Sunday, May 31, 2015

Music: Near Misses 61-65

Failure list number 5 of 7...

Rio - Duran Duran: Very strong chorus but the verse sections don't have quite enough and the instrumental break/bridge isn't sufficiently interesting to carry it through to the top 40. Better than 'Hungry Like The Wolf' in my view though.

12 Days of Christmas - Bill Barclay: One of the funniest songs you'll ever hear - provided you can decipher the accent - a favourite but not as good as those above it musically, lyrically, emotionally or anything else-ally. Perfect for what it does, though.

Something Good - Bic Runga: Very personal choice - Bic Runga herself has done technically better songs - but will always take me back to working in the mandarin orchards of New Zealand, and that is a very happy place to be taken to.

Kingston Town - UB40: Overall not strong enough to break into the top 40 but will always be a favourite.

Obsession - Delirious: Guitar solo that builds and builds is the clear strongest point, although the lyrics and interesting bass-based verses are also very strong. Could easily have made the list but didn't seem to have the beating of others from 30-40 and missed out in the end.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Music: Near Misses 56-60

And on with the next set of songs that didn't have what it takes to crack the final 40...

Wolf Creek Pass - C.W. McCall: Just listen to the lyrics and how he puts it together with the music. Not one of the top 40 ever but perfect for what it sets out to achieve... "well I looked at Earl and his eyes was wide, his lip was curled and his leg was fried" or "Well the sign said clearance to the twelve-foot line, but the chickens were stacked to thirteen-nine". Genius.

Awake O Sleeper - Kelanie Gloeckler: More a personal choice having heard her perform it live back in 2002. Album versions - even live ones - don't capture the moment. (The version in this video is by Karren Wheaton rather than Kelanie, couldn't find a YouTube version of Kelanie singing it)

Hosanna - Kirk Franklin: Closest choir harmonies you might ever hear and a song to lift your spirit. Ending drags on too long, however.

Stairway to Heaven - Led Zepplin: A timeless classic - unquestionably - but somehow failed to age as well as others in my experience. I just don't ever listen to it any more.

Angels and Eskimos - Kate Moody: Not quite enough to break the top 40, but wonderful piano composition, both the slow sections at either end and the main theme. Almost enough to make me want to play the piano.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Music: Near Misses 51-55

Moving on with the next batch of failures...

Don't Dream It's Over - Crowded House: Can't think of any ways to improve this one, but you have to be ruthless and there really were fifty other songs ahead of it.

Tunnel of Love - Dire Straits: Especially the live version from Alchemy. The guitar solo - particularly at the end - sets it apart from Sultans of Swing which made the initial list but not the 75.

Anthem (Tarka) - Anthony Phillips: Why does nobody else know about this album? Aside from the slightly annoying 80s synth sound and the fact it's just a little too repetitive, this would have made the final list.

Porcelain - Moby: So much going on here musically. Love the piano being out of step with the main beat. Didn't have enough musical variety to get in ahead of 'Night Birds' and 'Piano in the Dark'.

Nimrod (Enigma Variations) - Elgar: No real clue how this one missed the cut. I think it may have missed out due to the fact that I don't know it well enough, every time I've heard it it seems packed with emotion and meaning. Maybe I need to listen to it again.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Music: Near Misses 46-50

Continuing the countdown of those that didn't quite make it...

I wish it could be christmas every day - Wizzard: Failed due to lyrical problem brought up by four-year-old Hannah: 'But the snowman DOESN'T bring snow, you make snowmen FROM snow'. Sorry, Roy Wood.

Voice of Truth - Casting Crowns: Inspirational song, not quite enough going on musically, although the lift into the chorus made it a very close run thing.

Flowers in the Rain - The Move: Still not quite sure how this failed to make the list, probably it was too short. Sorry again, Roy Wood.

Walking On Sunshine - Katrina and the Waves: one of most unrelentingly upbeat songs, didn't quite have enough to challenge The Eurythmics, the Bee Gees or Beethoven however.

Rocking All Over The World - Status Quo: See above. Still if you're feeling down, any of these will lift you remarkably quickly.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Music: Near Misses 41-45

As I mentioned several times in the Top 40 music, there were numerous songs and tunes that came close but didn't make the final list. Initially I put together a 'long list' of any song I could think of that was vaguely possible. From that I cut out some that I knew wouldn't make the final 40 and ended up with a 'Short List' of about 75. And from there it was a case of ranking them all, and simply cutting the line off after 40.

Meaning there are 35 other items that failed to make the final list, each with their own pros, cons and particular reasons for missing out. For the next few days I'll list these through quickly  - beginning with the ones that just missed out and ended up at numbers 41-45.

High Hopes - Pink Floyd: Just missed out due to plodding vocal section. Slide guitar solo immense and amazing, and frankly could go on another ten minutes without anyone minding.

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo - Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Driving, energetic, musically interesting, mildly let down by quieter section in the middle.

Cavatina - John Williams: Probably would have been in except for the fact the ending somehow seems forced to me. Maybe I'm totally wrong.

Gaudete - Steeleye Span: Lost its spot to 'Fairytale of New York' very late on when I realised there would probably only be room for one Christmas song.

Find the River - REM: Wonderful harmonies, particularly in the chorus. Just not quite gripping enough and lost out to 'Bad Day' and 'Let Mercy Lead'.

1: Walking in Memphis - Marc Cohn

And we reach number one with a song that has probably been at the top of my list since I first heard it as a pop chart hit in the summer of 1991. I remember very clearly listening to an obscure Top 40 station called "Atlantic 252" on Long Wave radio (and that is something that doesn't even exist in North America) and hearing this regular, happy piano-driven pop song that would stop halfway through, have a beat of silence after saying something about when you haven't got a prayer... pause... but boy you've got a prayer in Memphis.

Then I listened carefully, heard it was by a guy called Marc Cohn, bought the album and over the years after that his other albums (which are very few in number), got to really enjoy his music - a kind of rootsy bluesy singer-songwriter thing - and hear various live performances, both official and bootleg, courtesy mainly of his small but devoted fan-base. But always 'Memphis' was the central theme, the focus of every show, the strongest song in the set and the one that tied it together, always my favourite.

And finally, after twenty-four years, I got to see him perform live about three weeks ago.

In that Arkansas concert he told the story of the song, which I sort of half-knew, but suddenly hearing it made it all make a little more sense. Essentially autobiographical, he really did take a plane trip to Memphis in the mid-1980s, he really did walk from Union Avenue up to Graceland to look round the Jungle Room and all the Elvis stuff, he really did go to Al Green's church and be deeply moved by the music and atmosphere of the place, and the chorus is about him actually walking between all these places, the cadence and rhythm of the song designed to feel like a brisk walk.

And he really did meet Muriel Davis Wilkins, the old school teacher who would play three or four hour sets of old hymns at the Hollywood Café in Robinsonville (which is technically in Mississippi, not Tennessee) on Friday nights. She really did invite him on the stage to sing 'Amazing Grace' with her (since it was the only song they knew in common). And given the proximity of Little Rock, Arkansas where the concert took place to Memphis itself, he said "Did anyone here know Muriel?"

The lady in the row in front of us, four seats to the right, shouted and raised her hand. Cohn stopped for a moment, acknowledged the hand, and just paused, then said "she really was something, wasn't she?"

And suddenly, from being a song on an obscure AM radio station, here I was in a small room with the songwriter and an older lady who had personally known Muriel who played the piano, feeling like I was right at the heart of this song I'd loved for almost a quarter of a century. You can read more about the story of the song here - including Muriel's frankly prophetic message to him that he was now ready to go an be a songwriter, and his return visit to see her after writing what turned into most of his first album, all the way up to the sad fact of her passing away just weeks before the album's eventual release, which of course led to Cohn winning a Grammy Award in 1992.

But for that show, and for those few minutes, I felt like someone had just opened up a secret door and let me inside the inner workings of a seriously great piece of music. I need to point out: 'Memphis' would be at number one on my list with or without that Arkansas concert, but it opened up a brand new dimension of this song for me, even beyond hearing live recordings such as the one offered below where he tells the story in another way. That brief silence, that nodded acknowledgement between Marc Cohn and the lady in the row in front of us, was somehow a momentary glimpse back to the instant of the conception of this song and indeed Cohn's whole career. And that isn't something you see every day.

So there are two videos offered here - the one above the original video release for the single, the one below a section of a recent concert with the story - and I make no apologies for saying that this, more than ever, is the number one on my Top 40 At 40.

At least as far as music is concerned... there's more to come, of course...

Monday, May 25, 2015

2: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 - Elgar

Known in the UK as "Land of Hope and Glory" or "That one from the Proms" and known in the US as "The Graduation March" or (most memorably) "That thing they play sometimes", Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance is either the very height of overblown, pretentious bourgeois nonsense or the pinnacle of orchestral music accessible to everyone who hears it. I'd side with the latter.

The thing is, it IS accessible - not just to the Brits and the now somewhat-embarrassing chorus about setting the national bounds wider still and wider- but to everyone who hears it in the background, at a graduation ceremony, at a marching band event, at a sports meet - it ingrains itself into your mind and once it's there, it's there for life. It means triumph, it means completion, it means all the things we as humans need to express in a way that we can share with everyone. It's truly accessible and carries you with it, whoever you are, whatever the circumstance, and is FOR everyone, not just the Brits. Not that I'm attempting to speak for Elgar, but now that it's out of copyright it does truly belong to everyone and, as with all the best tunes (see Ode to Joy at number 4 or the Wild Theme at number 5) the melody itself, unaccompanied, is enough to show its strength. With full orchestra and choir it's even better.

To me this is pretty much music at its finest, not just performed for us by the orchestra, but including us in it, as the Proms and all those American graduation ceremonies show.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

3: Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble - Delirious/Cutting Edge Band

Oo, that's a surprise. Delirious? Really? Third best piece of music of all time?

Even given the Southampton connections and my experiences of them as "Martin Smith and the Cutting Edge Band" circa 1994, this is a surprise. A few other Delirious tracks made the long list - Obsession was the last to be kicked out - but this one started near the top and never got moved. And that's because of what it says, what it does and how it manages to be over nine minutes long without you even realising it.

But it's mainly in there because you can pick up the guitar, start chugging away at it and it can go anywhere. The original album version gives the basic outline - stay mainly in D, go to G and add an E note in there sometimes, then back to D; use A sparingly as a build-up to the chorus, but aside from that it's mainly just those two chords. And that's all you need. You can follow the words or go somewhere else entirely - there's an ad-lib section from a concert circa 2000 where Stu G - the lead guitarist - goes into a very catchy riff before merging it with the key musical phrase from 'Run The Hell' by Pink Floyd. And the song is open for that, you can do what you like and go where you want, exploring words, rhythms and melodies that can come and go like the wind.

One of the most memorable examples of this for me was one of the first occasions I heard the song, at a Cutting Edge event in early 1995, back before they were 'Delirious' and when they still had female backing vocalists. And off they went into an unplanned section, the female vocalist ad-libbing amazing poetry about freedom and "dancing on the chains". And I remember the tears in the eyes as I had to sit down right there on the floor, feeling not just the weight of emotional burdens lifting from my shoulders as I realised negative feelings and circumstances had no hold on me, but the incredible realisation that the chains were now just sitting on the floor, ready to dance over in victory, ready to fly from, ready to never threaten me again. If I could share one feeling from my life with the rest of the world, that would be it. And this tune, this song, this... framework almost, comes as close to expressing that as anything else I've ever known.

Dancing on the chains.

Friday, May 22, 2015

4: Ode to Joy - Beethoven

I mentioned for both Bad Day (number forty) and There Must Be An Angel (number 16) that these songs were simply 'happy' and other songs, such as Walking On Sunshine, are the same way but missed out on this list. Here we have the ultimate in happy tunes.

I'm not actually much of a Beethoven fan. The well-known stuff, especially the Fifth, just seems too overblown and full of itself to me (although as hinted elsewhere, Beethoven is no Wagner in that regard). I'd much prefer to listen to Mozart, or Chopin, or Vivaldi. The Pastoral is ok, but even then doesn't quite get to Dvorak or even Mark Knopfler's level (see number 5!). However, Beethoven does have the occasional moment where he transcends his usual dark persona, or his dull persona, or his up-his-own-bottom persona and express something beyond himself and his world. And here it is, the Ode To Joy, the musical expression of one of the core human emotions that will probably never be matched in that regard.

The initial theme, the quiet section, then - BANG - in with the full choir, the melody covering the original theme again. Even just picking out the notes of that theme on a piano or keyboard with no accompaniment sounds uplifting and magical, like you're some kind of musical genius just for playing those notes in that order. That alone means it's an astonishing piece of composing. But the joy expressed through the full orchestral version with choir belting it out takes it somewhere else again. Not the heavenly vision of Handel's Messiah up at number 6, this instead is a clearer, more focused piece.

It is a genius musical expression of that human emotion and spiritual fruit known in English as joy. And nobody ever really needs to try to do that again, because Beethoven nailed it right here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

5: Going Home/Wild theme - Mark Knopfler

After the heavenly rapture of Handel, we come back to earth with an instrumental piece that Mark Knopfler wrote for the film 'Local Hero' as a solo artist during the same period that his band Dire Straits were approaching their peak. Again a piece that a lot of people know from the first few notes, this is one that although performed using modern instruments would probably have sat just as easily were it composed by Beethoven or Mozart. A simple theme repeated several times (as many classical pieces are), this uses few chords in a set sequence and lays the melody over the top in a way that says 'freedom'. Whether you listen to the full-band sax-driven version from the end of the movie or Knopfler's more slow-tempo guitar interpretation - and I've included both videos since they're both so good - you just get the feeling of casting off the cares of the world and running, driving, flying into a place of newness and liberty.

Of course it's used in a variety of settings - whether it's the Maxwell House Advert, Newcastle United FC running onto the pitch or one of Knopflers many live versions. But everyone seems to know it, and while a lot of people might not put it up there with Handel and Puccini, I beg to differ and frankly rank it above both.

We're nearing the top now, and this is unquestionably right up there.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Short List: Best Soft Drinks

Before we head into the final five on the music list, it's time to return to soft drinks and review the top ten.
10. Orangina - Shake the bottle... in fact when I first had this in France at the age of six, I recall the main attraction was being allowed to shake the bottle prior to opening it. For some reason I wasn't supposed to do that with other soft drinks.

9. Cydrax - Another childhood memory that probably isn't as great as I remember, but since they stopped making it there's no way to tell. If you were really lucky they'd sometimes have 'Peardrax' in stock which was even better.

8. Dr Pepper - I can't stand the stuff but it makes my wife happy, so it makes me happy, hence it's in the list. The 'Dublin' variety, recently banned following legal action over trademarks, is likely to score highest on the 'happy' index.

7. Appletise(r) - Both before and after they added the 'r' at the end this is a winner every time. I once tried making it by sticking apple juice in a Soda Stream machine. Don't try that.

6. Fresca - Coca-Cola company product that comes in 'grapefruit' or 'peach' flavours. Add real grapefruit to the grapefruit version. It's an experience.

5. IBC Root Beer - Root beer that only comes in a glass bottle. That's how good it is.

4. Dandelion & Burdock - I still think this is the UK's equivalent of root beer, although the flavours are clearly distinguishable when you do a taste test. One of the favourites to go with Big George's Fish'n'Chips in Southampton.

3. Lime & Tonic - The ultimate in sour drink experience, it's good fun to give it to people who have never had it before and photograph their face as they drink it. Some people do end up liking it.

2. Vimto - The other choice from Big George's, and just occasionally available in the US if you get lucky (or go to Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati). Juicy deliciousness.

1. Sprecher Root Beer (Tap) - Had this one time at a tiny pizza restaurant in Wisconsin. Had bottled version of same brand and was nothing like as good. Frankly amazing to find anything better than IBC but this was astonishing. We're thinking of getting it attached to the water supply for our house.

Honourable Mention
Fanta Fruit Twist - Very sweet but a nice treat when visiting the UK.

Meh list
Coca-Cola - Meh
Pepsi - Meh
Sprite - Meh
Fanta - Meh

Now I'm just bored... back to the music tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

6: Hallelujah Chorus - Handel

Music just doesn't get much better than this. A majestic, many-bodied choir vocal over a glorious fanfare from a full orchestra. It doesn't just lift your spirit, it ties it to the back of an Airbus A380 and launches you through the clouds and into orbit.

As we've previously discussed (mainly with Nessum Dorma up at number 9), you can't just DO LOUD THINGS and expect it to work. Nessun Dorma works because it earns the final crescendo through a slow, delicate build. Here, however, Handel just launches straight in with possibly the most recognisable first few bars of a song in the entire history of human music. Just four notes (see, Intel weren't the first to produce catchy motifs), everyone in choir and orchestra on the same wavelength, it hits you full in the face.

And then it continues, quieter phrases interrupted with loud 'Hallelujahs' at regular intervals, drums and horns augmenting the strings as it tells, in very few words, the story it tells over three minutes. It's glorious, rejoicing and - as with the best music - works in any circumstance where the feeling is the same, whether it's the resurrection of Christ or the successful launch of a new intranet site. It works, always and everywhere, and the process of its creation was said to have brought Handel to tears, exclaiming to his assistant that he thought he had seen the face of God.

Bold claims and big ideas indeed, but the outcome shows they are totally justified. Simply incredible.

