Monday, 27 December 2010
News, Views and Music Issue 85 (Top Five): Songs About Snow
♫ As most of our UK readers will have noticed, our old friend the snow is now back again (‘deep and crisp and crispy’ as John Lennon puts it on the first Christmas flexi-disc) and most of the country has lurched to a halt (hence, probably, the fact that we got a record number of hits this week!) making it all the more likely that it will be another white Christmas this year. One of the many good things about running this website is that we aren’t tied to the weather and can still, just about write (although next year getting a longer lead for the laptop so that I can be vaguely in the same area as the gas fire is a top priority!) So we thought we’d celebrate the snowfall this week and give readers a rather apt top five that they can sing whilst clearing the snow from their doors and cars....
5) ‘The Snows’ (by Pentangle, a track from their 1972 album ‘Solomon’s Seal):The first of two Pentangle recordings on this top five, this is a fittingly wintry song from one of the best wintry-feeling bands of them all. Goodness only knows why John Renbourn’s sitar part fits so well (it is, after all, an Eastern instrument where the sun shines most of the year round), but it does, adding to the air of mystery and melancholy of this Bert Jansch song. Best of all, Danny Cox’s chaotic drumming – in stark contrast to the quiet timbre of the other instruments – sounds like the calm-on-the-surface, struggling-below-it narrator is always falling over his own feet in the snow. The swallows may fly away for the winter, but the narrator’s love for his partner will remain forever – even after they’ve rowed and parted, with the girl’s heart as hard to melt as the snow on a winter’s day.
4) Listen The Snow Is Falling (by Yoko Ono, the B-side of John Lennon’s 1971 single ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’): Never has the sound of crunching snow been more effectively realised on record than on this sweet little B-side, the perfect complement to the more famous A-side as both records share a childish delight and optimism in the world at large – Yoko in the present, John in the new year. Yoko uses an extraordinary array of backing instruments on this song, from tin whistles to mellotron to a triangle and Klaus Voormann’s bleating bass. In Yoko’s vision snow is falling over Christmas the whole world over, giving the world a re-birth of white to begin all over again that is strangely moving (this was, after all, JohnandYoko’s ‘year of white’ as a symbol of peace, what with Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ piano and all, although John’s Christmas single came out too late for the festive market that year and only became a hit in 1972).
3) Fox In The Snow (by Belle and Sebastian, a track from their 1996 album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’):We covered this song very recently – on ‘news and views’ 82 – so apologies if writing about this very evocative and atmospheric track was so convincing it brought about the real thing! One of Stuart Murdoch’s most popular songs with fans, this oh so sad and mournful track finds first a fox and then a human athlete both out, cold, in the snow, wondering what on earth they are doing but determined enough to keep going all the same. Never have a string arrangement been more effectively used to invoke sympathy and Murdoch is on top vocal form, his shy and weary lead a delight.
2) Cold Rain and Snow (covered by the Grateful Dead on their first album ‘Grateful Dead’, 1966 and by Pentangle on their 1971 album ‘Reflections’): One of the better songs of the pre-war era done in two very different ways by two very different groups. Like all tracks on the first Dead album, theirs is a speedy and rather hyper version of this song about a lover being kicked out in ‘the cold rain and snow’. One of Jerry Garcia’s earliest vocals is a chuckling masterpiece, finding the funny side in the affairs and turning in a dazzling guitar solo that sounds like the narrator banging his heart against his lover’s door to try and get back inside to her warmth. Good as this studio version is, however, it’s the live version from the Monterey Pop Festival the following year which fans really need to seek out to hear their arrangement at its best. Pentangle are far more serious with their version, as befits a group concerned with picking out obscure songs from our heritage and delivering them as close to the spirit of the original as possible and its one of Jacqui McShee’s best vocal showpieces, with this slower version channelling all of the misery of the hapless narrator. Interesting, too, that giving this song to Jacqui to sing changes things around so that it’s the girl not the boy whose out in the cold, although her vocal is surrounded by one of the better examples of Pentangle harmonies.That sitar is back in play again too – again, strangely fitting despite the very English Winter-type backing, although this time it’s Danny Thompson’s bubbling bass that’s the star of this recording.
1) Footprints (by Paul McCartney, a track from his 1986 album ‘Press To Play’): I’m still chuntering over the fact that I couldn’t find this, my McCartney solo gold song choice award, to download from Amazon and add to my mp3 widget for you (I’m shocked that whilst even the likes of my Searchers and Pentangle gold song choices are there – the latter on three different albums – yet I can’t find a song by an ex-Beatle! Similarly, I had a hard time tracking down my favourite Hollies song) But again on this website, why oh why is the glorious ‘Press To Play’ album overlooked in Macca’s canon? (See review no 88 for why every Beatles fan ought to own this LP) Especially as it means this most glorious opf tracks goes unrecognised. For those who haven’t read my album review, ‘Footprints’ is a sort-of follow up to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – the only sequel to that song McCartney has written so far, although he’s done lots of re-writes of ‘Blackbird’ recently – which sees an elderly widow peering from his window and vainly looking to see if there’s any sign of his loved one walking in the snow coming back to him. The song, like many on the album, is a co-write with 10cc’s Eric Stewart, although there’s less goonish 10cc humour going on in this track than on others from the same album and it’s more likely to make you cry than laugh. For once, Paul’s love of 1980s production splendour is spot on, wrapping this simple song up with an ear-catching rhythm (played by Paul and Eric on duelling acoustic guitars), a Spanish guitar part, an intriguing synthesiser part that really does wound wintery and cold and one of the subtlest of all of McCartney’s string arrangements.
And so ends this newsletter – and 2010. Thanks for being with us for all the highs and lows of the past year and we’ll see you next time for some more musical rocking in 2011!