Let the brass bands play

Eclectic Playlist Series 10.4 – April 2023

We’ll launch this month’s mix with one of rock’n’roll’s all-time great singles and then take the usual trip through decades and genres to land, ultimately, in a pretty-much genre-less 21st-century instrumental inspired by the poetry of e.e. cummings. You know, just another run-of-the-mill internet playlist. Stick around for the whole ride and you’ll hear power pop, classic R&B, Americana, some pre-Beatles rock’n’roll from an unexpected source, a couple of generations of indie rock, and maybe something in there qualifying around the edges as classic rock too. There are even a couple of bonafide hit singles in here this time. Note that I have nothing against hits, they just have to be good, not merely popular, and there is no arguing the all-time quality of “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” however familiar (to some) it might be. Head to the widget below the playlist to listen, and head down below the widget if you’re interested in a smattering of background notes about what you’re listening to.

Here’s what you’ll hear:

1. “Going Underground” – The Jam (single, 1980)
2. “Hunter” – Jess Williamson (Time Ain’t Accidental, 2023)
3. “Daphne” – Squeeze (Ridiculous, 1995)
4. “I Just Don’t Understand” – Ann-Margret (On The Way Up, 1962)
5. “I Can’t Stay Long” – Ultravox (Systems of Romance, 1978)
6. “Learn to Say No” – Lydia Loveless (Indestructible Machine, 2011)
7. “Captain” – Shapes of Race Cars (Apocalypse Hurts EP, 2004)
8. “Sing Me a Love Song” – The Glories (single, 1967)
9. “Dorina” – Dada (Puzzle, 1992)
10. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” – Linda Ronstadt (Heart Like a Wheel, 1974)
11. “Holding On” – Body Type (single, 2023)
12. “Heaven” – The Walkmen (Heaven, 2012)
13. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – The Four Tops (single, 1966; Reach Out, 1967)
14. “In a Manner of Speaking” – Martin Gore (Counterfeit EP, 1989)
15. “Come and Hold Me” – Fanny (Fanny, 1970)
16. “Ghost of York” – As Tall As Lions (As Tall As Lions, 2006)
17. “John I Love You” – Sinéad O’Connor (Universal Mother, 1994)
18. “Magnolia Blues” – Adia Victoria (A Southern Gothic, 2021)
19. “You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance” – Bruce Cockburn (Inner City Front, 1981)
20. “the rain is a handsome animal” – Tin Hat (the rain is a handsome animal, 2012)

Smattering of background information:

* Yes I do consider “Going Underground” to be one of rock’s all-time best singles; in my own peculiar world I’d rank it in the top 10 if not top 5. Adding to its powerful charm is the fact that it was a single through and through, never placed on an album (except of course on after-the-fact compilations). The Jam, like the Beatles before them, were inclined to release songs as stand-alone singles, which in retrospect seems at once urgent and romantic. “Going Underground,” released in March 1980, appeared while the trio were at the height of their powers, in the middle of a three-album run of exceptional quality; it went to #1 in the UK and solidified their huge rock-star status there–a condition never close to being realized here in the US. Engaging from the offbeat, staccato intro through to its fading bass note, the song is solidly built musically and confident lyrically, with its signature flip-flop: a pre-chorus that asserts, first, that “the public gets what the public wants” but, the second time, that “the public wants what the public gets.” That’s about as subtle and incisive an indictment of capitalism as you’re going to get in a pop song. Curiously, “Going Underground” was originally intended as the B-side to a song called “Dreams of Children,” but the single apparently got misprinted as a double A side. Radio programmers gravitated to the catchier and more forceful “Going Underground,” as did the UK public.

* No you’re not missing anything: “Heaven” by the Walkmen does not have the word “heaven” in the lyrics. And it’s even the title track to their 2012 album, which turned out to be the band’s last–so far. After a long hiatus the group has reunited for some live performances in New York City. Stay tuned.

