Thursday, April 30, 2015

24: Bridge of Spies - T'Pau

Yes, seriously.

T'Pau have a bizarre distinction in the history of one-hit-wonders: the country you are in determines what that 'one hit' is. If you're in the UK you think "China In Your Hand, duh" and if you're in the US you think "Heart and Soul, duh". I fell into the former category from the time it was a number-one hit (1987) through until the time I eventually got around to buying the album (1991). At which point I listened to the whole thing and went "oo, I wasn't expecting that." While on the surface - the first few tracks you listen to - they sound like typical 1980s pop with Carol Decker doing vocals that sound like they're from that old 'Bodyform' commercial, you work out after a while that the lyrics are unusual enough to be at least slightly interesting, and after a little more listening you realise that whoever produced the record either took a lot of time, was very good or got very lucky with the arrangements for most of it. T'Pau saw themselves as a heavier rock-type band (as their frankly rubbish follow-up albums clearly show) but the way Heart and Soul and the rest were mixed was surprisingly subtle, and even things like the gaps between the tracks - Bridge of Spies into Monkey House, then Monkey House into Valentine - show why you should always buy the original album and never the compilation.

And there in the middle is the title track from the album. Starting off keyboard-driven with some guitars coming in to pad things out (listen to a live version without the guitar effects over the first verse and it's nothing like as good, it's basically just Decker and Paul Jackson the bass player, who's only playing one note), it starts off as a typical track on the album, Decker hitting the vocals just right (Gary Barlow you should know better) and off we go, another decent-quality track from a well-mixed 1980s pop album.

But in the Top Forty At Forty? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

Because after the guitar solo (and Dean Howard does a better job on the live versions after he joined the band) it goes into a bridge, as many songs do. Decker's at full vocal here - the melody line almost always on the same note despite the chord changes, somehow making her portrayal quite intense, and the lyrics (as the best lyrics do) going way beyond the song and becoming something for people to relate with and find expression for their own feelings, whatever the circumstance:

I don't know if I could go through it all again
For what's the point if you are never free to say:
This is what I believe
This is a part of me
No hero
No regrets
But only meant-to-be

Back into the chorus and the song winds down. Then (album version only, never heard a live version where they did this), drum kicks in and we're into a reprise of the chorus chords, which actually are only two chords (Bb and F). And while the solo over the reprise is good to listen to (actually it's really good), there's something about those two chords repeated with that rhythm, at that speed, that is inherently relaxing. In fact it sounds like breathing to me - Bb = breathe in slow, F = breathe out slow, and repeat. The song is in F, so that's 'home', and Bb works with it like the pendulum on a clock or the up-and-down of a see-saw, and again for whatever reason the arrangement, the tempo, the instruments just allow this to come out.

Maybe it's just a lucky accident, but this is a very special song. Yes, seriously.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

25: Revelation Song - Jennie Lee Riddle/Kelanie Gloeckler

Although a relatively recent song - 2009 or so depending on which version you prefer, Jennie Lee Riddle wrote the original - the concept is as old as any music we know about today. Howard Goodall's generally excellent 'Story Of Music' TV series explored what we know about ancient music, which is actually quite a lot in terms of instruments, performance and even competitions - but nothing about what it actually sounded like. The earliest music where we actually know how it sounds seems to be from the late Roman period, when 'plainchant' - monastic singing of various scriptures set to straightforward tunes - began and has been handed down through the generations prior to written or recorded music, so we actually know what it sounded like and what the tunes were.

Which isn't to say that the Revelation Song is plainchant, far from it - musically it's based on western chords and harmonies - but I love the idea that the concept hasn't changed. Take some words (inspirational if possible) from an ancient source, set it to a simple, repetitive, memorable tune and bam, there's your song. In this case, most of the words are taken from the book of Revelation at the end of the Christian New Testament. The music itself is interesting, however, and that's why it's in this list.

It starts (depending on the version you listen to) with a D major chord, and off you go thinking the song is in D. Second line, however, it shifts to A-minor of all places, not one you associate with D (A major perhaps, but not A minor), then up to C, then down to G... aaah I see, we were in G major the whole time! Next phrase, we're back to D and the thing repeats. In fact, that four chord sequence continues for the entire song - that's it, nothing else - but the curiousity of feeling like you're in D when you're actually in G holds it together surprisingly well.

