The third album by Aldous Harding, New Zealand’s woman of a thousand voices, is called Designer. Its sleeve represents the title vertically – white on matt black, in a form that immediately recalls the pulsar signal on Joy Division’s classic 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. Like Joy Division, Harding’s name is missing.
On the video for the album’s single, The Barrel, the viewer is led through a tube of drapes to find Harding, in black with a white ruff around her neck and a very tall straw hat. She looks straight down the camera lens – until the hat is pulled down to cover her entire head. Later, she dances in a blue mask, and by the end of the song, in her underwear.
It’s surely the strangest, most disconcerting clip we’ll see or hear this year, full of jarring lyrics that the sparse, eerie music highlights. You can make of it what you want. It’s just Harding being Harding, albeit Aldous (her stage name) rather than Hannah (her real one): a born performer, who either compels or repels listeners by virtue of her sheer otherness.
On a Skype call from New Zealand, a conversation that goes for well longer than the allotted time is filled with long pauses, odd digressions and elliptical observations as she tries to explain her art. “I’m not really trying to do anything, you know, they’re just ideas,” she says. “I can only follow these ideas and the imagery around the choices I make.”
Harding is artfully deflecting the possibility that Designer is especially designed. The first songs that came to her, she says, happened while she was on the road, touring her second album Party – the album which elevated her from a Kiwi curiosity to a cult star, praised by, among others, a one-time New Zealand DJ called Jacinda Ardern.
Those songs, she says, were darker than the ones she wrote at home. “I’m unaware of how much of it is conscious,” she says. “Maybe it was a subconscious strive for balance, which is all I feel like I’m ever trying to do. But even that balance is invisible to me; I couldn’t tell you exactly what that looks like. And if I did, it would be incredibly boring for both of us.”
And she quotes Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Harding is no ingenue, though. Growing up, her mother worked in the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, at the bottom of South Island. “I remember sitting in the dingy old dressing room and watching my Snow White video while she was rehearsing … She did clown work, and she’s a puppeteer. So I know how to work a space, which is all my job is, really.”
If you’ve never seen Harding work that space, look up her rendition of Horizon on Later… With Jools Holland, from 2017. It’s a stark piano ballad of just a few widely spaced chords, played by Harding’s producer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey. Harding sings it perfectly, but it’s the eye-popping theatricality of her performance that lingers.
The connection to Parish came about through both bravura and chance: Melbourne songwriter Laura Jean suggested he might like to work with her; Harding inquired; Parish said yes. “I’m not much of a fan-girl,” Harding says. “Of course, it felt amazing. But at the same time, I didn’t grow up desperate to meet these people or work with these people.
“I remember going, oh, great. That’s positive. But I didn’t punch the air or anything.”
Designer’s nine songs are probably Harding’s most focused set yet – or most balanced, as she suggests. But it’s still an enigma wrapped in a riddle, as she deploys, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, different voices from song to song. Trying to pin her down, on record or in conversation, is like chasing rainbows.
“I guess they’re characters,” she says of those voices. But they’re all her. “It’s an instrument, you know – people change the settings on their guitar, depending on where they want to take you, or take themselves. That’s what they’re there for, and because I am a theatrical, diverse person I don’t see any harm in that, in embracing all of those parts.”
“I guess that’s kind of what Designer is about … I knew what people would do with that word. We all know what that word means.” She loses the thread, thinking through what she’d do with that word herself. “Maybe I was going for a combination of, this is something I’ve worked really hard on, you know, in my head, for you to understand or to feel.”
Whether you enjoy what Harding does or not maybe depends on how comfortable you are with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in her work, and her. “That’s how I feel a lot of the time, because like a lot of people, I am a lot of different things at once. And sometimes it’s hard to understand yourself, or accept yourself and whatever state you’re in.
Does she enjoy unsettling an audience? “I enjoy doing the thing that I find interesting really well,” she says, suddenly sounding very uncomfortable herself. “Segments of my generation seem to have an issue with admitting they’ve been affected [by something], you know, they’ve [got their] hands in their pockets.
“Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m not somebody who could necessarily hold your interest in any other way. I don’t know a lot about art and music culture. And I am a little shy, and I like that I am who I am, and I can get up there and do something interesting, knowing that the person up there is not necessarily the person you would meet, and how nice that is.”
