The Wheel Keeps Turning

Since posting Massive Attack’s 1991 single Unfinished Sympathy I’ve been listening to my fairly battered copy of Blue Lines and some of the 12″ singles that surrounded it. There’s no getting away from the brilliance of the album and especially it’s final song, the whale sound, Buddhist, ecology trip hop/ ambient beauty of Hymn Of The Big Wheel. The heartbeat drum opens it, there’s didgeridoo and then the sound envelopes the room before Horace Andy begins his wonderful, androgynous vocal. The lyric, a man talking to his child, about life and its cyclical nature, the weather, inequality, cities and factories, the sunset, the need to have one’s soul mended. It’s breathtaking stuff.

Nellee Hooper did a remix not too far removed from the album version but more breakbeat- led and with a heart stopping piano part. Co- written (and sung on uncredited) by Neneh Cherry, if you needed another reason to love it. They can play this at my funeral.

‘The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes’

Hymn Of The Big Wheel (Nellee Hooper Remix)

 

2632 West Pico Boulevard

Like yesterday’s Gary Clail song, this song was inescapable in 1991 but is cut from superior cloth, a genuine contender for Best Song Of The Decade etc.

Unfinished Sympathy

Describing the constituent parts of the song doesn’t really do it justice or come anywhere near identifying what gives Unfinished Sympathy its power. The scratching at the outset, as soon as the needle hits the groove, some studio voices and the tsk tsk tsk of a hi- hat, locate the song in Massive Attack’s roots as a 1980s hip hop collective, the programmed drums roll in, and then we’re off, the strings rolling ominously, the ‘hey hey hey’ sample (John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra apparently), leading into Shara’s ‘I know that I’ve imagined love before…’. For the next few minutes the strings and Shara swell and soar, drama and emotion building, and little touches like the piano rundowns and more scratching keep the song firmly rooted. It sounded ‘classic’ the first time you heard it. It’s never really sounded dated. It can still silence a room.

The stings were added afterwards by Will Malone. Massive Attack tried synth strings but they didn’t cut it and so opted for a full orchestra, having to sell a car to pay for it ( a Mitsubishi Shogun fact fans).

Nellee Hooper’s 12″ mix is pretty smart, re-arranging it for the dance floor, opening with piano and pushing the piano and drums to the fore. Less dramatic and less deep than the album mix but when those extra vocals come in around three minutes it’s all arms in the air and spines a- tingling. Plenty of scratching, some chanted backing vox, thumpier drums- its all good.

Unfinished Sympathy Nellee Hooper 12″ Mix

The video is famous, filmed in a suburb of Los Angeles with Shara shot in one take as she struts through the streets, ignoring everyone around her. The group, 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G are all there briefly. Some of the other people in the video are extras and some real residents of the area who wouldn’t get off the streets. The main reason they went to L.A. to film the video, 3D said, was for the light, a golden light you don’t get anywhere else. It’s a brilliant video, the perfect accompaniment to the song, and much copied. This map pinpoints Shara’s walk should you find yourself chasing the golden light and in L.A. with the desire to recreate it.

Blue Lines was a stunning album, a record I don’t think they’ve come close to matching in the years that followed. That’s not really a criticism- nobody else has come close to it either. It was a genuine crossover record, growing through word of mouth, passed on from hand to hand by cassette through the spring and summer of 1991. From the opening paranoia, heavy funk of Safe From Harm to the slow- slow- quick- quick- slow rapping of 3D, Tricky and Daddy G, to the slow groove of Be Thankful For What You’ve Got, the zonked out calm of Daydreaming to the closing beauty of Hymn To The Big Wheel, whale song and liquid beats and Horace Andy’s vocals.

Four Thousand

This is post number four thousand at Bagging Area, the four thousandth time I’ve written a few words about pop music. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet too much, that’s a lot of posts and some kind of achievement- possibly also a sign of an obsessive nature and as Drew sometimes points out a tad self indulgent too. But still, four thousand.

Some musical maths for you. I was thinking about trying to do a Countdown style randomly selected set of numbers (in song titles) and seeing if anyone could use them to calculate 4000. But I’ve just spent 48 hours living in a field in Lancashire with a group of 14 year olds as an end of the school year experience and I’m quite tired so the maths is staying very simple and involves these artists- Massive Attack v Burial, The Charlatans and The Gentle Waves.

 Four Walls

Let The Good Times Be Never Ending

Hold Back A Thousand Hours

Sister

Tracey Thorn’s new single Sister,  described by TT herself as ‘an eight minute feminist groove anthem’ with vocals from Corinne Bailey Rae and drums and bass from Stella and Jenny Lee from Warpaint, is out now. As the player below shows there are also two remixes from Andrew Weatherall, both long and spacey. The dub mix is particularly intense.

