A Lot Of Sustain: X&HT watched Sex, Food, Death … and Insects

I have a longstanding soft spot for Robyn Hitchcock. He’s one of our greatest songwriters and a godsdamned National Treasure. I have seen him live, covering Sgt. Pepper in it’s entirety, a gig notable for the moment when he knocked the jack out of his Telecaster and I handed it back to him.

You could, I suppose, if you’re feeling lazy, tie him in with the great wellspring of British eccentric artists that tracks through William Blake and Lewis Carroll, through Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Bonzos, Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan. Surrealism and humour backed up by a steely determination to tread one’s own path, and talent and ability up the hoozit. Long time fan and collaborator Peter Buck off of R.E.M. has said that he can’t understand why someone hasn’t taken his songs and made big hits out of them. I’d love to see one of the X-Factor clonoids do Brenda’s Iron Sledge or (probably more appositely) Sheila’s Having Her Brain Out, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.

The 2006 documentary Sex, Food, Death … and Insects follows Hitchcock, Buck and other musical collaborators as they work through the songs that would make it onto the Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus Three albums Olé Tarantula and Propeller Time. These songs mark a continued resurgence in Robyn’s fortunes, and are equal part rippling psychedelia and heartfelt pop-folk. It’s tough to write a song that can sound warm and tender while keeping in the weird angles and off-note touches that make Hitchcock’s stuff so much fun. These songs nail it time and again.

The documentary has a pleasingly intimate air, bringing us into Hitchcock’s rambling house, where Olé Tarantula was recorded. The process is ramshackle, ad hoc and spontaneous, leading to songs filled with happy accidents and unexpected guest turns. John Paul Jones drops in for a cuppa and a couple of chiming mandolin solos. Robyn’s niece Ruby Wright adds lovely, quavering musical saw to the proceedings. It feels like a delightful way to make an album. Defences drop. The famously grumpy Peter Buck airs his grievances about being part of one of the biggest bands in the world, and how much more he prefers the Venus Three. Certainly, his guitar work evokes R.E.M. at their jangly, shiny best.

But Hitchcock is the revelation here. Wise, centered and at peace, he seems the very opposite of the stereotypical eccentric. He observes things in a different way to most of us, certainly. But because he is so observant, he has a well-stocked cupboard of imagery to play with, and it’s the way he recontextualises these that brings up the surreality in his songwriting. When he talks about rotating elephants in the song Belltown Ramble, he’s talking about a sign he saw above a Seattle car-wash, in the district of the title. There’s reason and method to everything he does. The insight we get from these moments, along with the wonderful music are what make Sex, Food, Death … and Insects such a satisfying watch.

Tell you what, have a couple of clips.

Thanks and blessings to the inestimable Timothy P. Jones, without whom this documentary would not have hit my DVD playing machine.


Lyrics That Make You Want To Listen To Instrumentals

I’ve been listening to The Icicle Works again lately – Ian McNab’s epic bombast suits my mood, especially here under the grey dome of a typical late spring bank holiday.

Their breakout single “Love Is A Wonderful Colour” is wonderful, widescreen bellow-along stuff, but the opening line almost knocks you out of the spell the band are trying to create.

“My friend and I were talking one evening, beside some burning wood…”

That, I guess, would be a bonfire. I’d listened to the song for years, but only recently glommed on to how clumsy that opening line is. Now, of course, it’s all I can hear. Great.

This fumbled attempt at mystery and atmosphere, while at the same time trying to keep the metre and rhyme of the song in check can lead to some unexpectedly hilarious or outright bizarre lyrical choices. Take, for example, one of my favourites, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak”. Phil Lynott asserts:

“Tonight there’s going to be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town…”

I’d start with the jail.

Comedian Russell Howard pointed this one out, and I have to hold back from yelling “try the jail!” whenever I hear the song. The song also contains a prime example of Lynott’s way with the ladies:

“Searchlight on my trail
Tonight’s the night all systems fail
Hey you, good lookin’ female
Come here!”

You can’t resist, can you? This is the man who allegedly coined the come-on line “Got any Irish in you? Would you like some?” You have to at least admire the swagger and testosterone in the couplet above, and the wink in it is almost visible.

Sometimes, all you need is one syllable to make a line scan, and the temptation is to jam one in and damn the consequences. That’s all that I can think was going through Paul McCartney’s mind when he wrote the opening verse of “Live And Let Die”. It starts off with a philosophical flourish:

“When you were young, and your heart was an open book, you used to say live and let live…”

All good so far. But then we get a sentence that doesn’t seem to know when to finish.

“But in this everchanging world in which we live in…”

CLANG. Brakes on. A binful of prepositions, and all of a sudden Sir Paul is tripping over his own feet. Makes me give in and cry.

Readership, you all know of my love and admiration for R.E.M. but even the saintly Michael Stipe gets it wrong every so often. Famously, the band’s first album Murmur was titled after Michael’s less than clear vocal delivery. Sometimes, it might be better if he mumbled a bit more. The lovely Leaving New York contains the line

“…leaving was never my proud…”

which I would dearly love someone to explain to me. It doesn’t even rhyme properly with the next line of the chorus. In a song that has a strong personal meaning for TLC and I, that line sticks out like a gangrenous thumb.

Of course, the king of rotten lyrics is Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran. He seems to be quite happy to sling together any old word salad as long as it matches the tune. My personal favourite is from “Wild Boys”, where our Simon loses the plot and the ability to string a sentence together all at once:

“You got sirens for a welcome
There’s bloodstain for your pain
And your telephone been ringing while
You’re dancing in the rain
Wild boys wonder where is glory
Where is all you angels
Now the figureheads have fell
And lovers war with arrows over secrets they could tell…”

There’s plenty more where that came from. Although I’d disagree with the school of thought that claims the line “You’re about as easy as a nuclear war” is one of the worst ever. It has the right level of over-the-top silliness that suits the Dran in their heyday.

We could go on and on, but I don’t want to turn this into a simple “crap lyrics” post. It’s the lines that almost work that are the most fun. Besides which quoting out of context does every songwriter here a disservice. There is one that always makes me smile, though, and I want to conclude with Sade. I am happy to say she taught me something about American geography when she sang:

“Coast to coast, LA to Chicago…”

The Windy City is, as any fule with access to Google Maps no, 800 miles inland. I guess “LA to New Jersey” didn’t have the glamourous cosmopolitan ring Sade was after.

Let’s Show The Kids How To Do It: X&HT listened to Collapse Into Now

Music week continues on X&HT as I look at the new record by my favourite band, R.E.M. Mentioning this has led to responses as varied as “Oh, are they still going?” through to “…pukies”. I can see I’ve got my work cut out with this one.


Continue reading Let’s Show The Kids How To Do It: X&HT listened to Collapse Into Now