2000s: Queen Kong - “Enough for the Whole World (to fall in love)” “The Rules”
The Gaelic translation of Queen Kong’s hometown means ‘the big swamp,’ and I like to think they started out as ‘the thing from the swamp’ — meaty, muscular, and more than a little mad at being woken up. Queen Kong were spawned a long time ago around the turn of the Millennium in the faraway city of Cork, Ireland. Although the band’s later incarnation was at least two-thirds female, in the beginning they had more of the Y- chromosome, (which in some circles would suggest they were less evolved). Back then, they were also hairier and a bit more ‘metal’. They coalesced over time in a volatile solution of Mike Patton, G.G. Allin, and Bowie. With their travelling circus up and running, they acquired a gimp, leather chaps, holey tights worn as tops, and songs that combined pop choruses with rap interludes about making out on piles of body parts.
As the years passed in anything-but-silence, they crawled up the island of Ireland running on the kind of fuel Captain Planet’s arch enemies used to dump in dolphin sanctuaries. They moved to the country’s capital, Dublin, and began making and performing catchy, cool pop songs like “Enough for the Whole World (to fall in love)” and “The Rules.” The gimp was fired and Amy Stephenson grew into a diva (though a very polite one it has to be said), turning up to shows with band mates Dave Murphy and Ruby Moore in either dresses made of plastic bags that looked like couture or nothing much but a few strategically positioned stickers, maybe a bra for good measure.
“Enough for the Whole World” and “The Rules” represent the band’s last stage of evolution after the digital surface of their music had been cleaned until it sparkled, as if by a housewife vacuuming to something suitably deranged. By around 2005 it was clear that Queen Kong had finally hatched the ruthless, polished fem-bot the Irish scene would come to know and fear.
Lyrically, QK were often weird, as in “Approximation”: “The military lets you wear your own cosmetics/ I wish that I had a face like Samuel Beckett.” In “The Rules” and “Enough for the Whole World,” the weirdness took the form of a comic feather duster kind of tease: “I look to you, cos you’re a company man” (“The Rules”) and “When you’re in love…everything laughs/ like an actress remembering her lines” (“Enough for the World”).
Exemplary and scary, like a beautiful hall monitor, “The Rules” was streamlined and gorgeous. The lyrics seemed to mock the idea of feminine submission while fondly, patronizingly, petting and stroking it.
The bizarre aspects of the band’s lyrics and performance were often entwined with humour, a sense of the comic as well as the majestic extravagance of emotional pop. In “Enough for the Whole World,” Amy Stephenson acts the luvvie pro on stage for kicks. This enjoyment and sense of mischief was typical of the band’s live performances, though harder to pick out in “The Rules,” which sounds more remote — Queen Kong were always fierier on stage, while on record they gave shovelfuls of snowy vocals and icy bleeps — but it’s there in everything they did. In a time of chimpanzees (namely mediocre Irish New Wave bands with caterpillar sideburns), Queen Kong was a monkey; a weird, hairless monkey, technologically advanced but still passionate. A human monkey in fact. It’s a damn shame they released so little that’s still available (besides “The Rules”/ “Here is Home with You’re Only Massive”), but the best way to obtain sightings of the beast is probably through checking out their MySpace page, as well as the surviving YouTube videos of their live performances (hence, the brilliant “Enough for the Whole World,” below). Queen Kong were a little known Irish band that left behind few collectibles for the world to keep, and though they may have emerged from a small scene, their name fit them well. They grew into a chest-beating giantess with tremendous energy, mourned especially by those who had the pleasure of seeing them live.
1960s: Various Artists - Singapore A-Go-Go
It’s something hearing music from another place and time, and especially when it’s nothing like you’d expect it would be. Sublime Frequencies do a great job of not only raiding the stash of some other country’s uncle’s sock drawer, but also illustrating that there are freaks everywhere. Just about everybody has an uncle, and uncles keep things in their sock drawers, even in Singapore. Singapore: where they made a pasty patty out of Michael P. Fay’s rump with a cane! Wouldn’t you think them so uptight for not digging a little American graffiti? Why? How could they ever excel in the realms of “forgotten” psychedelic pop music?
