singles by choice
(albums when it's necessary)
3 April 2019
(listening with headphones)Avid Acutus
Funk F·XRII
Benz Micro LP-S
Linn Kilmax DS (Renew)
TEAD Mastergroove Mk 2
TEAD Vibe Phoenix / Pulse 2
Luxman P-1u
Sennheiser HD800

I think I may have finally reached that point where I’m too old for new music. Every Tuesday I look at the new release list, and I don’t know what anything is.

When a man is in his mid-forties, what should be his relationship to music? Some people aren’t much interested in it, so they’re easy. Most people, it seems to me, freeze musical time at some point, and forever listen to whatever was big when music mattered to them most. So they forever bang on about the Beatles, or Joy Division, or baggy or britpop or whatever guff just happened to coincide with their glory days. I don’t want to be that. The next option is that you keep on keeping on, but there’s something not quite right about a middle-aged man obsessing over music made by people less than half his age. I’m not even sure it’s possible to make a deep connection inter-generationally. All art demands some understanding of the cultural context from which it comes, and I’ve no idea what Kids Today are up to. The third option is to get all Mojo and cultivate an interest in dad-rock, authentic delta blues, or jazz. Or maybe classical. I could probably go classical.

For tonight, it’s option one. My second-childhood regressive phase expressed through a load of dirt-cheap collection fillers. What follows is the plundering of a load of Pet Shop Boys 7”s, which two or three other “oh, I’ll have that”s thrown in for seasoning.

First up, a “proper” single. That is, one that wasn’t on an album, unless you count Discography, which you don’t. Except maybe you have to, because Discography was one of those evil greatest hits albums which featured a couple of new songs, forcing Real Fans to buy it.

Was it Worth It? has the kind of “slight second” quality that those greatest hits interlopers always have. It’s not objectively bad, but alongside actual Greatest Hits, it doesn’t quite stand up. Here, in the isolated context of the Proper Single, it’s okay. It belongs to the Very era: polished, triple-A grade NYC disco. Good, but not good enough to be on Very. A jumped-up b-side.

The actual b-side, Miserabilsm, is great. Produced with Harald Faltermyer, presumably as part of the Behaviour sessions, it has the lush night time feel of that album. It sounds beautiful, with bubbling analogue bass line, dissonant stabby break, hushed, close-miked vocals, and an odd siren thing that sounds a bit like the noise the phone makes when you don’t hang up properly. There’s even a vocoder, which isn’t my bag but might be yours. Wasn’t Miserabalism supposed to be the working title for Behaviour?. They should have kept it.

3

The best love songs aren’t the kind of thing Steve Wright plays on Sunday Love Songs: sappy ballads leadenly labelling gestures, acts, or feelings. They’re the ones that capture the sensation of being in love. I’m thinking All Summer Long, Don’t Falter, or much of Camera Obscura’s back catalogue. Love songs for people who understand that romance happens in moments; in touches, looks, and tiny kindnesses rather than in engagement rings presented under the Eiffel Tower. On Instagram.

So what we get here is the light-headed rush of falling in love, in all its blind, silly, infatuated glory. Even if “it won’t last beyond breakfast” it’s a thing to be celebrated.

This is a slightly different version to the one on the album. That’s great, because just putting the exact album track out should be a crime (especially if you’ve already release the LP). It’s not massively different though, and the Go West style false ending doesn’t add a huge amount, and we’ve already had it tonight in Was it Worth It?

The ‘b’, Too Many People, is a meditation on transactional analysis. That’s the posh name for how you behave differently with your friends to with your parents. Introvert or extrovert? Intellectual or naive simpleton? We’re all everything, and I’d hoped that with both feet in the 21st century we would have walked away from labelled boxes. But it isn’t going that way. We seem, collectively, to wish to make more and more boxes, jealously guarding our own whilst denigrating or appropriating the traits of others. It’s fine to just be you. You don’t need to label what you think “you” might be, and if you do, lots of other people will take umbrage at what they see as affectation or a sense of self-importance.

Whilst I’m at it, there are Too Many People. We’ll be forced to face up to that at some point.

5

Obviously there can’t be an objectively best record. But it there could, it would be this.

Normally it’s a sure sign a band is rubbish when their best song is a cover, but Always on My Mind pushes the edge of what a cover version is.

I’ll grant you that the words and melody, are somewhat similar to the previous versions, but that’s it. No other version has the drive, the relentless, chugging bass, or the “da da da da da da” chord thing that make the record. They don’t have the drum fills, the two note stringy bits, the ascending stabs, the cowbell, they don’t have the train whistle. And it’s all about the train whistle. It’s detailed, focused, and rich, put together like a Swiss watch, but it’s also a rush, over as soon as it starts.