First published in The Age (Shortlist), 26 April 2019
Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.
Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:
“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.
The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?
Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?
No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.
Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.
Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.
Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.
Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?
I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.
Brest is a naval port on the north-west coast of France which was largely rebuilt after being blown to bits by the British in World War II. It’s cold and wet. Apparently it rains about 200 days a year here. I’m tempted to use that for an explanation for the depressed-looking nature of the place, but that would have a lot more to do with prevailing economic conditions.
It’s two days before the general election, and times are tough. The population is waiting for Sarkozy like Australians once famously waited for Paul Keating: with baseball bats. “Under Sarkozy, one million out of work,” one sad-looking fellow tells me, baulking at the prices on our merchandise. “When your tour over, we will have new president.”
The band’s just played another crazed show in a beautiful room under a hotel called La Vauban. Pity there weren’t many more than 30 or 40 there to see it, in a room that you could comfortably fit 300 into, thanks to a band competition across town that sucked away most of the town’s eligible punters for the night.
Most of the audience were fellow musicians: the guys from Head On, fronted by Beast Records’ inimitable Seb, and Ultra Bullitt, whose singer/bass player extraordinaire Erwen La Roux has put on tonight’s show. He’s printed 5000 flyers, 500 posters, and lost money, but he doesn’t care. “Je ne regrette rien,” he says.
Ben Salter – who’s been in our van since Paris – opened, mostly thanks to the generosity of everyone else who slotted him in to play at the last minute, after Andy B’s promise that “his voice will bring them in off the street”.
“Yeah, to complain,” quips Ben.
Of course, Ben has the sort of voice that will stop a room, and that once routinely stopped passing traffic during his busking days on the Queen Street Mall at home in Brisbane. There’s barely a paying punter in the room but everyone else watches, transfixed. He does a set of his own songs – mostly from his last solo release The Cat – before finishing with covers of the Stooges’ Gimme Danger and the Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, adding a diehard rock & roller’s edge to his own songs.
It feels like a very good audition for his overseas sojourn, which he’s doing out of a small suitcase. Have guitar; will travel. Ben’s dad is a Vietnam veteran, and once, marching in an Anzac Day parade with him, he found himself explaining to some his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He saw them screwing up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; to comprehend the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, genuinely trying to be helpful.
Ben tried in vain to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about as an artist. Andy nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis.”
Some things can’t be rationally explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do because they love it and because, more crucially, they have to; something inside them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience to know what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
Ben’s made some fine albums, but I have a feeling this trip will be the real making of him.
THE cold, the rain and the constant balm of alcohol are catching up with me. I haven’t been able to wash any clothes – it feels like it’d be easier to find crack than a Laundromat – and all I want in the world are dry shoes and socks.
Ben had already noted my decline the previous day. “You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” he’d said. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I was starting to sail close to the edge, even if I didn’t understand quite what he meant at the time. “It’s just generalised anxiety, existential dread,” he explained cheerfully when I asked him later. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appeared at that point, having slipped off on his own to find a kip, eventually settling for a park bench, or it might have been someone’s front yard. Ben quickly makes an exception.
“See, The Fear just bounces off the Maori,” Ben says. “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
I try to deal with The Fear by having an alcohol-free day, something that usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone who can happily not drink for a couple of weeks, but isn’t so easy when you spend all day surrounded by pissheads and the grog, including beautiful French wine, is free.
“Are we making it harder for you by drinking?” Stacey asks, as she catches me gazing longingly at her glass of red before grabbing another bottle of water. Richie, at this point, is clutching a cigarette in one set of fingers, a joint in the other and clasping a beer in between.
“No,” I say desperately. “I’m making it harder for myself by continuing to drink and I need a night off. It’s just the hanging around in bars that kills me.”
My old friend Simon McKenzie – who gave me my start in music writing nearly 20 years ago when he was editing Brisbane’s free street weekly Time Off – has also joined us from Oslo, where he now edits an oil and gas industry bible. He remembers a journalist who, around the mid-1990s, had asked Charlie Watts how it felt to have been in the Rolling Stones for 30 years.