Well, just like Burma and Thailand before it, we’re proven again that The Shaggs and the Deerhoofs and the Jandeks of the world are ubiquitous. Who said freak folk is dead? It just grew up and turned into something from the past, man. Let that freak flag fly.
1978: Iannis Xenakis - “Mycenae Alpha”
By 1977, Iannis Xenakis had developed the (start using computer voice) UPIC. Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu. Put simply, you drew on a tablet linked to a computer, which then produced sounds based on an X (duration) and Y (pitch) axis. In the late 70s, Xenakis’ sounds were limited to pretty raw wave forms being run through custom envelopes, but his work on the UPIC still revealed interesting new ways to think about scoring music. Watch the vid and it will all become clear.
So… do you guys like my new song?
1968-76: V/A - Next Stop… Soweto
Current cultural trends denote a sharp increase in the number of good-time party-pop bands as of late, and I think we can all understand why. Trendy-type parties call for trendy-type party music, do they not? I guess trendy-type parties are on the rise. It’s interesting though, to observe how party-pop bands such as Matt & Kim are essentially attempting to recreate the atmosphere originally tailored by the old South African Soweto scene. The edgy tempos employed by the dorm-plaguing likes of Matt & Kim et al. are outstandingly similar to those utilized by, say, S. Piliso & His Super Seven. Granted, Jive artists generally rely less on a well-produced 4/4 rhythm than their modern electronic rivals, but the party-time mood is there. The mood was there from the start in that old Soweto community.
But wait, what’s that you say? You don’t know what Soweto is? How about Jive? Zulu? Well, then. Here’s why you should do yourself a little research:
• Jive, or Mbaqanga, offers relatively uncharted sensations to those of us who don’t reside near its origin. Spritz a couple South African names into your casual conversation to quickly impress your friends!
• Do you enjoy listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland? Thought so.
• Vampire Weekend.
• How much MGMT do you think a person can really listen to without wanting to off themselves?
• You think I don’t have a YouTube video? Because I do:
Looks like you should get started on your Soweto research. Fortunately, it just so happens that Strut plans to provide you with a great introduction. Starting March 2, you can get your pretty little hands on a copy of Next Stop… Soweto, a superb Mbaqanga sampler. How convenient.
1994: Tom Petty - Wildflowers
When the pantheon of modern American songwriters is discussed, you frequently hear the same few names: Springsteen, Young, Dylan. That Tom Petty is often omitted is a testament not to his irrelevance but rather to his continually unassuming nature. Nowhere in the Petty lexicon is found a Nebraska or a Tonight’s the Night; where the aforementioned artists have, throughout their careers, ebbed and flowed with the creative tides to mixed — and oft times controversial — results, Petty’s output has remained remarkably stable.
Also, unlike proven eccentrics such as Bob Dylan, Petty’s public demeanor has rarely amounted to more than the nice, humble rock star. One need only watch the lengthy but engaging Runnin’ Down a Dream, Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 Petty documentary, or a single episode of King of the Hill, where Petty voiced the well-meaning scamp Lucky for several seasons (see video below), to get a sense of his demeanor. It’s easy to understand why he’s not as contentious a subject as other contemporaries, and thus has managed to avoid the pitfalls of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. To put it another way: he don’t make for great TV. Thankfully, he has made for some pretty damn good tunes over the years.
In as consistent a career as Petty’s, there are loads of highlights, not least of which is 1994’s Rick Rubin-produced effort, Wildflowers. One of three “solo” albums Petty has released — that is, sans Heartbreakers (although several members turn up here) — it is also one of his most quietly classic. The album birthed several radio singles, namely the ubiquitous “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” but it’s notable mostly for its lack of pomp and circumstance. Rubin has always had a knack for raw, bare-bones production, but on Wildflowers the sound is the first thing you notice. On headphones, it is an incredibly immediate record with nothing obscured in the mix; there’s a slightly coarse edge, but Petty’s everyman songcraft renders its mass appeal obvious.
