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!)

A NOW COMPLETE List Of Top Five/Top Ten/TOP TWENTY  Entries 2008-2019
1) Chronic Fatigue songs

2) Songs For The Face Of Bo

3) Credit Crunch Songs

4) Songs For The Autumn

5) National Wombat Week

6) AAA Box Sets

7) Virus Songs

8) Worst AAA-Related DVDs

9) Self-Punctuating Superstar Classics

10) Ways To Know You Have Turned Into A Collector

11) Political Songs

12) Totally Bonkers Concept Albums

13) Celebrating 40 Years Of The Beatles' White Album

14) Still Celebrating 40 Years Of The Beatles' White Album

15) AAA Existential Questions

16) Releases Of The Year 2008

17) Top AAA Xmas Songs

18) Notable AAA Gigs

19) All things '20' related for our 20th issue

20) Romantic odes for Valentine's Day

21) Hollies B sides

22) 'Other' BBC Session Albums

23) Beach Boys Rarities Still Not Available On CD

24) Songs John, Paul and George wrote for Ringo's solo albums

25) 5 of the Best Rock 'n' Roll Tracks From The Pre-Beatles Era

26) AAA Autobiographies

27) Rolling Stones B-sides

28) Beatles B-Sides

29) The lllloooonnngggeesssttt AAA songs of all time

30) Kinks B-Sides

31) Abandoned CSNY projects 'wasted on the way'

32) Best AAA Rarities and Outtakes Sets

33) News We've Missed While We've Been Away

34) Birthday Songs for our 1st Anniversary

35) Brightest Album Covers

36) Biggest Recorded Arguments

37) Songs About Superheroes

38) AAA TV Networks That Should Exist

39) AAA Woodtsock Moments

40) Top Moments Of The Past Year As Voted For By Readers

41) Music Segues

42) AAA Foreign Language Songs

43) 'Other' Groups In Need Of Re-Mastering

44) The Kinks Preservation Rock Opera - Was It Really About The Forthcoming UK General Election?

45) Mono and Stereo Mixes - Biggest Differences

46) Weirdest Things To Do When A Band Member Leaves

47) Video Clips Exclusive To Youtube (#1)

48) Top AAA Releases Of 2009

49) Songs About Trains

50) Songs about Winter

51) Songs about astrology plus horoscopes for selected AAA members

52) The Worst Five Groups Ever!

53) The Most Over-Rated AAA Albums

54) Top AAA Rarities Exclusive To EPs

55) Random Recent Purchases (#1)

56) AAA Party Political Slogans

57) Songs To Celebrate 'Rock Sunday'

58) Strange But True (?) AAA Ghost Stories

59) AAA Artists In Song

60) Songs About Dogs

61) Sunshiney Songs

62) The AAA Staff Play Their Own Version Of Monoploy/Mornington Crescent!

63) What 'Other' British Invasion DVDs We'd Like To See

64) What We Want To Place In Our AAA Time Capsule

65) AAA Conspiracy Theroies

66) Weirdest Things To Do Before - And After - Becoming A Star

67) Songs To Tweet To

68) Greatest Ever AAA Solos

69) John Lennon Musical Tributes

70) Songs For Halloween

71) Earliest Examples Of Psychedelia

72) Purely Instrumental Albums

73) AAA Utopias

74) AAA Imaginary Bands

75) Unexpected AAA Cover Versions

76) Top Releases of 2010

77) Songs About Snow

78) Predictions For 2011

79) AAA Fugitives

80) AAA Home Towns

81) The Biggest Non-Musical Influences On The 1960s

82) AAA Groups Covering Other AAA Groups

83) Strange Censorship Decisions

84) AAA Albums Still Unreleased on CD

85) Random Recent Purchases (#2)

86) Top AAA Music Videos

87) 30 Day Facebook Music Challenge

88) AAA Documentaries

89) Unfinished and 'Lost' AAA Albums

90) Strangest AAA Album Covers

91) AAA Performers Live From Mars (!)

92) Songs Including The Number '100' for our 100th Issue

93) Most Songs Recorded In A Single Day

94) Most Revealing AAA Interviews

95) Top 10 Pre-Fame Recordings

96) The Shortest And Longest AAA Albums

97) The AAA Allstars Ultimate Band Line-Up

98) Top Songs About Sports

99) AAA Conversations With God

100) AAA Managers: The Good, The Bad and the Financially Ugly

101) Unexpected AAA Cameos

102) AAA Words You can Type Into A Caluclator

103) AAA Court Cases

104) Postmodern Songs About Songwriting

105) Biggest Stylistic Leaps Between Albums

106) 20 Reasons Why Cameron Should Go!

