Songs that haven’t worn out yet
Across all the records I’ve got (not that many, to be honest) there are a handful of songs that just never seem to wear out their welcome. Most you need to be in the mood for, or tire of; I find this does not happen with these.
‘Faster’ by the Manic Street Preachers. This comes off their remarkable third album, The Holy Bible, which is a weird combination of the brilliant and the morbid. Much of the album is brilliant; the music is compelling, and here and there the lyrics (mostly by Richard Edwards) are also. ‘4st 7lb’ is anorexia seen from the inside, and rings as true as great poetry (not that I would really know, I hasten to add, about either poetry or anorexia). The only real weakness is a slight air of teenager-y angst that hangs over it — the fascination with the mythologically dreadful Third Reich being the most obvious. ‘Faster’ itself namechecks Plath, Pinter, Mailer and Miller, but one suspects Plath might be the key name there. ‘Faster’ might be a reference to being one who fasts (does not eat), but the most straightforward interpretation is that it is about how stupid and slow and wrong the world seems (no, not ‘seems’ — is) when your head is filled with ideas that no one gets, and when you are possessed by a clarity of vision that screams at you about how boring and prosaic and pointless so many lives and value systems are. If that sounds heavy, it is. The song itself is the quickest four minutes in rock — it seems much shorter — and is a relentless rush of guitars and drums and yelled vocals (though few can yell and sing at the same time as effectively as James Dean Bradfield), with a solo that I read somewhere was developed more as a pattern of moving fingers than as a series of notes.
‘Paint It, Black’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ by the Rolling Stones. The Stones are so old and so much part of pop culture and even history now that the music seems forgotten sometimes. These two songs share a sense of menace that is palpable, and lack the lazy lyrics of so much of the Stones’ post-60s work. Indeed, I would argue that even by ’69 they were slipping into formula that has held them back ever since; the ‘dirty, sexy, whorehouse’ kind of vibe you get on ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was already worn out by the massively over-rated ‘Brown Sugar’ only two years later, let alone on the endless churning rockers on the likes of Voodoo Lounge. But anyway. These two songs really show what the Stones could do. The first was in their original phase with Jones the multi-instrumentalist helping them in their attempts to keep up with the Beatles — after all, George Harrison and ‘Norwegian Wood’ provided the impetus for Jones to pick up the sitar. The second comes off Let It Bleed, where Keith played most of the lead guitar, and it epitomises the second phase of the band, when they in a way retrenched back to a sound closer to the blues they had started with, but this had not yet become formulaic. The guest vocal by Merry Clayton is electrifying, with the crack in her voice, like the best use of feedback, technically wrong but so perfect to the moment, something that epitomises the idea of rock and roll being about how it feels not whether you’re hitting the right notes.
‘Some Fantastic Place’ by Squeeze. I love Squeeze, but hitting you emotionally is not what they do. You walk away from a Squeeze song humming a tune and smiling at the clever lyrics and tasteful guitar work, but, to be honest, not moved as such. I think it is a combination of something about Tilbrook’s tenor (too sunny?) and something about Difford’s lyrics — they are too well observed, too carefully turned (well, not for me, but I have no romance in my soul, I’m happy with clever lyrics and don’t mind clever clever). There is too much evidence of the storyteller and it gets in the way of the feel. So many truly stupid lyrics seem to get really popular (‘Anything I Do, I Do it for You’ is a long-standing example), and I suspect it is because they might be stupid but they have a sort of clichéd earnestness that connects with an audience. Some bloke wailing about how his baby left him and he feels so baaaad might have been done 1000 times (or 100,000 times) before, but at least he sounds like he means it straight from the heart and did not spend eight hours carefully composing each line of his lament. This song has great lines and tunes and a tasteful solo and a choir. And it also has the emotional resonance. It is from late in Squeeze’s career (in albums if not in time) and the album itself is weak — I would unhesitatingly recommend you go listen to The Holy Bible or Let It Bleed, but there’s no much need to seek out the album (of the same title) that this song comes from.