (For alphabetical reasons, when the album ends on iTunes, it goes straight into the mechanically rhythmic Machine Gun by Portishead. A sympathetic transition, actually.)

Yes, m b v sounds like the entire sonic cathedral has been filtered through a single kazoo, but the genius of that! And it ends with a mighty six-minute track that seems to have been sculpted from sampled train and plane noises, Wonder, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that it’s for listening to between A and B. Where Soon brought Loveless to an accessible close, Wonder might be the most difficult movement on m b v. It climbs and climbs as if barreling up a mountain with no intention of coming back down.

I actually don’t mind if the fourth MBV album comes out in 2035, if it’s this good. I really, actually don’t.