In fact, Petty’s songwriting shines given the Rubin treatment, as does his voice. Of the pantheon, his tone is perhaps the most startlingly affecting. (Only Neil Young has been known to convey more with a lone sung syllable.) On Wildflowers, his voice dips and rises with a husky world-weariness not immediately obvious on some of his better-known rock hits. Paired with deceptively simplistic lyrics, the results are often extraordinary. And that’s another thing about Petty: as his music sometimes seems to straddle the line between the audacious and the MOR, so too do his lyrics. You might hear Mellencamp singing about getting to the point or rolling another joint, but you probably wouldn’t get “Woke up somewhere in between/ A memory and a dream.” Petty’s brilliance lies in his ability to consistently appeal to the largest of audiences while delivering some of the pithiest one-liners around.
While much of the album’s charm lies in the quiet tenderness of songs like the terrific title track, Petty also proves that he can rock without the Heartbreakers. “You Wreck Me,” about a troubled love, is one of the fieriest tunes in Petty’s discography, and also one of the best. Garage-y and fun, it also harbors some of the record’s best lyrics. “Now and again/ I get the feeling/ If I don’t win/ I’m gonna break even,” sings a confident-sounding Petty over a simple three-chord romp. “A Higher Place” channels the Kinks, all jangly and open. “I was up all night making up my mind/ But now I’ve got my doubts,” Petty intones, less confident but still unabashedly vibrant. The most subtle standout on Wildflowers is the de-tuned acoustic “Don’t Fade on Me.” Its sparse instrumentation calls to mind John Fahey or Six Organs of Admittance (seriously!) and is paired with the album’s most hauntingly expressive vocal performance. It’s a tough, terse song, and endlessly listenable.
Of course, Wildflowers isn’t without its share of blunders. For starters, the length makes it difficult to listen in one sitting, and it’s easy to spot tracks that should have stayed on the cutting-room floor. A couple songs are straight cookie-cutter — namely “Cabin Down Below” and “Honey Bee,” the latter filled with inexcusable lyrics about givin’ Petty some sugar and buzzin’ ‘round his tree. Elsewhere, “Hard on Me” is a failed exercise in slow-burning rock done much better on the earlier “It’s Good to Be King.” The jaunty “To Find a Friend,” on which Ringo Starr makes a guest appearance, isn’t a bad song, but it’s a near carbon copy of the album’s title track.
The last three tracks on Wildflowers, however, combine to form a trifecta of pure awesome that almost makes up for the album’s saggy midsection. Petty does blues-rock right on “House in the Woods,” all swagger and drunken harmony. “What can I do but love you,” he sings, a man resigned to his fate but not the worse for it. In the achingly bittersweet “Crawling Back to You,” it’s ”I’m so tired of being tired/ Sure as night will follow day/ Most things I worry about/ Never happen anyway.” And “Wake Up Time” is as good a closer as any; it’s five minutes of the perfect kind of piano pop, cautious but uplifting. “It’s wake up time/ Time to open up your eyes/ And rise and shine,” Petty suddenly intones in that low, speak-sing way — sounds cheesy, right? But boy is it good. Some hardened critics might cringe at all the earnestness on a record like Wildflowers, but they’re fooling themselves: this is what we really love about the guy. This is Tom Petty, American songwriter.
1979: Philip Glass - “Geometry of Circles”
In 1976, Philip Glass premiered one of his most critically adored works, Einstein on the Beach. The opera, Glass’ first, was part of his “Portrait Trilogy,” which also included Satyagraha in 1980 and Akhnaten in 1983. Each opera was about a man — Einstein, Gandhi, and pharaoh Akhenaten, respectively — who changed the world through ideas rather than through force.
Glass was as prolific as ever during this period, working on music for everything from plays and films to TV and radio, but one of his lesser-known works came in 1979 with “Geometry of Circles.” The composition soundtracks four animation shorts created by Sesame Street. Each one is comprised of several circles dancing around each other, combining and splitting into various colors and shapes through arcs, tangents, and spatial variations.
The precision of Glass’ score fits perfectly with the visuals. With intricate polyrhythms and complex vocal interplay reminiscent of Einstein on the Beach, the music comes off as rigid, mathematical, and indeed geometric. Yet the complexity of both the score and the visuals immerse the viewer/listener in a mesmerizing, hypnotic world of shapes and patterns that reaches well beyond the deceptive simplicity of geometry, leaving one to wonder how much more compelling this would be as a 5 year old.
Check out all four animations here: