My New Favourite Song (For the Second Time)
One of the strange things about music is that certain songs do different things: those tracks that seemed fresh and wonderful can suddenly lose their edge and appeal- whilst that one particular track can steal your mind completely.
I have not done a feature piece for a little while now…
One of the great things about music reviewing, is that you get to help and further new musicians- features seem a little needless and not especially self-effacing. The reason I am writing this piece is that something rather peculiar occurred: the song I considered to be the finest ever, suddenly lost its position- to a song that has been with me since childhood. This brings up an interesting point: what is it about a particular track that makes it so wonderful; separates it from everything else- seems so much better than anything out there? Music tastes are as subjective as anything in the world- few artists or tracks are beloved by everyone- so when you tell a person what your favourite song (or album) is, they turn their noses up: sometimes they have never even heard of it. Every one of us has our personal ‘Top 10’: our list of favourite albums and songs from all of music- the rankings and order can (and often do) change year-to-year. A lot of younger music-lovers have an ignominiously short attention span: their favourite song or album often originates from the last few years- they rarely investigate past wonder and delve into music’s annals (and subsequently miss out on a wealth of beauty). Having been drip-fed the likes of T-Rex, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Kate Bush- from birth practically- I have been inoculated to some of the greatest sounds ever produced. About three or four years ago, a certain song stuck in my mind, from a band I have adored since their beginnings- it was always likely to have that effect.
Before I mention that track (and my new frontrunner), I will touch on another point: what make a particular song special to others? Darren Christopher Pereira (Shiftin’ Shade) plumps for Sting’s Moon Over Bourbon Street as his favourite ever track:
“That imagery; amazing arrangement…even better with the Philharmonic Orchestra.”
Phil Cass (Cuckoo Records impressario) favours David Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul. Explaining its appeal, he states:
“The last track on Aladdin Sane…my fave album of all time. Such a seductive track (as is the album) and the genius piano playing of Dave Garson and beautiful guitar courtesy of Mick Ronson…Bowie’s finest hour in my opinion.”
Two differing views on two different cuts (by two diverse artists): there is something about a particular song that gets to all of us. Looking at Phil and Darren’s testimony; they share a similar recognition: a stunning composition and arrangement can make the song better than anything. Even though Bowie and Sting are legendary artists, they have produced some sub-par tracks (not many, but the odd few). Both Bowie and Sting are noted for their innovativeness and musicality: I have listened to both song selections and can agree with everything being said. I always find myself more fascinated by a vocal performance (more so than anything else)- a lot of my all-time choice songs and albums are synonymous with their vocals/singers. Dylan’s phenomenal lyrics make his songs so endlessly compelling- they can be as evocative as anything else. When you really think about it, it is the overall sound and composition that lifts that special song over the edge. I guess we can pontificate and theorise as much as we want; sometimes inexplicable forces burrow a song deep into the soul.
Up until a few days ago, one particular track- for me at least- beat all of the competition; far surpassed mortal music- and compelled me to (with futile intent) try to equal it. That particular track is There There by Radiohead. Many of you reading this will have heard of the band (how could you not?!) but would not recognise the track. It is hardly a huge shock: the song featured on their album Hail to the Thief– it ranks alongside Pablo Honey in terms of critical approval and attention. The album is by no means a shocker (no Radiohead album ever could be); it seems like an awkward stop-gap between their glory years (the OK Computer–Amnesiac era) and their brilliant latter days (In Rainbows-present). The L.P. has quite a few gems nestling inside of its politicised and darker cores- 2+2=5, A Punchup at a Wedding and Sit Down, Stand Up stack alongside their very best work. The issue with the album is that there is too much aimless wandering: the album slouches and loses heat towards the middle- the extraction of three or four tracks would make it a meaner, leaner affair. After the foggy vagueness of The Gloaming arrived a superb treat: the majestic There There. The lynchpin of the album, it harks back to the anthemic cuts of The Bends: the endless inventiveness that made OK Computer a modern-day masterpiece nestles within the track- it is a riot of wonder. I am not sure whether it is the fact that Radiohead are one of my favourite all-time acts; if the diamond in the rough compelled my sensitive side; if something deeper struck me- the song demands attention and critique. From the hypnotic and punchy introduction to the scattershot drum finale, There There ticks all of the boxes: it has emotion, energy, memorability and plenty of nuance. Thom Yorke’s vocal performance fuses powerful rises (in the chorus) and tender falsetto: he brings the words to life with an authoritative and captivating performance. The guitars and bass twang, wobble, vibrate and lightning strike: such an incredible amount of texture and atmosphere is summoned up- the percussion is consistently powerful and mood-setting. All of these spectacular elements wrapped around the song’s lyrics: woodland scenes, Dogberryism, Sirens and heavenly tribute nestled with tales of love and longing. When the line “Heaven sent you to me” (towards the song’s end) is delivered, it brings me out in goosebumps even now- probably somewhere close to its 300th play. I love everything about the song, and for me it stood above other songs near the top of my list: Hey Jude, Hallelujah (Jeff Buckley’s version) and It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). Up until a week ago, I was safe in my assertions and decisions: no song would likely budge There There from the musical summit. Then it happened…
