Letting the Mind Take a Trip – Trainspotting, “Lust for Life” and the best (and worst) songs featuring that unmistakable drumbeat
We at The Brown Tweed Society try to serve as a respite from life’s serious concerns. However, I’d like to ask our UK readers to bite the proverbial bullet and vote on 6 May. Hey – a guy that spent 5,000 words describing PAC-MAN has every right to implore your electoral participation, right? (cue Eddie Izzard saying “You’re American, so scale it down a bit, eh?”)
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family…”
I’d like to begin a series called “Letting the mind take a trip” – where I either watch a film, view an art exhibit, wander the streets, or something that does not involve resumes or job applications, then I examine the ideas that randomly generate from that specific item. This week, ol’ Trainspotting got another airing in the household, which led to this question: outside of “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes, what other songs employ that smashing drumbeat?
This rhythm, championed by Iggy Pop’s drummer Hunt Sales, has appeared in indie rock, punk, pop, soul, bubblegum and country – and due to its malleability across genres, the not-so-occasional commercial. While modern advances like That Ubiquitous Search Site facilitate quick answers to almost any question, there is no AltaVista or Lycos for drumbeats, forcing me to recreate the typewriters ‘n absinthe process of writers like Hemingway, Plath, Shakespeare and Danielle Steele. First, I needed mountains of Pixy Stix, followed by fistfuls of Flintstones chewable vitamins. Then I had to actually scour the brain for examples. After collaring a decent-sized list, I noticed something awesome – regardless of the intended audience, artists that employ this clever rhythmic foundation are loathe to mess with its tempo or the fundamentals of the beat. Why destroy perfection?
In honor of the Kentucky Derby, here’s a list of the best and worst songs that bring this galloping undercurrent to life.
“I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!” –
Part I – The “capable and stylish”.
“Lust for Life” – Iggy Pop (1977). After choosing to sit on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows – hopefully within a home with fixed-interest mortgage payments – grab one of your three buckets and pour some out for James Osterberg’s drummer Hunt Sales. Iggy’s basher relinquishes the junk of stray sixteenth notes, offering us a stripped-down shot of adrenaline so intense, you’ll want off the skag, too.
The joke is clearly on we Americans – despite lyrics that would frighten the piss out of 46% of us, “Lust for Life” has entered a dignified elder-statesman category, evidenced by its use in commercials for cruise companies and theme songs for sports-talk radio programs. Hey, if the guy responsible for “Butt Town” can make in the States, maybe our days as “Biggest Tossers on Earth” are over. And in America – and no offense to Nick Clegg – when we intentionally set fire to plant life, we make use of the kind smoke resulting from said action.
“Ballroom Blitz” – Sweet (1973). It is hard to believe this bad-ass rock-rock song was released in the year that spawned the detestable era of modern Adult Contemporary. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, “My Love”, “Delta Dawn”, “Drift Away”, and a slew of hits by the Carpenters were de rigueur. How else would Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy lack a single tune that could knock Donny Osmond’s “The Twelfth of Never” out of the Top 100? I was completely unaware of “Ballroom Blitz” until the Beastie Boys released “Hey Ladies” in 1989, which grabs “She thinks she’s the passionate one” (one of the hundreds of clever samples on that album). Thanks to lack of exposure, I thought Crucial Taunt from Wayne’s World were “cool” because they referenced the Beasties. (Side note – what breaks the narrative in a more confounding manner: Punk-leaning classic-rockers Wayne and Garth digging the languid commercial pop of Tia Carrere, or Rob Gordon’s fascination with Maria de Salle’s mid-90s ‘sad-bastard music’ in High Fidelity? Where’s the love for the women that really rock? Would these blokes have soiled their trousers if they saw Corin Tucker or Joan Jett on stage?)
In addition, this tune is deceptively difficult as a karaoke choice.
“Death on the Stairs” / “Horrorshow” – The Libertines (2002). What became of the Likely Lads? While Americana purists might scoff at this comparison, the results from the split of Pete Doherty and Carl Barat reads like a British recasting of Uncle Tupelo. At least in the Minneapolis-St Paul market, Dirty Pretty Things’ Waterloo to Anywhere made a much larger dent than Babyshambles’ Down in Albion, giving Carl the upper hand (“Gin and Milk” made many “Best Singles of 2006” lists). At South By Southwest 2006, Dirty Pretty Things packed the house, with Pete nowhere to be found. Less than a year later, our local radio station KCMP (led by Cantabrigian DJ Mark Wheat) hoisted several songs from Shotter’s Nation into our airwaves, but completely ignored Dirty Pretty Things’ Romance at Short Notice. This was countered by local punk-rock club called Grumpy’s adding “F Forever” and “Killamangiro” to their karaoke list. Doherty’s ‘solo’ record of 2009 got nary a play, so we’re back to square one. It’s time for a reunion! Hopefully, we’ll get more classics like these two tunes: the musical equivalent of The El Dude Brothers (ehhhhh ehhhhhh!!!)