7: Cardiff Bay - Martyn Joseph

Probably the biggest surprise in the top ten - maybe with one exception still to come - this is a song that seems simple, although the acoustic guitar line at the beginning is pretty instantly recognisable to those who've heard the song, and Martyn Joseph's picking is careful and deliberate that you know he's not just another hack guitarist with no real sense of how to play. The words are simple enough also but when the song finishes and you've listened to the words, you suddenly realise Joseph has painted a picture in your mind, lovingly, of both his home town and the love he has for his son. I don't have any particularly fond thoughts or memories of Cardiff from the few times I've been, although it's a perfectly decent place, but after this song I feel like I have another set of memories all together, and they're his, not mine.

It's also, and this is less important actually, the first relatively complex picking I worked out on the guitar. I enjoyed listening to this song sufficiently when I first began playing the guitar some twenty years ago that I sat down and worked out, note by note (and I didn't know my scales then) what he played, then what chords each bit related to, and eventually worked out a fingering to it (which may or may not be accurate, although my capo is on the same place as his when he plays it live). It's something I play now when just noodling around on the guitar and the one most likely to make people say "hey, that's nice, is that a tune or are you just plucking something?"

But it's there, it's one of my all-time favourites and I can't see any way to put even Wuthering Heights or Nessum Dorma above it. We're getting pretty high up the chart now, nose bleed time. Going to take something pretty special to get above Cardiff Bay.

Monday, May 18, 2015

8: Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush

Nothing can really prepare you for Kate Bush. This song - her first single from her first album - starts with her playing some of the notes right at the very top of the piano. Then her vocal comes in and it's even higher. Not falsetto, not processed, not like anything you've ever heard. And it does take a while before the shock wears off, and may take the entire length of the track.

Then you listen again, and again, and again... and the chorus starts to stand out. Still can't make out the words really, but something about "it's me, your Cathy, I've come home" which fits with the novel referenced in the song title, and those words and the melody line are in their own way already deeply moving and already sounding like nobody except this voice could sing that. Then the arrangement hits you, percussion and bass very cleverly mixed, piano tumbling between vocals, maybe some strings there in the background, then here comes a guitar... Ian Bairnson was the guitarist here, as opposed to Alan Murphy who played on much of Bush's later work. The solo gently follows the melody then launches its own countermelody and it works, it works, it works.

This song is one of those moments where it all just comes together. There's not much music out there better than this. Although if you continue reading, you'll find I have managed to find seven that, in my view, are.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

9: Nessun Dorma - Puccini/Luciano Pavarotti

Apparently it was Des Lynam himself who selected this to be the BBC theme music for their World Cup football (soccer) coverage in 1990, which was held in Italy. And many gentlemen of my age will always love this tune and associate it, almost exclusively, with England getting to the semi-finals, Lineker's goals, Gazza's tears, Platt's last-minute winner against Belgium and Chris Waddle blasting his penalty over the bar to knock England out and send West Germany through to the final. Would we think so highly of this tune had England crashed out in the group stage?

Hard to say. But that's moot because it propelled Nessum Dorma and Pavarotti to the forefront of national consciousness - reaching number two in the pop singles chart - which in turn brought the track and the man to international attention, so much so that by the 1994 World Cup the Three Tenors (Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti) were at the opening ceremony. But it's not about the history.

And it's not about the lyrics, although reading a translation you can see how it fits with the tune and can be inspriational. But the tune itself, the melody, the slow build and final triumphant crescendo, is truly one of the great pieces of music I've ever heard. And as I'm going to say several times over the top ten over the next few entries, it's not a trivial task just to push some buttons, create a big musical crescendo and boom, it works. To craft a really powerful crescendo you have to EARN it - and Puccini's writing over the rest of the song is carefully, lovingly constructed to both allow and justify the final build and crescendo. That is a very hard task, and it does take some serious musical genius to achieve it without it seeming at best overblown (I'm looking accusingly in your direction, Wagner) or at worst totally outplaced.

Puccini gets it right. So does Pavarotti. And so did Des Lynam.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

10: China In your hand - T'Pau

And into the top ten we go with another bland 1980s pop number. And the seeming need for me to explain how I can have two T'Pau tracks in the top forty when there's only one by Pink Floyd and none at all by The Beatles, The Who or Wagner. It's even seen as an easy target for critics (even if it's not) - for example, China is criticised as being "the lowest-selling record to spend five weeks at number one in the 1980s". So how can I justify it? Short answer: It's My List.

And yet, as we talked about with 'Bridge of Spies' up at number 24, it really feels like it's hard to take it seriously because it's mid-80s pop. But when you do look into some of that stuff - the Bangles for instance, or Tears for Fears - there's often a lot of musical depth and talent there wrapped up in a suitable pop package to make it accessible to the teenagers of the time. And as we discussed before, the 'Bridge of Spies' album as a whole is, by luck or judgment, a very well-produced album that stands strong after almost thirty years. And for a while I stopped thinking 'China In Your Hand' was a good track, it was just a typical track on a really good album.

Then I started listening to it again and realized, no, it really DOES stand out even from the Bridge Of Spies crowd. The lyrics for a long time made basically no sense to me (some scheme? told in a foreign land? what?) but it has the nice musical twist of building at the end of the first verse... and back into the verse again, because the verse melody itself is strong enough to take that. Then we soar into the chorus with Carol Decker again on 'Bodyform' vocals - the studio version was largely unprocessed on the album cut, as I understand it - overlays of melody on strong basslines and all the instruments coming together to bring it not just the 'pop package' feel but something any composer would be proud of. No majorly exciting chords there, although the sequence is a little unusual, but it stands up strongly in a lot of circumstances and settings.

For example, there's the original studio version, various live versions, a variety of acoustic versions recently - all of which show the following: no matter how you arrange it, it's flat-out a good song. You can do what you like to it and it stands up, as any good folk song or short classical piece would. Simple structure and it works, at all times and in all places. No great emotional thing going on here between me and this song, it's simply an outstanding song that is a whole lot more than its context of mid-80s packaged pop.

