Thursday, February 17, 2011

Losing My Religion by REM

watch the original film clip here:

It’s hard to define exactly why this song is so great. How much can a video clip influence our reaction to a song? It was certainly the standout music video of the decade, and remains one of the best clips ever. Like a Hollywood Epic crammed into a few minutes, the song is both majestic in scope and acutely personal, evoking thoughts of loss and failure throughout the ages.

Besides, who can resist a mandolin?

In reading Peter Buck’s liner notes of this song for In Time: The Best Of REM, he said that the band members themselves sometimes do not have a full literal meaning of their songs. They connect with the feel of the song, or the collage of images that the song creates. Sometimes, all that you have is a word, or phrase that triggers an image, which provokes an emotional response in alignment with the feel of the song.

The ambiguous lyrics of Buck and Stipe are often intentional, inviting the listener to explore their own interpretation. Some believe that the song refers to the profound guilt and remorse the singer feels about the disintegration of a relationship due to some untold wrong doing. The phrase ‘losing my religion’ is apparently a saying from the deep south of America, meaning to lose one’s temper, get extremely angry or frustrated, or to feel totally overwhelmed and helpless. This certainly does correspond to the shattered relationship interpretation. However, I still relate to this song in the ‘big-picture’ way.

This is more than a song about one or two people. It is a song of many, of mankind, and our collective relationships. This song speaks to me about loss, regret, failure and its implications for the future on a grand scale. As Humanity splinters and cracks along the forks and cross roads, both discovered and created, this is the soundtrack that accompanies the footage of the wrong path taken. This the tune Judas was humming two thousand years ago when he and Jesus hatched their ambitious plot together. When Einstein ran from The Fat Man and a Little Boy in Manhattan, he was found cowering in the dark, clutching a compass and a violin, and whistling this tune. And in some parallel universe Stephen Hawking screams this song with rage and fury, at the difference between what is, and what could be.

This is monumental defeat on the big stage. Whether you are facing up to the loss of a loved one, or knowing you will never face the one you love, or spending your final moments staring down the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this is the deep sense of loss and remorse over potential unfulfilled. This is the realisation that you have nothing left. You can neither give nor receive. Everything you believed in has been proved not only to be false, but a total sham right from the start.

Losing My Religion is one of those rare songs where everything converges and meshes correctly. A song where the lyrics, the singing, the music, and the visuals are all aligned in perfection. The story is told that Buck purchased a mandolin, which led to the melody, which lent itself to the phrasing of the chorus. Stipe then completed the lyrics in five minutes, a subconscious streaming on paper, and later recorded the vocal performance on the first take. The Indian/Renaissance video clip is visually stunning and is the secret ingredient that brings out the flavour of everything else in the song.

When everything blends so smoothly, and fits so perfectly, well... Perhaps religion has been found.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fourteen Minutes And Fifty Two Seconds Of Fame (Almost)

Recently, I entered a radio contest - 15 Minutes Of Fame, to get my chance to be a DJ. The concept seemed simple enough. The radio station was giving listeners the chance to have their fifteen minutes in the sun playing the music of their choice, with the chance to play something that hadn't been heard for a while.

The contest asked for ten songs - clearly too many, but I guess they wanted to get a feel from the applicants. Most likely it was another way to gauge the demographics of the listener base.

I thought about my selections. No, they wouldn't be a list of my top ten songs, nor just any good songs I haven't heard in a while. They needed to be unified somehow - to make a statement.

My initial list was to tell the Rock story over the journey. There would be Shooting Star by Bad Company, and Rock And Roll Aint Noise Pollution by AC/DC, with It's Only Rock And Roll (But I Like It) by The Rolling Stones followed by Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams, and maybe finishing with My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) by Neil Young.

I rejected this list. It needed to be more succint - fifteen minutes to be exact. And the Rock And Roll list deserved more respect than fifteen minutes anyway. There is at least an hour or two worth of killer tracks that should be honoured - God Gave Rock And Roll To You, It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N Roll), and as they say on the ads, And Many More.

I decided to make it about the personal journey of the listener and not the music, in under fifteen minutes. It's a Classic Rock station, so they're playing everything from the 60's onwards. What better way to convey a love of music, and Rock in particular than from the perspective of teen years through to middle age?

I've been listening to the results of those fortunate enough to be selected, and they are all good songs. The problem is, most of them are already staple songs on the radio playlist. What's wrong with a bit of variety? What's wrong with a bit of exposure to alternative tastes? The other problem is they only take three songs. Three lousy songs, with time for about twenty seconds of intro for each.

I think it is pretty obvious by now that my list has not been successful. Never mind.

1: Thirteen by Big Star
Pop music begins at any age. Rock begins with your teens. Thirteen is a classic rock song, short, sharp, and complete with teenage angst and sexual frustration. You're thirteen, and you think everyone can see right through you. There are so many changes happening, and thoughts through your head, you think you might just explode.

