Thursday, 28 July 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 107 (Top Ten): Conversations With Our 'Maker'

As we’ve seen, Paul Simon has a lot of conversations with his ‘maker’ on his new album. That’s unusual but not unique because there’s actually 20 AAA songs we could think of that either talk with God, have God talk to them, debate what God would be like or simply imagine what the afterlife might be like. Even we can’t write that much, so we’ve whittled it down to the 10 most interesting songs. This has always been an intriguing subject for your scribe by the way – it took until the end of a year’s creative writing course before I could write about anything except the afterlife – so I’m amazed it’s taken 106 other discussions before I got the excuse to use it! Now, ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ is almost unique in AAA terms by discussing God and what happens after death throughout the album – but even then it’s joined by Godley and Creme’s 1988 ‘farewell’ LP ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ which has a whole 45 minute debate about the state of Heaven and how the world existed (because, all together now, ‘the big bang is the thing that created you and me’!) As a result, we could have had a whole top 10 just made up of this album, but we’ve decided to move on to make the list more interesting... (those just missing the list include George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, The Kink’s ‘God’s Children’, Paul McCartney’s ‘Heaven on a Sunday’, Belle and Sebastian’s ‘The State I Am In’, Ringo Starr’s ‘Oh My Lord’, Dire Straits’ ‘Industrial Disease’, Jefferson Starship’s ‘Connection’, Oasis ‘D’yer Know What I Mean?’ and Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’ . Perhaps we’ll have a second top ten on the subject sometime if this list is popular!)

1) The Hollies “Maker” (from the 1967 album ‘Butterfly’): In which God is a fleeting temporary beauty, possibly drug-induced. Graham Nash’s last album track with his ‘first’ band was this fascinating drug-drenched song about God that mixes between the first and third person. Here, heaven is idyllic (‘Sunshine is shimmering, jack o’lanterns glimmering, giant moths are flickering around...’) but also available only for a short while (‘Back to reality, don’t you just pity me?, I could so easily stay here...’). Nash also adds an interesting postscript with the line about spending his days there with ‘someone I know I mustn’t believe in’ – is that because this is a drug-fuelled ‘illusion’? Or because he’s been ‘programmed’ by modern life in a way that doesn’t allow him to accept the idea of a higher being? Of all the songs on the list, this is the one that most equates the summer of love with religion and spirituality, with a clash of Western and Eastern instruments conjoining on a song that ends up sounding like a drug experience, a place you can’t stay in but always want to return to (well, that’s how drugs were perceived by many in 1967 anyway!) Of all the songs Nash submitted to the other Hollies, it was this and ‘Lady Of The Island’ that caused the biggest rifts, with the rest of the band allegedly hating this masterpiece in miniature. 

2) The Kinks “Big Sky” (1968): In which God becomes a snob, refusing to even look on what people ‘beneath’ him are up to. This song about an omnipotent messiah figure who frowns on people below him he considers ‘insignificant’ was actually inspired by a trip Ray Davies took up a mountain range. Recognising a record company executive below him – one involved in the case that was causing the Kinks so many legal difficulties in 1968 – Ray noticed how he seemed not to notice the ‘less important’ people around him. Ray, on a physically ‘higher’ plane, found the idea highly amusing and decided to write a song around it, one where people look up to their ‘master’ but in the end ‘the Big Sky’s too big to sympathise’. Although this song comes close to being another of Davies’ damning character stereotype songs (a la Well Respected Man and Dedicated Follower of Fashion), in the end Ray ends up feeling sorry for his creation, so cut off from the rest of the world he doesn’t know how it functions anymore (‘Big Sky would like to cry and he feels sad inside...’) Ray then ends the song with his own gesture of sympathy to all his fans and listeners, expressing his concern for the difficulties they might be facing and adding ‘one day we’ll be free and we won’t care, just you wait and see – until that day can be don’t let it get you down!’ But Mr Big Sky is too wrapped up in himself to hear Ray’s advice. 