The video here is a live version from Hammersmith in 1988 after Dean Howard joined the band - in my view his guitar solo, in particular how he begins the reprise, is superior to the original sax solo on the studio version; similarly Michael Chetwynd's keyboard takes more prominence and makes the song seem less manufactured.

Oh, and what are the lyrics about? Mary Shelley's story 'Frankenstein'. (Pause. Well yeah, you're right, that DOES make sense now you mention it.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

11: Shine On You Crazy Diamond - Pink Floyd

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that this is the only Pink Floyd track in the list. If we were talking about albums it would be a different story of course (you can't listen to one track on Dark Side of the Moon without listening to them all), but even so there are several stand-out tracks that made the long list. Comfortably Numb is incredibly strong but had nothing totally outstanding that caused it to be in; 'High Hopes' has that amazing slide guitar solo at the end and was in the list for a long long time... but in the end you have to be surprisingly ruthless and the fact that the sung section of High Hopes is frankly pretty unremarkable was enough to see it be the final song dropped from the list - it's at number 41.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond is different though. So much in the music, the words, the instruments used and the arrangements, but it's also somewhat unique as the only song I've ever heard on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 AND 4. For those outside the UK, the BBC has number of national radio networks but primarily 5: Radio 1 does current pop, Radio 2 does older stuff and easier listening, Radio 3 does 'specialist' (usually classical, Jazz or World/Folk), Radio 4 does talk and Radio "5 Live" (don't ask what happened to the original Radio 5) does news and sport. Radio 1 broadcast a full Floyd concert late in 1994 when their album 'Division Bell' was top of the album chart; Radio 2 often play Floyd as it's the most natural home for it; Radio 3's "Late Junction" show (the very DEFINITION of eclectic as far as I can tell) once played the whole 25 minutes of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (parts 1 to 9) in between some Polynesian chanting and Indian Sitar-based rock; Radio 4 played it as part of a documentary on Pink Floyd.

And then there's the story behind it - don't need to cover it here, just Google 'Syd Barrett' and 'Wish You Were Here'. What is amazing is that Syd showed up during the recording of the album, so wrecked from the drugs that the band didn't recognise him for a while, before quietly leaving in shock at the sight of how he had changed since they kicked him out of the band some seven years before.

There's nothing else to say really. Just listen to it. The version above is tracks 1 and 5 from the 'Wish You Were here' album played back-to-back to get all the various sections in.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

12: Everybody Hurts - REM

This is one that would be in the Top Forty of a lot of people I think. Using that same 6/8 rolling thing so common in 50's rock and roll and utilised by Leonard Cohen in 'Hallelujah' up at number 21, it's something gentle and soothing that covers lyrics with a lot of depth and, I remember reading in the news on one occasion, it actually has a proven track-record of pulling people back from the brink of suicide. It's a strong song, no doubt about that. But there are two main reason why it's in the Top Forty.

Firstly musical: right at the end of the song ("so hold on...") the string section kicks in with a melody/line that lifts the whole thing up to a different place, and you can really understand how it can emotionally and psychologically help lift people up also. Despite it all, there is hope. And it's not like Michael Stipe is preaching that at us with the words, music and particularly the strings, it's all framed in such a way that you feel like the song itself is right with you in whatever it is that's dragging you down, and now it's going to lift up and take you with it.

Secondly, this is another of those where you have to watch the video. If you've never seen the video, stop what you're doing, click on the link above and spend the next five minutes and thirty-seven seconds of your life watching the official video. Then try to tell me it isn't the best music video that has ever been made.

You won't manage it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

13: Come To Jesus - Mindy Smith

Mindy Smith again? But you'd never heard of her when we did number (One Moment More).

As I mentioned with Shakatak's jazz funk music (up at number 34), some genres of music are sufficiently removed from my area of experience (I wouldn't say expertise) that I can't figure out what's going on musically and as a result I can enjoy the tune in a different way. This one isn't quite like that. In fact it's right at one edge of what I can and do like to play, and that edge is known as bluegrass.

I don't have the knowledge or experience to really describe bluegrass fully - and it's not really what the Top Forty At Forty is about - just listen to some Allison Krauss or the soundtrack to 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and you'll see what I'm on about. But here Mindy Smith puts together, particularly in acoustic versions of the song, that 'high lonesome sound' of wolves in the Appalachians. Playing it in the key of D, it begins with a couple of visits to A (which I still don't think really fit with the rest of the song) and then we're off - D down to C, to a B-bass chord (probably G) then back to D. The D can be opened to a D2 and you can even do a little arpeggio thing with the G-string, flicking between G and A, before dropping the bass down to C and keeping many of the strings open as the progression continue. Just playing that kind of sequence in itself sounds bluegrass, and then you add Smith's yearning vocals, and we're off on a journey through the mountains. Oh, and just like with Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel', I hear harmonies in this song that flat-out aren't on the recording.

KFOG (San Francisco "world-class rock" station on which I first heard this song) had Mindy Smith come in and do a set for them once, and the version of 'Come To Jesus' from that set made it on to their compilation "Live from the Archives volume 11" (which also featured acoustic live versions of 'Romeo and Juliet' by Mark Knopfler and 'Angel' by Sarah McLachlan - can you tell I liked that album?). On that it's Smith's vocals, acoustic guitar and also a mandolin which adds a wonderful counterpoint. I haven't been able to find a version of that online, but the video above is the closest I could find from what youTube has on offer today.

Monday, May 11, 2015

14: Romeo and Juliet - Dire Straits

Track 2 from 'Making Movies', which is arguably Dire Straits' high-point if you discount their early success with Sultans of Swing. Or Money For Nothing. Or Walk of Life. Or... oh, forget it.