Watts’ reply was as laconic as his approach to playing drums. “It doesn’t feel like 30 years,” he replied. “More like five years of actually being in a band. The other 25 years was spent waiting. Just fucking around.”
AFTER all that fucking around, the show is a blinder. HITS are leaping from peak to peak, scaling heights I didn’t know they were capable of. The band throw every shape in the book – Richie hurling himself bodily at the mike stand, Iggy Pop style, before tossing it away – and that’s before the gig even begins.
Later he’s climbing up the lighting scaffolding at the side of the stage while Stackers kneels before her amplifier as if it were an altar during Bitter And Twisted, drawing wails of anguish from its electronic entrails. She repeats the trick during Lost In The Somme, which finally came out the night before in Rennes. It worked, big time, and now it’s here to stay.
The band can’t refuse encores by now and the show stopper, again, is Shadowplay, the Joy Division classic that draws cries of recognition from the audience from its opening rumble of bass.
But it’s just a warm-up for the next night, in Lorient. Afterwards, Richie is unusually subdued. “Tomorrow night is probably the most important night of the tour,” he says, adding meaningfully, “So if you could just bear that in mind as you could go through your day…”
“No,” Stacey replies nervously. “I don’t want to bear that in mind at all.”
It was Stackers who got us out of trouble. I’d tried to gather everyone together and was talking about getting a cab back to the Crown to get our passports quickly enough to make the return journey to Pacific Parc so we could get paid before the place shut. Hey, we’d lose out on cab fares, but 350 Euro were at stake. And Bone seemed pretty adamant that there was no other way.
Stackers was having none of it. “There’s always a way,” she said quietly. She and Gregor are the only ones to have brought their passports to the gig. There’s also a friend of the band, an ex-Brisbane girl called Jules now living in Denmark, who’s joined the band for the gig, and she has her passport too. Stackers marches back to the mixing desk with them and charms Bone into filling out the paperwork as if the three of them had been the band that night.
It was nearly 3am by the time we’re finally free to go, and by then the elation of the first gig of the tour is wearing off. It’s damp and cold and we’re lugging not only all our gear but a large cardboard box of 100 T-shirts. We set out in the opposite direction to that by which we came, after Tamara spies a small bridge 100 metres away that will get us back over the canal to the main road in what we hope will be half the time.
But the bridge isn’t a pedestrian bridge – it’s actually got a drawbridge at the end blocking us. A few nimble punters are trying to pick their way across and around the drawbridge – there are enough places along the edge of the structure to put your feet, at least if you have the grip of a mountain goat – and Tammy is briefly keen to join them until we point out that while she might make it across, her Mosrite would most likely end up in the canal.
Putting her guitar’s safety before her own, Tammy reluctantly follows us another several hundred metres to the next proper bridge. I’m about to collapse under the box of T-shirts – I briefly have a vision of John Cleese buried under the boulder in the stoning scene of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, arms and legs protruding – and for the rest of the way Tammy and I share the load, walking like crabs with the box between us.
Once we’re finally over the bridge it’s time to find a cab for seven people (including Jules) plus gear. That proves a predictably hard ask in the small hours of a Saturday morning in Amsterdam, so we end up flagging down two vehicles. Unfortunately the cabs aren’t allowed into the red-light district between 8pm and 7am, when it essentially turns into a giant shopping mall for sex-mad tourists, so we’re forced to walk some more.
Inevitably we end up taking a wrong turn and find ourselves further from our destination than from where we started. Andy pulls out his Android and lets his GPS do the work. We set out back on the correct path, except for Gregor and Richie. Gregor is particularly adamant we’re going the wrong way, so we let them struggle on with the cardboard box.
Once we’re safely back at the Crown, Tammy immediately starts to worry about Richie and Gregor and plunges back out into the night. I start worrying about Tammy wandering around the district and chase after her, past the writhing girls in windows and gangs of sex tourists who point and stare and haggle over prices. We quickly find Richie and Gregor, Richie staggering under the weight of the box. We take it off him and once again, like a pair of drunken crabs, we lurch our way back to the hotel.
It’s four in the morning before anyone gets to bed.