Meantime the vocal soars in the chorus, another one of those that feels like your soul is welling up and exploding out (see 'From The Inside Out' at number 33), and the version in the video above by Kelanie Gloeckler (who had a couple of her own songs on the long-list that didn't quite make it) has a step-up from A-minor to C via an A-B-C bassline walk that again feels like the gear-shift thing from Like You Promised (number 27). The whole thing simply adheres together to give you the idea of what it would be like to catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of a glorious heavenly other-world which is as beautiful as it is different.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

26: Love Is - David Roach

No relation to Steven Roach (as far as I know) from number 37. This is one of those 'Landscape Channel' tracks which I mentioned in a blog entry long, long ago. In fact remember it from the Channel 4 'Art Of Landscape' show they used to put on during weekday mornings in the school holidays in 1990 or so when there weren't any schools programmes to show.

This was one of the more memorable ones - not just because of the scenery (made me long to go to the beach, as I still do most days today) but because I remember listening to it and thinking it was about to finish, and then it carried on with another ending and another ending. I don't know if that's some kind of musical trick or just a feature of David Roach's music, but if you watch the above YouTube version of it you'll notice that it ends at 4:53 and then carries on ending for almost an entire minute after that before it does, eventually, stop.

Somehow that made the track memorable enough to stay in my mind for years and years, and when the Landscape Channel in its various internet guises popped up again a few years ago it was probably the first track I looked for. The sax melody is strong, strong enough that I don't want to call it jazz (although I know it is really), and there's even an electric guitar section by none other than the late Alan Murphy, the guitarist who worked with Kate Bush for many years. But it all fits with the video, and you can almost hear the waves gently crashing on the beach at the conclusion and smell the clean, salty air in the chilly sunshine.

Love is... a deserted coastal resort. And a sax song that spends all its time ending.

Monday, April 27, 2015

27: Like You Promised - Amber Brooks

Here's one you're less likely to have heard of, although Amber Brooks herself as a songwriter contributed a song to a Grammy-award winning album last year - 'You Are Good' from Tye Tribbett's album 'Greater Than' which won the 2014 Grammy for Best Gospel Album. I came across her music due to visiting MorningStar church in South Carolina back in early 2011. I'd been there before - on the round-the-world trip in 2002 - and since then had followed their musical output, and a lot of what I listen to today is from musicians who've been through their school such as Josh Baldwin and Kelanie Gloeckler.

This one stands out - particularly on the studio version - as being one to listen to over and over. Of course, that's not enough to make the Top Forty At Forty, since tracks like Cavatina, Fanfare For The Common Man and Here Comes The Sun all patently failed to make even the long-list. What stands out here is one very specific section right in the middle of the song. The song itself starts easily enough, meandering through a couple of verses with the building chorus following on both occasions. Then it jumps to the bridge for the first time. There's a lyrical strength in that section itself that stands out from a lot of similar songs - "You violently chase me down to embrace me, engulf me in who You are" - but then as it goes back into the chorus she lifts the song, basically taking the high harmony line instead of the standard melody, while at the same time bringing in another guitar line right after "we long for You to come" - BANG - just like stepping up a gear, lifting the song and the listener in the process.

There are other examples of it - to me I hear the same thing in Dire Straits "Tunnel Of Love" guitar solo towards the end, prior to the twiddly bit there's a gear-shift style lift; Grieg's 'Morning' from Peer Gynt also does the same thing at the crescendo. But this, maybe because of the lyric that precedes it, stands out very strongly above those as the primary example of the musical gear-shift that lifts your soul.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

28: My Deliverer - Rich Mullins/Rick Elias

Ok, so I said only one Rich Mullins track made it into the Top Forty at Forty. Technically this one is by Rick Elias. I can get away with it.

It was written by Rich Mullins and recorded as a demo, a muffled effort with Mullins banging away at an old piano, as with the rest of Mullins' "Jesus Record" project tracks. Mullins died in a car accident prior to getting into the studio to record the final version - so his industry friends, along with his usual band, got together and recorded the tracks between them. Rick Elias drew the short straw - the stand-out song of the group by a mile, which is good except for the fact that when you know a song is that good you HAVE to get the arragement right. And they did.

Musically it's a little like a mini-opera in itself, comprising several sections but with the same driving rhythm through the majority of it. Lyrically strong as well ("He will never break His promise, though the stars should break faith with the sky") the song is six minutes long and feels somehow longer, but in a good way. I could talk about the lyrics and even the music - nothing exciting chord-wise but smart use of a swelling string-section - but there's no real need to disassemble the song.