While we’re here Tracey’s vocal for Massive Attack’s Protection is right up there. All the mixes and versions are among the best things Tracey and Massive Attack ever did. This version, the Eno mix, from the 12″ single is nine minutes of ambience, warmth and protection.

Protection (The Eno Mix) 

I Was Looking Back To See If You Were Looking Back At Me To See Me Looking Back At You

1991 spoilt us in many ways musically, not least with the release of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, a real melting pot album. Dub’s basslines, reggae’s sound systems, hip hop’s rhythms, punk’s DIY attitude. Unfinished Sympathy gets all the plaudits (quite rightly, it’s an astonishing record) but Safe From Harm is a huge and brilliant song, led by the driving and tautest of basslines (sampled from Billy Cobham’s Stratus) and then overlaid with 3D’s paranoia rap and Shara’s vocals. The long version from the 12″ is has more of everything that’s good about this song.

Safe From Harm (Long Version)

Ritual Spirit

Massive Attack’s new songs are sounding good. The Swede posted one over at his place recently, a collaboration with Young Fathers and an eye-catching video to boot. And now there’s Ritual Spirit. Deep and unsettling music as per usual but the vocals from Azekel (pictured above) take this elsewhere, somewhere otherworldly. The video has Kate Moss, dancing in the dark with a lightbulb.

You Go Out Every Night As A Single

I got in last night without a clue about what I was going to do for the blog today- nothing at all was coming up, I imagined I’d be sitting drumming my fingers on the keyboard. Out of nowhere this song popped out of my subconscious. Any Love was Massive Attack’s first single, self released in 1988. Co-produced by Smith and Mighty it’s an absolute belter, a rough and ready cover of a Rufus and Chaka Khan song, driven by a hip hop breakbeat and a stunning vocal from singer Carlton. I didn’t hear it until after Blue Lines came out and the first version I heard was on the Hymn Of The Big Wheel e.p. (confusingly titled Massive Attack). The version on there was a remix by Larry Heard and this is the one I always go to  first- slightly smoother with a clubland bass and the vocal pitched down a bit and the tempo up a tad. There’s a great, excuse me, juxtaposition in this remix- lyrics that are critical of a single man going out and pulling because ‘any love will do’ up against the slinky, sexiness of the sound of the song.

Any Love (Larry Heard Mix)

Down That Road

Shara Nelson was the voice of two defining 90s singles (Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy and Safe From Harm. You knew that I’m sure). In 1993 she started a solo career, having fallen out with Massive Attack over royalties or writing credits or something similar. Her debut single was this, Down That Road, a Massive Attack-esque piece of decent soul-dance pop wrapped in a Massive Attack-esque sleeve, although it didn’t exactly set the charts alight (number 19). The breakbeat, the sweeping strings, the piano tinkles and the voice all make it a bit nearly-but-not-quite.

Down That Road

There’s A Hole In My Soul Like A Cavity

his time of year always brings me a strong sense of time whooshing by- we are a few days short of the GCSE and A level exam season starting, the end of the football season is imminent and another World Cup about to start, in two and a half weeks it’ll be the May half term holiday, then the long downhill slope to July, the summer holidays. Another school year done, another year older, September and autumn… Then I have to slap myself and stop imagining the time away.

Hymn Of The Big Wheel

This song’s combination of crickets, whale song, sonorous strings, the lazy breakbeat and Horace Andy’s beautiful vocal was the perfect closer to Blue Lines and is a bit of a tearjerker.

Five Man Army

It’s a bit difficult to imagine now the impact Massive Attack had back at the turn of the 90s. Their debut lp, Blue Lines, had people who never normally bought that kind of thing listening to little else. On top of that, here was a British group, doing breakbeats, reggae, soul and rap properly. With Bristol accents. Almost all of that first lp is top stuff- Safe From Harm with it’s massive sampled bassline (from Stratus by Billy Cobham) and paranoia, the gorgeous Hymn Of The Big Wheel, Horace Andy singing Be Thankful For What You’ve Got, the lighter than air Daydreaming (with Tricky)…. and Unfinished Sympathy- contender for greatest British single of the decade ever, I’d have thought. This one ain’t too shabby either-

Five Man Army

I don’t think they’ve ever pulled it off again in such style, although the songs Protection (especially) and Teardrop are as good as anything on Blue Lines. But as a whole the subsequent albums didn’t repeat the trick for me. Protection has good songs but doesn’t feel as whole. Fallings out and shedding members they then became darker and darker, not enough light to balance things up. Angel is superb, a trip-hop Joy Division, but Mezzanine was an oppressive listen. Whereas Blue Lines was a joy from start to finish.