Despite a sizable contingent of rock obsessives, these guys never really caught on in the Colonies during their Libertines days. ‘Tis a shame, for they would have been the perfect antidote to the turgid jock-metal that captured our airwaves in the middle of the last decade (Limp Bizkit or Puddle of Mudddd, anyone?) Here’s a partial list of why I miss these guys as a team, especially with John Hassall and Gary Powell, an incredible rhythm section:
1. The vocal harmonies that only seemed accidental
2. All those “6th” chords concluding verses and choruses
3. The occasional Merseybeat (like the chorus of “Can’t Stand Me Now”)
4. Blasts of punk/rock/soul with an endearing sloppiness
5. After noticing that “Death on the Stairs”‘ and “Horrorshow” use that Hunt Sales beat, they put ’em back-to-freaking-back on Up The Bracket. Who cares that most bands try to spread out songs with similar DNA.
“Darling” – Sons and Daughters (2008) / “A Town Called Malice” – The Jam (1982). – My favorite song of 2008, “Darling” was once described by the aforementioned Mr. Wheat as an updated version of “A Town Called Malice”, from the Jam’s 1982 album The Gift (not shy about their influences, Sons and Daughters’ release was called This Gift). “Malice” experienced a rebirth in the States after Billy Elliot, but many of us remember its appearance in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (which unlike its ‘Walley World’ predecessor, has not aged well). Both songs absolutely rock, and hopefully KCMP will continue to play them back-to-back. As the first chorus concludes, “Darling” recalls the Latin Freestyle-era of Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, as Picardy-Third harmonies lead to an awesome minor-key instrumental breakdown.
“Last Nite” – The Strokes (2001). A seminal track in the annals of Hipsteria, rarely does any moment in pop culture truly meet (or exceed) expectations. In an era before Twitter’s “Music Monday”, the blogorama, or any of the current distribution infrastructures, I found out about The Strokes by the antiquated method of Late Night TV and friendly word-of-mouth. A much-needed shot of rock in the era of Creed, “Last Nite” deserves its own entry, which I would assign to Jay St. Orts if this was a 1940s-style newspaper, and I was the editor (Tom Petty’s “American Girl”, which serves as a precursor, would be included here if a few sixteenth-notes were inverted).
“March of the Pigs” – nine inch nails (1994). Who knew that one could draw more power from this beat by boiling away the last one-eighth? Like a good Old Fashioned, Trent and Co. excise the water, allowing that bourbon to shine. While Reznor is credited for popularizing the industrial side of punk/dance/electro whatever, his true contribution falls closer to the Steve Albini realm. Here’s a test: grab any five random CDs that you purchased in 1993, and randomly select a few tracks. Now do the same thing for 1995. The Downward Spiral sounded like nothing else out there, and on a good car stereo, it was absolutely mesmerizing. That mix of live drums with electronic percussion still blasts through your speakers, and sounds nowhere near as dated as you’d imagine.
“I don’t feel the sickness yet, but it’s in the post. That’s for sure. I’m in the junkie limbo at the moment. Too ill to sleep. Too tired to stay awake, but the sickness is on its way. Sweat, chills, nausea. Pain and craving. A need like nothing else I’ve ever known will soon take hold of me. It’s on its way.”
Part II: The Shite.
“Maneater”– Daryl Hall & John Oates (1982). Blurring the lines between their “news” page and the surprisingly-earnest cultural reviews, The Onion’s AV Club created a timeline of the Hall & Oates “renaissance”. As someone that never lost my fondness for the big hits and their hidden gems (“United State” from the excellent Voices made it to many a mix CD in 2003), I spent many bar-addled eves in 2008 hoping that the Journey rebirth would soon give way to their chart-topping half-mustachioed cohorts. At a recent party, I was elated to see a gaggle of youthful hipsters absolutely lose their shite when “Private Eyes” was thrown in the DJs mix between songs from The Rapture and Curtis Mayfield.
