2001: Manic Street Preachers - “Groundhog Day”
Valentine’s Day forever placed its stamp on February as a month for love. Weeks before the holiday, boyfriends and girlfriends plan endearing tributes for their significant others while singles pine for romance. However, before the gifting of flowers and chocolates, there is a holiday seldom celebrated and often forgotten: Groundhog Day.
Every February 2nd in a sleepy Pennsylvania town, a seemingly immortal groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow to prognosticate the state of winter. The holiday is shamelessly kitsch and appreciated in a lighthearted manner, but in 1993, the Bill Murray-starring movie Groundhog Day brought a new understanding to the day (or days, depending on your philosophy of time). In short, a conceited weatherman played by Murray finds himself repeatedly living out Groundhog Day. What an existential dilemma for such a minor holiday.
Interestingly, the theme of this movie continues to inspire artists and thinkers. In a 2004 article in The Independent titled “The greatest story ever told?” it is noted that religious leaders consider Groundhog Day the most spiritual movie of all time.
A band that clearly empathizes with the film’s message is the Manic Street Preachers. Formed in 1995, the Welsh alternative rock group rose to prominence toward the end of the decade. Glam punk imagery and songs about boredom and despair gained them a cult following (they released their ninth studio album Journal For Plague Lovers last year). In 2001, on the heels of their sixth album, Know Your Enemy, the Manic Street Preachers released an EP consisting of B-sides. Strangely, Know Our B-Sides was only released in Japan and can still only be purchased as an import. But while the record on the whole isn’t particularly noteworthy — the EP opens with an Avalanches remix of “So Why So Sad,” which is something — the track “Groundhog Days” clearly stands out for its thematic content.
“Groundhog Days” is a straightforward verse-chorus-verse rock song. It begins with some nifty fingerpicking and melodic vocals, which give way to an arena-filling, distortion-drenched chorus. It feels mundane in its simple, formulaic approach — but that feels like the point. “Waking up again/ to the same old things/ To the same old songs/ To the same old pain.” Indeed, just as the movie explores the monotony of continually reliving the same day, the song examines a similar feeling but ultimately coming to more “emo” conclusions. Matched with the familiar pattern of the song, “Groundhog Days” ironically creates a condition similar to the one being described: the listener hears a predictable rock song and feels the inescapable pattern.
1964: Professor Longhair - “Big Chief”
A friend of mine once said, “The most significant thing funk will ever do is get sampled.” I want to explore that thought for a moment. It’s easy to see how the sheer volume of cuts sampled from old Rare Groove records will guarantee funk’s survival not through its original format, but in the footnotes of countless other genres (hip-hop, rap, jungle, d&b, IDM, etc). The way these samples compile and relate, sometimes even evolving autonomy on their own accord (e.g., the Amen Break), suggest that my friend’s judgment was valid. It also deserves stating that these samples aren’t solely relegated to basement DJ sets either; oftentimes they can—and do—break into the mainstream consciousness.
The motivations behind funk’s mass sampling are obvious—the breaks, beats, and melodies are all somewhat unusually constructed in comparison to, say, traditional rock and pop — but specifically, Rare Groove records are sampled because the original funky cuts are, at a basic level, novel enough to entertain the listener unaccompanied. Using myriad methodologies, these samples can be interacted with brilliantly, even though many contemporary artists are simply choosing their samples unwisely. But the whole purpose of sampling funk is compromised when the sample itself becomes a feature instead of a support.
Case in point: “Big Chief” by Professor Longhair, recently sampled by Lily Allen on “Knock ‘Em Out.”
Meagerly lauded in the 50s for his New Orleans rhythm and blues, the Professor’s funky piano remained steadfastly unique as of 1964, the year “Big Chief” was initially released. The tune kicks in with a jittery little piano line, straight up and down a blues scale; I hate to use the word ‘quirky,’ but hot damn if it doesn’t fit the bill. The progression could be reasonably drawn out for four to five minutes, but Prof. Longhair doesn’t see why he shouldn’t end it at the two-minute mark—the timeless “like it, play it again” mantra.