WE’RE up at seven. All six of us need to have showers and be ready in time to make it to Central Station for the train trip to Lille, which leaves at 9.45am. To my surprise, the operation all runs with uncharacteristically military precision and everyone’s showered and ready by half-eight, even if they still feel half dead. “Well done, band,” I say. “Speed and efficiency.”
It’s pouring rain, though, which is a problem, considering the gear – it’s too far to walk with it to Central, and too short for any self-respecting Amsterdam cabbie to bother with. I remember Stackers’ resolve in the face of adversity the night before – “there’s always a way” – and make for the station myself. For getting soaked to the skin, I’m rewarded when I spot a seven-seater cab on the rank which charges 25 Euro to drive me back to the hotel, pick up the band and get us to the station. Cab whisperer is added to my job description.
Today we play our first gig in France – we’ve got a five-hour journey to Lille ahead of us, with a change at Antwerp in Belgium. We’ve got a 45-minute wait at the platform, which is devoid of any seating, cold, wet and hungry. Richie, Gregor and I find a shop and return with some fruit and croissants and coffee. Then I realise I’ve still got some hash that I bought from the Trinity, and not wanting to waste it before we cross the border, we roll up – or should I say, Richie does, since I still don’t trust myself to roll my own.
Gregor asks for the address of my blog. He says he wants to send it to his wife Renée, so she can keep track of our adventures. I give it to him but advise him not to read it until we get back, since I don’t want the band to get self-conscious.
“Me, Staffo? Self-conscious?” It’s true – Gregor is the least self-conscious person I’ve ever met.
There is one exception, though. Gregor has trouble when it comes to number twos – specifically he won’t, or can’t defecate in public toilets, particularly on planes, where queues of passengers are likely to form. He likes to take his time. “Well, shitting is sort of a personal thing, isn’t it?” he reasons. “I like to be in a familiar environment, where I know I won’t be disturbed.”
It’s the same for the train to Lille. “I’ll wait,” he says cheerfully. “I want to be the first of us to shit on France.”
“Give them the merde,” Stackers says.
He has no problem peeing, though, having been done for public urination back home. HITS had done a gig at the Beetle Bar on Upper Roma Street, and Gregor, who was nicely soused, had wandered out of the venue and down the road towards the train station. Spying a large potted plant, he relieved himself – right outside Brisbane’s Gestapo-like police headquarters. A cop appeared right as Gregor was doing up his fly. Busting, busting, busted.
“WOULDN’T it be good to own your own train,” Andy says, as we pass into Belgium. “You could deck it out with a big double bed and just curl up and go to sleep.” Most of us have crashed out at this point.”
“That’s very rock & roll,” I say. “Why own a Lear Jet when you can go by train?”
“Yeah. You could ride into town in full dictatorial style. Whole timetables would be delayed when Andy B comes to town…”
I ask Andy whom he would choose if he could be anyone in human history. I figure he might have been a Roman Emperor in a past life. “Nah,” he says. “I prefer Mao.”
The change at Antwerp is a trial – we find ourselves holding up a different kind of queue as we try to exit the train, as we try to safely escort out all our gear. For the next change, at a place called Kortrijk, we’re more organised, sitting together near a cabin exit, and we start getting our stuff ready to go before the train stops. We’re all off in good time, with a 10-minute wait until the next train.
But the train we’ve just exited stays where it is, until we realise that it’s the same one we need to be on to continue to Lille. We lug our gear back on board all over again. For the first time, the thought occurs to me that I might not actually wish to do this again.
I ONLY speak a few words of French, but knowing even just the basic pleasantries will get you a long way, at least as long as you’re polite. It’s harder, though, in the provinces than in Paris, where most French speak about as much English as I speak French. That can leave you with nothing but pleasantries to exchange. “Bonjour! Excusez-moi, parlez-vous Anglais?” “Non, m’sieur.”“Ah, oui. Pardon! Au-revoir.” “Au-revoir.”
There are no maxi taxis on the rank at Lille station, so we’re again forced to use two, the driver of one of which seems to have just the one word of English in his arsenal: “Bonjour! Pardon, parlez-vous Anglais?” “Pitiful.” Thankfully, Andy speaks respectable French – it was another of his university majors – and the other cabbie speaks better English, so we’re able to commandeer our way to tonight’s venue, L’Imposture, in a rather run-down part of the city.