Do I Have To? here buried under layers of surface noise because the record is not in any way worth the 25p I paid for it, harks back, sonically, to Actually, borrowing It Couldn’t Happen Here’s widescreen, low sky atmosphere, and at least a snippet of the melody from King’s Cross. It’s a good one.

5

The sound of my youth. I wasn’t even lost on the high street where the dogs run. I was stuck on a farm. (Though there was a dog.)

Bloody kids today don’t know they’re born. I was 13 when this came out, and I’d grown out of my Beatles, Showaddywaddy and Chas ‘n’ Dave tapes. I’d never heard anything like Disco. It became pretty much the only record I had that I actually liked, and I played the thing to death. I was in love with the sounds as much as anything, and listening now, thirty-three years later, I can all but taste those Fairlights and PPGs. But yes, bloody kids, effortlessly skimming the surface of all music ever made, constant background, distraction from the unmentionable terror of silence. “Try this band.”. “Okay, tried them.”.

The positive side of having access to virtually no music was that I dissected every note of Disco’s nine-minute epics, wringing every drop out of them. I formed relationships to art that I am not able to form now because there is so much art – and crap – screaming out to be consumed. Casual relationships are never fulfilling. You need time. I know every single note of this record, every tonal inflection, the decay on every note, and it’s still exciting.

‘b’ is Paninaro. The Italian Remix version on Disco is on the same plane as Always on My Mind, but this, the original, isn’t quite as good. Firstly, that’s because it’s less than half as long, therefore less than half as magnificent. Second, the “standing at the bottom of an empty septic tank” reverb on the vocals slightly spoils them. It’s still got those epic filter sweeps though, and it’s still got “Armani Armani Ah-Ah Armani”, and it’s still got the interview sample, and it’s still got passion and love, and sex, and money, violence, religion, injustice, and death. In spades. Oh, forget it this record is perfect.

5

I’m not a fan of The Jam. They’re one of those bands (The Cure are another), who I’ve never really got on with, but have made two or three songs that I love. This, for instance. But everyone likes Going Underground, right? You don’t need me to explain it to you, but let’s take a moment to reflect on a time when political self-expression found realization in Going Underground or Start! rather than in going on Twitter to explain that “white people” can’t say “spirit animal”.

The public gets what the public wants, eh? Problem is when half the public wants one thing and the other half wants the opposite. Or when all the public think they want the same thing but actually all want something different. Or when the public gets what they want but shouldn’t have been given.

Though Going Underground is clearly a 5/5 in anyone’s book, the ‘b’ is what I think of as a typical Jam song: boring. So the record as a whole has to make do with a

4

Remember a while ago when old-Etonian David Cameron said he liked The Eton Rifles and Paul Weller said he couldn’t? And when David Cameron said he liked to listen to The Smiths and Johnny Marr said he wasn’t allowed to do that either? What a pair of wallies.

If someone wants to completely miss the point of a lyric because they like the tune, you can’t stop them. Bono says people keep telling him they had One at their wedding, his response being along the lines of “have you actually listened to it?”. Every week on All Request Friday someone stuck on the M5 on their way to Cornwall requests The Road to Hell, completely missing the fact that this only works if you think Cornwall is Hell, which it isn’t. (Though Padstow in August is doing its best.)

You can laugh at these people, if you’re that type, but you can’t apply your own partial censorship. You can say you don’t agree with the politics of a person (but don’t bother, we’re doing okay for that at the moment), but you can’t say “they’re not allowed to like to my song”, because that’s stupid. You’ve put something in the public domain. If David Cameron likes it, or someone misunderstands it, or Westlife cover it, that’s just tough titty toenail.

Nicely pressed record, too. The ferocity of that last chord. Ow. Reminds me of playing snooker on the three-quarter in the Brigg when I was 18. Bottle of dog and a half-pint glass. Happy days.

5

When I was twelve or so I got a tape of Please from a classmate whose brother was a big synthpop fan, and whose parents had a record player and a tape deck. The day I finally got the C90, my mum and dad picked me up from school (I usually got the bus) because we had to go furniture shopping. I clearly remember petulantly mooching round MFI, dying to go home and drop the tape into my Alba midi system. The brother put a load of miscellany on the other side, mostly local bands, people he knew. Some of it was pretty good. But one of the tracks was phenomenally racist. Not the stuff that passes as racism now, but actual, real, proper racism. It was just words to me at that point, and we probably thought it was funny because we knew the words were taboo even if we didn’t really understand why. It’s uncomfortable remembering it now. You learn, don’t you?