3) Moody Blues “The Beginning” (Threshold) (1969): In which God and his ‘great computer’ has a truly bizarre conversation with his followers and offers some rather cryptic advice. ‘I am...I know I am...Therefore I am...I think’ Mankind, philosopher that he is, is only dimly aware of his existence on this curious Moody Blues sound effect/spoken word montage. It takes God – in the voice of drummer Graeme Edge – to put things straight for him, telling him that the difficulties aren’t his doing and can be overcome by cracking a ‘code’. For, all together now, ‘it riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave’. There’s another voice too, similar to ‘God’s but more sinister and accompanied by the clatter of technology – is this the Devil or, more simply, a slightly different shade of the same deity (the rather more crotchety old testament deity rather than the new testament one)? Any road, he thinks of mankind as simply something to programme through his ‘great computer’, with mankind a kind of living ‘magnetic ink’ helping him come to some big calculation. Whichever way, this is a truly oddball track even amongst a band that loved confusing their audience with hidden codes and symbols, ending with a high-pitched whistle which may or may not be the missing chord from the previous Moodies album...

4) Janis Joplin “Work Me, Lord” (1969): In which a desperate believer turns to a God that won’t or can’t hear her. An earth (and ear) shattering performance that finds Janis at her emotive best. ‘Work me lord, because I feel so useless down here..’ sings Janis’ suicidal narrator, praying to a God she doesn’t think is even bothering to listen to her. Acknowledging that there’s nothing special about her, she still yearns for better times ahead because ‘I don’t think you’d find anyone who could say that they tried like I’ve tried, the worst you can say is that I’m never satisfied’. Cue the most mournful horn section in the history of recorded music, yanking the song back to a positive major chord before it flounders and falls back uncomfortably on a minor one. The sound is heartbreaking, the sound of an individual trying to pull herself up and wish for better times ahead, whilst knowing in her heart that it’s never going to happen for her. The song ends with Janis still pleading, her lost vocal getting pummelled by an ending scattercushion of percussion. Janis excelled at this sort of song during her final days – her own composition ‘Mercedes Benz’ is a similar but rather more comical tale of a narrator who has everything and yet still wants more, for free, as reward for her loyalty (‘Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends’). 

5) Lindisfarne “Clear White Light” (1970): In which the question is asked, ‘so just what exactly happens after death?’, without ever quite finding an answer. The loveliest song on this top ten, this is renowned atheist Alan Hull writing about his experiences working as a nurse in an asylum, wondering out loud whether his own views might be wrong after finding religion comforted so many patients a near their life’s end. The song never actually ties its ideology to its mast – the question in the chorus is ‘do you believe the clear white light is going to guide us on?’ –but it’s joyous, boundless melody has fun leaping all over the place with the sheer delight over the realisation that the narrator can ‘give love one more go, because you never know what you might know’. Hull ends up having the complete opposite view of the afterlife on 1979’s ‘Good To Be Here?’ (the closing track of the 1979 Lindisfarne ‘The News’ album), imagining a scary journey into the afterlife full of troubles and a world where, when he dies, nobody knows who he is. Let’s hope that Hull, who died suddenly of a heart attack aged 49 in 1995, has found that his  former vision is closer to the truth.  

6) John Lennon “God” (1970): In which God is a concept by which we measure our pain. This, really, is two songs in one, the most revealing song of surely the most nakedly autobiographical album ever made. Lennon, in 1970 deep into professor Janov’s ‘primal scream’ therapy, is trying to come to terms with the illusions of life and offers up a long ‘shopping list’ of all the illusions that mankind should shatter if he is to continue through life without emotional baggage. Denying the beliefs of Hitler, Jesus, Buddha and the I Ching, he then turns his attention to musicians, quoting Dylan by his real name of Zimmerman and breaking millions of hearts by telling us that the Beatles are dead. In many ways it’s the beginning of the song, with the phrase quoted above, that hits hardest though, with Lennon giving the idea that throughout our long history the idea of ‘God’ is one that mankind has used to absolve himself of mistakes, that there was never one true creator and that mankind ultimately serves no useful purpose – he is just an ‘accident’. God is seen here as a comforting blanket for generations who don’t want to admit their own insignifigance and mortality. That hasn’t stopped many a medium coming forward and claiming that Lennon has ‘spoken’ from the afterlife however, freely admitting that he got things ‘wrong’ with this track and there was more to life than he supposed (then again, they don’t all say the same thing and might all be making it up anyway).

