31/01/2019: “Dreams” by Van Halen

For me, Van Halen epitomise the golden age of 80s hard rock. The winning blend of catchy melodies, fast rhythms, Eddie Van Halen’s virtuoso guitar solos, and anthemic lyrics contributes to a legacy of epic hits which rock music doesn’t produce today.

Van Halen was set up by two brothers, Eddie and Alex Van Halen in 1972. It has since had a few line up changes, while remaining a firmly Van Halen family affair!

The context of “Dreams” is the arrival of a new singer, Sammy Hagar, after David Lee Roth left.

The first album with Hagar as frontman is 5150, released in 1986, and in my opinion it’s one of the band’s best. Of course, topping the iconic 1984  and the band’s eponymous debut.

In fairness, it actually went higher than 1984 did in the charts, because that album coincided with Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 

“Dreams” is such a motivational song that it was chosen to close the 2004 Democratic Party convention. With it’s aspiration lyrics and uplifting tune, that’s no surprise.

Eddie Van Halen plays both the awesome keyboard part and the soaring guitar solos, which are two of the highlights of the track. Sammy Hagar is passionate enough, but perhaps doesn’t compare well to David Lee Roth…

The song was released on the 5150 album in 1986, and was the second single from that album.

It might not be particularly profound, but I defy anyone not to admit how catchy this is!

30/01/2019: “Allright” by Armand Van Helden

Armand Van Helden is a DJ who has been influential in the both House and Speed Garage scenes, with some massive hits like the “Spin Spin Sugar” remix, and “Nitelife”.

“Allright” is more of a straight forward House tune, and encapsulates a certain classic style of the early 90s.

It’s sample based, with the bassline taken from “Running Away” by Roy Ayers, and other parts taken from “As” by Stevie Wonder.

That bassline is too good just to use once, in fairness!

The parts of the song come together beautifully, resulting in a loved up stew of grooviness!

It’s one of those that doesn’t so much ask for movement as demands it. The drums pound away relentlessly. In their wake, they lead along a dozy, soulful melody composed only of two or three simple notes, which ring out tantalisingly.

The track was released in 1994 on an E.P. called Armand Van Helden Presents Oldschool Junkies: Allright. 

A heavy jam!

 

29/01/2019: “Stuck In The System” by Joker

Joker has crafted a very distinctive sound within the space of Dubstep and Grime.

Part of the “purple sound” set of mainly Bristol based Dubstep producers, Joker has made music that uses a lot of Nintendo-esque synths, giving it a retro feel, but tends to switch between grime-y beats and more cinematic, epic songs.

He now self releases stuff on his Kapsize label, and consistently puts out big tunes.

“Stuck In The System” is one of Joker’s earlier productions, and is in fact his first official release.

The song juxtaposes a meaty, growling grime bassline with a delectable selection of strings, creating a very expansive track. The snare drum echos emphatically, creating a dubby yet ferocious beat.

There’s a contrast between the sparser “verses” and the rich, thematic “choruses” which bring all the elements together.

The strings are from “Remarkable Things” , part of the 1997 Red Corner film soundtrack by Thomas Newman, although they are heavily edited.

The 2007 Kapsize E.P. on which “Stuck In The System” is released is dedicated to DJ Kapsize; this is also the namesake of Joker’s label.

Marvellous!

28/01/2019: “Southern Man” by Neil Young

Neil Young is actually Canadian. Which in my opinion, gives him a certain moral legitimacy to denounce the racist legacy of Southern America.

When this song was released in 1970, segregation had only been outlawed for 6 years in the Deep South. Even then, it had to be done federally by a northern liberal.

It’s a very charged song, referring to slavery, and inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to write “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to what they saw as a heavy handed attack on the South in general.

A striking line is “don’t forget what your Good Book says”, pointing the hypocrisy of the often deeply religious people who hated black people passionately.

However, there is mutual respect between Young and Skynyrd frontman Van Zant, with each wearing the other’s band t-shirt at points.

As for the music itself, it’s a classic folk rock jam, with a tone ranging from a slow indictment of racism to a screaming guitar solo fest.

The piano chords are particularly effective here, hitting the beat hard.

If you’d like a softer interpretation, Merry Clayton’s 1971 soul cover is very good, and the singing’s a bit better there too!

Notwithstanding that, Neil Young is a more than competent singer, and the point of the song is driven home well.

The song was released on the album After The Gold Rush in 1970, and is co-credited to the band Crazy Horse.

A heavy hitter, definitely.

27/01/2019: “Gabriel (Live Garage Version)” by Roy Davis Jr and Peven Everett

I would consider this song to be one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded.

That might seem like a strange accolade to give a mid 90s Garage song, but it is one of the most unique and lovely songs to come out of electronic music, with its buttery blend of smooth garage sub bass and live instrumentation of trumpets and keyboards provided by Peven Everett, as well as his capable vocals.

The lyrics are about the archangel Gabriel, which explains the reverential vibe.

The drums are not as fast and congested as many garage house songs, with a casual step to them. The trumpets ring out triumphantly, with an instantly recognisable hook.

The track has such a warm feeling, flowing slowly in the way that you might expect melted chocolate to flow out of a mug next to a gently crackling fire, as the wind howls outside.

I’ve probably said this about other songs, but this is 7 minutes of pure hygge. There’s a certain rawness to proceedings, no doubt due to the live nature of this version, with the beats sometimes becoming slightly syncopated, and the notes coming into tension with each other. But this is part of what makes it so nice.