Not every change since then has been for the better. Time was when you could try to write from the perspective of someone else and not immediately be accused of cultural appropriation, or of endorsing the viewpoint you were trying to explore. (Recently I read a piece questioning whether Talking Heads would be able to release Remain in Light today, given its strong African influences. I found it interesting, and sad. If the whole point of multiculturality isn’t to cross-pollinate and all enrich each other, what is it?)

This song, (like Shopping), is sung through the mouths of the kind of City people who reamed Britain in the cake in the late 1980s. Even back then enough people took the song at face value, (we’ve been here before tonight haven’t we?) assuming the lyrics advocated the acquisition and importance of wealth rather than highlighting or satirising it. Today, worldviews seem even more simplistic, with judgements made and cast in bronze even quicker.

Is that What it Was? continues the strong tradition of b-sides with question marks, and reminds me of today’s popular phrase “it is what it is”. But less retarded. If ever a song sounded like a b-side, this is it. It’s sparse and under-produced. Something of a makeweight to back an ‘a’ which, though the label mentions “New York City overdubs” sounds to me like a straight lift from the album.

4

When I try to put together a list of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs, Rent is the one I almost forget. It started life (and later got resurrected) as a high-NRG banger, but its melancholy atmosphere is its greatest attraction for me, above its sad, ambiguous lyrics and beautiful melody. It’s all about that missing word. “I love you, you only pay my rent”; or “I love you because you pay my rent”?

I Want a Dog, on the ‘b’, is one of my least favourite Pet Shop Boys songs. It’s the plodder that put me off Introspective in 1989 (I also don’t like It’s Alright.). Here it’s at least shorter, but it still does nothing for me. I don’t like the words. I don’t like dogs. Especially small dogs. They even get the bloody Fairlight dog sample out. Not even a Chris talky bit can save this. Which means, horrifyingly, Rent only gets a

4

Duking it out with It’s a Sin for the most melodramatic thing this, or possibly any, band has ever done. I give the belt to It’s a Sin, because that’s over the top from the lighting strike to the Latin chanting. But when Jealousy starts, you’d never imagine the harps and brass and timpani to come.

The simple bass line and beautiful, gentle chord sequence humbly support a terrific vocal. The trembling openness of the verses subtly switching to the half-spoken, accusative chorus. The vocal gains strength in pace with backing before - boom - that instrumental ending where it all goes nuts. Shame about the fade out, but maybe it was so over the top there was no reasonable way to finish it.

I believe this was one of the first songs they ever wrote. How the heck do you make three full length albums and a shitload of b-sides, and not play this card? Speaks about the “strength in depth” as the football people say.

‘b’ is Losing My Mind. A great version of a great song. I love a bit of Sondheim. I think it’s the same backing track they used for the Liza Minelli version, but it ain’t sung the same.

Good sleeve art, with the look of a man who’s been up all night hating himself. The back tells us we could join the fan club by sending an SAE. Like I didn’t already feel old enough.

4

The story is that that Trevor Horn from out of off of The Buggles, famous for taking six months to make a record, told the band he wanted to make one in an afternoon. So they headed down to his studio with this, put down some tracks, and six months later, it was finished.

I can believe it, because there’s so much happening here that it would take anyone six months to put it together. It doesn’t hit the (prolonged) heights of the eight-minute version on Introspective, but there’s still enough left for a heck of a single. It’s got a different sound to the album version, and isn’t just the edited-down Match of the Day highlights I expected. You’ve still got the bits that matter though. The stop and start in the middle; the Lawrence of Arabia strings; the ridiculous finish; Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. One of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs, in any version, including the one they did for the tour last year.

‘b’ is The Sound of the Atom Splitting. A TB303 acid bassline lost in space; an opera singer forever trying to sing the unsingable; percussion like Mother beating on the door in Twin Peaks. Syncopation. Spoken words that hint at something but tell nothing. I know a lot of fans dislike it, but not me. I think it’s great. Is it corrugated iron they’re hitting? No, it’s the sound of the atom splitting.

5

This came as packaging with some of the other records here. But it’s still a record, and deserves to be treated with respect. It cleaned up quite well.

My mum is a fan of Andy Williams, so I’m at least a little familiar with him, in fact, I know this pretty well, though Elvis’s version is probably more famous.

Can’t Help Falling in Love is one of a long list of songs (Bohemian Rhapsody, Material Girl, Summertime Blues etc etc) which I can’t hear without a chuckle, because of Frank Sidebottom. “Wise men say / they say some very, very wise things / That’s why they’re wise men”. I have a tape of him doing this as a tribute to the marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley (I know, right?) “and Elvis, who couldn’t be there”. Predictably, almost none of the lyrics survive intact. “Take his monkey / but give it back to him / when you’ve finished with the monkey”. But anyway. Andy Williams was a properly lovely singer, and this is a rattling good version of a bona-fide classic. Hey Beavis, I’m bona-fide.