There’s no one there, which is not surprising, since it’s not much past three in the afternoon. We peer in the window and I swear, it makes Brisbane’s Ric’s, which can comfortably squeeze about 80 bodies into the front room, look like Madison Square Garden. We stand outside with our gear while Tamara makes a phone call. It’s not long before a van appears and a willowy, smiling lady dressed in black appears, closely followed by fellow who, if a biopic of the Clash were ever made, would make a great Joe Strummer.
Jenny and Malik run the best rock & roll club in Lille and are our hosts for this evening.
Jenny tells us the club’s owner, Katrina, is out of town for the weekend, and we’re welcome to the run of her apartment, a narrow three-storey terrace. They’re so incredibly kind that Tamara is momentarily close to tears. “Our personal comforts are a great displeasure for some people,” she says. “To them we’re full of inconvenient needs and unfulfillable wants. We’re valuable for 40 minutes, on stage. We’re not people, we’re a band, that’s what’s happened.”
Jenny and Malik treat us like old friends. We dump our gear at the apartment, rest for a few hours then return the few blocks to L’Imposture, where Malik has made a mean chicken and vegetable stew and lets us drink to our heart’s content. The band hasn’t had a drink all day to this point.
Slowly, the venue begins to fill with Lille’s tiny contingent of rock & roll degenerates. We’d though it would be an early show, but there’s a support band playing called Jimi Was Gain, and they’re wonderful – a two-piece guitar/drums setup whose leader owns a Rickenbacker that looks more like a hotrod. He plays it like one, too; it’s all white-hot ’60s-style garage, with a tasty slew of originals alongside classic nuggets like Dirty Water, Psychotic Reaction and the best version of Surfin’ Bird I’ve ever heard this side of the Ramones.
Suddenly, it’s looking like a really bad day’s about to turn into a really good night. “There’s no bad days on tour, Staffo,” Stackers reminds me. “You could be at home driving cabs, you know.” I grin.
I’m reminded that it doesn’t matter how small a venue is; if it’s full, you might as well be playing Madison Square Garden after all. Only a handful of people here will have heard HITS’ album – the same as last night’s show at the much bigger Pacific Parc – but everyone in the room who hasn’t wants to be here anyway, on the strength of word of mouth, much of it spread by Malik and Jenny themselves. It’s a Saturday night, and everyone wants to rock out.
Richie’s fired up. He wants to hit the unsuspecting crowd with more of the new songs tonight. The band tears out of the blocks with Loose Cannons, then Smash Hits, then G-Banger, none of them yet available, and although Tammy’s Mosrite’s not loud enough and Stacey’s guitar keeps going out of tune, the vibe is there and the crowd is into it.
By Take Your Pills, the band’s on fire – Stacey’s bent at the knees, pumping out the rhythm furiously. She’s the most reserved member of the band, and her body language is a good indication of when a gig’s going well. Then the band plays its trump card. Bitter And Twisted is a new song – this is only the third time it’s been played live – and it’s a masterpiece, reminiscent of the slow, druggy menace of the Stooges’ I’m Sick Of You.
The band rips into a cover of I Need A Million, an obscure track by New York’s great, unheralded Laughing Dogs, and although probably no one recognises it, the crowd responds instantly to its irresistible surge of energy. There’s no question they know Joy Division’s Shadowplay, though: 40 French go mad. It’s a great show.
Later it’s just a long party. Drinks flow freely. Tamara scores some extremely smelly cheese, soon to be known as the Cheese of Death as it permeates our van.
“Let’s get busted for trying to smuggle cheese into Australia,” Richie says.
“We could put it up our arse in a condom,” Andy says. “At the beginning of the tour you’ll be scoring cheese. By the middle, you’ll have a dangerous habit. By the end you’ll be mainlining griere into your neck.”
Gregor caps the night by doing a haka. It’s a tour highlight. Richie thinks maybe he should start opening shows with it.
I have two records sitting at the base of my stereo at the moment, both purchased last week. One is the Feelies’ new album Here Before, which I have been giving a severe flogging. The other is a lovely, near-mint original American pressing of Lou Reed’s Berlin, which so far I have been too scared to play.