The first time I came across Deacon Blues, would have been in the early-’90s. I often would spend days at my aunt’s house in Chesham: it was a second-home and a safe and warm retreat. As a shop owner (she owned a small jewelry/craft/gift shop) we would take trips to Crystal Palace- they held trade fairs there. Being a Steely Dan fan, she would play their albums on the drive there: songs such as Hey Nineteen and Dirty Work filled me ears- I was discovering a beautiful and wonderful Jazz-Rock world I had never encountered before. The one song that would always stand me to attention was Deacon Blues- taken from the band’s album Aja. Everything about the track excited me: from the superb and building intro., through to the tempting and languorous final moments. Aja was one of Steely Dan’s final albums (before they took a long hiatus): whereas its follow-up Gaucho was a study in fastidiousness and perfectionism, Aja was a looser and more effortless beast- things felt more relaxed and organic here. Gaucho had its genius moments- Hey Nineteen, Babylon Sisters– but other songs felt too over-rehearsed and arrived off of the back of personal and creative issues (for Steely Dan). Few were expecting an album that matched (and superseded) the heights of early works Pretzel Logic and Countdown to Ecstasy– what the world got was a masterpiece. The standard pillars of obtuseness and obliqueness were all there; the cut and sarcasm all present- business as usual in many senses. Tracks Peg and Josie had modal tones and intricacy; each track on the album has richness, texture and genre-fusion- vocal harmonies and gorgeous Jazz trumpets ensured each number gets right into your brain. In terms of themes/ambition, Deacon Blues continued where (previous numbers) Fire in the Hole and Midnight Cruiser left off: the track epitomised Aja and represented everything it stood for. The song looks at the realities and harshness of L.A. street life: the life musicians and artists face; the sense of repression and suffocation- Fagen declares “I’ll make it my home sweet home“. The song’s verses look at our hero walking the streets: he turns tricks, scams and crawls “like a viper“; making love to women and indulging in mind-staggering libations- there is a sense of rebirth. Fagen has declared his dreams before (and failed): this time he is going to make it. It wouldn’t be a Steely Dan classic without their lyric hallmarks: cutting wit, sarcasm and intellectualism bring vivid scenes to the imagination. Despite being New Yorkers, Becker and Fagen effortless distill the essence of L.A. life in the ’70s: artisans and dreamers on street corners; strange sensations and weird scenes. Fagen acts as the born-again writer: he has fallen and been dissolusioned, but- being ensconced in the seductive underbelly- is making proclamations: he is going to make it his home and come out on top. Fagen’s entrancing and conviction-filled vocal is backed up by Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews- they combine in the chorus to add cooing beauty and elliptical, shivering power. I get caught up in the images and sights that are being presented: every time the chorus hits (and the swirling, swaying trumpet line follows it) I shiver and smile- the song makes me feel better about life and provides a chance to forget about the harshness of circumstance. The song’s title is a juxtaposition to Crimson Tide– the sobriquet of The University of Alabama’s football team. Becker and Fagen felt it was a pretentious name given to “cracker assholes“: Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues was their lovable loser retort. The most emphatic and memorable aspect of the song is the composition itself: imbued with richness, depth and immense beauty, it is a work of art- and one of the finest arrangements in all of music. Soothing and romanticized trumpet and brass breezes; elegant and itinerant guitar lines work with supple drums- it is Pete Cristlieb’s tenor saxophone that hits hardest. I adore the track’s story and filmic development: Fagen will “learn to work the saxophone” and play “just what I feel“- with visions of all-night whiskey drinking and vehicular carnage; destruction, intoxication and free-spirit ideals- it all makes you root for the hero (in an odd way). Once all the words have been exhausted and all the bidding done, a delirious and splendid musical afterglow comes to the fore: you are free to swim and dive- awash in the languid saxophone, it is a perfect finale. The song has not only inspired me to write my own version of it (a boy can aim!)- Emma Cool and the Boston Dance Party (about the issues of modern music and the problems in the big cities)- but to pursue music and investigate all it has to offer: a song that can do all of that is one that I shall never take for granted.
It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? All of us have our own particular favourite song: it may be the case that it doesn’t reveal its true genius until many years from now. I guess in that sense, musical appreciation can be like love: the person you are truly happy with may not come into your life straight away- but the eventual revelation is quite profound. I am pretty sure that Deacon Blues will remain my all-time favourite until the day I die- yet I am hopefully something new and fresh may challenge for the crown. Music is pretty awesome in that respect: one person may adore a particular track; others may hate it- yet it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. I implore anyone reading to investigate Deacon Blues– see if you agree with me, or have any thoughts. Likewise, it would be interesting to see what others consider to be the best song ever produced. Subjectiveness, personal relevance and fond memories will always elevate a particular number above the rest- and be different for everybody. Deacon Blues is a 37-year-old, 7:35 gem- I aim to listen to it every day. This bring me round to another point: will we see anything come along that can ever top that? My five favourite albums originated in the ’60s and ’90s (nothing from the past fifteen years makes the list); my top five tracks share D.N.A. and links (Buckley’s version of Hallelujah was released in 1994- some 20 years ago)- it would be good to think music has the potential to topple the giants and greats (from days past). I feel that a favourite song is as vital and relevant as a favourite friend: someone that is always there for you and always elicits a smile- it can make even the worst of moods that much more bearable. I am pleased that I have rediscovered a near-fogotten track from my childhood- being 31, it has taken a while- and it has renewed my energies and motivation: when an album of mine does appear, I sure as hell want a track that is Steely Dan-esque- it will not hit the heights of Deacon Blues, but there is plenty to take away from the track. Wonderful and scintillating lyrics, an impassioned and striking vocal; tied with a rich and endlessly detailed composition (as well as a sense of looseness and effortlessness) makes the song such a joy. Have a think yourselves: what defines the song dearest to you? Once you have identified it- I guess you will be playing the track again?- pick up a pen and be inspired by it- try to equal it if you dare. If you are ambitious and bold, you may well consecrate your dreams as to the pursuit of musical perfection. I am going to try my own attempt as we speak: make a song that has that feel and brings out the same emotions in those listening. In the words of the immortal Deacon Blues: “I’ll make it this time…
I’M ready to cross that fine line.”