Mark Knopfler's guitar is as unique as ever in this one, and the melancholy story is so accurately answered phrase-by-phrase by the guitar twiddles he does between the words. The quiet drops, the builds and the memorable final line of the chorus - "it was just that the time was wrong" - means this has been the song to cover the emotions of many a romantic break-up over the years to anyone who heard it. While Knopfler himself drops in careful throwback references in the lyrics - to songs as 'There's a place for us' and even 'Hey da, my boyfriend's back' - this is a genuinely timeless song, not dated in the way so much late seventies and early eighties pop is today. There's no heavy synth or electronic 'futuristic' sounds, just the guitar, rolling and almost comforting piano (new departure for Dire Straits and I think it was Roy Bittan from Springsteen's E Street band who played on the original album) and Pick Withers doing some very understated drum/percussing prior to his departure from the band.

But the guitar is the unique sound, and nobody else has really managed to do anything like it, on a major popular record, before or since. It sounds like it shouldn't work, and it's too simple, and the tinny treble sound is all wrong, and Mark Knopfler can't sing anyway, and he doesn't even try to if we're honest, and and and... it works. Beautifually, memorably, timelessly, it works.

I'd be astonished if you didn't know this song, but if you don't, play the video (original studio version) and enjoy. For a good live version, try one of Kopfler's later solo efforts, he's slowed it down a little in recent years, added to the ad-lib at the end and generally mellowed it out even more.

15: Loch Lomond - Runrig

Yes, Runrig feature twice. No, I didn't vote SNP.

I can't see any way this one wouldn't be included. The song itself - which is world-famous, which I found somewhat to my surprise on moving to the US - is of course an old Scottish folk song. Runrig rearrange the verses slightly so you get two verses before the first crescendo chorus, which is pretty moving stuff in itself, particularly in live recording where clearly everyone in the entire place not only knows the song but they all sing it with a passion that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon could never begin to hope to bottle, because this is far, far above politics.

But then on completion of the chorus it goes elsewhere - so suddenly that the first time I heard it I assumed it was either a continuity error in the recording or an entirely different song. It launches into a percussion-driven section in Gaelic, where the crowd bounces along with the words as Donnie Munro (or Bruce Guthro in more recent versions like the 2008 release) sings the main chorus over the top. Then total band cut - just the crowd singing the chorus. Finally the band come back in, different tempo and arrangement, and finish off the song with a few more rounds of the chorus. So essentially it's two verses followed by six minutes of the chorus.

But the emotion of the crowd singing, along with the arrangement, the changes in beat - especially the hop to the Gaelic version, which just makes you want to start jumping around - and then the climactic finish (including a very suitable descending bassline on the final arrangement of the chorus) give the song real power, real raw feeling and somehow makes you proud to be Scottish even if you're not, which is quite an accomplishment.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

16: There Must Be An Angel - Eurythmics

A couple of years after their Big Big Hit (Sweet Dreams), Dave and Annie of the Eurythmics came up with this one. The year was 1985, it was the last week of July and I was at a Summer Soccer School, and all I remember from that week (aside from the smell of the sports hall at Marjons, which was distinctive enough to last thirty years in my psyche) was all the boys there - aged 10 to 14 or so - walking round humming and singing this song, which is decidedly feminine in nature. "Ba-da do da do da do daaaah" they'd sing. These big (by comparison with me, since I was ten at the time) football-playing guys all walking around during the lunch break, walking between the playing areas, practising their Cruyff turns and ball-juggling, all mumbling falsettos about angels playing with their hearts. Which is all memorable in itself.

Then we get to the song. Annie Lennox's vocals are as always at the top of the class - she is without doubt one of the best female vocalists of her generation, hitting such a wide range of notes with both ease and strength - you know it's no struggle for her to get up there at the high notes, but in the same way she doesn't bottom-out and lose it at the lower registers. And here she showcases it all. It's happy, upbeat and really joyous and while there's no one part of the song that lifts you to some other place (although Stevie Wonder's harmonica sections are really, really good) it's the effect of the whole song that does it. The long-list for the Top Forty At Forty contained 'Walking On Sunshine' and even 'Rocking All Over The World' just because of this effect - the entire song itself being happy, lifting, envigorating like the sun breaking through the grey winter clouds, and energising in a way that, for example, the Bee Gees 'Too Much Heaven' is not. But they fell by the wayside because they're not really strong enough musically.

This song, however, has the lot. Plus it mentions angels so gets bonus points for that.

Friday, May 08, 2015

17: I don't want to talk about it - Everything But The Girl

Yes, this specific version. Not Rod Stewart (although his is, of course, good) nor Crazy Horse's original from 1971. From 1988, this was one of the summer tracks that was not only a pop hit but was easy-listening enough to be played on just about every radio station/genre at the time. So for about two months it was everywhere.

But coming back to it, after years and after self-teaching acoustic guitar, it suddenly became the track I wanted to play along to. Either following the finger-picking and solos on the track, or ad-libbing something else in the same key, it's one of the few tracks that when I hear it my first, immediate, and usually acted-on thought is: "where's the guitar?" As much as 'Piano In The Dark' up at number 32 was the start of my journey into piano instrumentals, this track is a huge, huge reason why I play the acoustic.

As for the song itself - I remember hearing it on the radio and thinking it was a song that just went round and round, no real progression to it, start and end points just arbitrary spots on the circle - hop on, go round a few times, hop off. Having played it since, I know there is some structure to it beyond just that, but listening to the song itself without paying much attention and it might as well just be round and round. And there's the hook - at least in EBTG's version - of the chord structure towards the end of the 'chorus' "if I stay here just a little bit longer..." (if you play it in B) going E to F# then back down to E and up to F# again... but that move from F# back down to E is played with the notes Bb and F# (part of F#) stepping quickly to A and F and then on to G# and E (part of E), probably the most memorable musical hook in the thing.