Here Before is the first Feelies record for close to 20 years, and it’s as though they’ve never been away. There’s no great advance on the last three albums that the band recorded in the late ’80s and early ’90s, all of which are more relaxed, pastoral affairs than the band’s brilliant but twitchy 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. (That record opened with a song called The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, which was a pretty apt description of the four of them, and the music they made together.)
Looking around for some information about Here Before, I came across this review, and I was struck by the following quote by writer Jordan Cronk, which sums up the record and my feelings towards it perfectly: “Here Before could have come out in 1987 or 2027 and my feelings about it would be more or less the same: this is a good album with a lot of easy-going songs that sound pretty much the same.”
I love this. Rock critics are like peacocks at the best of times, so it’s refreshing to read a review that eschews preening and instead gets right to the nub of things in a plain manner. He’s right: Here Before is a very easy listen, and many of the songs do sound, frankly, interchangeable. They do, however, consistently tingle the nerve endings in a pleasing manner. But when did I start becoming so satisfied with that?
Lou Reed is one of the Feelies’ obvious heroes – many of their songs recall the more mellow moments of the Velvet Underground, such as Some Kinda Love, or when they’re in a more energetic mood What Goes On (which they’ve covered).
I suspect, though, they never spent much time with Berlin, which is quite possibly the most depressing album ever made. It’s even more depressing than Joy Division’s awesomely bleak Closer, a reissue of which I also bought recently. Closer is an incredibly moving, magisterial piece of work, but it’s in no danger of being overplayed, because I never fail to end up feeling worse after listening to it. (As opposed to, say, the Ramones, who always leave me feeling better, regardless of how up or down I’m feeling on any given day.)
Berlin, though, leaves Closer for dead. It hits its peak of emotional devastation on The Kids, in which authorities are sent to remove the children of their speed-freak mother Caroline, the album’s central character. The song plays out – for several, awful minutes – to what sounds like a live recording of their screams and wails: “Mommy!” It’s so primal and genuinely upsetting that, on hearing this song playing in a record store a while back, I actually had to flee.
So, anyway, it’s been sitting in front of my stereo, daring me to play it. I will get around to it, perhaps after Christmas, but before the New Year. Who would want to kick off 2012 in such a fashion? Um, I probably won’t play it while my fiancée is around, either.
And after I’ve played it, it will be filed where it belongs, right after Transformer, Reed’s peppy, bitchy, completely wonderful take on New York’s ’70s drag scene. I’ll probably play that record, which is one of my favourites, another 20 times or more before returning to Berlin.
About eight years ago, I read Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs. I hated it. I hated its smug, tossed-off nature; the conceit that 31 examples of Nick Hornby’s self-absorption made for a meaningful exercise in criticism. But most of all, I hated it for an essay comparing Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop to Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough.
In Hornby’s view, rock critics are a pretty sheltered lot. It is, he points out, a young person’s game, and young people tend not to have had a lot of life experience. Fancying themselves as romantic poets, they’re drawn to the dark side, and thus prone to over-excitement when art is calculated to shock and awe, as Frankie Teardrop (and Berlin) undoubtedly is.
I might have accepted this if Hornby had been honest or at least self-deprecating enough to have included a younger version of himself in this monstrous over-generalisation. Instead he proclaimed to need no convincing that life could be scary. He was 44; his son had been diagnosed with autism; his friends were starting to die; and he never knew when a terrorist might invade his own home and blow up his whole family.
“It is important that we are occasionally, perhaps even frequently, depressed by books, challenged by films, shocked by paintings, maybe even disturbed by music,” he writes in conclusion. “But do they have to do these things all the time? Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please? Just every now and then, when we’ve had a really shitty day? I need somewhere to run to, now more than ever, and songs like Ain’t That Enough is where I run.”
I mean, please, my 32-year-old self thought. Cry me a river, why don’t you, or just have a good hot cup of HTFU.
Now I’m 40. I have a mother with Alzheimer’s Disease. But also (and this is perhaps more important) I’m engaged, in love, my heart is completely full; it’s no longer nine parts water, one part sand. And Berlin’s still sitting there, unplayed. I’m starting to understand how Hornby felt.