7) Paul Kantner and Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane) “Look At The Wood” (1972): In which God is an architect, taking years to perfect the world mere humans take for granted. Unusually, it’s those rebel rousers from the Jefferson Airplane and Starship who come up with the most ‘traditional’ view of God on the list. Their joint song ‘Look At The Wood’ appears on their second record together, the one with their baby Chyna on the front, and continues the record’s themes about creation and purpose. The song is a primitive folk number – so much so that, together with its simple melody, it sounds like its been sung around campfires since the stone age – listing the number of things created by God in turn. The singers, together with a guesting David Crosby, sound suitably awe-struck, looking at the world anew and deciding that ;it must have taken him years’. Perhaps they’re taking the mickey by the end though, what with lines about a ‘wide assortment of lizards’ and imagining God in the ‘form of a wizard’. The whole effect of reverie is also negated by the song fading up from ‘Titanic’ , a scary moodpiece full of sound effects of people drowning and waves lapping while a ship offers a mournful cry for help. What are we meant to make from this? That if God really exists he should save mankind from his biggest excesses and mistakes and tragedies (for which the Titanic is a pretty good fit)? Or that there are two ways of looking at the story? 

8) The Kinks “Black Messiah” (1978): In which thousands of years of prejudices are overturned when God turns out to be an African-American. This whole piece could be given the sub-title from this song ‘everybody got the right to speak their mind, so don’t shoot me for saying mine’. This late 70s Ray Davies composition is one of the most controversial of the whole Kinks back catalogue – or was t the time anyway – imagining God not as a Caucasian with a flowing white beard but as a black man set to right the wrongs his ‘brothers’ have been done on earth. Based around the line ‘everyone is equal in the good lord’s eyes’, Ray sings the entire song in a Jamaican accent and set to a calypso backing, caught halfway between sincerity and pastiche. All the song’s really doing, though, is drawing attention to the Bible’s themes of equality in the eyes of God, questioning whether the Bible itself is really free of prejudice enough to make that call and wondering out loud how thousands of years of white worshippers would take the news that ‘their’ God is really black. To be honest, it all sounds quite plausible to me, although it’s a shame that Ray’s messiah sounds like someone doing a bad impression of Boney M.     

9) Dennis Wilson “Are you Real?” (1979): In which a collapsed, scattered and possibly dying believer has a hazy conversation that could be real or simply the booze and drugs talking to him. ‘Are you my vision, can I believe in what I see, are you real?’ starts this moody song by the beach Boys drummer, originally left unreleased till 2004. The narrator, lost in a haze of drugs and booze admirably reconstructed by the musicians on the track, isn’t sure whether what he’s seeing is the result of his inebriated state or some genuine insight into life. The result is confusing, hopeless and lost, with the song slowly losing all sense of stability before ending in a truly mind-blowing finale, with the narrator sinking further into his helplessness. In short, this sounds like a man dying, being confronted with a death he knows is coming but a vision of an afterlife that may or not be real (just as scientists and worshippers continue to argue over whether the idea of a dying man seeing ‘lights at the end of a tunnel’ is a result of oxygen starvation or genuine progress into some other life). The song never decides either way, coming to a quick, sudden, angry switch. Has the narrator woken up? And if he has, is he on earth, in heaven or in hell? This unfinished track is one of the most moving of all the ‘Bambu’ fragments, not least because we know how close to death Dennis was (he died in 1983), with this album a last chance to find stability and happiness, a pursuit that sadly never happened.  

10) Neil Young “When God Made Me” (2005): In which God muses over how much talent he can fit into Neil Young’s head. This week’s top ten ends with yet another unexpected surprise. At least, it caught me by surprise on release, with that other well known atheist and rebel Neil Young (who ‘got thrown out of bible school for giving a finger to the preacher’) imagining what might have happened when his maker put him on the earth. The finale to an album all about death and what happens next (the album was inspired by the death of dad Scott Young), this is a hymnal, peaceful song with a church choir attached in the choruses. Neil wonders whether the God that made ‘him’ was in a good or happy mood, wanted to open his afterlife to just believers or everybody, whether God looks like him or any other being on the planet and what plans he had in store for Neil’s narrator when he was born. The result is a true one-off in Neil’s back catalogue and a big lyrical surprise, yet it’s still moving and rings surprisingly true. Was God intending me to write 217 articles and counting on obscure 1960s and 70s albums? I don’t know just yet but what I do know is, if there is someone up there then they brought one hell of a lot of beautiful music into the world. 

And that’s that for another issue. Be sure to join us the next time we play ‘news, views and music’! (Cue theme tune!)

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