* Ridiculous, from 1995, was once upon a time considered a late-career release for the intermittently brilliant British band Squeeze; whoever anticipated that they’d be releasing albums 20-plus years later? (They had three in the 2010s, most recently 2017’s The Knowledge; and in 2022 came an EP with one new song, two re-recorded older songs, and three live recordings.) While not as widely heard as their late-’70s/early-’80s LPs, Ridiculous was a strong effort, with a handful of memorable songs, including this quirky bit of relationship observation. Don’t miss the signature Tilbrook/Difford octave harmonies in the chorus. And while few here in the US, these days, are likely to have any idea who Nana Mouskouri is, the Greek singer (and, at one point, politician) had a hugely successful international career for decades. And for a long stretch there, even people who probably never heard her sing knew her name and her enduring look: the severe, middle-parted dark hair and those large, dark-framed, rectangular eyeglasses. You basically never saw popular singers with glasses back in the day, and mostly still don’t. Leave it to Glenn and Chris to work her so vividly into a song lyric.

* The Glories remain a soul group from the ’60s with an uncommonly small internet footprint. It doesn’t help that their name is rather too generic for search engines; you’re as likely to come up with references to the movie The Glorias and/or a batch of religious literature as anything about this elusive but terrific trio. They can be found neither on Wikipedia nor, for all intents and purposes, on Allmusic. But the compilation Soul Legend that someone or another released in 2011, apparently only digitally, is the place to go to hear pretty much everything the group recorded during their short, commercially negligible, but aesthetically powerful run.

* Dave Gahan gets all sorts of well-deserved credit for the deep distinctive voice with which he has fronted Depeche Mode for decades on end. But bandmate and principal songwriter Martin Gore brings some decent pipes to the table as well when he occasionally steps up to lead vocals for the band. He has released a handful of solo recordings over the years, opting either for covering other people’s songs or penning atmospheric electronic music without vocals. Here he finds the spacious dark ballad hiding within Tuxedomoon’s prickly composition from earlier that decade. Fifteen years later, Nouvelle Vague gave it a bittersweet bossa nova twist and that’s the one that really hit (60 million Spotify streams and counting).

* Sinéad O’Connor has one of rock’s most indelible singing voices, and this tender but intense song off her somewhat disregarded Universal Mother album shows it off brilliantly. Spiritually and psychologically complex, she has for decades presented as someone neither critics nor the mainstream public quite know what to do with; her career has in any case ricocheted through any number of controversies. But that voice. And let’s not overlook her capacity for writing some mighty tunes. Last year she announced her retirement from the music industry. And yet (there’s always more with her) this year she surfaced with a new version of “The Skye Boat Song,” which has been the theme song for the show Outlander; O’Connor’s impressive version will be heard during the upcoming seventh season of that popular TV series.

* Fanny was the first all-female band to release a major-label album, and while they experienced a certain amount of commercial and critical success in the early to middle ’70s, they somehow never really stuck in terms of widespread legacy or long-term industry recognition. I say “somehow”; I mean flagrant sexism. They were serious and talented musicians, and yet of course had to keep resisting record-company executives who wanted them to play up their sex appeal. They worked with producers Richard Perry and Todd Rundgren; they toured around the world, opening for big-name bands like Jethro Tull and Humble Pie. Even as they faded quickly from our mainstream cultural memory, they did inspire later generations of female rock’n’rollers, including the Runaways, the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles. The band has received a new round of overdue attention here in the 21st century. A long-awaited reunion is in the works, which will include at least one live performance and a new major-label album.

* The song “Captain” by the LA-based band Shapes of Race Cars was one of Fingertips’ early precious finds, a song that convinced me there were unrecognized treasures floating out there on the internet if only one had the patience and wherewithal to track them down. The song, a first-rate power pop gem, appeared originally on their debut EP in 2004, and re-appeared in a revamped and shortened version on their first full-length release, 2006’s Power. The band released one more album in 2010 and seemed to fade away–until resurfacing during the pandemic with their 2020 single “Say Yeah.” Oh and perhaps there are one or two longstanding Fingertips visitors among you who remember that “Captain” was one of 13 songs featured on the one and only CD project produced here, the elusive Fingertips: Unwebbed disc, released late in 2006. I may still have a few copies if anyone is curious these many years later!

* While Midge-Ure-era Ultravox and John-Foxx-era Ultravox both have their charms, I think that Systems of Romance functions as a really satisfying transitional work. (Note that both Systems, from 1978, Foxx’s last with the band, and the first Ure-fronted album, 1980’s Vienna, were produced by Conny Plank, most well-known for his work with Kraftwerk.) In Systems you can pretty much hear where things are heading, even as the band was as yet trafficking in spiky electronics more than achy, synth-driven melodrama. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In any case, check out “I Can’t Stay Long,” which is the exact kind of lost classic these playlists exist to uncover and highlight.

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