107) The AAA Pun-Filled Cookbook

108) Classic Debut Releases

109) Five Uses Of Bird Sound Effects

110) AAA Classic Youtube Clips Part #1

111) Part #2

112) Part #3

113) AAA Facts You Might Not Know

114) The 20 Rarest AAA Records

115) AAA Instrumental Songs

116) Musical Tarot

117) Christmas Carols

118) Top AAA Releases Of 2011

119) AAA Bands In The Beano/The Dandy

120) Top 20 Guitarists #1

121) #2

122) 'Shorty' Nomination Award Questionairre

123) Top Best-Selling AAA Albums

124) AAA Songs Featuring Bagpipes

125) A (Hopefully) Complete List Of AAA Musicians On Twitter

126) Beatles Albums That Might Have Been 1970-74 and 1980

127) DVD/Computer Games We've Just Invented

128) The AAA Albums With The Most Weeks At #1 in the UK

129) The AAA Singles With The Most Weeks At #1 in the UK

130) Lyric Competition (Questions)

131) Top Crooning Classics

132) Funeral Songs

133) AAA Songs For When Your Phone Is On Hold

134) Random Recent Purchases (#3)

135) Lyric Competition (Answers)

136) Bee Gees Songs/AAA Goes Disco!

137) The Best AAA Sleevenotes (And Worst)

138) A Short Precise Of The Years 1962-70

139) More Wacky AAA-Related Films And Their Soundtracks

140) AAA Appearances On Desert Island Discs

141) Songs Exclusive To Live Albums

142) More AAA Songs About Armageddon

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159) A (Not That) Short Guide To The 15 Best Non-AAA Bands

160) The Greatest AAA Drum Solos (Or Near Solos!)

161) AAA Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame Acceptance Speeches

162) AAA Re-Recordings Of Past Songs

163) A Coalition Christmas (A Fairy Tale)

164) AAA Songs About Islands

165) The AAA Review Of The Year 2012

166) The Best AAA Concerts I Attended

167) Tributes To The 10 AAA Stars Who Died The Youngest

168) The First 10 AAA Songs Listed Alphabetically

171) The 10 Best Songs From The Psychedelia Box-Sets ‘Nuggets’ and ‘Nuggets Two’

172) The 20 Most Common Girl’s Names In AAA Song Titles (With Definitions) 

180) First Recordings By Future AAA Stars

185) A Tribute To Storm Thorgerson Via The Five AAA Bands He Worked With

188) Surprise! Celebrating 300 Album Reviews With The Biggest 'Surprises' Of The Past Five Years Of Alan's Album Archives!

190) Comparatively Obscure First Compositions By AAA Stars

193) Evolution Of A Band: Comparing First Lyric With Last Lyric:

200) The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation)

202) Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain': Was It About One Of The AAA Crew?

217) AAA 'Christmas Presents' we'd most like to have next year

221) Dr Who and the AAA (Five Musical Links)

222) Five Random Recent Purchases

223) AAA Grammy Nominees

224) Ten AAA songs that are better heard unedited and in full

225) The shortest gaps between AAA albums

226) The longest gaps between AAA albums

227) Top ten AAA drummers

228) Top Ten AAA Singles (In Terms of 'A' and 'B' Sides)

229) The Stories Behind Six AAA Logos

230) AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!! The Best Ten AAA Screams

231) An AAA Pack Of Horses

232) AAA Granamas - Sorry, Anagrams!

233) AAA Surnames and Their Meanings

234) 20 Erroneous AAA Album Titles

235) The Best AAA Orchestral Arrangements

236) Top 30 Hilariously Misheard Album Titles/Lyrics

237) Ten controversial AAA sackings - and whether they were right

238) A Critique On Critiquing - In Response To Brian Wilson

239) The Ten MusicianS Who've Played On The Most AAA Albums

240) Thoughts on #CameronMustGo

241) Random Recent Purchases (Kinks/Grateful Dead/Nils Lofgren/Rolling Stones/Hollies) 

242) AAA Christmas Number Ones 

243) AAA Review Of The Year 2014 (Top Releases/Re-issues/Documentaries/DVDs/Books/Songs/ Articles  plus worst releases of the year)

244) Me/CFS Awareness Week 2015

245) Why The Tory 2015 Victory Seems A Little...Suspicious

246) A Plea For Peace and Tolerance After The Attacks on Paris - and Syria

247) AAA Review Of The Year 2015

248) The Fifty Most Read AAA Articles (as of December 31st 2015)

249) The Revised AAA Crossword!

251) Half-A-Dozen Berries Plus One (An AAA Tribute To Chuck Berry)

252) Guest Post: ‘The Skids – Joy’ (1981) by Kenny Brown

254) Guest Post: ‘Supertramp – Some Things Never Change’ by Kenny Brown

255) AAA Review Of The Year 2018

256) AAA Review Of The Year 2019 plus Review Of The Decade 2010-2019

257) Tiermaker

258) #Coronastock

259) #Coronadocstock

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