This sort of funk is one of the most difficult breeds a producer might sample. Often it is a song’s boldness that allows it to remain potent for minutes on end, and this is certainly the case with “Big Chief.” The track’s audacity doesn’t exactly ripen it for use in supporting traditional lead instruments or vocals, but to make the sample itself a lead is to more or less conflict with the purpose of sampling as a whole. A problematic position. (Disclaimer: This is not to say that it’s impossible to make decent music out of a sample cut from “Big Chief.” There are many other perfectly acceptable methods of creating art using precisely this aesthetic. What I am attempting to describe here is coming from a thoroughly pop/rock viewpoint and nothing else.)
Now, draw your attention to Lily Allen’s “Knock ‘Em Out,” wherein Allen employs a tasteless sample of the classic “Big Chief” progression.
Thrown beneath a punchy beat and Allen’s bratty accent, the progression—an extroverted, vivacious piece— sits awkwardly as a mere foundation. The result is almost offensive. Sure, “Knock ‘Em Out” is probably a marvelous track if the vocals were removed—the drum production is absolutely immaculate, and its rhythmic precision intermingles quite eagerly with Professor Longhair’s piano—but the additional lead, already tainted by Allen’s snide voice and immature lyricism, soils any possible merit that the track might have contained.
But Allen was doomed from the start. Longhair’s piano feels uncomfortably restless in the background, and the opposite scenario (“Big Chief” as a lead) looks to be an equally unpleasant option for the reasons I outlined above. So why did Allen use it? “It sounds cool,” says Allen. She was right about that—it does sound cool. But clearly not every “cool” sound is worth sampling.
1982: Richard Hell and The Voidoids - Destiny Street Repaired
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” But if an artist’s work has traditionally been like a newborn foundling left in a bundle on the church steps, some present-day creators seem to approach the act of publishing as more of an open adoption. Hither to now, the clingiest parents have been filmmakers. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott have all come under fire in the past decade-and-a-half for tinkering with their masterpieces. Who knew that, all this time, Richard Hell was just waiting to get a piece of the action?
When Destiny Street was first released in 1982, Hell’s interest in music had taken a back seat to his interest in being high, and the resulting album never lived up to its full potential in its creator’s eyes. That’s why when Hell acquired the rights to the record five years ago, he sat on it until it went out of print and then set out on a quest to remake it. The result, Destiny Street Repaired, was a peculiar beast: not exactly a reissue, since the vocal and lead guitar tracks were laid down specially for this edition, but hardly a new album either, since Hell’s stated intention was to hew as closely to the source material as humanly possible. Destiny Street Repaired is sure to be a divisive record, but ultimately its value comes down to two critical issues: (1) Is the album any good? and (2) How does it measure up to the original recording?
Happily, the answer to my first question is a resounding “yes.” Destiny Street is a fine album, arguably better written than Hell’s exponentially more talked-about solo debut. While Blank Generation rotated mainly around stuttering, angular guitar constructions that embodied the bitterness and anxiety of Hell’s lyrics, the songs on Destiny Street show a more refined pop sensibility. High-energy tracks like “The Kid with the Replaceable Head” and “Lowest Common Dominator” are more direct than even the most accessible cuts off Blank Generation, but thanks to the deceptively convoluted guitar contortions of Robert Quine (enhanced in this edition by Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Ivan Julian on the solos), they remain fully engaging. And while it would be a gross oversimplification to say that Hell’s prior work lacked tenderness, Destiny Street finds him bringing his sneer to heel, particularly on the country-tinged paean to maturity, “Time.” The set is rounded out by a bevy of covers that contribute to the general sense of optimism, including The Kinks’ “I Gotta Move” and Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything.” The best of them, however, is a melancholy rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone” that sounds like it was written with Richard Hell in mind.
So that’s good news. Destiny Street is a great album, a criminally overlooked work by a brilliant songwriter at the peak of his craft. That still leaves the question of whether such dramatic reconstructive surgery was necessary to resuscitate this buried gem. On this score, regrettably, my assessment is a little more ambivalent. Though the original CD pressing is unavailable, I was able to download a couple album cuts off one of the many, many Richard Hell anthologies available on Amazon (and might I say that Mr P has been very dodgy about telling me where I can file my expense reports). Destiny Street Repaired certainly boasts superior sound quality and some truly excellent guitar work by Ribot et al, but this in and of itself doesn’t seem like justification. After all, couldn’t The Sex Pistols, in theory, record a much more polished version of Never Mind the Bullocks if they were to remake the album today (with a competent bass player, no less)? Frankly, none of the original recordings that I sampled sounded so bad as to elicit such disappointment on their author’s part. Just as with the Blade Runner “Final Cut” and the 20th Anniversary edition of E.T., this appears to be a case of an artist trying to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place.