But really it makes the list just because I've never, ever got sick of it in twenty-seven years and it still makes me want to pick up the guitar today and see if I can do the Bb-A-G# drop while continuing to finger-pick the rest of it. It's a quality, quality arrangement of a decent, if unremarkable song, that for whatever reason has stuck with me and makes me WANT to play the guitar.

In fact as you listen to this, I think it might be time to go and pick the old Yamaha off the stand and see if it's in tune...

Thursday, May 07, 2015

18: One Moment More - Mindy Smith

And from a song with no darkness we now come to one of the most haunting, melancholy, tear-inducing pieces you'll ever hear.

We all face death. And the death of others we love, and how we face that, is so utterly different from how we face our own mortality - should it be? I have no idea - but it's excruciatingly hard to adequately express the pain, the loss, but beyond that those bizarre feelings at those times of being somewhere beyond the now and reaching with the one we love into wherever it is they are going, and going only so far on that road with them before leaving them to continue on alone. How can you explain and describe that feeling, and why do we feel the need to express that, even if we don't want to? Most of us end up in tearful disbelief moving through to slow acceptance and eventually closure, but that path is fraught and varied such that there's never anything the same from one person's experience to the next, and sometimes it doesn't complete even in a lifetime.

And yet, and yet, and yet... Mindy Smith - writing here about her mother's passing - captures in words and music the feelings around these times in a way that is so relatable, so accurate and so beyond anything I could ever hope to express myself. Her vocal performance here is such that you can never imagine anyone else singing it - shades of Sarah McLachlan's performance of Angel up at number 39 - and the lyrics are so clear to hear, so concise and so seeping with emotion that you never want anyone else to sing it.

It's not a song you can listen to often. But it expresses something we need to express, and something that I on my own am totally unable to express in anything like the words, the beauty and the sheer accuracy of what Mindy Smith manages in this song.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

19: Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes - Edison Lighthouse

What an odd choice for the Top Forty countdown of favourite songs/tunes ever.

A one-hit wonder from 1970, most people probably know it or at least have heard it on some oldies station (or 'BBC Local Radio' as we call it in the UK) and would be vaguely familiar with it. Not atypical of the time by any means, the lyrics basically a light flower-power story about a gentleman feeling a romantic attraction towards a lady who appears to be part of the hippy movement, the tune a breezy late-sixties guitar-based pop number owing a debt to the folk movement of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary as much as to the Beatles or the Stones. And Edison Lighthouse never did anything much again. And that's that, right?

The thing about it is that it's so happy, so infectious and so unstoppably 'up' that it actually transcends its time and place to become something that really will lift you wherever you are. I think some songs take you back to where you were when it was a hit, or when you heard it, and I have plenty of those. But I wasn't around in 1970 and have never had any serious contextual exposure to this song. This is one of those songs that once you stop for a moment and pay it even the slightest bit of attention, it suddenly grows in your mind and you realise actually this is a darn fine piece of music, perfectly weighted, light and airy and - like the Bee Gees at number 31 - there's just nothing dark or low about this song at all.

There's probably plenty of other songs that would grow in my mind were I to give them a lot of attention, but there are plenty that haven't and this is one that really has. Give this song the time of day and see where you end up with it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

20: Moonlight Shadow - Mike Oldfield/Maggie Reilly

I knew this one from Radio One when it was a hit in 1983, and then didn't think about it for ten years, apart from occasional run-outs on Late Night Sou' West. Then around 1993 I purchased a compilation album that happened to contain it, and started to listen to it again, and it was one of those songs that just didn't leave you. Two years after that I started to play the acoustic guitar and that was that, I was a dead duck.

Mike Oldfield is of course a highly talented composer, still probably underrated in terms of how he will be viewed historically. Producing a serious variety of music - Moonlight Shadow is a relatively rare four-minute radio pop single for Oldfield - his work will be listened to a hundred years from now and beyond. And so this pop single he made, with Maggie Reilly on vocals, seems to me to carry a lot of that talent in, condense it down, and get a whole lot out of his four minutes. The lyrics are less of an issue - something to do with the plot of a half-watched TV mystery show as I recall - but they do have one interesting feature which ties this song back a long, long way to a folk music tradition that is centuries old.

Listen to a lot of that old folksy stuff - and I don't particularly like to, to be honest - and you hear the repeating lines as the story progresses. This was before recorded music, so the average folk singer would be performing in front of people, and they wouldn't know the songs. At least to start with. So you have a repeating refrain, either a chorus as we know it today or sometimes just a set of four-line verses where lines two and four would always be the same, so people could learn them and join in, while the singer used lines one and three to progress the narrative (and there usually was a narrative). And here we have the same thing - lines two and four (and six and eight, depending on how you break the song up) have these repeated refrains. Sting does the same in "Fields of Gold". It's a device, and it works, and if it works well - as in those two cases - you don't really know it's happening. But it is, and shows that Moonlight Shadow could have been a folk song from two hundred years ago without too much bother.

Except for the arrangement of course, and Mike Oldfield does do those well. Not one but two electric guitars ("slightly distorted"?) hopping and then screaming solos over the main chord base, with the acoustic still driving along underneath, and you have something put together by a genius that sounds so simple and yet works in so many ways on so many levels.

Oh and for those who never had the original album but know the four-minute version, enjoy the video. There's a whole extra MINUTE that we never knew about.

Monday, May 04, 2015

21: Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley

There's been more study done into this song than probably any other in the Top Forty list. And I won't bore you with it, you can read that elsewhere. It will suffice to say that when you think about which version to share with people, you're unlikely to suggest the original 1984 recording by Leonard Cohen.

Which leads to the question of which version to put here. Obvious answers would be John Cale, Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright, but the thing seems to have been covered by everyone in the history of history, and most of them are disappointing because they miss what would seem to me to be the strongest part of the song - the last verse in Cohen's original. The melody itself is musically simple but strong enough to carry just a vocal and a single instrument (although you can easily add a choir if you want) - and the best part, music-wise, is that wonderful walk-up from (if you're performing in G) D through B7 (so you get the D# note) and up to E for the E-minor. Rufus Wainwright went for B-minor rather than B7 at that point so ends up with two D's then an E. Sounds different and is mildly interesting but frankly he missed a trick without the D#.