They took their time and they got it right.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

29: River of Dreams - Billy Joel

Continuing the theme of secular songs with a spiritual feel, Billy Joel's last real Big Hit has such an infectious gospel groove it's hard not to be caught up in it. While the lyrics themselves aren't massively Scriptural (I don't think the 'Jungle of Doubt' features too often in the Psalms) there's an expression of a deep fascination with the world of dreams and imagination and the spiritual aspect that people ascribe to that kind of stuff. The lyrics in the final tumbling bridge section are, while still filled with doubt and questions, undoubtedly also filled with a hope and an understanding that there's something there to explore, to experience and to become immersed in:

"Not sure about a life after this, God knows I've never been a spiritual man;
Baptized by fire, I wade into the river that is running to the Promised Land."

Add to that a good dose of foot-shuffling rhythm, gospel-blues notes and Joel's always-strong vocal and it's easy to forget it's basically just a song with three chords, repeated over and over (bridge excepted). And there's even a version - the "original" studio version according to the box-set I have - which seamlessly incorporates the theme from 'Goodnight My Angel' (from the same album) into the song. I couldn't find that version on YouTube or elsewhere, so here's the original video from the single.

I don't think it's physically possible to listen to it without at least slight movement of the head and taps of the feet. See if you can manage it.

Friday, April 24, 2015

30: Piano in the Dark - Brenda Russell

Another favourite from Late Night Sou' West circa 1988 that has stood the test of time, at least in my playlist. I've never done a great deal of investigating into the song itself - I think lyrically it's pretty straightforward with no surprises: the lady in question in the song wishes to walk out on her relationship but the gentleman's piano playing keeps drawing her back. And as I understand it the other 'stand out' track from the album was "Get here" which was later covered by Oleta Adams with greater success.

But what Russell accomplishes with the piano solo sections (and I don't know if she wrote/ad libbed those or if the other track co-authors are responsible) is something amazingly evocative, and probably is actually the start of my musical journey into the weird and wacky instrumental stuff, some of which makes its way into the list.

There's the bridge solo before the final chorus - that's one thing - but the end of the song has a gentle skimming-and-dipping solo that continues even as the rest of the musicians drop out, and the piano just carries on - metaphorically, if not literally, in the dark. You can almost see the rest of the musicians packing up their instruments, heading out the door, turning the light off, and the piano continues.

And the 'radio edit' version fades. That annoys me so much. I knew - from very occasional radio play of the album version - that there was a full version with another minute or so at the end, and nobody ever played it, or if they did the bleddy DJ talked over it so I couldn't hear it (yes Langmore I'm looking in your direction). So the version above is the full version that I found on YouTube rather than the official video of the radio edit.

And let the piano just take you into the dark, into that evocative place, and the start of a journey that has led me to, among other tracks that didn't make the Top Forty At Forty, "Angels and Eskimos" by Kate Moody and "Walk In The Sun" by Jeanette Alexander.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

31: Too Much Heaven - The Bee Gees

As with Rich Mullins, it would have been easy to really like the Bee Gees music but not have any one track in the top forty - were it not for this. Anything from Saturday Night Fever is good, early stuff less so (although Massachusettes stands out in any age) and 'You Win Again' was a worthy number-one track for them even as late as 1987.

But "Too Much Heaven" just stands out from the Bee Gees catalogue as something that you can listen to, any time, and smell the summer, even in the middle of a long winter. It's like breaking out the suncream or putting the clocks forward in January - it's something you can do to really lift the winter gloom and transport you somewhere much happier. I'm told there are actually nine layers (multitracked) of the three-part harmony, leading to a total of 27 voices in the recording. Add to that the horn section from the band Chicago and you have a rising, angelic-sounding song with just no darkness in it at all. It doesn't really GO anywhere, but the thing is that when you're on the beach, drinking coconut-based beverages and drifting off to sleep in your hammock, you don't WANT to be going anywhere. Round and round and up and down and ... mmm.

Can't go wrong at all. It will lift you wherever you are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

32: Going Home - Runrig

Runrig, the Scottish rock/folk band, have been around since the mid-1970s, just like me. Over the years I've had various exposures to them, most recently when we visited Skye in 2009 and saw an awful lot of Runrig material for sale at the Portree Visitor's Centre. Following that I had another investigation into their back-catalogue and among other tracks, came across 'Going Home', originally from 1979. It's one of those simple folksy-type tunes where you can figure out the chords in two minutes, enjoy Rory MacDonald's slide guitar and harmony vocals (he should really sing more on Runrig tracks) and let it wash over you.