Unfortunately, “Maneater” does not quite compete with other H2O greatness. Before Yacht Rock, (500) Days (of) (Unnecessary) (Parentheticals), and requisite online interviews, Millennials’ knowledge of Hall & Oates emanated from the moment where Butt-Head, observing the video for the aforementioned song, turns to the other side of the couch as says “Hey Beavis…hu huh…are you a…maneater…hu huh…?” Don’t let one of the silliest choruses (would the plural be “chori”?) of all time dissuade you from checking out the rest of Daryl & John’s catalogue, including solo work like Sacred Songs.
“Walking on Sunshine” – Katrina and the Waves. You remember that Jack Black scene in High Fidelity, so no need to add to the legend. Personally, I prefer its use in The Secret of My Success, when Michael J. Fox reached the rare level where an actor had equal credibility as the star of blockbusters and ironically-named darker-themed “indies” (Bright Lights, Big City; Light of Day). Thankfully, this group existed in the 1980s, before the trend of band names that reference catastrophes (John Cougar Concentration Camp, Jon Spencer Spaceshuttle Explosion, etc). “Walking on Sunshine” benefitted from sounding unique and fresh amidst 1985’s surprisingly dark pop landscape (“Careless Whisper” was the top charting song of the year, joined by “Say You, Say Me”, “Separate Lives”, “I Want to Know what Love Is” and “Money for Nothing” rounding out the Top 5, with “We Are The World” at six). Those shiny horns and that relatively-frantic tempo was needed, let me tell you – but after its presence in commercials for everything from TV promos to anti-depressant drugs, if I ever hear this song again, it will still be too soon – even ironically (sorry Patrick Bateman).
“Bad Boy” – Miami Sound Machine featuring Gloria Estefan (1986). As mentioned above, radio listeners could never escape the fusillade of ballads like “At This Moment”, “Always”, anything by Chicago, “Lady in Red”, “The Search Is Over” and other exercises in socialized sadness. Estefan’s Machine grasped for the same ringing cash register with “Anything for You”, joining Huey Lewis and Peter Cetera in this realization: ditch the horn section, drop the tempo to narcotizing levels, and America will make you a star. With few exceptions, the (lack of) rhythm isn’t going to get you anywhere except to sleep.
Outside of “Conga”, the Miami Sound Machine (or MSM, if you prefer factually-challenged Drudge-approved acronyms) were content to plod along the middle of the road by sanding down the more complex and spirited (in other words, the “good”) edges of Afro-Caribbean music. “Bad Boy”, with an occasionally-interesting horn line, and that drumbeat, is as rowdy as they got.
“Part Time Lover” – Stevie Wonder (1985). More High Fidelity references! “Is it better to burn out than to fade awaaaay?” Wow – from “Sir Duke” and “Livin’ for the City” to “I Just Called (To Say) I Love You” and “Part Time Lover”? Ouch! Although that Cosby Show appearance launched random conversational use of “Jam it on the One” or “Rooo-bert”, for no reason, other than a cheap laugh. Why not?
Most American youths know this song from its use on the Grand Theft Auto series of videogames, as Wonder’s artistic downfall serves as the soundtrack for all kinds of ASBO chavery. Some of my distaste for this tune is not Stevie’s fault: many songs from the mid 1980s bring me back to cramped rides in stuffy cars to labyrinthian big-box stores, and this, unfortunately, is one of them.
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl” – Jet. The antipodean rock scene has been hyper fertile the last few decades, but unfortunately (with the exception of Wolfmother) the best groups are unable to crack the US market. Instead of The Living End, The Grates, The Drones, Cut off Your Hands, or Yves Klein Blue, we get these guys. While I’m no intellectual purist when evaluating lyrics, I have to draw the line when the entire ethos of the song is “Hey, girl I just met – You wanna shag? No? What the hell is wrong with you?” I’m not asking my rock stars to be sensitive – hell, there’s only so much Sufjan one person can take – but a rocker can have a Western Australia-sized level of swagger (Nick Cave) without having to cop the persona of a total dick. If you think I’m being harsh, check Pitchfork’s review of their 2006 album, Shine On.
One credit I will offer to Jet – these guys are so cocky that their breakthrough hit dares to bite from one of the most litigious bands ever – just ask Richard Ashcroft of the Verve. The Rolling Stones are pretty damn protective of their catalogue, although they’ve yet to unleash the Kraken on “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” and its direct lifting of the guitar solo in “Sympathy for the Devil” for its vocal melody in the chorus. (Mick, Keef & Co. – consider that a freebie).