But the words, the words, the words. Starting with a simple, relatively jumbled set of Biblical themes (David? Samson? eh?) and even some musical instructions at the beginning (you know the bit I mean, but have you ever heard anything like that in any other song?).. but it grows, and in the final verse used by Cale, Buckley and co we end up with the spiritual ambiguity that sums up so much of the song ("Well maybe there's a God above, but all I ever learned from love...") followed by the acknowledgement that "the hallelujah" is "cold and broken". Sums it up, really, no sense of hope for anything beyond this.

But Cohen himself continues into another verse, the astounding lyrics rising with the fourth, fifth, minor fall and major lift to propell the listener, the singer, and anyone else in the vicinity into a state of semi-rapturous hope despite the hopelessness of the situation.

Well I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah...

For that reason I offer two versions for your enjoyment. Jeff Buckley's famous cover (above) and yes, the original 1984 Leonard Cohen version - right here:

Short List: Worst Soft Drinks

Taking another quick break from the music list, here's the first of a two-parter on soft drinks. I didn't manage to get a top forty soft drinks, but I did find the "definitely didn't make the list" section was developing into a list of its own. So here are the top ten worst soft drinks in Duncan history.

10. A&W Cream Soda - Put it in your mouth and wait for some kind of flavour to emerge. I'm still waiting.

9. Jarritos Limeade - Had one of these Mexican drinks because it looked appealing and exotic in its tall bottle, and it tasted like rubbishy Co-op own-brand limeade from 1983. Very disappointing.

8. New Coke - I actually don't remember this much but I gather I have to put it in a list such as this to add grvitas and credibility to my arguments.

7. Tizer - They say it's supposed to taste like apples. I only found that out when researching this blog entry. Best feature: the image above says "Original GREAT taste" on the can, as if that is supposed to make me want to buy it.

6. Bundaberg Root Beer - Australian beverage that has the rare distinction of not only being bad, but actually being unrecognizable as root beer in terms of flavour. At a guess I'd suggest "rotting tree bark beer" or "old shoe beer" might be more correct names.

5. Club-Mate - I've never had this German drink but the sheer idea of taking South American Mate and putting it in carbonated water just sounds such a bad idea on so many fronts it had to make the list.

4. Panda Cola - Warm syrupy goodness for those long English summer days. On the upside it make good bicycle chain lubricant.

3. Irn-Bru - "Made from girders in Scotland" - oh really, that explains why it tastes so good then.

2. "Carter's" Root Beer (only available at Asda in the UK) - If you want to put an entire country off Root Beer, offer them this.

1. L&P - Allegedly made from Lemon juice and Paeroa mineral water, this dreadful concoction claims to be "World Famous In New Zealand". Kiwi culture could be much improved if they stopped telling visitors that the great things about New Zealand are stuff like this and the music of Dave Dobbyn.

The list of best soft drinks ever will follow soon... meantime tomorrow we'll be back to the regular music list at number 21 with a song that a lot of people would have in their top ten, or even higher. Not, not Dave Dobbyn.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

22: Spring/Allegro (Four Seasons) - Vivaldi

The question here surely is not whether it should be in the Top Forty At Forty, but why it isn't any higher than number 22. The answer to that will be revealed over the coming entries of course, but the fact remains it is one of the strongest pieces of music of the last thousand years, and even at its venerable age it is spritely and fresh to each new generation.

How old is it? 1720 is the current estimate. It was only recently that I wondered why Vivaldi wrote so much string stuff and not piano concertos like Mozart - the answer is that this pre-dates the piano. Seriously - the oldest pianos in existence today date from the same year - 1720 - and they were early prototypes, not considered yet for serious use.

But the main thing is that it sounds amazing. Not that the rest of the Four Seasons doesn't - every part is distinctive and well-known - but Spring is the best, and not just because Nigel Kennedy got hold of it. It is very descriptive - the bird singing represented by the violin solo is the obvious one, but there's plenty of other spring sounds to listen for - but the bit that I really like best is the last minute or so, where it goes to a minor-key lower version of the main theme, followed by a section that ends with a rising violin solo that slowly rises, rises, rises and then arrives, not to quick, not too slow, at the summit of the hill and the piece can finish with the final refrain again. Really beautiful stuff, perfectly judged and weighted, and simple enough for anyone to appreciate.

I have no idea why you'd put a lighthouse with it, but the Landscape people did, so I've linked to that version.

Friday, May 01, 2015

23: The Shaman - Richard Searles

I don't quite know how to describe this one. It's a sort of haunting new-agey type instrumental with a minor-key acoustic guitar structure overlaid with some strings and a few other simple things, really nothing fancy at all. Richard Searles himself is known for producing a kind of medieval music that can probably be best described as 'Elizabethan' or 'Tudor', and indeed the majority of the album that this is from ("Ancient Isles") takes that form. But this different, much more timeless, and it really gets its hooks into you.

I know it from Landscape. The podcasts they produced a few years ago were varied (and contained too much Bach) but I listened to them in the background while working and presumably absorbed them by some sort of musical osmosis. Then one day I found I had the acoustic guitar sequence in my head and thought "what is THAT?". The I thought some more and tried to play the music in my head and went "oh yes, that's the one with the owl noises in it, must be from Landscape". Off I popped to the podcasts and there, second track on podcast six, was this weird guitar-and-strings-and-owl-hoots thing that I then proceeded to listen to over and over, and never got sick of it. I still haven't. Unquestionably one of my favourite instrumental pieces ever.

My only wish is that the boat journey in the video above below actually WENT somewhere, like a secret cave or something where we could really meet the owl.