Then two months later you find you're still listening to it, still playing it, still enjoying the evocative guitar, minor chord progressions and Donnie Munro's always-excellent lead vocals telling you the story of the train journey home to the Highlands. Musically the chorus is the strongest, the second line ("when the summer's coming in") hitting the same basic chord in the sequence as Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" up at number 39, with the same high harmony that results. Lyrically it's consistent throughout, but the final lines really do make you feel you're pulling into the station at the Kyle of Lochalsh, looking over the bridge to the Cullins rising on Skye in the distance, the seawater gently lapping on the seawall below and hearing the wheeling cries of gulls in the mild breeze.

Now the skylines reach my eyes
The ridge stands out in Highland skies
I just can't believe I'm going home

Make you feel like it's your home, even if you're never been there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

33: From The Inside Out - Hillsong

It's a pretty ruthless game, putting together a top forty. Songs you'd automatically think should be included - such as Don Henley's 'Boys of Summer' - suddenly look shaky when you start whittling the list down, and other songs that on the surface look unlikely somehow manage to keep their place and suddenly, bam, there's the final list and that unlikely song is still there.

So when putting together the long-list for the top forty, 'From The Inside Out' made the inital list and relatively early on faced the chop. Then I listened to it again and realised no - this has to stay, and for two main reasons, both musical. First is the refrain ("Everlasting, your light will shine when all else fades") where the first two lines begin their chord sequence in the relative minor (A minor) before proceeding through F, C, G - pretty normal. The third line, however, doesn't go back to the minor, it instead goes to the major chord - C - before heading elsewhere. Something about that sequence - 'minor, minor, MAJOR' always feels somehow to me like 'hard work, hard work, DONE IT' and this song really brings that out - a weird but definite sense of accomplishment.

Secondly the final line of the refrain - "from the inside... out, Lord my soul cries.. out" goes from F up to G, F up to G again - real sense of building but also of something spiritual coming OUT of me, out of my innermost being, flowing up and out with tremendous light and power. Or something.

So this song made the cut, and 'Boys of Summer' lies sprawling on a pile of rejections. It's my list.

Monday, April 20, 2015

34: Night Birds - Shakatak

From September 1987 to December 1992, Late Night Sou' West was nightly two-hour radio programme on BBC Radios Devon and Cornwall, presented by one Chris Langmore. A few years ago I wrote a blog entry about that, so no need to repeat here, but "Night Birds" by Shakatak was the theme tune.

Dating from a few years earlier, it's basically jazz-funk with some wonderfully flowing guitar and piano solos. I have no idea if they're musically complex solos or not - they sound complex to my untrained ear but they might just be running their fingers up and down the keyboard for all I know. And that's a key point here - I'm not a jazz fan, not at all. Jazz to me is just four or five people playing different stuff at the same time - basically the same complaint I have about Bach but with the blue notes added in. There's usually little structure or direction and the whole thing is a mind-numbing experience, similar to listening to politicians or watching golf. I once spent five hours at a Chicago jazz club with my father and father-in-law because I thought it was the Right Thing To Do, and it was without doubt one of the most harmful experiences my brain has ever encountered. Five hours of not just nothing - silence would have been infinitely preferable - but of constant, thrumming, soft sounds of double-bass and snare drums playing random stuff that went precisely nowhere by a very circuitous route. Visiting the bathroom and flushing the toilet to drown it out was my only means of survival.

Anyway, you get the point, and there won't be any Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie featuring as we go up the list, rest assured. But here's the weird thing: I really really like "Night Birds". And not just because I can still hear Alan Dedicoat (yes, the same one, he used to work for Radio Devon) saying over the intro "On thirteen transmitters, across the westcountry, this is Late Night Sou' West.. with Chris Langmore." It's something I don't really understand musically - I have no clues what the chords are, let alone the sequences, although I can pick out the notes in some of the solos. It's something I can therefore very easily just let wash over me without any danger of me thinking about harmonies and how I might play it. I can just listen to it. Over and over and over.

And the strongest bit, probably, is the middle section where the weird eighties keyboard noise gives way to the guitar solo and then to the piano that eventually starts climbing, climbing, climbing to the summit, beat of silence, then we start again from the top. It has shape, a little like a David Gilmour guitar solo, it actually has some form, which in some ways separate it from my normal view of jazz (I'm told jazz has form and shape, I just can't see it, like a musical form of colour-blindness or something, I just can't get it). Lyrics pretty meaningless but fitting with the music, and the ad-lib section at the end not so good, but overall it's jazz-funk that I can listen to over and over.