The ‘b’ is new to me. It’s a nice ballad, but a little croony for me. I’m not particularly a fan of crooning. I don’t even like Frank. (Sinatra.)

4

Obviously I can’t write for shit, and sometimes I feel more out of my depth than others. Here I fall hopelessly short. The Bitterest Pill is a record with which I’ve been fascinated from a distance. I’ve always liked it, without ever properly listening to it. Now, laid bare before me by my surgical hi-fi, I find it immediate, yet extremely sophisticated, and trying to dissect it as a piece of songwriting is utterly beyond me. Know when you’re beaten, I say.

‘b’ side Pity Poor Alfie, like all the Jam ‘b’s we’ve had tonight, does nothing for me, even when it bleeds into Fever. As I said up the page, I don’t really like The Jam, I just love three or four of their songs. I think I was hoping to love the ‘b’s as well; to finally “get it”, but I don’t. I haven’t half enjoyed the ‘a’s though.

4

Here we are. The Ur text. How can you have records and not have this one? You’ve heard it a million times, and it never lets you down. It still doesn’t sound like much else. It’s all minor sevenths, atmosphere and seduction, with a handful of shattered glamour chucked in like broken glass. And obviously that bass line.

Genius.

And what the heck does Neil Tennant look like on the sleeve?

On the flip is A Man Could Get Arrested, making a pair of bookends which defines the Pet Shop Boys. Sophistication and melancholy on the one hand; disco stomper on the other. I’ve never been so down with their really dancey stuff (I don’t much care for Relentless, or even Electric, which I know is controversial), and for my money (25p: the record cost me fifty) this isn’t one of the best dancey ones. It’s alright, but it goes on a bit. Playing by the rules, I should take the pretty ordinary ‘b’ into account, but they’re my rules, and it’s my stupid website, and no one will ever read this anyway, and it’s West End Girls and it’s getting a

5

I see Chris Lowe’s point that So Hard breaks the mood of Behaviour and shouldn’t have been on it, but it’s a song I love, and I’m happy to hear it anywhere.

From the cheeky appropriation of the I Feel Love bassline to the don’t-know-what-it-sounds-like brilliant end, via the so-brilliant-it’s-almost-terrible “given up smoking” couplet, So Hard never misses.

On the ‘b’ is It Must be Obvious, which has the atmosphere and sonic depth of all the Behaviour stuff.

This is the sleeve with Chris Lowe eating the apple. He’s wearing a Burberry hat, which reminds me of a chap I used to work with, who’d previously had a contract at Burberry. He was doing operations work for them, on at least a few hundred pounds a day, and they let him have a staff discount. He managed to spend virtually everything he earned on clothes.

I never understood how he did this, until one day I found myself in London, in need of a pair of trousers. (No, I hadn’t shat myself.) It was nearby, so I went to Burberry where an impossibly beautiful woman with an iPad guided me to a digital representation of my ideal trouser. Without her asking, a clearly junior, but similarly beautiful, woman floated up with said trouser draped over her beautiful arm. They were £550. I made my excuses and left.

My eyes aren’t good enough to read the credits on the back of this. It’ll happen to you. It’ll all happen to you.

5

I’m not the Very’s biggest cheerleader, but I love this one. Advancing technology gave the sound a depth and fluidity lacking on the earlier records, and they fully exploited it.

Hey Headmaster what’s the matter with you? I had three headmasters. The first was buried in a rural school because he wasn’t good enough to work at a proper one. Who cares about some arse-end-of-nowhere place with four kids in a year? He was the type who thinks it’s smart to belittle a ten year old. A few years ago I heard he’d had some kind of breakdown, and as I’ve always felt my own was deeply rooted in school, I was pleased. I know that’s awful, but I never said I wasn’t. The next one was an ineffectual thin man in a grey suit, with a grey beard, who I saw maybe twice in three years. The third made a good school into a very bad one through the application of socialist dogma.

The headmaster here doesn’t sound like any of those. He sounds okay. He should go to the reading party. It’ll do him good.

5

It’s (past) bedtime, so we’ll close with a lullaby. My mum used to sing this to me when I was little. My mother, bless her, is no Judith Durham. In the stupid “best singer ever” argument, I probably go Karen Carpenter, but for pure irresistible beauty, Judith Durham is where it’s at. That thing in all Seekers records where the rest of them sing a bar or so, then she cuts in over the top… Ahhhh. And even Autotune can’t hit notes like Judith Durham can.

I listen to this when I feel very sad. Because when Judith sings “somewhere there is sunshine, somewhere there is day”, I always believe her. It’s a lovely, comforting record. It makes me feel sad, perhaps for the loss of the child I was. The first time I played it for my daughter, I couldn’t keep it together.

5