The song was released in 1996 in the U.S., but was probably more success in the U.K. garage scene, which it entered in 1997 via a release on XL recordings.

Truly timeless!

26/01/2019: “Walk On” by Smith & Mighty

Smith & Mighty are a classic Bristol trip-hop duo. Rob Smith from the aforementioned group is now known as RSD and produces heavy dub music.

The group have produced songs for Massive Attack, and were even in the charts.

“Walk On” is very accessible song, with a sweet, soulful vocal part provided by Jackie Jackson and an outrageously catchy bassline.

The song is a cover of the original 1963 R’n’B track by Dionne Warwick, which was written by the famous duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Obviously, that version is a classic, and a very alluring sort of tune.

However, the Smith & Mighty version brings a distinctive dubby Bristol flavour.

The bass pops and hits almost tentatively, giving the song an Electro vibe, in a very danceable style. The song is really a hip hip one, but it is one of those rare songs that transcends genre, time and place.

There’s a piano vamp that adds a bit of complexity to the melody, and a dissonant string sample.

The song was released in 1988 on Three Stripe Records, as a 4 track E.P.

An effortlessly cool track!

 

25/01/2019: “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh

I really do love this song. It’s got such an easy going, nonchalant atmosphere. It’s a cheeky acknowledgement of the bright side of fame, the madness of touring, the ludicrous nature of the sort of wealth rockstars can accrue.

Little lines like “They say I’m lazy but it takes all my time”, and “I go to parties sometimes until four, it’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door” are just so whimsical and carefree, they practically beg you to quit your job and go live on a beach somewhere. If only…

The lyrics are apparently inspired by particular incidences in his life, especially the stuff about breaking hotels, which was a result of spending time with Keith Moon of The Who.  It sort of wryly satirises all that excess.

The song is actually a few songs he had written stitched together. This accounts as to why it seems at times to a be a country tune, sometimes an epic rock power ballad, and sometimes an experimental electronic odyssey.

The verses seem lifted from reggae, which makes perfect sense for the lackadaisical stroll of the song.

The track taken as a whole is a masterpiece, with a densely populated soundscape brimming with excellent musicianship.

The song was released in 1978, first on the soundtrack to the movie “FM”, and then on the album But Seriously Folks… The single version, cut practically in half from 8 minutes to 4, reaching number 12 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

It’s a lot of fun!

24/01/2019: “Jesus Was Way Cool” by King Missile

King Missile don’t seem to take themselves, or anything else, particularly seriously.

A lot of the music they make is essentially rock based, but they are just deeply different.

The lyrics tend to be more in the vein of beat poetry, with a spoken word monologue delivered in a flat tone.

“Jesus Was Way Cool” says that Jesus’ unlimited power was “cool” and that he would of been the greatest at anything he’d ever tried his hand at. Real Jesus would probably not turn “sugar into cocaine” but he could if he wanted, and this is the sort of thing the song riffs off.

The backing is a simple piano part, which is actually a wonderful piece of music on its own. The latter third of the song is the piano by itself, and it’s clear how much impact the piano adds.

The song is very sarcastic, with John Hall’s words practically dripping with a certain laconic humour. He’d had a break with religion as he grew up.

“Jesus Was Way Cool” was released in 1990 on Mystical Shit, and was one of the factors for this avant garde group getting a major label record deal.

One of the music world’s weird little gems!

23/01/2019: “Musical Murder (Dub Version)” by Prince Jammy

The vocal of Musical Murder is done by Banana Man on the actual single, and on the compilation album  King Jammy’s Dancehall Vol. 3: Hard Dancehall Murderer 1985-1989, released in 2017.

The original Banana Man cut was released in 1989, and reissued in 2011. But strangely, the dub version used on the single is actually from “Rock Them One By One” by Eccleston Jarrett, also released in 1989.

King Jammy (or Prince Jammy) was one of the foundational figures of ragga dancehall, which was the style that emerged in the mid-80s that used a lot of digital effects. However, here the music is performed by the Super Power Band. It’s still a reggae track, and although Banana Man’s version is harder, the version is more rootsy, while still being electronic.

The sounds of the dub version are lush and expansive, with a heavy reverb on the skank, and an insistent percussion part that punctuates the gently skipping bassline.

There’s also a very lovely little lick at the start, which doesn’t appear in the rest of the song. However, the skank is one of the more expressive ones, that leads into little riffs by itself.

A fantastic little dub number!

22/01/2019: “Good Thing” by Fine Young Cannibals

 

A song like this occupies a strange place in time. It was made in the 80s, so is already about 30 years old. But it was also made in emulation of an earlier style; it riffs of the late 60s Northern Soul scene.

Weirdly, it was more popular in the U.S. than the native U.K. of the Fine Cannibals. The song reached number 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, but only number 7 on the U.K. Singles Chart.

The reason for the old school soul feeling is that the band played nightclub musicians in the 1987 film “Tin Men”, which was itself set in Baltimore in 1963.

The song has a ska feeling, but a distinctly soul backbone as well. The drums bounce and clap, powering the song forward. The bass is sharp and insistence, staying mainly on the beat.

The piano solo is one of the coolest things about the song, which owes a lot to the presence of Jools Holland, who adds a real touch of class to proceedings.

The song is an energetic, feel good bop. The lyrics are about a lost lover, but it isn’t a sad song at all.

The song was released on the 1989 album The Raw & The Cooked.

Very cool!