And now, so can you.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

35: Let Mercy Lead - Rich Mullins

No, no hammered dulcimer on this one.

Rich Mullins was an enigma to a lot of Christianity - mainstream and frankly inspirational in a lot of his songs, he was also willing to challenge the establishment and prevailing thinking, while struggling with a lot of personal issues, particularly alcohol. His understanding of the gospel as being about grace and mercy is still discussed and interpreted in such a way that he may become the next G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, where people say "yeah, but Rich Mullins said such-and-such" as a way of settling a discussion.

But this isn't about theology, it's about the song. None of Mullins' most well-known songs made the list because while they're musically very strong and usually interesting lyrically, they don't stand out quite enough to make the top forty at forty. No disrespect to Mullins - Mozart falls into the same category - except, except, except this one. "Let Mercy Lead" was written for his friend's son (the 'Aidan' named at the beginning of the song) and while the verse is nice, acoustic and gently driving, the chorus hits a crescendo I don't hear elsewhere in the Mullins catalogue. The lyrics are clear in the soaring melody and the phrases of words cross freely the phrases of the music: "Let mercy lead - let love be the strength in your legs, and in every footprint that you leave there'll be a drop of grace."

I don't hear the poetry of that elsewhere in the work of Rich Mullins, or anyone much else frankly, and when you throw it on top of the relatively simple melody the whole thing catches together and grows in your mind until nothing much can dislodge it. And the message? A message for our day, irrespective of your belief system or personal opinion on just about anything, one that really could change the world if we'd let it:

Let mercy lead.

Short List: Bears

As we move through our main Top 40 At 40 categories, we also need to take a break every so often and touch on some categories where I didn't manage to find forty items to fill up the list, or it's sufficiently unexciting that a one-line explanation of each will do, and we can cover the whole lot in one go. Don't worry, we'll be back with number 35 of the 'music' list tomorrow.

So here we go with the Top 15 Bears. Obviously.

15. Polar Bears - Especially the ones who drink Coca-Cola.

14. Panda Bears - Not sure if they're really bears but I need to fill out the list.

13. Koala Bears - Definitely not bears, more closely related to wombats than bears. And wombats aren't bats, either. Who thought up these names?

12. Grizzly Bears - North American scary brown bear. Which is ironic since the word 'grizzly' means grey-haired.

11. Yogi Bear - North American public service educational cartoon teaching picnic basket theft to young audiences.

10. The Great Bear - Ursa Major, the constellation in the sky at night also known as 'The Plough' or 'The Big Dipper'. Which goes to show nobody really has a clue what it looks like. Frankly it looks like a bedpan if you ask me.

9. Gentle Ben - Kids TV show about a boy and his pet bear. Seriously.

8. Smokey Bear - Curiously angry US public service educational bear intent on telling people that only they can put out fires. Presumably because he is too busy eating people to help.

7. Bungle Bear - Full-body costume character from UK ITV 'Rainbow' kids show. Had no discernible or memorable characteristics or personality. But then he was a bear, so we should have been amazed just at the fact he could talk.

6. Chicago Bears - North American sports team who used to have a refrigerator playing for them or something.

5. Rupert The Bear - Cute British cartoon character, but his stories are published in the 'Daily Express' newspaper so he's probably a closet Nazi or something. And why does a bear need a scarf anyway?

4. Paddington Bear - As Told By Michael Hordern

3. Bear Grylls - I don't watch his shows but as I understand it he does programmes about surviving in uninhabitable places through the consumption of bodily by-products. Sounds compelling viewing to me.
2. Winnie The Pooh - Famous for many things but primarily as the inventor of Pooh Sticks.

1. Haribo Goldbears - Yes please.

Failed To Make The List:
The three bears from Goldilocks - while it's a fun, cosy story for humans the outcome is pretty disappointing from a bear perspective. The fact that they eat porridge instead of people does in itself show how rubbish these bears actually were.

Friday, April 17, 2015

36: Fairytale of New York - The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This is the only Christmas song that made the final list of forty - apologies to fans of Wizzard and Chris Rea - although 'Gaudete' by Steeleye Span only missed the cut at a very late stage. It's not only the best Christmas song ever (and that includes Bill Barclay's '12 Days Of Christmas' which continues to spike my YouTube every year), it's a lovely lilting Irish ballad that stands up - lyrics apart - at any time of year.