Only the album’s title track emerges from this redacting as something new, and indeed integral to Hell’s catalogue. The re-record adds an additional three minutes to the original’s runtime, but even more importantly, Hell’s peculiar narrative about meeting a younger version of himself and trying to impart wisdom to the youth through play takes on a whole new significance in light of the Destiny Street Repaired project. It’s the kind of lighthearted twist that lends a new poetic resonance to the whole album. Nevertheless, to engage in revisionism on this level seems indulgent, and the fact that he’s effectively made this the only version available to fans (unless you want to freeload it or pay upwards of $40 for a used copy on Amazon) is obnoxious to the highest degree. Yet Destiny Street is too good of an album to write off, and if you have to choose between listening to the revised edition and not listening at all… well, then Destiny Street Repaired is the lesser of two evils by a longshot.
[Photo: R. Bayley]
1999: Red Stars Theory - Life in a Bubble Can Be Beautiful
Consider dynamics: the stops and starts, the loud to quiet to loud again. Many a band with roots in indie or punk rock find these to be essential tools in creating their sound. They’ve endured as long as they have because they often work, and whether you’re the Pixies, Godspeed You! Black Emperor or someone playing a second show in the back room of a bar, there’s an immediate and visceral result—that point when, after a subdued idyll, a pedal is triggered and a wall of noise rushes in.
But what happens when you’ve taken those dynamics as far as they can go? The first half of the Seattle group Red Stars Theory’s discography takes the loud/quiet/loud dynamic and stretches it to infinity. Two early EPs, since collected by Suicide Squeeze as one of two self-titled releases in the band’s discography, find the group playing a winding, disjointed style of indie rock not dissimilar from drummer Jeremiah Green’s other band at the time, a little-known upstart called Modest Mouse. Singer/guitarist James Bertram, formerly of Lync, sang in a melancholy whisper even when his tone turned embittered. Red Star Theory’s first album, But Sleep Came Slowly, pushed their style to a more expansive place: the buildups to their loudest moments came in sprawling doses, and Betram’s vocal style became even more subdued, a forceful whisper that seemed of a piece with the music behind him.
Come 1999, Life in a Bubble Can Be Beautiful, the band’s first release on Touch and Go, made its way into the world. Given their output up to this point, one might have expected to hear more of the same: a work that, to ears a decade later, might sound like a descendant of groups like The Antlers—a place where post-rock chops and indie rock release could find common ground. But that isn’t entirely accurate.
I’m perhaps spoiling the ending by saying that the last release made by this band—a seven-inch on Suicide Squeeze— includes a take on John Coltrane’s “Naima.” Having taken the default moody-guy indie-rock template as far as it could go, the band instead kicked through a wall, keeping their grasp of dynamics but working to create a sound all their own, one where atmospherics were key and the lines between the band and their guests were increasingly blurred. The addition of strings to the lineup (Seth Warren on violin, Sarah Cates on cello) helped to root this expansion of their sound. And the presence of Scientific American, credited on two of these seven songs, tied the album to the Northwestern indie-electronica scene of the moment.
Much of Life is a Bubble Can Be Beautiful is instrumental: opener “How Did This Room Get So White” strews tearing guitars across a melody that ebbs and flows, while muted tones open the more subdued (and wonderfully named) “Boring Ghosts.” After lengthy stretches where no voices are heard, the album’s second half winds down with a pair of contrasting vocal approaches. The apex comes courtesy of Lois Maffeo, who croons “A Sailor’s Warning” in much the same soul-drenched manner as her 1996 Dub Narcotic Sound System collaboration “Ship to Shore.” Hers is followed by Betram’s aching voice on “September,” and the two taken together make for an exhausting denouement. “Would you be my accident investigator?” he begins, singing over a melody as tentative as his delivery. When Warren’s violin enters a third of the way through, it’s sincerely affecting. And in the end, it supports an album that brings together a fondness for experimentation with an emotional grounding— exhausting and rewarding in equal parts.