2: Seventeen by The Sex Pistols
You're seventeen. You know everything, but you're not old enough to do them legally. You're bored. You're angry and frustrated. You want it all now. Parents and school didn't teach you much. Music is everything.

3: Eighteen by Alice Cooper
You're eighteen. You're out and about. You're a big shot, living it up. You can drink, drive, and vote. Hell, you can even get shot at or shoot someone. But you know you're not an adult yet, and you have a lot of growing up to do. Music helps you forget about everything for a while.

4: Twenty Eight by Tim Rogers & The Twin Set
(the video IS NOT Tim Rogers - I guess if it was more mainstream there would be a you tube video!)

Now you're twenty eight. You're still young enough to get out, but you have some more responsibility now - the job, the loan, maybe you're even married with a kid. You look forward to getting together with your mates, but it doesn't happen as much as it used to. Your cd and record collection brings back a lot of good memories. You're still young enough to dream of being a rock star. Just.

5: A Pirate Looks At Forty by Jimmy Buffett
Now you're middle aged. Yes, you've made mistakes, but you've lived a good life, too. You have some regrets, but you call them lessons now. Sometimes you shake your head in disbelief at the young folk around you. Sometimes you'd like to grab the 'You' from twenty years ago by collar and say, "Wake up to yourself! Savour every moment. Stop wasting time. Life is way too short." And now you crank up the radio in the car, sitting in the driveway, when one of your favourite old songs come on the radio. Life is different now.

Fourteen Minutes and Fifty Two seconds. Not bad...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Golden Brown by The Stranglers

Golden Brown might be about heroin, a gorgeous black woman...or toast. Take your pick. Quite possibly, it’s about one man’s infatuation with a heroin addicted, dark skinned beauty, who has the munchies for toasted muffins. Whatever meaning it has, it provides us with a perfect counterpoint to the rest of the punk movement, and its remains and offshoots.

Who would have thought the harpsichord could be so cool?

When most of the punks were still moaning about no future, or burning effigies of Margaret Thatcher, The Stranglers turned 180 degrees, and added some musical legitimacy to what had become a fairly predictable and boring movement.

The Stranglers are no strangers to doing things differently. Shunned by some for being musically educated, and shunned by others for being educated in general, they defied the critics, which included a sometimes apathetic music press, and maintained a healthy and respected following well into their fifth decade.

They were there when punk rock’s rocket launched, and rode in its wake. And they survived when that rocket turned out to be a missile and self destructed. The Stranglers had enough variance in their repertoire to be able to walk away relatively unscathed. They are one of those bands that have always been thereabouts. Whilst not leading the charge, they were always in the thick of the battle, and earned their stripes.

With an impressive 16 original albums to their collective name, they have kept themselves in the mix with fans across all continents, which a string of hits, like Peaches, Always The Sun, and Skin Deep. All still get regular airplay some thirty years later, but none so much as Golden Brown. Whether they like it or not, it has become their signature tune. And there is nothing wrong with that.

With numerous line ups, The Stranglers have remained true to the original punk ethos of originality and free spirit. That ethos became lost with the endless repetition of snarling guitar bands with three chords and a pose that pandered to an ever hungry public that devoured anything thrown at it labelled punk, and a music industry increasingly manipulated by fashionistas and consumerism. This is why Golden Brown stands proudly amongst the best punk songs of the period, and holds it’s own with the best rock songs of any period.

Golden Brown works extremely well on many levels. As a simple listening pleasure it is magnificent. It delivers a measured balance of melancholy melody and composition, with a wistful vocal performance. In the tradition of all great songs, its meaning lies buried deliberately between the literal and the metaphorical. For those wanting to dig a bit deeper it yields further riches.

Whether it is about addiction, or obsession, it is that desire for something, or someone, that provides so much joy and pleasure, if only temporary, that you know can only lead to pain and suffering. In the cold light of day, you know you need to stop, and move in another direction. But the heart is the trump card. The heart knows exactly what to say, those sudden persuasive whispers to the subconscious. Emotion rules the day, and the heart chips away, until Logic becomes a true believer, an ally in self deception. That’s the sad truth about obsession. As addiction strangles the life out of the addict, the addict only feels the warm embrace of the object of his desires, his one true love.

Underlying these sinister overtones is incredibly beautiful music. The choice of harpsichord is inspired. The guitar break is understated elegance. It is very seductive and compliments the lyrics perfectly, right through to the hypnotic mantra on the fade out.

This song may not be of much use as you face your own personal struggle, but it is one to savour when you come through the other side. It is a song to reminisce with, safe in the comfort of either victory or defeat.

Won or lost – you have survived.

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