It's really two songs, not one: the first is the initial slow verse setting the scene, followed by the jollier section once Kirsty MacColl joins in, and finally reverting to the first tune again for the third verse. It means there's a definite musical disconnect when it goes from the third verse into the final chorus becasue the two tunes really are quite different (sorry Pogues, no amount of drum build-up papers over that crack) but aside from that it's great, in the real sense of the word 'great'. With the unique vocals of Shane MacGowan balanced in anger and tone by MacColl, it's an astonishing piece to listen to. And even if you don't pay attention to the words very much, the final refrain in the chorus will always stand out:

"And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day."

And even if that phrase - musically and lyrically - is all you get from the song, its mission is sufficiently accomplished. Christmas music and Irish folk doesn't get any better than this.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

37: Long Journey Home - Songs of Water

Ah, that's a little different.

So as well as the guitar I also dabble in playing the hammered dulcimer. Mainly because while listening to a Rich Mullins song called "Creed" I kept thinking - what is that incredibly energetic sound that is driving this thing? That high-strung thing that isn't a mandolin and isn't a harpsichord and is giving it so much momentum? And it was the hammered dulcimer, which features on several Rich Mullins tracks and not really anywhere much else outside of Appalachia and a few bearded folk concerts in the UK.

But one of the few experts on the instrument is one Stephen Roach, whose rootsy band 'Songs of Water' go back several years. I was first given their debut album (also titled "Songs of Water") as a gift and for a while wasn't sure what to make of it. Some of it still remains a musical mystery to me - something I struggle to listen to because it doesn't quite go anywhere. But track one - "Long Journey Home" quickly began to stand out as the track I wanted to both listen to and learn to play. The backing instruments - especially the soaring violin - accentuate rather than overpower the dulcimer which, like with Rich Mullins' style, Roach uses as a percussion instrument primarily rather than leading the melody with it.

In addition to listening to it, I also love the idea of making some kind of video accompaniment to it, but haven't ever got around to it. Something along the 'Landscape Channel' lines with scenes from the high Rockies in Colorado, snowy meltwater becoming mountain trickles, merging into cascading streams and flowing together to become, eventually, the Colorado River or the Rio Grande. Having visited the source of the Rio Grande last summer, high up on Stony Pass above Silverton, it still amazes me to think that melting snow there eventually, depending on which side of the pass it falls, ends up in either the Colorado or Rio Grande, and thus ends up in either the Atlantic or the Pacific. It's a Long Journey Home for that water, and this track - which I'm sure has nothing really to do with mountain streams - just sits so well with that concept that one day I'll get around to putting it together.

Meantime enjoy the music with some nice photos.

38: Semper Fidelis - Sousa

The reason for the inclusion of Semper Fidelis has nothing to do with the US Marines. And not just because I have no connections with the US Marines.

It's Plymouth Argyle, of course. (And that's a low-to-middle ranking professional soccer club in the UK, for those who were thinking it has something to do with diamond patterns on socks.) I'm told that back in the day (and the day may be the 1950s or 1960s depending on the authority you speak to), there was always a military marching band who would play prior to every Argyle home game, presumably linked to Plymouth's Royal Navy heritage. And the last tune they would play, just before the teams came on to the pitch, would be Semper Fidelis.

By the time I came on the scene, following the 1984 FA Cup run and Dave Smith's magnificent promotion team of the mid-80s, the marching band was long-gone but Semper was still played over the PA system as the players ran on to the pitch and the team line-ups announced, and still is to this day. As well as being a strong piece of music in itself - and it is, without question, one of Sousa's finest pieces, and yes it's better than Liberty Bell - it's one of those tunes that has, without much exception, always been able to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. And I still can't hear that middle, slightly quiter, section without also hearing in my mind the Janner tones of Des Robinson saying: "Number seven, Kevin Hodges. Number eight, Kevin Summerfield. Number nine, and captain, Tommy TYNAN!"

There's not much more to say than that, is there? Simper Fidelis, coming in at number thrity-eight.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

39: Angel - Sarah McLachlan

If you've never read what this song is about, you might be surprised. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true, right?) it's about musicians, in particular the touring keyboard player for the Smashing Pumpkins, overdosing on drugs. No, really. And I read that and I think "Hm, ok, I can see that I suppose" but next time I hear it I'm not going to be thinking about that. And that's the sign of a good song I suppose - it is strong enough to carry way beyond what the original meaning was for the writer, and it belongs to the world instead. (Except for copyright purposes where the song remains with Sarah McLachlan).