1980: Space Runaway Ideon - “Arrows From the Buff Clan”
When did I know for real that MF DOOM was a nerd? While listening to the track “Batty Boyz” from last year’s Born Like This, where he goes on a three-minute rant about the latent homosexuality in the superhero genre. The red flags didn’t go off immediately, though. After all, superheroes don’t belong to the realm of pimply-faced 14 year olds anymore; they’ve taken a step back from geek culture to be embraced by the mainstream. So no, DOOM rapping about Batman slobbing Robin’s knob seemed like fair game in our modern cultural climate. I was initially preoccupied with whether the track was actually homophobic – a topic that’s worthy of its own feature – but I soon started registering the beat alone. That beat. Hot. Yet also painfully familiar. The repetitive, retro string jabs sent my mind spiraling back in time to my own geek-loving teenage years.
Ever seen this show?
Probably not, considering the quintessential early-80s mech anime, though famous in Japan, has never been released in the states. Thank god for torrents (or, in my case, bootlegged VHS tapes). The main reason I remember Space Runaway Ideon isn’t because of its mecha-action though; it’s for the incredible, classy-retro, Lalo Schifrin-esque soundtrack, composed by Koichi Sugiyama, who would become famous for scoring the massive RPG franchise Dragon Quest. DOOM was obviously listening, too. Here’s the basis for “Batty Boyz”: a random slice of incidental music titled “Arrows From the Buff Clan” from the second Space Runaway Ideon OST.
DOOM really doesn’t do much with the track, aside from chopping it up now and then and adding a fucking Jeff Dunham sample. Koichi Sugiyama lawsuit forthcoming! Here’s the original DOOM track:
1983: Klaus Nomi - “Metronomi”
Raise your hand if you’ve ever downloaded an album, listened to it once, and then let it collect dust on your hard drive. In the last few years, I’ve succumbed to this process more often than I’d like to admit, an unfortunate byproduct of the vast availability of music in the digital age. I simply don’t give albums the time I used to, so if something doesn’t quickly grab me, I’ll set it aside to make way for the next in an endless musical queue. Sometimes I’ll legitimately enjoy a record that, for one reason or another, gets lost in the shuffle. If I read a blog post or list of “Best Obscure 70s Glam Rock Albums,” I’ll definitely seek them out. But there’s really not enough time in the day to absorb it all, to become intimately familiar with every nugget I get my hands on. In the face of practically unlimited access to new music, many of us let the consumer take over. It’s like the Pokemon mentality: gotta catch ‘em all.
Recognizing the ugly side of this practice, I’ve started collecting albums I’ve downloaded and neglected onto an iPod playlist, which I’ll listen to on shuffle at work or while driving. It’s a nice way to appreciate non-singles, to hear overlooked tracks take on new meanings outside the context of their albums. A recent example came when I was driving home the other day in the middle of a snowstorm. A song started with a slowly rising electronic pulse that quickly fattened out into a flurry of synthesizers. It was a familiar sound. My mind immediately raced.
It sounded like Animal Collective! Now, I know AC is a popular band right now, on the tip of many critical tongues, but I was almost positive that this mystery track was the intro to a song on the band’s Fall Be Kind EP, an EP I knew was in this playlist. I had listened to it a few times as background music, but never registered many of its intricacies. The mystery track had somewhat of a 70s vibe, but the bubbling synths were unmistakably in-vogue in 09. Then a high-pitched, ethereal vocal melody cropped up, and my guessing game was ruined: it couldn’t be AC. Who the fuck!?
I immediately picked up my ipod, too curious to let the song go unnamed any longer. It was… this guy:
Klaus Nomi, a flamboyantly gay German glam/opera singer who died of AIDS in 1983. The mystery song was “Metronomi” from his unfinished, posthumously released rock opera Za Bakdaz. The album as a whole is a bizarre, patchwork experiment that perverted glam rock conventions, but “Metronomi” alone stood as some sort of retro-futuristic dub track. It shares a direct link with David Bowie, Cluster, and Neu!, but it also shot forward to the bubbling electronics of the aughts. Here were the sounds that Animal Collective shove in the corners of pop songs, the kind of sounds for which they had become known and lauded. Clearly, Nomi’s sound palette has remained fresh over two decades later. So close your eyes, and for those first 40 seconds, see if you can’t tell the difference.