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.

Two Suns Ready To Shine Just For You

Last Thursday The Vinyl Villain posted a review of Bjork’s Debut from the NME in 1993. Debut is one of the musical high points of the 90s, a record that is giddily in love with music and possibilities of sound. Producer Nellee Hooper constructed the perfect sonic palette for Bjork’s ideas. Songs like There’s More To Life Than This, Big Time Sensuality and Violently Happy reflected the club culutre of the times, nights Bjork had spent with 808 State soaking up the music and the spirit of the times. On One Day they produced a real gem, a song that starts out with a little synth part and a giggling child, a beautiful bassline and then a heartbeat kick drum before Ms. Gudmundsdottir swoops in. The part at one minute nine seconds where the song shifts gear is heart-stopping and there are some beautiful little sonic touches- a bent guitar note, some backwards wobbles, a whistle. Bjork meanwhile sings her heart out ‘one day/ it will happen/ one day/ it will all make sense’ and ‘I can feel it’

One Day

Andrew Weatherall and the Sabres Of Paradise boys produced three remixes of One Day. On the Endorphin mix they keep Bjork’s vocal but slow things down to a glacial pace with a booming kettle drum underpinnng it.

One Day (Endorphin Mix)

The Gate

It seems to me that at some point around the turn of the millennium Bjork lost the sense of fun that characterised her 90s solo work. Debut and Post were informed by dance music and possibility, inventive and arty at the same time, but full of life and with a pop sensibility. She has continued to make art but the artier its become, the more multimedia the packages, the more difficult I’ve found it to engage with and enjoy. Often very impressive but not always that much fun. Her last album was a traumatic divorce record. I understand why she made it but I haven’t played it very often. She’s just released a new song called The Gate, the first from a new album, and it is about rebirth, hope, moving forward, a utopia compared the the self described ‘hell’ of Vulnicura. The video is dazzling, a bit hippy-dippy, but dazzling. The song is over six minutes long and while it never quite leaps forward and takes off like I expected it to the first time I heard it, it sounds a step into the light and part of an album that might be fun to listen to.

And as a reminder of what she gave us back in 1993 here’s Come To Me, a song about the giddiness of falling in love and absolute devotion, set to a some softly padding drums, a haze of synths and sounds, and strings that sweep in to set your skin ablaze.

 

Come To Me

Every Morning I Walk Towards The Edge

I was reminded of this song on social media the other day and it re-awakened the song for me. Hyperballad swoops in from somewhere else, from Bjork’s imagination and Nellee Hooper’s fingertips, picks you up and carries you off for a few minutes, somewhere else entirely. Not so much a song, more a force of nature. There’s nothing ordinary, prosaic or run-of-the-mill about Hyperballad. Bjork’s own explanations of it, about being a few years into a relationship and making it feel alive and ‘the art of not forgetting about yourself’ add to the song (sometimes when artists explain what I song is about I wish they hadn’t bothered). The music sweeps by in a rush of rhythms and textures, brilliantly and beautifully.

Hyperballad

There Is More To Life Than This

There’s so much stuff going on right now. Head spinning. Political parties collapsing in front of our eyes and decades old certainties vanishing. Anger all over the place.

Tonight England play Iceland at Euro 2016. I’ve loved the Icelandic team and fans. England have a real banana skin waiting for them and Roy Hodgson is under pressure to deliver after criticism of tactics, selection and strategy. England out of Europe? Twice in four days?

Prior to the Icelandic football team Bjork was their most exciting export. This song off Debut is a joy, lighthearted and in love with itself. The vocals were recorded live in the Milk Bar, London. The bit where the toilet door shuts and and the beat and muffled crowd can be heard and then re-appears shows the sense of freedom and fun that Bjork and Nellee Hooper had when recording the album. I also love the way she pronounces ghettoblaster.

There Is More To Life Than This

93

Having posted songs by Bjork and Sabres Of Paradise in the last few days, both from 1993, it struck me that that year looks like an interesting one, a really good one. I kind of took it for granted at the time. Looking at John Peel’s Festive 50 and the NME’s end of year list as a couple of starting points there’s a lot of variety and several different scenes going on. There’s a Jon Savage compilation album that came out a year ago- Perpetual Motion 1988-1993- which celebrates (in his view) a new kind of psychedelia characterised by indie-dance, house and  rave. Savage is currently promoting his new book 1966. I don’t think ’93 was quite as revolutionary as ’66 and it doesn’t fit into Tony Wilson’s 1955-1966-1977-1988 cycle either but there was a lot going on and more good music than you could shake a stick at.

Bjork’s Debut was fully dancefloor informed, making the switch from skittery, post-punk indie to house seem completely smooth and obvious, engineered by Nellee Hooper’s production skills (honed with Massive Attack and Soul II Soul). I’ve been soaking up Debut on the way to work this week- there’s not a weak song on it and it’s a completely alive album, full of fun and interesting, ear-catching sounds, and on half of the songs four-to-the-floor beats that keep it fresh and propelled. Andrew Weatherall put out out Sabresonic, his first fully formed album outside his production work on other group’s albums. Sabres Of Paradise preceded the album with the peerless, mighty Smokebelch II 12″. One Dove’s Morning Dove White also came out in 1993, a Weatherall produced lost classic, a morning after coming down album much loved round here and by other bloggers. Orbital’s untitled ‘green’ album came out with Chime, Satan and Belfast as its centrepieces. Leftfield and John Lydon firebombed Los Angeles. Ultramarine’s United Kingdoms drifted in and out beautifully. Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman was released in January 1994, but presumably worked on to perfection through ’93. There are a multitude of other first rate house singles and records in ’93 too- Secret Knowledge’s Sugar Daddy for one, Disco Evangelists’ De Niro for another, Jaydee’s Plastic Dreams for one more. I’m sure other people can suggest others I’ve missed. Even the chartbound dance pop was properly good- Sub Sub’s Ain’t No Love. Maybe what was happening in retrospect was the last gasp of acid house as it had started in 1988, five years of innovation and ecstasy, just starting to peter out as dance music split into a hundred sub-groups. Portishead, Tricky and trip hop were just around the corner. Drum and bass too.

Peel’s list and the NME’s both have placings for the last gasps of grunge and alt-rock- Nirvana, Sugar, The Breeders, The Lemonheads, Grant Lee Buffalo, Afghan Whigs, Hole and Dinosaur Jr. The Fall have a mere ten songs in the Festive 50 and The Infotainment Scan in the NME’s albums of the year. New Order came back from hiatus with Republic, not a classic album but it’s got Regret on it. St Etienne’s So Tough refined their sound- Avenue, You’re In A Bad, Hobart Paving. Paul Weller cemented his revival with Wild Wood. Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks and The The put out good records. PJ Harvey chucked in Rid Of Me. Suede’s debut, Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, Boo Radleys’ Giant Steps, the Manics Gold Against The Soul, The Verve’s A Storm In Heaven, Elastica and Pulp are all in there, signposting what was going to happen with Britpop but those records all have some spark and imagination about them and, Blur apart, none of the retro homogeneity of what came a year or two later. Cypress Hill, The Goats and The Pharcyde made albums that showed that hip hop still had life in it too. There’ll be loads more below the surface. I’m sure there are a lot of years you could re-look at and discover a similar diversity of sound, style and invention but 1993 seems to have it spades and somewhat under the radar too in being thought of one of those ‘classic’ years.

Some music. I don’t think I’ve ever posted PJ Harvey before, which is pretty poor of me.

More Bjork too, cos I’m in the mood…