So why is it in the top forty at forty? As with 'Bad Day', the lyrics aren't always entirely audible but in this case it's partly because the voice singing them is sufficiently amazing on its own that you don't actually listen to the words she's singing. The chord sequence (yes I play the acoustic guitar so everything is chords to me) lead to some lovely, slightly unusual harmonies - the major key is C# and the chorus slips from some C# variants for the first line ("In the arms of the angel") into F-minor for the second ("fly away from here") which is not that unusual, but does lead to a wonderful harmony note for that phrase (C). Now I know that is really just a boring descending bassline (C# to C) although a high C sounds better, but here's the thing: McLachlan never sings it. There's no harmony vocal on the entire track.

And the only reason I know that is because I just listened to the whole thing and realised that over the years I must have - because of the chord sequence and her unique voice - heard these harmonies in my head that were never recorded. It's a simple song - just five or possibly six chords for the whole thing (if you include the B-major she introduces towards the end of the final chorus) - and one voice, one piano and a few background effects, but the whole thing is magical and makes you feel like you're dreaming, hearing things that simply aren't there.

Final thought: "Come Away With Me" by Norah Jones also made the long-list for the top forty, same vibe but a bit more jazz-lounge than "Angel", but then I realized it just didn't have the vocal strength and the mysterious secret harmonies that don't exist, and Norah got cut. Had anyone else sung "Angel", Norah Jones might have been in there. It's one song for which you'll never hear a good cover version.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

40: Bad Day - Daniel Powter

I have an occasional dream of going back in time some twenty years or so, with nothing (perhaps some clothes) but my memory of everything is intact. What do I do in that scenario? Try to remember football results and make millions from the bookies? Try to avert major disasters? Buy shares in Apple?

No, of course not. I remember tunes, lyrics and arrangements of popular songs years before the actual songwriter publishes them and I get there first. I could get a whole string of success from songs and singers previously regarded as one-hit wonders. And the publishers would love it because there's an awful lot of songs and lyrics rattling around in this forty-year-old brain, could probably get a few strong albums out before having to resort to Billy Ray Cyrus.

And here's the first of them. I'd get into the studio, teach the session pianist how to play the basic tune (I don't really play the piano much), try to remember the rhythm for the loop track and record 'Bad Day' a couple of notes down from Powter's key. And I'd be a big smash hit, because it's such a darn fine song.

It's happy. That's the bottom line. It's a song about a bad day but it's happy. The gentle swing-rhythm carries you through the whole thing, the piano bubbles like a mountain spring a little like Bruce Hornsby on 'The Way It Is' but without dominating. You can't always make out the lyrics (although Powter is no David Gray in that regard) but the melody is happy, rambling and the verse melody in particular is strong enough that when he comes out of the bridge, progression can go back to the verse rather than straight back to the chorus.

Oh, and then there's the video. If you've never seen it, watch it through to the end. Not earth-shattering but it does what it does extremely well. There are only about two or three of the top forty where I'm going to stipulate that you gave to watch the video, but this is one.

You have to watch the video.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Top Forty: Music

"Hey Pop Pickers! Time for a countdown! Not 'arf!"

In 2002, prior to travelling around the world, I was visiting some friends for dinner. After playing various tracks of various types of music, some of which I was familiar with and some not, our host suggested to me that my musical taste must be "quite eclectic".

"I suppose so," I replied. "I will listen to a good variety of stuff and usually enjoy it, even some early Elton John." (At the time it was still not quite socially acceptable to like Elton John, even the early stuff from the 1970s.)

Later that year, preparing for the round the world trip, it was time to rip up music onto the laptop in prep for six months without CDs - remember this was before iPods were totally ubiquitous and the iPhone itself was still five years away - and I realised the stuff I listened to was pretty varied. Not that I didn't listen to Capital FM regularly (Chris Tarrant was still doing the breakfast show back then) but I had obscure CDs from bargain buckets with one or two tracks that I really liked, along with stuff I'd grown up with in the eighties and a smattering of instrumental, some of which could legitimately be described as 'classical' and some clearly not. And over the years since then the situation hasn't changed much: the number of tracks has increased but largely the proportion of popular stuff to unknown stuff, along with the variation of the genres, hasn't really altered much.

Before we begin, I do wish to state that I know everyone's experience in this area is highly unique. I doubt there's anyone in the world - probably not one person - who would match more than half of my top forty with theirs, and I mean that. As I put the list together I realised that my favourite music to listen to (some of which I don't listen to MUCH, but just enough that it doesn't lose it's magic) is so wildly varying that I'm pretty sure nobody will have even heard of all forty.

And hopefully that's one thing that can come out of this: not that I'm saying it should suddenly all become YOUR favourite stuff, not even that you might like it, but it might be something new and different. Some of it will seem crazy - just bland pop music perhaps - but I'll try to explain what it is, musically or lyrically (usually musically) that stands out. There WILL be some 'classical' music in there and that stuff will tend to be well-known, not just because I've not been exposed to less popular classical (although that's part of it) but because some of the most amazing music ever made IS in that genre, IS well over a hundred years old (sometimes much older) and has not only survived the test of time but risen to the top. That said, there's no Mozart (I'm a fan, but no one piece stands out to me) and no Bach (yes I know he's a genius etc etc but I just can't get into it, it's like listening to Joe Satriani on guitar, you KNOW it's good and clever but it doesn't ever seem to GRAB my soul). Similarly there's no Beatles and no Rolling Stones, no U2, no Coldplay, no Queen and even Stairway to Heaven only made the long-list before being cut at an early stage.

There IS, conversely, some amount of what might be termed 'spiritual' music, whether it's Handel (trying to avoid spoilers but I think we all know what that one's going to be), some modern Christian settings of Biblical verses, some of what might be termed 'new age', and some regular popular songs with a definite spiritual theme. For example, one song that didn't make the final list would be 'Let It Be' by The Beatles, which despite being a secular song and not holding to any strong theology, clearly has a spiritual theme. Lyrically, as much as lyrics matter (and they don't matter TOO much in this list actually), I have found that I do prefer songs that seep a little into the mystery of the spiritual side of things. Theologically I'm pretty much a mainstream protestant Christian without any major denominational bias, but musically I seem to have a tendency to anything that probes, questions and explores the far more diverse category of 'spirituality', without it particularly affecting my personal core beliefs.

But no Bach. I mean if I want to listen to fifteen different tunes at once I'll just open up a load of YouTube tabs and set them all going.

One final note: I'm going to attempt to put a good, suitable link to the music in with each post so you can hear it for yourself. I'm not trying to break any copyright here so generally I'll use stuff that's already out there, official where possible. For some it's out of copyright anyway, and for some the video that goes with it is perhaps part of the reason for choosing the tune. So I'll do my best and we'll see where we are forty days from here.

13 April 2015: Top Forty At Forty

So here's what it's all about.

I'm about to turn forty. The first birthday card arrived in the post last week and looking at it was a mild shock. Like I'd seen those cards in the shop, and even bought them for other people, but now they're for me. The 'You Are Forty!' cards are for me. And that means time for reflection. (Well, it means time for a nice cup of tea and a sit down, but you know what I mean).

People do this in different ways. Some sparky fellow named Kari Loya wrote a book called 'My Top 40 at 40: Making the first half count' in which he describes what a wonderful person he must be due to all the exciting experiences he's had in his first forty years. Billy Joel reflected on politicians, actors and events since the year of his birth and got a hit single out of it ("We Didn't Start The Fire"). I tried that same thing but didn't get very far, possibly because the UK since 1975 didn't match America of the 50s and 60s:

"Harold Wilson, Felicity Kendall, Common Market, Fawlty Towers..."

But it did occur to me that we each have our own experiences, so I started to think about putting together a series of charts - the top forty of different things in my opinion and experience, during my first forty years. Plenty of options for categories - top forty places been, things done, foods eaten, shows/films, sporting moments, TV/radio bloopers, Tour De France drug takers - the list goes on and on.

So for the next however long, and I don't know if it'll make it to a year, I'm going to attempt to resurrect this blog into something reflective and maybe thought-provoking too. Beginning with the natural first category for any Top Forty: the top forty music/songs.

And if you're interested, and you're probably not, I'm cross-posting at a new Blog site:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

12 April 2015: Not even this one


Not even close.

Now that's just getting silly.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

11 April 2015: Didn't Make It

That one didn't make it either.

Nor that one.

Not even that one. I know, it's hard to believe.

Friday, April 10, 2015

10 April 2015: Teaser

That one didn't make it.

That one didn't make it.

That one didn't make it.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

9 April 2015: Rumours

Is it true? Is this blog really about to come back to life?